Sean Goldman--a nine-year-old boy in a bright yellow Brazilian Olympic soccer jersey--was handed over to his father, David Goldman, at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve Day, 2009, amid a crush of reporters and photographers. Years in the making, this return--and the entire, protracted story in which the father battled with his ex-wife's family and her husband for custody of his son--will likely be read by many as a gift.

But what sort of gift? A boy was returned to his "rightful parent" after years of separation and legal wrangling, on the one hand. A righteous sense of "it's about time" washes over us when we consider David Goldman's likely torment as he worked through the frustrating process of convincing courts and the public that his son belonged here with him. On the other hand, a young boy has lost a mother, a family including a baby sister, his sense of security, and, presumably, the better part of his childhood to stress and fear. Now he faces a readjustment process that will include profound cultural and emotional dislocation as he moves from Brazil to suburban New Jersey with a father he has seldom been able to see over the last years--a process one expert therapist has already likened to a "psychological Armageddon."

The story of Sean traces the arc of our notions of parenthood, national identity, and family. But perhaps most strikingly, it brings into focus the recent strides made by fathers in their assertion of paternal rights. And how hard it has been for them to make those strides. It took no less than the intervention of Congress, the Senate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Brazilian Supreme Court--not to mention a sea change in our ideology about parenting--to bring Sean Goldman to New Jersey for good this Christmas.

The background is the stuff of Dickens. Sean's mother Bruna Bianchi, a former fashion design student who had met Goldman while he was a model in Milan, left the U.S. with Sean five years ago, telling her husband she was taking him on a two-week vacation to visit her family in Brazil. Once there she informed him that she would not be returning, and shortly after that she began divorce proceedings, citing a loveless marriage and successfully petitioning for full custody. She soon married Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, a divorce lawyer and member of a powerful and prominent political family.

In 2008, Bianchi died in childbirth. The notion that David Goldman, as the boy's father, would logically be awarded custody was immediately cast into doubt as Goldman's motions and appeals for custody were overturned in Brazilian courts. Many have pointed fingers at Lins e Silva, noting that his money and influence--at one time he allegedly had seventy lawyers working on the case--kept Sean from his Dad.

But something else was at work as well--uncertainty about what a parent, and a family, really is. The legal dodges wouldn't have worked unless they connected with a certain ambiguity about what was best for Sean, and a certain uncertainty about who his "real" family was. Bianchi's relatives and her widower argued that since Sean had been in Brazil for so many years--"over 60% of his life," they repeatedly said in media appearances--it was all that he knew, and removing him would cause great pain. Goldman countered that Sean was his son, period.

So why the confusion? Goldman's paternity was never in doubt. But for the better part of the last century, our concept of fatherhood was eclipsed by our concept of motherhood. Put another way, the twentieth century saw the rise of laws, practices, and beliefs which favored the mother as "natural parent." And this pattern may have played a large part in delaying the transfer of custody from Sean's maternal family and stepfather to his father.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, fathers had a near absolute right to custody, based on the concept that children were a father's property. Then came the industrial revolution: as fathers moved from their homes and villages in search of work, women remained at home. This division of labor influenced subsequent custody decisions, according to custody law expert Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D--women were seen as "natural" primary parents. At the same time, we saw the rise of a new interest in children as people rather than property, thanks to social feminists of the 19th century who fought to repeal child labor laws and enforce protections for children's welfare.

Kelly and others have noted that with these forces in place, the paternal preference was gradually replaced by a maternal preference, based on the "tender years" presumption. The tender years doctrine (intended to apply to children under age 6) "was originally invoked to determine temporary custody arrangements in English law, giving mothers custody of infants only until they were ready to be returned to the father," Kelly writes.

By the 1920s, however, maternal preference had trumped paternal preference completely, regardless of the child's age, and become law in 48 states. And with the rise of psychological theories such as psychoanalysis, which emphasized the mother-child bond over any other, mothers were presumed to be the parent of influence, and of choice. Kelly points to a 1938 Missouri judicial opinion which asserted: "There is but a twilight zone between a mother's love and the atmosphere of heaven."

Ironically, it was the second-wave of feminism that changed things for women, men, and children post-divorce. As women entered the workforce and the division of household labor changed yet again, so did presumptions about parenting. A new and highly malleable concept--the best interests of the child--came to prevail in custody cases.

Meanwhile, a la Kramer versus Kramer, fathers became more involved than ever before in the everyday parenting of their children. The Families and Work Institute found in 2002 that fathers spent significantly more workday time caring for and doing things with their children than did Boomer fathers, with the trend expected to continue. Fathers' increased involvement and attachment complicated assumptions about what might be best for a child, as well as our ideas about who was a "real" or "natural" parent.

The case of Sean Goldman suggests that, righteous convictions and black and white distinctions about paternity aside, "the best interests of the child" is a more vexed proposition. With the rise of this concept, we can no longer simply resort to the position that a child is the "property" of a parent and so belongs with him, and to him. Or can we?



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