Fatherhood presents a learning curve for most, but in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – where violence, incarceration, stop & frisk, and rigid gender roles are the norm – figuring out how to parent in an emotionally responsible way can be a major feat. The participants at the Midtown Community Court’s Workforce and Fatherhood Program, under its new name “UPNEXT,” will speak to these challenges freely during group sessions. Through my internship there, I recently facilitated a workshop of my creation called “Navigating Parenting Challenges,” which borrowed its ideas of emotionally-attuned parenting from Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting From the Inside Out.
As the workshop took its course, it became very clear that the most immediate challenge our fathers face in raising their children is that of material resources. The employment market is presently a picnic for no one, but for men of color who are balancing some combination of poor educational background, a criminal record, mental health issues, substance addiction, military trauma, and so on, finding and sustaining a job can be, frankly, unrealistic.* Attaining and keeping employment is a near miracle for the previously incarcerated male population of color in this country. For a frighteningly fascinating study on that, see Devah Pager’s “The Mark of A Criminal Record” https://www.princeton.edu/~pager/pager_ajs.pdf., which finds that black men without criminal records fare worse in the job market than white men with criminal records – and that black men with criminal records fare the worst of all. This reality is part of why providing materially for one’s children can be a daily struggle for the fathers with whom I work.
I marveled at the ways in which being a parent can act as a motivation to clean up one’s act, to serve as a role model, and to stay out of prison. But just as surely, becoming a parent presents real financial burdens that push many parents back to their old criminal means of making money. During the course of our conversation, many fathers recalled painful conversations with their young children in which the child needed a new winter coat or shoes, and the unemployed father returned to his past habits of selling drugs the very next day in order to pay for what his child needed. These paradoxical implications of parenting often happen simultaneously within the heart of the same person; many fathers expressed increased guilt and shame over their deviant behaviors after becoming fathers, even as they described the increased need and justification for doing so.
The group discussed how emasculated they feel when they’re unable to provide for their children – a sentiment which is in line with the patriarchal norms of much of American society. And when it comes to winter jackets and shoes, the material needs of children are critical and urgent. But as the workshop continued, the reality of being unable to “provide” materially for one’s children devolved into a conversation about Christmas presents, iPads, and a new pair of Jordans. In short, the conversation struck me as materialistic, even frivolous, and I struggled to steer the conversation toward the emotional needs that children have and how those needs might be met despite limited financial means. One participant, N, saw where I was going and shared about a conversation where his daughter simply said “I know you can’t afford any Christmas presents this year, but dad, you’re still gonna come, right?” Other fathers marveled at the story and muttered that they wished their own children had that type of understanding.
Providing emotionally, though, is as much as structural question as it is a cultural one. Being emotionally attuned to one’s child means something different within a stable family of privilege than within a family of custody battles and frequent bouts of absence due to incarceration, and these are what comprise the structural piece, for which we are all responsible to combat. But the tendency for parents (and especially fathers) to be unsure how to emotionally reach their children, and the temptation to subscribe to materialistic ideas about love by buying toys instead of giving words of affirmation – these behaviors pervade our culture regardless of class. This conversation with the dads, although disheartening at times, was an important reminder to me about the ways in which we are all tied up in the struggles of our fellow citizens, and that liberation in a vacuum is no liberation at all.
For a great Op-Ed on the indelible impact of strong fathering, check out Charles Blow’s recent piece on the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – a new program to empower young men of color. “We can and must,” says Blow, “break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.”
*I want to underscore that not all of the fathers meet all or even most of the conditions described here, but as a cohort, these are the issues that present barriers to them.