Here is the full transcript and summary of Marilyn York’s talk titled “What Representing Men in Divorce Taught Me About Fatherhood” at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference.
In this TEDx talk, Marilyn York emphasizes the crucial role that fathers play in children’s lives, pointing out that they have a genetic bond and influence that is necessary for their development, despite nearly two of every five children in America growing up without their fathers. York also discusses the bias against fathers in the family court system, calling for changes to paternity laws to protect children born out of wedlock. She calls on everyone to help the remaining 17 million fatherless children avoid tragic fates such as incarceration, drug abuse, and suicide.
Listen to the audio version here:
I’m six years old, and all I can think about is getting the pink Barbie Corvette. I need five more dollars. Luckily for me, it’s Easter, and I know that my dad always hides one coveted five-dollar egg. I also know the best egg is the hardest to find.
This year, I’m ready. Before long, I spot it, right in the middle of my sweet 70s swing set pole. You know, the one that runs along the entire top of the set. I scramble to get the ladder and the yardstick, and duct tape it to a broom handle.
I fish it into the pipe, and I shove that egg hard. It flies out the other side, and by the time it hits the ground, I’m waiting above it like an expectant father. The egg cracks open, and inside is the very opposite of my grand prize. Instead, a perfectly formed dog turd rolls out.
I burst into loud hysterics, at the same time my father explodes with laughter. I run as fast as I can to my room, but he’s not far behind. It’s time for one of his talks. Honey, it was clear that you already learned the important life lesson. The harder you work, the better the payoff, so it was time that you learn another valuable lesson. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you just end up with shit. And who better to teach just this sort of hard-hitting, direct, and painful life lesson to six-year-old me than my father?
I’m a divorce attorney. I’ve been practicing for over 20 years. I began in Los Angeles, but I’ve owned my firm in Nevada since 2001. My firm has a particular subspecialty, men’s rights. My nine female employees and I specifically represent men in divorce and custody battles. And guess who runs the business end of my law firm? My father.
In my practice, we’ve represented over 2,000 men, 650 of whom are fathers. My expertise not only comes from my career, but just as much from my personal life. I’m a mother. My children are 23, 15, 12, and barely three. They come from two different mothers and three different fathers. Hooker!
Let me explain. I helped my ex-husband raise our 23-year-old son, whom I didn’t birth from age five. I share custody of my 15-year-old daughter with the same father. My 12-year-old son sadly lost his father to suicide when he was just seven, and my three-year-old is being raised at home with his father and me. I literally live my work every day.
So, what has 20 years of representing men in family law while living my own reality show as a wife, mother, and daughter taught me about fatherhood? Allow me, if you will, to start with the second thing I learned about fatherhood.
Men parent differently than women, big surprise, but their influence is crucial in the development of their children. Do you know any mom in the world who would put dog shit in an Easter egg? Okay, maybe that’s a good thing. Let me better demonstrate this point from my legal experience.
When getting my father clients ready for court, I prepare them for this kind of interrogation. Who’s your children’s doctor or dentist? What’s the name of your school principal or even their teacher? What grades did they get on their last report card? Nine times out of ten, they miss the majority of these questions.
Does this mean they don’t care or love their children as much? I bet it makes you wonder, but please hold your judgment. Here are the questions that my father clients can easily answer. If your son could be a superhero, what would his power be? What kind of monsters do your kids fear? How high does your daughter feel comfortable flying in a swing? What makes your son feel defeated?
Yet, in my experience cross-examining hundreds of mothers in family court, these are the harder questions for them. Most of us know motherhood brings with it a sixth sense and an unspoken bond to our children. But what about fathers? Even fathers feel insecure about this reality.
After representing 650 fathers, I can count on one hand those that felt secure in their instinctive role and significance to their children. What’s interesting is my anecdotal legal experience suggests otherwise. In 20 years of practice, I’ve had over 100 men take a paternity test, like Jerry Springer. Seriously, do you know how many were wrong in predicting their biological relation to the child?
Two. This shocked me and taught me my third lesson. Fathers too have a genetic bond and instinct about their children from infancy. Forget where you are for a moment, seriously, and close your eyes. I’d like to ask you to feel. Think about your childhood. Picture your father, his smiling eyes, his strong hands. Hear his deep voice.
What did you love about your dad? Did he throw you high into the air? Teach you to ride a bike? Carry you home when you got hurt? Push you when you tried to give up? What did it feel like to have a daddy? Secure? Fun? Challenging?
Now, go back in your memories and erase your father from every scene. This is what the other 40% of people’s childhoods look like. Just under half the people listening to me, including my own 12-year-old son, felt sad, angry, or blank during the peak of your joy while playing along.
Eye-opening, isn’t it? Nearly 2 of every 5 children in America are growing up without their fathers, or 17 million according to the 2016 census. Other sources estimate as many as 30 million. In 2011, I joined the board for a local charity called Nevada Youth Empowerment Project, or ENYEP.
ENYEP is a housing program for homeless girls ages 18 to 24. As board president of this small charity, I’ve been closely involved and gotten to know the girls and their tragic stories over the years. Hundreds of otherwise homeless girls have come through our program. Their backgrounds and what they have endured would haunt you.
Do you know the one thing all of these girls have in common? They all come from fatherless homes. Sadly, these girls aren’t the exception. They’re the rule.
My fourth lesson about fatherhood came from the data. According to the Center for Disease Control, children from fatherless homes account for 90% of all homeless and runaway kids, 71% of high school dropouts, and 63% of youth suicides. While you listen to me speak, you have to be wondering, what makes fathers so crucial? Honestly, the answer is complex and better explored by psychologists.
What I can tell you is that the data unequivocally tells us fathers are vital, and yet laws and society undervalue their importance, making it harder for them to be in their children’s lives. Even fathers underrate their own value. I know this data upsets a lot of mothers, me included, but advocating for fathers isn’t about diminishing mothers.
While children deserve both parents whenever possible, this crisis is specific to fathers. The occurrence of fatherlessness is epidemic. The effects are catastrophic, and the causes are male-gender specific. Nearly 30 years ago, leading child psychologist Michael Lamb reminded us, fathers are the forgotten contributors to child development, yet researchers have found that children with involved fathers have stronger cognitive and motor skills, elevated physical and mental health, become better problem solvers, and are more confident, curious, and empathetic.
Sadly, we’ve had this data for 30 years, and fatherlessness has only continued to rise during this time. The main contributors to fatherlessness are divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Every 13 seconds, someone in America gets divorced. That equates to almost 2.5 million divorces a year. Lucky me.
Currently, more than 40% or 1.5 million babies are born out of wedlock each year in the U.S. And this brings me back to the first and most significant thing that my career has taught me about fatherhood. Family court is one of the critical places where fathers are disadvantaged, and this hurts kids.
Historically, this maternal preference was solidified in the Tender Years Doctrine, which mandated custody of children under age 4 be awarded to mothers. This doctrine was in use until the 80s. As the laws progressed, visitation for fathers improved, but it took a lot of years before the law was finally gender equal. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that Nevada finally adopted a presumption for joint physical custody.
When I began my practice, and until 10 years ago, the best my father clients could expect was every other weekend visitation and maybe a dinner on the off week. While significant legal progress has been made, this long-standing bias against fathers still occurs in the enforcement of custody orders, in child support rulings, and it exists in paternity laws.
All the while, the number of kids growing up without dads continues to rise. Between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children growing up with just mothers nearly tripled, from 8 to 23 percent. Paternity laws desperately need more reform to protect the 40 percent of children born at a wedlock each year in the U.S.
Right now, once custody is in order, it’s illegal to remove a child from their father, usually a felony. But it’s perfectly legal, in all 50 states, for a woman to conceal her pregnancy, leave the father’s name off the birth certificate, and never tell him he has a child, ever. How is this not kidnapping?
Just as horrible, a woman can knowingly list the wrong father on a child’s birth certificate, deceive him, and a short while later, in many states, the wrong man becomes that child’s legal father forever. He’s obligated to a child that isn’t his, and that child just lost their real father with little to no recourse. This is a betrayal of the worst kind. And the law not only allows it, it creates the opportunity. This is what we know.
Every bit of data we have tells us children need their fathers. The law, its application, and society at large, disfavor fathers. The law is improving, but the statistics are not. So what can you do? We are the changemakers, all of us. If you’re a father, make the effort. Do everything you can to be in your children’s daily lives.
If you’re a mother, encourage and facilitate the relationship between your children and their father, instead of trying to interfere or control it. If you’re a child, spend time with your dad. Ask him to do something. Seek his advice and guidance. If you’re an employer, grant the fathers you employ the ability to be at their children’s events, to help in their schools, to take sick days to care for their kids.
If you work in the legal field, help us continue to progress, change the laws, and ensure that they’re enforced to protect fathers and their children. The importance of this pursuit cannot be overstated. The state of nearly half of America’s children depends on it. I’d like to close by asking all of you to do one final thing.
Please, stand if you are able, or raise your hand. I’m serious, please. If you grew up without a father, if you raised or are raising a child without a father, or if you were a father who’s been separated from your child.
Now, look around. The people really affected by fatherlessness, really, look. Those of you standing and raising your hands aren’t numbers. You’re real, living, and feeling humans. You’re the children scarred by fatherlessness.
Now, let me tell you who can’t stand. The 1,000 fatherless children who were murdered last year. The 3,000 fatherless children who died from drugs. The 3,200 fatherless children who committed suicide last year. And the 14,000 fatherless children who were incarcerated.
Everyone, please, stand for them and do everything you can to help the remaining 17 million fatherless children avoid these fates.
SUMMARY OF THIS TALK:
Marilyn York, a divorce attorney specializing in men’s rights, shares insights from her career and personal life about the importance of fatherhood in her talk, “What Representing Men in Divorce Taught Me About Fatherhood.” Here are the key takeaways:
- Diverse Parenting Styles: York emphasizes that men and women parent differently, but both styles are crucial for child development. She notes that fathers often focus on different aspects of their children’s lives than mothers, which is equally important.
- Underestimation of Father’s Role: Many fathers, according to York, underestimate their instinctive role and significance in their children’s lives. She shares that out of over 100 paternity tests conducted in her practice, only two men were wrong about their biological relation, highlighting a strong paternal instinct.
- Impact of Fatherlessness: York points out the alarming statistics associated with fatherless homes. Children from such homes account for a significant portion of homeless and runaway kids, high school dropouts, and youth suicides. She stresses that fatherlessness is an epidemic with catastrophic effects.
- Legal System Biases: The speaker discusses how family courts historically favored mothers, particularly under the Tender Years Doctrine. Although legal progress has been made towards gender equality in custody cases, biases against fathers still exist in the enforcement of custody orders and child support rulings.
- Paternity Laws and Father’s Rights: York criticizes current paternity laws, which allow for situations where a man can be wrongly held responsible for a child or a biological father can be completely unaware of his child’s existence. She calls for legal reforms to protect fathers’ rights and the well-being of children.
- Call to Action: York urges various stakeholders to take action. Fathers should strive to be actively involved in their children’s lives. Mothers should facilitate and encourage the relationship between their children and their fathers. Employers should support fathers in balancing work and family responsibilities. Legal professionals are encouraged to continue progressing and enforcing laws that protect fathers and their children.
- Personal Reflection and Community Impact: The talk concludes with a powerful call to acknowledge and address the issue of fatherlessness. York asks the audience to stand or raise their hand if they have experienced fatherlessness, highlighting its widespread impact. She also remembers the children who have suffered severely due to the absence of a father, including those who have lost their lives.
Through her talk, Marilyn York provides a compelling argument about the critical role fathers play in child development and the need for societal and legal changes to support and recognize the importance of fatherhood.
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