Are working mothers held to a higher standard of parenting than working fathers?
As a departure point for what promises to be a rancorous debate on the topic, I offer the story of a man and woman who fell in love, married, had children and toddled down the bumpy road of domesticity until the marriage went out of control and slammed into that wall of angst known as divorce.
The facts, as reflected in court documents:
She was a hard-working professional in a high-visibility government job.
He worked hard, too, but in a much less celebrated position.
Her salary soared high above the average.
His salary paled in comparison.
At a certain point, her work life became dominated by a public spectacle that captivated the country and consumed her time.
His work life was less exciting, far less visible and, as mentioned, far less remunerative.
So here they were with two young sons, a broken marriage and a custody battle on their hands. As the divorce wended its way through the system, the children lived quite happily with their mother.
The husband, however, felt he was the better parent. She worked too hard, he claimed; he should have custody.
The wife disagreed. She was devoted to her sons--the primary parent. She should have custody.
Marcia and Gordon Clark, meet Sharon Prost and Kenneth Greene, whose tale you have just read.
Prost is chief counsel for the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Greene is a union administrator. Prost's boss is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. The public spectacle that kept her working long hours was the confirmation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
In the end, Prost lost her children.
The judge (a mother who worked part-time when her children were small) was singularly harsh on Prost and complimentary toward Greene.
Prost, she ruled, was "simply devoted to and absorbed by her work and her career more than anything else in her life, including . . . her children."
Even Hatch, a father of six who many of us remember as particularly vicious in his questioning of Anita Hill, objected: "Here's a professional woman I have seen day in, day out anguished over her children. This judge ignores the maximum effort that she made while rewarding the minimum effort that he made."
Bingo. He finally gets it.
Indeed, the judge's assessment flew in the face of the facts presented at the trial. She ignored the fact that Prost rose at 5:30 a.m. to spend time in the morning with her children, but lauded Greene for arriving home first after work. She ignored the fact that Prost almost always picked up her children from day care before 6 p.m., but lauded Greene for attending the parent interview for his son's kindergarten. She disregarded the testimony of a psychiatrist (agreed to by both sides) who found that Prost was the primary parent to her children.
Prost appealed. In a brief filed on her behalf, lawyers for the Women's Legal Defense Fund wrote that the judge was influenced by gender stereotypes--"antiquated notions about men's and women's proper roles, such as that a good mother relegates her career to a small part of her life, while a good father is someone who spends even a small amount of time with his children."
Fathers' rights groups say that this is simply the fork in the road to true equality. Go one way (work less), keep the kids. Go the other (work more), lose them. Women's rights groups counter that Sharon Prost's situation illustrated gender bias in the courts.
And the bias that infected the judge's decision, they say, was this: Women are supposed to be home with the children, and when they are not, it is proof they are poor parents. Men are not supposed to be home with their children, and when they show minimal devotion, it is proof they are superior parents.
Some researchers have found that while mothers are generally awarded custody of children as a matter of course, fathers who fight for custody prevail in a majority of cases.
In January, four months after Prost lost custody of her boys, an appeals court found cause to challenge the trial judge's decision: The judge had inappropriately and inexplicably ignored accusations by Prost--supported by the testimony of others--that Greene had physically and verbally abused her on several occasions, sometimes in front of the children.
The trial judge had minimized the claims of domestic violence by telling the parties that they "will have to learn to be civil to each other. . . ."
The appeals court ordered the judge to decide if Greene was abusive and to weigh that in a new decision about who should get custody.
The case is still pending.
As for the unfortunate Clarks, why they have been unable to work out an informal arrangement by which Gordon takes over late night and weekend child care while Marcia prosecutes O.J. Simpson may never be known. We can only assume that in a bitter divorce, one seeks the upper hand wherever one can.
What we can also assume from the statistics is that Marcia Clark, for all her dedication as a mother and a prosecutor, could end up losing the most important case of her life.
And I don't mean the Simpson trial.
* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.