I received this letter awhile back, and the smoke still hasn't cleared from my mailbox.
Quit your bitching and be thankful you have a wife to help you out. Try being a single father. Try working full-time, in addition to being a loving, responsible father. Try putting off things like a social life, hobbies, a college education. Try getting help from a state that would bend over backward to help a single mother but doesn't seem to give a shit about a single father with custody of his child.
. . . I receive no child support, no state aid, and I still manage to support my son, pay insurance and keep a household. All this on less than eight dollars an hour. And it's all worth it to know I have my boy and to know that I provide the best care for him.
So next time you feel you have to bitch, think about us single dads who are loving enough to put our entire lives on hold to raise a child. Then think how fortunate you are to have what you do. From where I see it, you have got it fat, dumb and happy. Gage Allen Underhill
Anger is not uncommon in letters to the editor. When a newspaper so much as changes ink, readers will respond as if an unspeakable crime against God, nature and Old Glory has been committed. But there seemed to be good reason for Underhill's rancor: the Catch-22 of single-fatherhood.
I called Underhill and arranged a meeting at his Tempe home. He is 22 and does security-police work for the state. His son Landon is two and, during my visit, had the run of the three-bedroom house they shared with four other people.
Landon's parents were never married. Underhill is reticent to discuss the woman in further detail. "I'm real scared of making her mad," he admits. "If she decided to make trouble, the courts would say, `Well, she's the mom, she must be better, so take the kid away from the father.' I don't want to kick that sleeping dog . . . . No, Landon, no. You've got a banana. Eat that first and then we'll think about chips, okay?"
After Landon's birth, Underhill says, "We argued back and forth about joint custody. I really had to watch the game I played, because I knew if I went for a straight custody battle, I'd be wiped out." But because the mother was unemployed and without health insurance, Underhill was named the custodial parent.
That, he says, was the last break he got.
"I had been paying her child support all along. I was warned that whether or not I had a job I'd have to deliver. But when I got custody, the court said she'd have to pay only if she had a full-time job, and only after she'd had it for two months. Well, she's still unemployed, and I haven't seen a cent. Basically, what I've been told is, `Hey. You're lucky to have custody. Be thankful and leave it at that' . . . . Yes, Landon, you can have a chip now. But no salsa, okay? You don't need any salsa . . . "
Underhill is careful to say that he harbors no ill feelings for Landon's mother but rather against "the way single fathers are treated in general." "I tried to get in on a food-share program. But I don't qualify. If a single mother were making the same money I'm making, she'd qualify. What am I gonna do? Get a lesser-paying job?
" . . . Landon? Are you making a mess in there? Landon? . . . Excuse me. I'd better check on him. The other day he emptied a giant bottle of baby powder in the bedroom."
"I'll tell you why I wrote the letter. That morning, I was watching the news and they were saying that the laws were really going to start cracking down on delinquent fathers. I thought, well, that's great. But what's being done for custodial fathers? Absolutely nothing.
"I don't have the time or money for college, so that's out. But since I'm already in the Air National Guard, I thought I'd go active-duty military--just for six years or so, to get a little stability. An Army recruiter told me, `Yeah! You've got the training! You'll go right in, keep your rank, no problem. But you'll have to give up custody.' Well, forget it . . . Uh-oh. Hold on. Time for a diaper change. Landon? Why didn't you tell Daddy you had to go potty?
"There's a lot of everyday things, too," Underhill says when his dadchore of the minute is completed. "When I do get to go out, dance, meet women--which is rare--I'll say, `Yeah. I'm a single father.' Their reaction is always like, `Oh. Do you have leprosy or AIDS, too? Because I'm not gonna touch ya!' I don't know why, but guys will accept single mothers more than women will accept single fathers. It makes it very hard to date. "I often wonder. Will I ever get married? Will I ever go to college? Will . . . "
"Daddy, I'm dizzy."
"That's because you were spinning around and around. Oh! Tell the man who you're gonna see tomorrow."
"You gonna have fun?"
"Do you love Mommy?"
"Yeah! I love Daddy, too."
"Don't lick my nose, silly. Oh, Landon, look at that shirt. I guess we'll be getting out the Spray 'n' Wash tonight . . . "
One week later, Underhill called me. He was moving--to his parents' house. "Things have gotten tight," he told me. "If I didn't have my folks, I don't know where we'd go. There's nowhere else to turn.