Four months. That’s the longest amount of time Heath Eckstein, 47, a police officer from Virginia, has ever been separated from his 5-year-old daughter Kora. But those four months were long enough for the devoted dad to decide he would never be apart from his little girl again. Eckstein decided to apply for custody of his daughter, and after years of fighting for her, he was awarded full physical custody this past year.
Eckstein joins many other single fathers who have found that the road to securing custody isn’t always easy. Although there are many single parents navigating the world with their children, more often than not, the narrative we hear involves single mothers with primary custody. But a growing number of dads are speaking out, not only about their experience as single parents, but about their fight to gain full-time custody of their children.
When parents don’t have a relationship together, the old stereotype that suggests kids stay with their mothers isn’t always true or even accepted by modern day fathers. The numbers show that more fathers are taking on custody as well. According to a 2013 statistic from Fatherhood.gov, there are 2 million single fathers in the U.S., and 17 percent of single parents with custodial rights are men.
One of those men is Philippe Morgese, 35, and founder of Daddy Daughter Hair Factory. Morgese has created a community of fathers and single fathers who rock sweet hairstyles and even sweeter father-child moments. Eckstein notes that not only did Morgese, who has full physical custody of his 11-year-old daughter Emma, help him learn some pretty cool hair-dos for his daughter, he also lent him an ear when he needed someone to talk to.
Eckstein first began pursuing full custody of his daughter after he and his ex-wife separated when Kora was still a toddler. After several months where he didn’t even get to see his daughter at all, Eckstein was granted 50/50 custody. Even passing that hurdle felt like an enormous victory for the single dad who proudly wears painted toes in public because it makes his daughter happy.
“I was extremely nervous going into it being a dad,” he admits. “You just don’t hear about dads getting custody. I didn’t think I would even get the 50/50.”
As his daughter grew and reached school-age, Eckstein decided to pursue a new custody arrangement that he felt would provide more stability. Despite being told by at least one individual that “guys don’t get little girls,” the determined dad never gave up. He worked to establish what he felt would be the most stable environment for his daughter, built up a strong support network to help him care for his daughter, and chose to work the night shift in order to accommodate her school hours and activities.
Eckstein was adamant that as a father, he could provide a loving home to his daughter, even when the world seems to be set up for moms first. “I’m not a second-class parent,” he says. And last year, the courts finally agreed with him. The overjoyed father was granted full physical custody of his daughter. Today, although Eckstein freely admits that he’s not exactly looking forward to Kora’s dating days, he’s cherishing every last ordinary moment with his little girl.
“The joy of being a single dad [is] holding her hand and walking to her school,” he says. “The little things you probably take for granted, like waking her up, and putting her in her car seat. Those little interactions.”
Both Morgese and Eckstein have what is known as “full physical custody” — not full legal custody — of their daughters. “The only way I can get sole custody is to remove her mother’s parental rights, which is nearly impossible for a father to do,” Morgese explains.
He notes that even with a history involving criminal records, drug use, and instability, courts tend to show preference to a mother, doing everything possible to rehabilitate her rather than strip her of her parental rights. “If the roles were reversed, it would be a walk in the park,” he observes.
Outside of the basic custody of a child, as a father, there are also challenges to acquiring resources. Morgese found that basic things, like applying for health insurance, required the mother to be involved, even when he had physical custody.
“When I applied for government assistance, I ended up getting a letter from the state that said I owed child support for Emma,” he says with a slight laugh.
Despite the challenges, Eckstein tells Babble that his long journey to gain custody of Kora shows how the system is changing in favor of children’s best interest, rather than automatic preference for mothers.
“Times are changing,” he explains. “They’re not choosing the mom or dad; they are choosing the best situation for that child.”
For other fathers going through the struggle of trying to gain custody of their children, both Morgese and Eckstein advise them to do their best in trying to work with their child’s other parent whenever possible. “Communication and compromise will go a long way,” Morgese notes.
For fathers like Eckstein and Morgese, there is no better indication that they are doing the right thing than the smiles on their daughters’ faces.
“When she wakes up happy, I know I’m doing something right,” says Eckstein. “She is my life. That’s everything I live for every day.”