The Masculine Mystique

New New Fatherhood in the Inner City

A new book reveals how poor urban dads are reversing gender roles in caring for their children, but not being providers. Dana Goldstein on why that’s both revolutionary and not quite enough.

07.02.13 8:45 AM ET

When 15-year old Andre Green found out that his ex-girlfriend, Sonya, was pregnant with his child, he was living with six members of his extended family in a small row house in Camden, New Jersey. His mother was a drug addict. His father, in Andre’s words, was a “dog” who had never even told Andre that he had several half-brothers kicking around the neighborhood. (The boy found out gradually, when he noticed similar-looking children in school and at the supermarket, and asked them who their father was.) Yet despite his poverty, lack of parental support, and the fact that his romantic relationship with Sonya had ended, Andre was excited—even thrilled—to become a father.

“I was like, “Yes! Thank you, Jesus!” he told sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson. Indeed, within several months of his daughter’s birth, Andre had dropped out of school to become Jalissa’s primary caregiver. He took great pride in keeping her well fed, nicely dressed, and even taking her to church. There, despite his youth and joblessness, Andre was celebrated as a devoted dad. “People say, ‘Oh Andre, you’re doing a beautiful job,’” he told the researchers.  “They’re like, ‘Andre, I’m very proud of you.’”

Why isn’t unwed teen parenthood more stigmatized in low-income communities? Eight years ago, Edin and her writing partner, Maria Kafalas, overturned stereotypes about inner-city single mothers with their book Promises I Can Keep. That study showed that many single mothers celebrated and even planned their serial out-of-wedlock pregnancies, not because they were “welfare moms” looking for a government paycheck, but because in neighborhoods in which college, satisfying careers, and financially stable marriages seemed to be little more than fantasies from television and the movies, motherhood provided the crucial, emotionally satisfying transition into adult life.

Now, in Doing the Best I Can, Edin and Nelson have returned to the streets of Philadelphia and Camden to tell unwed fathers’ side of the story. The results, from a seven-year study of 205 men, all earning less than $16,000 per year, are no less extraordinary, calling into question the caricature of the “deadbeat dad.” Like Andre Green, many poor men will overcome daunting personal challenges to spend time with their children, even as they fail to live up to middle-class norms of the father as provider and moral role model.

Poor, single dads have a lot in common with their female counterparts. Both young men and young women in these neighborhoods see forgoing contraception as a key sign of sexual trust and fidelity, and they demonstrate little anxiety about unexpected pregnancy—a surprising notion for many middle-class Americans, who viscerally fear the loss of educational, career, and romantic opportunities that premature parenthood brings. Far from disdaining marriage, low-income single parents have fully absorbed mainstream cultural messages about what that institution should entail: two good jobs, home ownership, and a “soul mate” kind of love. Because these goals appear impossible for people living hand-to-mouth at the bottom rung of the American economy, however, men told the researchers that marriage is generally off the table as a realistic lifestyle. Indeed, they mistrust women, whom they see as enforcers of middle-class earning expectations they cannot meet. The love these men feel for their children is far stronger than any romantic connection they’ve made with those children’s mothers.

“Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City” by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson. 294 pages. University of California Press; $29.95.

This narrative proves why marriage-promotion programs are such ill-conceived public policy. It’s not that poor people don’t respect marriage. It’s that in a country in which more than 300,000 low-skill, well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the early 1950s—replaced by unstable, low-paid positions in the service sector—many single mothers smartly choose not to live with or marry their children’s fathers, because they are not attractive mates. These men are typically unemployed or severely underemployed, and sometimes also addicted or abusive. Marriage promotion won’t work until low-income men get the education, health care (both physical and mental), and jobs they need to contribute to family life.

Men and women in poor neighborhoods tend to agree on these facts. Where they conflict, often bitterly, is in their conception of how a parent should respond to these unfortunate social and economic circumstances. Single mothers typically settle for jobs in the service sector, using their meager wages, in addition to government programs, to support their children to the best of their ability. Poor, single fathers, on the other hand, usually contribute only a nominal percentage financially to the total costs of housing and caring for children. This triggers understandable resentment in former partners, who have made great sacrifices to provide for kids. But poor men insist on being seen as “more than just a paycheck” to their children; they have attempted to redefine fatherhood as being about “spending quality time” with their kids and engaging with them emotionally. Ernest Williams, a 32-year-old father enrolled in rehab, says, “The good father is somebody like your friend.” Ernest would like to be able to talk to his son about anything, including experiences with sex and guns, in a “real” and “honest” way, without threats of judgment or punishment.

The problem with this vision of “doing the best I can” is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that “lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,” in which dads are the “soft,” emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem. Since 1965, mothers at every level of the economy have tripled the hours they spend working outside the home. Fathers now spend much more time playing and talking with their children than they did in past decades, but men’s domestic labor—cooking, cleaning, and readying the kids for school—has not kept pace, meaning women are still working the “second shift” defined by Arlie Hochschild in 1989.

So even though middle-class readers will be confused by some of the social mores in Doing the Best I Can—like the rampant unprotected sex and joy at news of unplanned pregnancies—the book depicts gender trouble that, if anything, could be spreading from the lower to the upper classes, along with the lack of good jobs and rise of economic inequality. This is the tale told by Hanna Rosin in The End of Men and Charles Murray in Coming Apart: responsible women and feckless men in the poor and working classes, while the well-educated rich enjoy, more and more, stable, egalitarian marriages.

How do we reverse these troubling trends? Though Edin and Nelson report that 70 percent of poor dads are highly involved with at least one of their children at any given time—and black dads are more involved than white dads—serial unwed pregnancy means most low-income kids see less and less of their fathers as their parents break up and children age. What’s more, the idea of “father as friend” can be profoundly troubling to children, who need guidance, structure, and real examples of responsible behavior.

Edin and Nelson make few concrete proposals, but do suggest that the legal system’s singular focus on collecting child support from unwed fathers, as opposed to helping them care for their children day to day, is misguided. Most poor, unwed dads have limited earning potential, and should instead be encouraged to support their kids in nonfinancial ways, the authors state. That dictum should be applied across the economic spectrum: bonuses for dads who love, hug, and provide financially, but also for those who do dishes, arrange play dates, and show up at parent-teacher conferences.