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His disorganized, homey appearance meshes perfectly with the loosely organized chaos that is Hirschfeld's office, which is located in the front rooms of his Phoenix house. The office is a menagerie of stuffed animals, toys and brightly painted ceramic figures. A piano sits next to a rocking horse. A longhaired cat roams aloofly over a pair of battered stuffed couches. There are disposable diapers available in the bathrooms, and books on parenting line the walls.
"Children have to be comfortable here," Hirschfeld says. "Children being comfortable, really, is what all of this is about."
"All of this" truly began in 1978, when Hirschfeld started a newsletter, Single Dad's Lifestyle, that quickly developed a nationwide following. The publication--one of the first to speak for the nascent men's-rights movement--was a sort of periodical women-haters club, filled with angry denunciations of ex-wives and females in general.
But it also contained a wealth of material on the nuts and bolts of parenting, including recipes, tips on how to buy clothes for kids, "emotional bonding" hints--even instructions on how to do laundry, for the man facing that task for the first time.
Although Hirschfeld ceased publishing Lifestyle in 1983 because of the time demands of his own parenting duties and a thriving law practice, the notoriety it brought landed him a spot on the Donahue show to discuss male parenting, and a post as a founding board member of the National Congress for Men, a group designed as a counterweight to the National Organization for Women.
"Everybody knew that NOW exists, and what they have to say," Hirschfeld says. "But the emphasis is always on: How does the woman feel? What we were saying is: Hey, men are people, too, with feelings. What about us? We have rights."
Largely because of Hirschfeld, those rights are much broader in Arizona than they once were. Hirschfeld was a leading advocate of a 1981 change in state law which overthrew the dusty canon that gave mothers an almost insurmountable edge in custody battles.
Arizona's "gender neutral" custody law (one of the most progressive in the nation, from a men's-rights point of view, anyway) specifies that neither parent is automatically preferred. Instead, the judge must consider a list of factors, including the child's preference and the mental and physical stability of each parent, before deciding the case in the child's best interest.
That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and clears the way for Hirschfeld's anything-goes style of questioning. But, he says, it still isn't enough.
Although it is difficult to quantify custody cases, since many are sealed by the court under juvenile protection laws, most domestic-relations lawyers agree that the vast majority of children are placed in joint custody or with their mothers. Only a handful, perhaps 10 percent, end up with their dads.
Feminists tend to object to the concept of fatherly custody--not because the "what's best for the child" standard is litigious or unfair, but simply because, in their opinion, being with the mother is always what's best.
While preaching the merits of equality in all areas of society--from bathrooms to foxholes--there is one unique privilege Hirschfeld notes women steadfastly maintain is theirs alone: motherhood.
For instance, Carol Sanger--president of the Phoenix and Scottsdale chapter of NOW--is quick to downplay Hirschfeld's conception of men as nurturing, equal partners in the parenting process.
"The vast majority of mothers have proven time and again that they are willing to sacrifice their own interests for those of their children," Sanger says. "That makes them good parents. I'm sure some men have shown that willingness, too, but in far fewer numbers than women." It is attitudes such as these--which Hirschfeld calls "hypocrisy in the highest form"--that he says create the need for his special brand of antagonistic advocacy. Simply upon hearing Sanger's argument, Hirschfeld begins to transform, from the scholarly proponent of men's rights to the loathed whirling dervish of the courtroom--from "Good Bob" to "Bad Bob" in the wink of an eye.
"Maybe in the old days, when the father went to work and the mother stayed home with the kids," he says, "you could make the argument that the mother was almost always the best parent.
"But as two-income families developed, you had a situation come about where the parents are often equal. Dad often fixes dinner, changes the diapers, teaches the child to read. And he has just as much right to his child.
"The linchpin of the feminism movement was a desire for equality. Much to some women's surprise, they got it. And now they have to live with the reality."
That reality, … la Hirschfeld, means that if a woman wants custody of her kids, she must first traverse the legal gauntlet the lawyer will arrange. It means that during a time of deep emotional upheaval, she must be willing to stand up to a brutal grilling, one that will rudely probe into every facet of her life.
It means she must face Hirschfeld on his terms.
@body:The scene is a deposition--the pretrial interview of parties in litigation, while under oath, that serves to get the facts of the case on record before either side ever sees a courtroom. It is an intimate setting; only the lawyers and the two parents, plus a court reporter, are present.
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