The Meaning of Fatherhood

“…In Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’s analysis of 165 in-depth interviews with single mothers in the same Philadelphia and Camden communities from which we drew many of our fathers, the women had little motivation to stave off early childbearing, as young women in this environs see children as their chief source of meaning and identity, and other sources of esteem are in short supply.

We make the same claim about the men who we spoke with, and for the same reason. The roles of son, sibling, and kin are often attenuated when young men choose the wrong road. Successful siblings or relatives may shun a black sheep, and even a mother’s love is challenged when a son robs her for drug money, or when he is in and out of prison. “Friend” is a status almost no one can claim–there is simply too little trust to make such relationships work. Instead, “associates,” short-term instrumental or casual relationships, must stand in for friends. “Worker” has limited meaning when all one can claim is one “chicken shit” job after another at the bottom of a labor market where companies may shut down, change owners, and shed workers at the drop of a hat. For some residents of these communities, religion offers a powerful source of meaning, but outside of Alcoholics Anonymous or its sister organization, Narcotics Anonymous–both imbued with discourse about the importance of a higher power–ties to organized religion are rare among our men. And since succeeding long term in a romantic relationship seems improbable, if not impossible, why not invest meaning and identity in the one status any man can successfully claim if he desires: that of a father?

One allure of fatherhood for men is that it is a biological fact that cannot be denied. A man who fathers a child has at least someone who, in one man’s words, “can’t deny me.” When ex-partners, like Holloway’s ex-girlfriend Katrina, challenge this assumption by letting another man–a new boyfriend–play the daddy role, especially when they give the new guy the “title,” men read this as a signal that they’ve been judged as so worthless that she’s willing to nullify their basic rights as dads. It is even worse when children join in the fray. Recall that Jeff Williams, from North Central Philadelphia, says his nearly grown daughter, Jacina, is offering the proverbial slap in the face when she reminds him that her mother’s boyfriend “does” for her more than Jeff has done. He asserts, “irregardless, if this person is doing something for you or not, he can’t fill my shoes. … If I give you a million dollars or I give you a penny, I’m still your father.” But few men try and claim that they’re a “father” (rather than a “daddy”) based purely on a biological tie.

Two key themes about the meaning of fatherhood emerge from our conversations with these men. First, think back to the seemingly inexplicable rush of enthusiasm Andre Green, at only fifteen, felt when he first learned Sonya was pregnant. There is no evidence that he wanted a child at the time, or that the two planned the pregnancy, yet the prospect of fatherhood was deeply compelling. When surrounded by the “negativity” of a chaotic family and neighborhood environment, young men like Andre often ache to play a positive social role. They long for a chance to be consumed by a set of activities that are good–unsullied–something to take pride in and something that their own fathers didn’t manage to accomplish. “I want to be a real father to my kids,” Andre says. “I want to not only make a baby but I want to take care of my baby.”

But Andre’s youth and his history as a “straight arrow”–no drinking, drugs, or crime and regular church attendance and good grades–make him a standout among the young men we spoke to. Far more common than the desire to merely “counteract the negativity” of one’s external situation–one’s family and neighborhood–is the yearning to also purge one’s own negative past. Amin, the black sheep in Betty Jenkin’s fold, had squandered much of his life in disciplinary schools, detention centers, and prison. His son, Antoine, was the “mini me” who might someday achieve what Amin felt he could not. Having a child is a chance at redemption, albeit intergenerationally. Recall Albert Saunders, a line cook at Bennigan’s who graduated at the top of his high school class but never went to college. The father of a toddler, he tells us fatherhood is like watching “a better image of me” at work.”

Pp. 211-213 in Edin, Kathryn and Timothy J. Nelson. 2013. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. Berkeley: University of California Press. From “The Meaning of Fatherhood,” pp. 210-213. Italics in original, links and emphasis added.

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