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STANFORD -- Most divorced California fathers, even four years after divorce, remain substantially involved with their children, say two Stanford University researchers. However, mothers still typically are the primary caretakers of children following divorce.

In about 70 percent of the families studied by psychologist Eleanor Maccoby and legal scholar Robert Mnookin, children lived with their mothers. However, in a majority of the families, the children were seeing their fathers regularly during the school year.

Moreover, in about one-sixth of the study group, the children divided their time roughly equally between their fathers' and mothers' households, the researchers said. In about 10 percent of the families, the children resided primarily with their fathers.

Maccoby and Mnookin studied approximately 1,000 California families who began divorce proceedings in two counties in 1984-85. They followed the families for four years and report the results in a new book, Dividing the Child: Social & Legal Dilemmas of Custody (Harvard University Press).

"We found a higher proportion of fathers were regularly visiting their children after four years than in national studies conducted during the 1970s and early 1980s," Mnookin said. In the newer study, only 13 percent of the children who lived with their mothers did not see their fathers during the third year after divorce.

"Although there really are no precisely comparable studies in other states, other researchers have suggested that most fathers dropped out of their children's lives soon after the divorce," he said.

Laws adopted in California in 1979 were designed to encourage both parents to maintain contact with their children, and those legal changes, along with changing social attitudes, may be responsible for the increased involvement of fathers, Maccoby said.

"But the study clearly shows a strong inertial pull - based on social custom rather than law - toward mothers remaining the pivotal parent in most families," she said.

Mothers usually were the ones who took children to the doctor and shopped for their school clothes, for example.

In interviews immediately after they were first separated, spouses often expressed conflicting desires about physical custody arrangements. Four out of five mothers preferred to have sole custody, while half of fathers either preferred sole father custody or joint custody with the mother.

There were few legal fights over custody, however.

"The general perception, created by the popular press and the movies, is that legal disputes over custody and courtroom battling are very common," Mnookin said. "We found, however, that most divorcing families - about 80 percent - have little legal conflict over custody, and for the minority that do, nearly all the disputes are settled by negotiation or through mediation, which California now requires before parents go to court."

As a consequence, only 2.2 percent had not settled before trial stage, and only 1.5 percent needed a judge's ruling.

"Mandatory mediation laws appear to reduce costly legal battling," he said.

In interviews, "men would often say they would love to have the children with them but, for a variety of reasons, they did not act on their preference," Maccoby said. "Their reasons included job demands that didn't permit taking custody, or a feeling that mothers had greater experience in child-rearing, particularly if the children were very young. The fact that women got custody so much more often had a lot to do with the differentiation of their roles before divorce."

Men and women also tended to view the father's major role as being a financial provider.

"In their minds, his being able to provide money and being able to see the children were linked," she said.

Economic disparities between divorced mothers and fathers were very substantial. Fathers, on average, earned twice as much as mothers, and when children lived with mothers, 90 percent of fathers were ordered to pay child support, Mnookin said. Three-quarters of fathers paid at least some of the child support awarded by the court. Individual father's compliance varied from time to time, with about half complying fully.

"But even when support payments were made in full by fathers, divorced mothers typically ended up providing primary economic support for the children in their custody," Mnookin said.

Although most divorcing couples avoided legal fights, many experienced conflict over day-to-day child rearing issues. The researchers found that divorced parents follow three major patterns in how they relate to one another regarding their children.

Cooperative parents - a little over one quarter of the parents - set aside their conflicts and agreed to collaborate on child rearing. They tried to coordinate household rules. Hostile parents fought with each other and often expressed their anger to and through the children. A third group of ex-spouses avoided each other, and consequently neither fought nor collaborated.

A separate follow-up study with adolescents revealed that children were more likely to suffer emotional and behavioral problems if their parents battled after divorce than if they behaved cooperatively or at least shielded the children from conflict.

"Parents usually manage to be civilized with each other ultimately," Maccoby said. "Those who fight at first usually end up avoiding each other. However, some parents who started out disengaged were able to develop a cooperative relationship. They tended to stop communicating with each other when one or both remarried or moved."

The Stanford study found that joint physical custody, a relatively new alternative for parents, appeared to have both advantages and disadvantages.

"It is hard work to coordinate two households, and a number of families who initially adopted it later dropped it," Maccoby said. "What surprised us was to find that there was an equally large number who didn't adopt it initially but later took it up."

Added Mnookin: "When joint physical custody works, it satisfies both parents and children. But what concerns us is that joint physical custody appears to have been adopted in some cases where parents were locked in conflict and had great difficulty doing business together." Thirty-six percent of families with joint physical custody were involved in substantial legal battles - a higher proportion than was found in other custodial arrangements.

"Judges, lawyers and mediators should avoid suggesting joint physical custody as a compromise when parents are battling."

Another recent change in the law was to distinguish between physical and legal custody of children.

"The hope was that even when mothers had physical custody, the fathers would remain more involved," Maccoby said.

On the surface it might appear that the change had a big impact, because eight out of ten divorced California families now have joint legal custody. However, the researchers found that the new legal label appears to have little effect on behavior.

"After other differences are taken into account, fathers with joint legal custody were not more involved in decisions about the child's life, spent no more time with the child, and did not comply more fully with child support orders," Maccoby said.



Said Mnookin: "What I hope our study shows is both the opportunities and difficulties of parents establishing reasonable working relationships following divorce. There are economic pressures on both parents and a need to emotionally detach themselves from the intimacy of marriage while, at the same time, establishing a working relationship regarding the children."

Added Mnookin: "There is more conflict when kids are younger or when families are larger. I think that just means that parenting is harder in these situations. It takes more time and commitment."

Disagreements about discipline and lifestyle, she said, "seem to be one of the intractable issues in divorce when kids are going back and forth."

Fathers tended to trust mothers' child-rearing abilities more than mothers trusted fathers', Maccoby said.

"Many mothers felt their ex-spouse didn't notice things about the children's needs, or worried that he was not imposing discipline or structure in the house," she said.

Some children really are endangered in the house of an inexperienced parent, she said. One father, for instance, felt he couldn't tell his policemen roommates to put their guns away when his 3-year-old daughter visited.

"Until you have faced child supervision, I don't think you realize how much control you do need to exercise over the places your children are going to be, the people they'll meet and the things they can do," Maccoby said.

"It's hard for custodial parents to remain responsible when their children are visiting the other parent's household. There is a downside to visitation, especially if parents don't talk with each other. Kids can slip through the cracks, so to speak, but they very much value maintaining their relationship with both parents."

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