Fatherhood in Progress

“My kid calls his mother’s boyfriend ‘dad,’” an impassioned father, let’s call him D., recounts. “He calls him ‘dad’ and he tells him he loves him.”

We were in the midst of a fatherhood workshop at the Midtown Community Court.  D’s thoughts were in response to an open prompt that the facilitator had posed to the group of fathers about their experiences with what we refer to as “co-parenting.”  For single fathers looking to be involved in their child’s life in real ways, co-parenting presents a host of challenges.

D. continued, “But when I met with the judge, she says to me, ‘Sir, isn’t the more people that loves your son, the better?’ I was like, whoa.  She got me.  That’s what it’s about.”

From here, another of the dads, R., weighed in:“But that’s your kid. You don’t want him calling someone else ‘daddy’!”

D had the final word as myself, the social workers on staff, and the other five dads participating in the group, looked on: “But it doesn’t matter.  During any of the stuff I’ve got going on with his mom, and there’s a lot of stuff, he’s what matters.  Having people love him has to be what matters.”

This fatherhood workshop, called 24/7 Dad, is part of a six weeklong Fatherhood & Workforce Training Program run out of the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation.  Elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), concrete skills such as interviewing and resume building, and practice with social skills and emotional management, are incorporated into the program’s daily schedule.  As an intern for the program through List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I’ve been able to watch many moments unfold like the one recounted above.  In observing the back-and-forth between the dads during sessions, and in sitting down with many of them individually, I’ve been struck by the common threads that bind one story to the next, and one father to the next.  Upbringings with absent or abusive fathers, youths interrupted by daily stop-and-frisk police profiling, entire neighborhoods struggling to make ends meet – these elements come up over and over, which is part of why these sessions can be so normalizing and therapeutic for the dads: it is comforting, on some level, to be understood intuitively by others.

But attitudes toward parenting differ considerably among the dads, and not only when it comes to the role of male figures in their children’s lives.  The fatherhood workshops unearth a wide array of philosophies on masculinity, what it means to be a good father, role modeling, discipline, and so on.  I’ve heard articulations of fatherhood that could have been taken right off the page of any mid-20th century conservative family values guidebook, for all their heteronormative, patriarchal, corporal punishment-supporting ideals.  But I’ve also heard robust defenses of egalitarian marriages, rants about parents who spank their children, and hopes for a time when they could express their emotions openly with their partners and children without being made to feel like less of a man.  For me, it’s been an important reminder that it is not only those in the ivory tower who worry about a generation of children growing up fatherless, but also the fathers themselves.

The alternative sanctions, rehabilitation, mental health services, and workforce training programs that operate out of the Midtown Community Court, do so out of a recognition that the criminal justice system is flawed.  Longstanding systemic barriers contribute to the justice system’s revolving door; many of the same men and women enter and leave the courts, only to re-enter again later on – all without acknowledgment of the many root causes of their behavior and the many hurdles in their way.

In Midtown’s conception of what positive outcomes look like, and in their methodology for reaching them, I hear reverberations of Judaism’s sense of pragmatism and empathy.  In the canon of Jewish text, we find more than an enumeration of laws, case verdicts, and principles.  We find guidelines for how to mitigate between the world as it is encoded and the world as it is lived, and as Jews, we have communally internalized the fact that reality does not always match the ideal.  Systems do not always work.  Halakha (Jewish law) self-consciously and continuously accounts for the fact that it is a lived system, lived out by flawed humans, and that provisions must be made for an imperfect reality. Even what is ‘beyond’ the system is made room for within the system.   Any philosophy that contains a special Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) for Yom Kippur, a day when in theory no one is eating at all, must necessarily extend the same dose of practicality to all human beings’ complex realities.  I feel it is my obligation to recognize these shortcomings, work within my capacity to make society more just, and above all, seek to understand the particular circumstances of each individual from a place of dignity and humanity.

For more information about these programs and other innovative programs being run out of the Midtown Community Court, visit: http://www.courtinnovation.org/project/midtown-community-court.This year the Midtown Community Court celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. To learn more about its inception, watch this video with John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and founding director of the Midtown Community Court.

To get involved in the intricately related and unjustly pervasive issue of “Stop and Frisk,” through a Jewish avenue, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s initiative: http://www.jfrej.org/campaign-police-accountability