Complicated Fatherhood

The combination of Father’s Day yesterday, and the horrific statistics about fatherhood which have become common in America, we were treated yesterday to many columns and speeches exhorting men, particularly African American men, so step up to the challenge of being fathers.  “Get involved in your kid’s life” was the refrain.  It is excellent to see so much attention being paid to the importance of fatherhood.  Only a few years ago, it was widely assumed that fathers were optional for the well being of a child and potentially a bad influence with all their aggressive, competitive tendencies.  Thank heavens we’ve moved past that.  It’s too bad that a generation of people had to be sacrificed in order for us to provide proof to the shrinks and sociologists that fathers really do matter, but whatchagonnado?

While it is all to the good that fatherhood is getting more attention, I’m very concerned that the call to “get involved in your children’s lives” is so generic and out-of-touch with the difficult realities on the ground that it will end up as a joke.  “Just say no” for the war on fatherlessness.  The fact of the matter is that there are reasons that men are not involved in the lives of the children they father.  They run the gamut from the very selfish to the practical to the heart wrenching.

One of the more selfish reasons for fathers not being involved in the lives of their children is that they are simply not ready or willing to be fathers.  This sounds terrible (and largely is), but when we look at the difference between the options available to men vs women when it comes to unwanted/unplanned pregnancy, the truth is we’ve put men in a very difficult position.  In my experience many young men are reckless about getting a girl pregnant in part because they do not fully appreciate the lack of options they have if they do get someone pregnant.  After all, a woman can have an abortion or place a child for adoption.  Surely there’s some “out” for a man who isn’t ready or willing to be a father as well.  However, there is no “out” for a male.  He has no right to have any say in a woman’s decision to have an abortion or not.  He also cannot force the mother of his child to place the baby for adoption.  He cannot legally relinquish his rights and duties as a father.  Once he has played the game and lost, he is playing by a completely different set of rules than a woman is when it comes to an unwanted pregnancy.  For this reason, many young men feel that they have been unfairly forced to become fathers when they were unready or unwilling to do so.  Having had no say in the matter, they will often feel that it should be the responsibility of the decision maker (ie the mother) to care for the child which she wanted and he did not.  This is a young man who MIGHT be able to be encouraged to grow up and take responsibility for his child.  The hard reality of life is that we often find ourselves in positions which we never intended to be in.  Real men deal with that reality by doing the right thing, not by laying on the ground like an obstinate 2 year old and refusing to move.

However, even if you can convince a young man like this to grow up and do the right thing, this assumes that there is a mother in the picture who is just dying to get her child’s father involved.  Reality is that while we’re putting all the pressure on the father’s to be involved in their children’s lives, mothers can be a huge obstacle to a father’s involvement.  Relationships which produce uninvolved fathers are volatile and unstable pretty much by definition.  Many women in these relationships are very upset with the father of their child for something.  Perhaps he cheated, didn’t show up in the delivery room, started dating someone else, doesn’t make enough money – whatever.  The bottom line is that there are a lot of mothers who use their children as weapons against their ex.  They may be extremely unpleasant, confrontational, demeaning or uncooperative towards the father when he does try to get involved.  Or they may simply not allow him to come around at all.  In many places a woman, even if she is receiving child support from the father of her child, can simply take the child and move without informing the father where she is going.

Most young men who get a woman pregnant outside of marriage do not have the interpersonal skills necessary to deal with a woman who is hell bent on being difficult.  Nor do they have the resources to hire a lawyer to secure his rights as a father to be involved in his child’s life.  Add in low motivation to do so as the result of feeling like you’ve been unfairly trapped into being a father and there’s a high likely hood that a man in this position just isn’t going to stick around.  It seems to me that there needs to be a stronger message sent to mothers that they have an obligation to put their own feelings aside and make room for dad.  Some states have also taken the important step of combining the issues of child support and visitation.  They offer mediation for parents in conflict and do not allow parents to move without notifying and getting some agreement from the other parent.  Unfortunately, these states are very much the exception.  Usually child support is handled by the government and a young man must take what is left of his earnings after paying child support, hire a lawyer himself and pay to go through the process of securing visitation rights.  If the mother does not cooperate, he must then pay more money to go to court and try to get her held in contempt.  She gets more chances, he spends more time and money.  On and on.  How many men who never intended to be fathers anyways are going to be willing to go through this even if they had the money to do so (and most do not have the money anyways)?

Even when the mother is quite happy to have her child’s father involved and the father is willing, getting a father involved in the life of a child he has had outside of marriage can still be difficult.  Raising kids is hard.  We’re now a couple of generations into men who have been raised without fathers.  A lot of young men want to be involved, but honestly have no idea how to go about doing that.  They can become easily frustrated, feel helpless at their inability to fix their child’s problems or resentful at the lack of appreciation they receive for trying to be a good dad.  Men raised without fathers often struggle with impulse control, immaturity, lack of self-discipline and poor problem solving skills.  All of these things are needed to parent under the best of circumstances.  A young man dealing with any of these problems while trying to parent under difficult circumstances is going to have a very hard time sticking it out without serious support and mentoring from others.

Even if the father is able to cope with the difficulties inherent in raising kids in difficult circumstances, there is still the ongoing relationship with the child’s mother to deal with.  They may have very different ideas about how children should be raised, how money should be spent on the child, the child’s education, child care, etc.  Married couples commonly struggle with these things.  However, without the glue of a marriage commitment to hold them together, it is exceedingly difficult for a couple to navigate these disagreements.  It is all to easy for the noncustodial parent (almost always the father) to come to feel marginalized.  If his desires are routinely dismissed or ignored, he may come to see his role as pocketbook and babysitter.  This can happen in marriages as well, but again, without the glue of a marriage bond, this dynamic can be particularly destructive.

Again, it is great that we are starting to pay more attention to fatherhood.  However, when one looks at the sort of problems I outline above, it is hard to see how simply encouraging fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children is going to do much good.  The problems are simply too deep and complex for that sort of rhetoric to have much effect.  I think that in order for us to make headway in these issues, there are several steps which we need to take seriously.

First, we need to make a serious investment in marriages.  It is my opinion that churches, religious groups, and civics organizations need to take real steps to encourage and support marriage – particularly among poorer minority youth.  I think that every church should have a program in place to provide counseling, financial support and mentoring to young people who get married.  Encouraging marriage should be the standard advice given to young people facing an unplanned pregnancy.  Every couple getting married should be provided with a mentor couple who they can talk to and get advice from when things are hard.  They should have easy access to counseling to learn conflict resolution and get help for the wounds they are bringing into the marriage.  And there needs to be real financial support so the couple can find a safe apartment to live in, get some decent hand-me-down furniture, help with car repairs and other problems which can derail a family’s long-term financial well being.  Well-to-do suburban churches can provide money and know-how for the churches operating in lower income areas.  Up until now, churches have talked about marriage as the foundation of society and such, but very few have been willing to step up to the plate with practical support for marriages.  We can’t afford not to start putting our time and resources where our mouth is.

It is also my opinion that courses in human development (ie child development) ought to be part of school curriculums.  We need to get the message out that children need mom and dad, in a committed marriage, in order to have a decent chance of doing well in life.  There is also a lot of stress caused by parents who have unrealistic expectations of what is normal for their children.  It can take a lot of pressure off parents if they know that bedwetting is normal, that teaching is more productive than hitting, that boundaries are healthy, that babies need to be talked to, etc.  If parents are not stressed or in conflict about very basic child rearing issues, they are less likely to turn on each other.

We need courts to take matters of visitation as seriously as they do child support.  There need to be some obligations for the parent receiving child support to account for how the money is spent, for cooperating with visitation and for working cooperatively with the noncustodial parent in raising the child.  Up until now, our government has sent the very clear message that noncustodial parents are only important for the money they provide.  This is a terrible message to send to unmarried parents on both sides.  And it creates a lot of acrimony which benefits no one.  Having both parents involved is as important as providing financial care.  If the government is going to be involved in handling one, it needs to provide attention to the other as well.  I would also like to see services and incentives provided to couples who are in the child support system and subsequently get married.  Having dad involved in the life of his child through visitation and such is better than nothing, but is no where near as good as having him married to his child’s mother.

Of course, none of this would be the issue it is if sex hadn’t been so radically disconnected from marriage.  We need to do a better job of offering our kids a better understanding of the role sex plays in their lives.  We need to be real with them about the benefits, responsibilities and problems.  And we need to look seriously at the reasons why so many people are having sex outside of marriage and engage those issues.  For example, a lot of girls feel pressured to have sex because they know that most guys won’t date her, much less marry her if she doesn’t “put out”.  It’s so easy for him to get it somewhere else, he has little motivation to date her if she won’t have sex with him.  We need to get our girls together and talk with them about how if they were all willing to wait, be more selective and more demanding of the young men around them, they would make life better for themselves and for other young women.  Abstinance can be not only an act of self-protection, but of female solidarity.  We need to get our guys together and tell them that one of the essential components of being a man is self-mastery.  If they can master themselves well enough to refrain from sexual activity before they are in a position to deal with the consequences they will be able to accomplish what ever they set out to do in life.  If they have to learn to relate to the young women they want to date in real ways rather than just physically, they will be able to find happiness in their relationships with women rather than the misery which typifies many men’s experiences of relationships today.  But we have to stop giving them messages about sex based on what we think rather than on what they are actually dealing with.  Neither the liberal or the conservative approach works in helping kids develop healthier sex lives because neither is speaking to the real issues at play.  Until we are willing to start looking realistically at the reasons kids are having sex and addressing those reasons specifically, we’re going to continue to see a lot of out-of-wedlock births and all of the problems that creates.

Fatherhood is an extremely important issues.  I’d just hate to see it turn into one more piece of rhetoric for politicians and critics to mouth off about without ever making anything better.

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