Doing The Best I Can
"...Then in 2007, two days before Father's Day, presidential
candidate Barack Obama admonished the congregants of Mount Moriah
Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, saying, 'There are a
lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to
realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to
know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but
the courage to raise one.'"
You can't have lived in recent decades without hearing the
dismal drumbeat of deadbeat dad dissimg. Politicians, pundits, and
performers have joined in condemnation of the perpetrators of these
drive by impregnations. Conservatives and liberals have jumped on the
bandwagon. It was Bill Moyers who introduced America to Timothy
McSeed, father of then six children by four mothers and source of the
infamous line, "Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare, [so]
what I'm not doing the government does."
Fortunately Kathryn Edin has probably never met the stereotype
she is unwilling to investigate. In Doing The Best I Can (source of
the above quotes) she and Timothy Nelson show readers that while there
is a spark behind all the smoke it's not the full scale conflagration
we're led to believe.
The setting for the research, carried out over a seven year
period, was poor and working class neighborhoods in Camden and
Philadelphia. The subjects were 110 low income unwed fathers ranging
in age from seventeen to 64. There were roughly equal numbers of
African Americans and Caucasians. The focus of the study quickly
shifted from investigating the conventional wisdom that dead beat dads
just don't care to something more subtle and nuanced.
"...By examining each father's story as it unfolds, we offer a
strong corrective to the conventional wisdom regarding fatherhood in
America's inner cities. There is seldom anything fixed about the
lives of men in this book--not their romantic attachments, their jobs,
or their ties to their kids. Only by revealing how they grapple with
shifting contexts over time can we fully understand how so many will
ultimately fail to play a significant and ongoing role in their
Edin and Nelson examined the trajectories of the relationships
that produced the out of wedlock pregnancies. Children were usually
conceived within ongoing relationships, not by the no commitment hook
ups that occur too often on college campuses. Unlike the legendary
Mr. McSeed, the men generally tried to do their best to take the
responsibility mandated by Presidebt Obama. Many men reacted with
joy, often seeing fatherhood as a type of salvation in otherwise grim
Father's concepts of parenting were explored. Although they
looked up to television paragons of parenting virtue, they were in a
very different place. Many could not earn enough to be primary
breadwinners. A new emphasis on the primacy of being there for their
kids allowed them more of a sense of adequacy than a financial
provider role would.
Finally fathers were questioned about the obstacles that stood
in the way of their being optimally involved in their kids' lives.
Often mothers stood in the way, particularly the ones who had moved on
to a new partner. Children were sometimes rejecting. Many of the men
had been too traumatized in their own childhoods to develop the inner
confidence and strength to keep trying.
Doing The Best I Can is a fascinating look into the lives of a
very misunderstood and demonized segment of the American population.
Theory and background are neatly interspersed with narrative. This is
another must read for social work students' summer lists.
An insight I gleaned is that what seem like no brainers in one
social context may be something entirely else in another. At UMaine
condoms of all sorts are as ubiquitous as candy for children on
Halloween. Students are taught to equate them with responsibility.
In the venues in which Edin does research, however, the use of condoms
in a steady relationship implies distrust of one's partner. Sort of
goes to show that solutions to societal problems won't be any more one
size fits all than women's bathing suits.
On a personal note, I got up bright and early on Easter for the
sunrise service which was followed by a lovely breakfast at my
church. In the afternoon I went to an extended family gathering at my
mother-in-law's house. I enjoyed the rare chance to see my niece and
nephew. I got a beautifully crafted pewter carousel unicorn the size
of the palm of my hand. I named her Amathyst for her glass amathyst
A great big shout out goes out to researchers like Kathryn Edin who
refuse to take conventional wisdom for granted or to let the rest of
us do so.
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