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John Brizzolara on the pain of divorced fathers

Daddy can't make it better

“What I hate, what I’ve come to dread, even after five years of divorced parenting, is that feeling you get late Sunday afternoon, about five blocks from your ex-house, where your ex-wife lives with your kid....”

Robert is a heavyset, barrel-chested man with a ruddy complexion and gray eyes behind blocky glasses. He is talking over a picnic table, eating gyros at Seaport Village on a Sunday afternoon. “After a day of great fun, a lot of laughs, a good movie or ball game, you know? You’re feeling good. You know your kid has had a great time, and you drop him off. You pull away from the curb, and you’re still feeling good. You shift into second and you’re okay. You pass your ex–7- Eleven, still okay. You get through the stoplight, shift into third, and all of a sudden something has fallen right out of the middle of you. I get this feeling I can’t breathe. I want to pull over. At first I thought it was a heart problem.” Robert peers steadily from behind his glasses, his eyes betraying little emotion, but his voice lowers. “In a way,” he says as he chews, “that’s exactly what it is.”


“You’ll probably hear this a lot: we play video games. Yeah, yeah....” Tom Barris ducks and winces as if from a blow. He is watching his two boys splash through the tide pools at Sunset Cliffs. “And we see movies. We really do have a good time. I’m in that position where, for the most part, what we do is fun as opposed to daily drudgery. It’s both good and bad, if you know what I mean.

“It’s great to be Mr. Fun, but there’s not much reality to it. I mean, I wouldn’t feel right about picking them up and bringing them over to my place to help me clean the garage or something, but maybe that’s really what you should do. I don’t know. What do you think?”

In a neighborhood bar on Adams Avenue, a man is hunched over a beer glass as if protecting it. He is wearing dark work clothes stained with grease; possibly he is a mechanic.“Divorce? I been divorced eight years now.” His eyes are narrow, creased at the corners; his jaw is tense. He is not quite drunk, but it is not easy to understand everything he says. “I have several kids. One is naturally my daughter, one that’s adopted, and I have a son that’s in the Marines. None of them live with me. I live with my mother; I’m taking care of her.” He says this angrily, defying anyone to say it isn’t true.

“My adopted daughters are 18 and 24. Cara was four or five. I was a lawn-service guy, and I met this lawyer, I said, ‘Hey, I’ll cut your grass if you draw up the adoption papers.’ I was married then, but I’ve had several relationships. Married twice, actually. My son’s mother was vindictive as hell. She slapped a lawsuit on me as soon as I had a new family.”

The details of this situation are hazy, only his bitterness is clear.

She was in a Western state; he was in an Eastern state.“I had to go into court and say my son wasn’t mine. Otherwise I would have been hit with $4000 in arrears. There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the money. I had to write my son a letter sayin’, ‘Sorry, but this is why I did what I did.’”

At this point, the man, whose hair falls over his brow as he leans forward on the bar, becomes less comprehensible. He says something about wanting to take a shot at his wife’s father. He mentions something about a series of fistfights with his second wife’s boyfriend.“It was seein’ him puttin’ my kids in his car. I gave her a Mercedes-Benz, just gave it to her. And he traded it in on a Ford....”

He then says something about being accused of child molestation, a recurring theme in the stories of several interviewed divorced fathers. “My wife accused me of sleeping with my ten-year-old daughter. I said, why not, she’s my daughter. I had to go out and rent a motel room so I could have some privacy with my daughter. That was two years ago.” Some quick math indicates that this does not jibe with the given ages of his girls.

“It was her stepfather that was molesting her.” He pounds the bar with his fist. The bartender shoots him a warning look. “My wife says it was okay, she likes the guy that much. But one time he tried to come in the house, and my daughter picked up my shotgun and blew the top half of the door away. Now why would she do that if he wasn’t molesting her?” Attempts to draw out details of this sketched story were drowned out by more beer and the jukebox.


“First marriage, first divorce. No fun.” Steve is an attorney in his late 30s who is in the middle of the process. He has the exhausted and stunned look characteristic of many of the men. He is casually well-dressed, balding, mustachioed, and in good physical shape but with deep circles under his eyes. He has a tendency to work his jaw as if trying to mouth words that will not come.

“I can’t believe it’s happening. I have two small children. My son will be four next month, and my daughter is eight months old. My wife and I get along okay.... There never was a fight or a war, anything like that. Not a fight in six years.” This seems to mystify him. “She just didn’t want to be married anymore. It’s deep-rooted, psychological problems in my opinion. She may or may not regain her mental health. There’s always hope, but meanwhile, I’m not goin’ in the deep-freeze waiting. That’s why I have support groups like this.”

He gestures around the room to some two dozen people gathered at the weekly meeting of Parents Without Partners at the Elks Lodge on Third Avenue and Nutmeg. Literature is being studied by men and women of various ages seated at a long table. A few men sit by themselves at other tables, some lean against the bar drinking sodas. The women congregate together at two other tables, while on the Elks Lodge stage a band called Dream plays “Hey, Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” No one is dancing.

“As far as the kids go,” Steve is saying,“they’re just babies. You see, I have this compulsion; I’m not like most divorced fathers, where, you know, I visit every other week or one night a week. I have unlimited visitation. She likes it that way. In fact, she hasn’t lost a husband, she’s gained a babysitter. We’re both career people. I’ll go over there about five o’clock and relieve the day sitter, and I have them during that crazy time. You have to feed ’em and bathe ’em. There’s a lot of food throwing because they didn’t take naps that day. You know, the babysitter holds them all day, you can’t do that. I’m tired from work, but I do this at least three days a week because if I don’t, I feel I run the risk of losing them. Especially the daughter.”

Steve takes a deep breath and sips his drink. “The marriage was over before she was born. We had to go through a lot of pretense, and of course we had to go through having a baby this January. When I joined this group, I lied about my daughter’s age. I thought for some reason I wouldn’t be able to join, so I added a few months, but she’s eight months.” His words rush out of him, propelled by something volatile.

“With my son it’s easier. I take him to the zoo, the playground, McDonald’s. I bring my survival kit: two newspapers and a crossword puzzle. I’ve started a room for him at my little apartment. It’s certainly not like his room at home, which is like Fisher-Price.

“My wife encourages me to participate in the parenting, so we’re almost like co-custodians. We don’t have joint physical custody, because, well, I’m a lawyer, and I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. We’re going on trust at this point.

“If Ann finds another man, then I see some custodial hassles. I’m dreading that day because she’s very attractive. In fact, she’s never looked better.” Steve’s face falls the way it might if he had just announced his wife had developed a brain tumor.

Does he worry about another man playing Daddy to his children?

“I’m a lawyer, I have a lot of problems. I’ve got people calling me up in the middle of the night with problems, so I figure, why add a worry that doesn’t exist yet? I can’t afford to do that....” He pauses. “Yes, I worry about it constantly.“

"Ann may well go the way of her mother, who was a single mom from her late 30s on, and bitter, lonely, a man-hater....” He stops. “Maybe you better not use my name, just Steve would be good.”


POPCO is an organization that provides advice and support for divorced fathers. Held on the second Thursday of each month, October’s meeting was in the Sports Arena Travelodge. A group of more than 30 men and a half-dozen women were milling around the door at seven o’clock or seated in chairs facing a television monitor on which attorney Thomas Huguenor and Dr. Noll Evans discussed the topic of Parental Alienation Syndrome.

In the hallway, conversations included comments like: “She claims I was so insensitive to her needs, I couldn’t possibly be sensitive to the children’s.” Or: “The father’s involvement is a natural complement to feminism, I would think. I don’t see the problem.” Or: “If this was a women’s group, we’d need the Sports Arena.”

“That’s right, men don’t challenge things until their belts are hanging from the highest yardarm.” This last statement was made by Rex Edler, a white-haired, cherubic-faced man in a blue suit and striped tie. As the president of POPCO, he called the meeting to order. On either side of him was Huguenor, the attorney, and Evans, the psychologist. A younger man was introduced only as “one of two lawyers with us tonight.”

Edler talked about his own experiences, losing his children and his yearlong search for them. Now they are grown, and their relationship is a good one. He then asks everyone in the room to introduce themselves and briefly recount their situation. The atmosphere becomes progressively like that of an AA meeting.

One man is “a refugee from the East Coast.” He is from New Jersey, where he is still required by law to pay child support for his 22-year-old son. He is here to seek legal advice. The man next to him stands. “Hi, my name is John. When I went through my divorce three years ago, my wife took our daughter, and I took our son, because that’s the way the kids wanted it. Any time something went wrong, my son said he wanted to go to his mom. I didn’t resist the idea, he was 14, so I agreed temporarily, and then I immediately got slapped with a change of custody order....”

“Hi, my name is Wayne. I’ve gone through three attorneys and $6000 I didn’t have, and I still can’t see my kids.”

“Hi, my name is Scott, and I’m a recovering pain in the ass.” Much laughter.

“My name is Tom. I’m a pain in the ass, not recovering, and proud of it.” More laughter.

A handful of men are with their girlfriends or new wives. They confirm or elaborate on their companions’ story. A man who appears to be the portrait of clinical depression becomes red-faced when he announces he’s been accused of molesting his daughter. He stammers, “Two counselors have already ruled this out after interviews with me, my wife, and my kids. Now the court has ordered another evaluation of all three of us. I’m paying for all of this. It’s ruining my children. It’s ruining me.” He burst into borderline hysteria when the two “pains in the asses” introduced themselves. His laughter went on for several moments longer than anyone else in the room.

Introductions around the room take most of an hour, and then Dr. Noll Evans, the authority on Parental Alienation Syndrome, is introduced. He tells a joke about Adam and Eve, then begins to describe P.A.S.

Speaking with Evans over lunch near his home and practice in University Heights, he talks about the phenomenon that overtakes many men who experience a debilitating depression after dropping their children off on Sunday afternoon.

“It has a lot to do with the misunderstanding of men, that we are not supposed to feel our connections, our loss.” Evans is 40ish with a shock of grey-white hair and beard. His eyes are sympathetic, intelligent, and observant. He appears both authoritative and benevolent.

“We get passionately involved with fast cars, the buck, conquests. We are perceived as task-oriented, rather cold. Women traditionally are the caretakers of the relationships. The idea that men can experience emotional pain comparable to what a woman can feel is still something most people don’t appreciate. We are raised to keep that quiet. Martin Greenberg, a friend of mine and an author on the subject of fatherhood, coined the phrase ‘engrossment’ about a father’s response to his child in the first year. That was an okay term. Mothers have a euphoric sense of ‘attachment,’ you see. I don’t care what the hell you call it, it’s similar. Very similar.

“The legal aspects of divorce are generally not in the best interests of the children. An expression of that is the enraged woman who attempts to allege child abuse in one form or another, to effectively exclude the child’s life from the father totally. Victim’s Rage Syndrome.

“I’ve been on the staff of POPCO — which doesn’t stand for anything really, the letters, I mean. It’s been around for ten years and takes a moderate position on working with divorced fathers. We’re very much for joint physical custody. My particular interest has been in reaction to the frequency with which women allege sexual molestation during custody cases, wondering why that is, and who is going to advocate for the father if he is indeed innocent. Up in Los Angeles, the Joint Custody Association tracked the number of proven cases of sexual molestation in 1988. Less than three per- cent of the allegations were found to be true.

“Most people working within the system are well aware of the fact that these allegations are often unfounded. But the child abuse laws are simply respecting the element of unsurety. The question that arises is, what is the mother doing during this time to influence the child against the father? She is covertly or overtly conditioning the child to believe the father has done harm to that child.”

Here, Evans draws a diagram, a triangle with “child” written at the top, “mother” and “father” forming the remaining corners. With divorce, the bottom line has been removed, leaving the child upheld by two legs with no relation to each other. With Parental Alienation Syndrome, one parent tries to undermine the opposite leg. The result being, at best, instability.

“A father calls the house, the mother replies cynically, ‘Oh, it’s your father, he wants to take his little princess to the ball game.’ That is a subtle example. The child senses it is wrong for her to be in daddy’s company. Or forcing the father to pick up the child at the curb. What kind of message does that send to the child? It can be mother insisting that the child is over the ten-minute limit on phone calls to daddy, something as simple as that. It implies that contact with dad is undesirable, possibly dangerous.

“Another example, a case I had where a child would visit her father for the weekend, and every time, the mother became so depressed she took to bed for upwards of three days. She did everything she could to persuade her daughter that there were more enjoy- able things to do in the house on weekends than spend time with dad. This little girl paid, psychologically, for visiting dad up until the age of nine or ten, when she decided she would not visit him anymore — made up some reasons. She did not want to hurt Dad, so she never told him the truth. Dad, of course, feels rejected and abandoned and did not want to push her. His relationship with her came down to letters and gifts at Christmas. What was that little girl doing? Meeting mother’s needs. Losing a father in the process. There are many examples. Parental Alienation Syndrome is a book by Dr. Richard Gardner, and that’s what I’ve become involved with primarily.

“With very few exceptions, there is no men’s movement. Betty Friedan, of all people, said in this book — which feminists don’t like to read — called The Second Stage that what is necessary is an integration of male and female conciousness, but that men’s consciousness has to focus on themselves, to figure out what they were all about as women had done. Women could look at male institutions, at male-dominated culture and begin to change. We probably have to look more within ourselves, at our own violence, at our own tendencies toward destruction — in the family and on a national scale — to figure out what we’re all about. There is an organization called NOW, but there’s nothing like a NOM.”

Considering there is almost no one who can know what he is getting into as a father when divorce seems imminent, what would his advice be to those walking that path?

“To a single father I would say, don’t let your lifelong thinking, that a mother is a superior parent, dictate your behavior. What I would say to mothers is, if a bond is established, even with a man you don’t really approve of, don’t obstruct that relationship. If he’s not obviously dangerous to his child in some really flagrant way, encourage the relationship.


Robert finishes his gyros at Seaport Village and washes it down with a Diet Pepsi. “I feel like such a failure as a father sometimes. Should I have fought to hold the marriage together? Was it cowardice? My parents stayed together for the sake of us kids, but I remember wishing they would divorce. They never did. Was that right?”

His son comes running to the table. The seven-year-old’s mouth is smeared with red dye from his last soft drink. His hair is sandy-blond, his T-shirt (bearing the words “Born to Annoy”) is sticky with chocolate ice cream. “Crusty Asians!” he seems to be shouting, “Crusty Asians!”

“What? What?” His father follows him to the sea wall to examine what his son is so excited about. He peers over the wall.“Oh,” he says. “Crabs. Yeah.”

The boy imitates their sidewise movements with his hands. “They go like this.”

His father pokes him in the belly button. “Very good. Very good. Crusty Asians. Crustaceans. Right.” Walking back to the table, he says,“On the other hand, I think,” he points to his son, who is frowning, studying the rocks at the shoreline, “is that failure?”

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