`I TRIED to be as good a parent as she was, and I think I was a good parent,'' says Art Hemmerlein, father of two. But at a custody hearing at the time of his divorce, Mr. Hemmerlein became a weekend visitor in his children's lives.
Like 90 percent of the children of divorced parents in the United States, Hemmerlein's children were placed in the sole custody of their mother. ``I was thrown out of their lives like I was an old shoe,'' he exclaims.
Hemmerlein's outrage strikes a common chord with many divorced fathers - and increasingly, so does his activism.
The Fathers for Equal Rights group that he founded two years ago in Raleigh is part of a widespread grass-roots movement for divorced fathers' rights.
Some 350 local fathers' rights groups exist throughout the country, according to Jack Kammer of the National Congress for Men, an 820-member organization based in Washington, D.C.
Their common goals include stronger joint-custody laws, fairer consideration by courts of sole-father custody, and greater enforcement of noncustodial parents' visitation rights.
Fathers' rights advocates say family courts are biased against men, giving custody automatically to mothers and limiting the role that divorced fathers can play in their children's lives to that of a distant checkbook.
Arnold J. Gibbs, a longtime family lawyer in Baton Rouge, La., and former chairman of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section, says there's a lot of truth in that.
``I can say from my practice that there is still favoritism, even when the laws say there shouldn't be a presumption. If everything else is equal in quite a number of instances, you're going to find that mothers are given some points and preference.' ``Our goal,'' says Hemmerlein, ``is to recognize that fathers have as much to contribute to children as mothers do.''
That goal, challenging as it does the traditional role that men have played in families, could be the seed of wider social change, some believe. Psychologists note the benefits to both fathers and children from men's nurturance.
The issue of fathers' rights has become a rallying cry for members of a small but vocal men's liberation movement, who would like to see men rethink the traditional role they have played in society at large.
Fathers' rights groups have been most successful so far in influencing passage of state joint-custody laws, approved in 33 states since 1979.
Joint legal custody gives both parents the right to share in decisions affecting their children. Joint physical custody gives them an equal right to spend time with their children.
Such arrangements do ``erode some of what women have traditionally seen as their rights,'' says Sen. Helen Marvin, who proposed the law making joint custody a legal option in North Carolina in 1987. ``But men have rights, too.''
In most states, however, joint custody is rarely awarded over one parent's objections. And men argue that visitation time for noncustodial parents is too short for fathers to maintain a close relationship with their children.
``A father who tries to entertain his kid every other weekend is simply not what the child needs,'' says John Guidubaldi, child psychologist at Kent State University, and president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Many men's rights activists further note that visitation rights are poorly enforced. If the custodial parent withholds visitation, the noncustodial parent must return to court for redress. This can be expensive and cannot restore children's lost holiday or vacation time.
Finally, some divorc'es say that courts focus mainly on child-support payments in determining the role that divorced fathers play in their children's lives. ``The judge made it very clear that he wants my money to go to her, but whether I see my kids or not is not very important to him,'' alleges Hemmerlein.
When fathers feel alienated and unrewarded, they are most likely to be negligent in child support payments, says Kammer. ``If a man feels like a father, he'll act like a father,'' he asserts. ``If he feels like a slave, he'll try to escape.''
The fathers' movement has generated sympathy from those who believe that fathers and children have the right to see each other more than the present custody patterns allow.
Some women, however, note that typical custody settlements - giving mothers day-to-day care of their children and fathers visitation rights and financial obligations - simply reflect the division of responsibilities in most families before divorce.
One judge reasons that it is in the child's best interest to give custody to the primary caretaker. In most cases that is the mother. But some men's rights activists say that, ironically, many men see little reason to shift from a traditional, career-oriented role until their marriages end. Then it is too late.
During their marriage, Art Hemmerlein's wife was a full-time homemaker, who had primary responsibility for caring for their children. When the family needed extra money, Hemmerlein took a second job. ``I was trying to be as I was raised to be - the protective, supportive male,'' he says.
But that traditional role can become a liability in court. Hemmerlein felt that because he spent many hours at work, away from their children, the custody decision went against him.
Now Hemmerlein wants to spend more time taking care of his children. But he is legally locked into the traditional role of breadwinner.
And although social change can sometimes take generations, in some lives it has already begun.
Another divorc'e, John Rossler, from Syracuse, N.Y., recalls that at the time of his divorce 10 years ago, he was working up to 14 hours a day to support his family.
``I was incensed that feminism was telling women that they were oppressed when I had a role that I had to play, too.''
Now he admits, ``There was a lot of legitimacy to the people in the feminist movement. To be honest, I was not one of those people.
``I was locked into role stereotypes. But I'm not anymore, and I'm not raising my children to be.''