Across the political spectrum, unwed fatherhood is viewed as the scourge of American society with inner-city fathers often dismissed as “deadbeat dads.” But according to scholars Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, the significant economic and cultural shifts that have transformed society at large have also revolutionized the meaning of fatherhood and family life among the urban poor.
These mammoth changes, Edin and Nelson say, are more responsible for this new familial paradigm than any character flaws or a lack of responsibility in the fathers.
In their groundbreaking new book, “Doing The Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City” (University of California Press; $29.95), authors Edin and Nelson (of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University) take a comprehensive look at fatherhood and examine how couples in financially challenging circumstances come together and get pregnant quickly without planning.
Through in-depth interviews conducted over several years in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. With more than 100 fathers, Edin and Nelson outline the significant obstacles faced by low-income men at every step of the familial process — from difficulties in their romantic relationships to the dilemmas at conception to the celebratory moments surrounding the birth of a child to the hardships that accompany raising and providing for a child in its early years.
“It’s a complex story and it took us a long time to write the book because we wanted to get it right as we put all the stories together we wanted to stay true to the main themes that we were finding and how those all connected with one another and so on. It was quite a process to do all that,” explained Nelson. “The interviews began in the late 1990s and continued until about 2002. This is over six, seven years and covers the time that we lived in Camden, New Jersey, which was about from 1996, 97. So the analysis and putting this all together took about 10 years to get all of this together.”
While the majority of studies and media have focused on “new fatherhood” from the perspective of middle-class fathers at home and in the nursery, “Doing The Best I Can” delves into the lives of poor men who have children outside of marriage and their “New Package Deals” — the direct and intimate relationships with their children that are independent of a relationship with the mother.
Edin and Nelson argue that significant economic and cultural changes that have affected all Americans have transformed the meaning of fatherhood among the urban poor, not the deviant values that have been suggested by some politicians and pundits. Based on eight years of fieldwork with over 100 Caucasian and African American fathers, the authors examine how young people in challenging circumstances get pregnant quickly without planning, but also have astonishingly high hopes for forging the lasting family bonds that pregnancy inspires.
In this study, the traditional notions of fatherhood have been turned on its head because instead of breadwinning, these men aspire to be their children’s best friend.
“Part of the difficulty with this population of men is people want to either think that they are villains or they are just victims,” said Nelson. “They really want to paint sort of a one dimensional portrait of these guys: either they are just out for sex and they don’t really care about the kids, or these are good guys that are the victims of economic circumstances, unemployment, poverty and so on. The reality is more complex. I say that both of those things are true to a certain extent. These guys are not angels, and as you read the book some of the feedback that I have had back from some people is that they are really frustrated by some of these guys, and some of the choices they make, or bad decisions and so forth. Part of what took us a long time is that we try to strike that balance of painting a complex portrait of actual human beings with their weaknesses and their strengths and the incredible circumstances that they face — and the times that they blow it, and the resilience that they show in getting back up and trying to do it again.”
With eye-opening candor and poignant narratives, “Doing The Best I Can” offers an insightful analysis of poor fathers that refutes stereotypes and illustrates that in even in chaotic environments, children can be a stabilizing force. •