The myth of the deadbeat dad

A researcher who interviewed black fathers who don't live with their kids talks about their surprising views on parenting.

Published August 9, 2001 9:17PM (EDT)

The national controversy over "deadbeat dads" intensified last month when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered a man who fathered nine children by four different women to stop having kids until he started supporting them properly. Men, women, liberals and conservatives all feel fairly comfortable in reviling deadbeat dads (that is, fathers who don't live with their kids and don't pay child support), but depriving them of a basic human right -- reproduction -- seemed a little overboard to many, particularly to the three women justices who dissented from the decision. Women, especially those left alone with the financial and emotional burden of parenting, are usually the ones sounding the alarm about absent fathers. The Wisconsin ruling illustrates the conundrum of punishing those who can't or won't face up to the role of daddy. There are a lot of unmarried fathers, too; according to the National Center for Health Statistics, one-third of American children are born to an unwed mother.

Low-income fathers are often singled out for being particularly neglectful. But according to Ronald Mincy, a Columbia University professor of social work, we know very little about how low-income, unmarried fathers behave or what they think about fatherhood. Mincy works with a team of researchers at Columbia's Social Indicators Survey Center who, in partnership with the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University, are conducting one of the first national studies on fatherlessness. Their Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey follows the unmarried parents of 3,600 children -- a representative sample of white, black and Latino couples from 20 U.S. metropolitan areas -- from birth until age 4.

"So far, the data does not indicate that during the first three years of the child's life, most low-income fathers are irresponsible," Mincy said. "Fathers are helping during the pregnancy, making financial contributions and visiting the child. But over time these informal contributions wane as the relationship between the couple deteriorates. The father becomes discouraged and the mother gets annoyed. The father's inability to make financial contributions seems part of that deterioration. Static will be introduced in the relationship that will serve to bar fathers from seeing their kids."

The Fragile Families report fills in many of the gaps surrounding low-income, nonresidential fathers, as will Mincy's new book, "Fathers, Families and Public Policy," due out this fall. In her recent book "What It Means to Be Daddy: Fatherhood for Black Men Living Away From Their Children," Jennifer Hamer looks at how we think about black low-income fathers and, perhaps more provocatively, uses her subjects' own voices to challenge the simplistic image of the black deadbeat dad. As Hamer writes, black unwed fathers "are often publicly portrayed as unemployed, uneducated and unwilling to provide."

Statistics affirm that the majority of black children are daddyless. About 70 percent of all African-American births are out of wedlock and over 85 percent of African-American children will spend some years of their childhood without a father in the home.

These are astounding statistics, but Hamer, now an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, found that hardly anything had been written about fatherhood from the perspective of black men. Armed with recording equipment and at times accompanied by her own son, Hamer visited car washes, housing projects and Wal-Marts in search of low-income black men willing to talk about what it means to be a daddy. She ended up spending hours with 88 men hailing from places like East Texas, Detroit and North Carolina.

Hamer spoke to Salon from her office in Edwardsville, Ill.

What did you want to add to the discussion about black fatherhood?

Low-income black fathers who have never been married are a group that has been very difficult to access -- at least people have argued that that's why they haven't been researched. Also, if you look at what we know about black fatherhood, we tend to know it based on interviews with black mothers. Or it's coming from a very top-down perspective: The researcher comes up with categories about men and then places men in those categories.

This book takes a bottom-up perspective. I go directly to the fathers, and to some of the mothers, and ask them what it's like to be a black man in the United States and to be a father who doesn't live with his child. We get a completely different perspective of fatherhood when we talk to them directly.

Why are they so hard to track down and how did you find them?

Even the Census has a difficult time getting ahold of low-income black men. I didn't find it that difficult. I'm African-American and grew up in and out of black communities -- I simply went where black men hang out. I would walk through certain neighborhoods. I found them through word of mouth, but I also found an awful lot of fathers simply by walking up to them, say, at a car wash. I did not have that fear of black men that a lot of researchers do, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods or housing projects. Black women live in low-income housing projects so black men are going to be there as well -- just not officially.

Do you think that your study is representative of all black fathers?

I was only able to interview 88 fathers. It is representative in the sense that they are all saying the same thing regardless of where they're coming from. But we would really need a much larger sample to say, yes, this is definitely representative of black fathers in the U.S.

What were the one or two sentiments that all of them seemed to express?

If you were to read most of the limited information out there on black fathers, you would assume that black fathers simply weren't around and that they didn't care about their children or the mothers of their children. One of the things that struck me when I first began interviewing was that these black fathers wanted to talk. They actually felt grateful that there was someone interested in listening to them. And they really did care about their children. Just talking about their children would bring tears to their eyes. They talked about how they wished they could have done something different or how they were sorry that the relationship with the mother didn't work out. They were very conscious of their decisions and of their parenting.

Most people think that, whatever their background, "deadbeat dads" do exist. Did you find yourself coming to that conclusion as you were sitting there with these men?

I have a difficult time looking at the men I interviewed and using the phrase "deadbeat dad." It's a lot more complex than that. Certainly, there were fathers who weren't spending any time with their children -- they weren't providing anything. But if you asked them why, then you'd find out how this came about and how they disengaged from their children. And it's different for different fathers. It's not as simple as: He's a deadbeat dad and he doesn't care about his kids.

What were their reasons for disengaging from their children?

They decided that they weren't going to be a father and fatherhood wasn't for them. But even if they said that, there tended to be other things going on. For example, they didn't have a lot of support from the mother or the mother's family. When I learned about their childhood, I learned that they didn't have support systems. Then there were those who had substance-abuse problems and decided that they just weren't good fathers. Sometimes they actually encouraged the mothers to find someone else to be a father to their children.

It seems that a lot of them did not think they were good role models for their children or that they did not have the financial means to care for them. Eighty-six percent of them earned less than $20,000 a year. How were these men affected by the idea that a father should be a provider?

They often blamed themselves for not finding work or not finding the perfect job. At the same time that they would say, "I live in a city where there aren't a lot of jobs"; they would also say, "I could be doing more to get a job," without realizing that if there are no jobs, it's pretty difficult to get one. Talking about finances was actually very difficult for these fathers. But it wasn't very important to them with regard to their relationship with their children. Instead, they said, "The most important thing that I can do for my child is be there, talk to them on the phone, go and see them." They didn't talk about their fatherhood in financial or provider terms.

Does this differentiate black fathers from other fathers?

Yes. The Western notion of fatherhood begins with the provider role and everything else follows it. These fathers simply turn that on its head. They have a difficult time with the provider role and that's something that's recognized by the mother as well. Instead, they start with the emotional aspect of fatherhood and the expressive element of parenting. If they define themselves in a financial sense, then there's no way that they could say they were good fathers.

Did the men you interviewed quantify fatherhood in terms of time? For example, would they mention how many days out of the week they see their child?

This is interesting -- these fathers actually have a definition of a deadbeat father. Fathers who are involved with their children, regardless of how much they're involved, recognize that they're better fathers than those who aren't involved at all. They do argue that the most important thing that a father can do is spend time with their child. If you're not doing that, then you're a "father" but you aren't a "daddy." There's a difference between a father and a daddy.

Did the mothers share the same definition?

Yes, some of the mothers used the same terms.

You write, "Most mothers did not seem to feel it necessary that fathers live in their children's homes to be good fathers." Was that surprising?

Increasingly, you will find, particularly among working-class or low-income families, who are beginning to have the same patterns of family structure as black families, that women respond this way: "No, I don't need this person to live in my home to be a good father." Especially if it's a father who's not working, or is in and out of jail, or perhaps a substance abuser. If you think about it, low-income women couple with low-income men. If you have a low-income father in the house, then the house is still going to be low-income. Even though people get married for love and sexual gratification, it's still a practical decision. In the case of low-income black families, it's not always logical to get married.

Why do the fathers say they don't get married?

Some of the fathers didn't feel that they were ready for marriage or felt that they weren't marrying material -- meaning that they didn't have a full-time job. Some weren't ready to be with one person for a long time. Some of them just didn't want to marry the mother of the child. Some of them were very young when they met these women and they didn't feel that they were settled down enough, or they thought that they were too wild. Part of it is finances, but the other part is the meaning of marriage.

Did the mothers share the same reasons for not getting married?

The women also didn't necessarily want to get married. The families of these mothers were not encouraging marriage either. The mothers were better off staying at home with their own family, where they had financial and social support. They could have the father come into that situation, but, typically, that wouldn't last long because the fathers would feel like a third wheel in the household.

Did you find that a deteriorating relationship between the mother and father affected how much the father was involved with the child over time? Did the mothers say anything like that?

Yes, relationships between mothers and fathers seemed to influence what men provided. Relationships changed over time. Responses from women seemed to indicate that they encouraged men to be around their children regardless of their relationship and regardless of how much cash the men contributed. Simultaneously, some men argued that mothers kept them away from their children, that they only wanted money, and/or served as gatekeepers.

Nevertheless, it does seem that those who report close or "friendly" relationships with their children's mother also report spending time with the child -- this includes those who shifted from "intimate" to "friendly." Does this mean that they provided financial contributions on a consistent basis? No, not necessarily. In other words, even when men report spending a significant amount of time with children -- weekly visits -- this does not mean that they are providing any more or less cash consistently than someone who is not around as much, though most men suggest that they give money when they can. They also report providing children some clothing, food, payment for extracurricular activities and other goods.

What about fathers and mothers who had very antagonistic relationships?

They spoke about difficulties when it came to visitation. The relationship between mothers and fathers may play a significant role in the father's involvement but it does not suggest that fathers are always completely to blame for their diminished parenting. Fathers also reported increased difficulties with visitation when they are in other relationships, have substance-abuse problems or have transportation problems. All of these may actually contribute to a deteriorating relationship, not only between mothers and fathers but between fathers and children as well.

One of the interesting things about the book is that it brought out details like the difficulties of transportation.

Whenever you're talking about low-income families, transportation is always important -- whether they're talking about getting to see their child, getting to their job or getting to their classes. If they had to take a job across town, then that would mean they would see their child less because by the time the father got home, the child would be going to bed. Not only that, but the father would be exhausted and not feel like being around anyone, even though they might love their child and want to spend time with them.

Do you believe that this single mother/nonresidential father family structure has been institutionalized?

This family structure is more pronounced among African-American families, but we also see it more pronounced among low-income families. African-Americans are disproportionately poor. Increasingly, we're beginning to see it among white families as well. It's just an institutionalized family structure whether we want to recognize it that way or not. We have a system that encourages it.

But you write that black men often bear the weight of the stereotype in public perception. Why do you think that is so?

These negative stereotypes are used to justify treating certain groups in certain ways. It goes back to slavery. Historically, black men have never really had access to living-wage employment, so how does the dominant group justify not providing that access? Through these negative images. We still have them today: Black men are lazy, they're drug abusers, all they want to do is gamble, all they want to do is drink. It's much easier to say that it's their fault so we don't have to change the system.

Did most of the men you interviewed have a goal or desire to achieve a certain type of relationship -- emotional or financial -- with their child? Or did they seem disillusioned about what they could do for them?

No, I would say the majority of them were optimistic and felt good about their relationship with their children. They actually did have very high hopes for their children and saw themselves contributing to their children's lives throughout their lifetime. Essentially, they were very optimistic about their children's future and more realistic about their own. These fathers just wanted a full-time stable job that would pay them enough money to buy a car or buy a house. They wanted to work for places like Coca-Cola, Boeing, the post office -- jobs that they know are stable.

What did they regret?

Many of them say there are things they could do differently. If you asked these fathers what would be the optimal environment for their child, their answer would be to have a mother and a father living in the home. The mothers would say that too: In a perfect world, all children should live with their mother and father. But at the same time they would say that is not reality.

By the end of the book, you seem to say that what has to change is the financial situations of these men.

Basically, the government is saying that fathers need to be providers. Well, if we want fathers to be providers, then we have to give them access to living-wage employment. Men and women want to get married. But they're not going to get married if they don't have a job. And if they did, it would be a very contentious relationship because a lack of stable employment creates conflict in a relationship.

If we don't measure fatherhood by men's financial contributions, then how would you propose that we do it?

We need to think about how we think about fathers and what we expect fathers to do. I don't have the answer for how we would measure fatherhood outside of finances. But children need more in their lives than just money or a check every month. If we really want to encourage fathers to be there for their children, then we need to encourage a relationship between the mother and the father, not necessarily a marital one, but one that enhances the well-being of the children.

Why do you believe that faith-based initiatives can help support these relationships?

They're one avenue. It's the easiest at this moment. In black communities, churches are already present, so if we want to do something quickly, then we already have a network of faith-based organizations out there. Many of them have programs, but it's a matter of managing and expanding the programs that bring mothers and fathers together for their children.

So marriage isn't the answer?

I don't assume that men and women have to be married or living together to produce a healthy child, but they do need to learn how to work together and we don't have a system that encourages that.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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