More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t “flee”

This morning I posted about “reasons to pause before judging other parents.”  Within ten minutes two readers had replied with thoughtful, sharply worded critiques of my argument.  In both cases they said that it seemed like I was countenancing bad behavior among low-income men, either by ignoring the plain facts that many low-income fathers are uninvolved with their children, or by excusing their behavior as the result of “circumstances” beyond their control.

Just now I was lying down to nap with Jay but I couldn’t fall asleep.  I was nagged by the thought that I’d been sloppy in acquitting my argument.  So once Jay fell asleep I tiptoed out of the guest room and back upstairs to my computer with two thoughts in mind.

First, I want to share more evidence from Kathryn Edin’s research which explains the context in which nonmarital relationships fall apart and men fade from the picture in the years after a baby is born.

Edin begins with the generous assumptions that most couples want to make things work and most men want to be good fathers.  Why does she assume this?  Because that’s what they consistently say in interview reports and, after cross-referencing interview responses, she thinks it’s reasonable to take them at their words.  So for her, the puzzle goes like this: Men and women who’ve just had a baby together want to make their relationship work and the men want to be involved fathers, but in the overwhelming majority of cases neither of those things ends up happening. So what goes wrong?

She cites three factors that lead relationships to fail and/or prevent couples from marrying:

  1. Norms about the standard of living required for marriage.  Edin reports that low-income couples believe that they need to be financially stable before they can get married.  Their definition of financial stability hues closely to what other sociologists have referred to as the middle-class ideal- an ability to afford a house with a garage, two cars, and savings in the bank.  Without this degree of financial stability low-income couples tend to believe that the stress of making ends meet is going to take a terminal toll on their marriages which seems like a reasonable, pragmatic way to look at things.
  2. Relationship quality.  Edin writes that most nonmarital births occur “in the context of relationships of perilously low quality.”  The low-income men and women who have nonmarital births tend to be in relationships that are beset by infidelity and domestic violence, and take place in the context of crime, drugs, and failed educations.  Right after a couple has had a child they tend to say they want to make their relationship work, but  in most cases these are relationships that should be dissolved.
  3. Fear of divorce.  This, I think, is one of Edin’s most interesting findings and deserves more airtime than it gets.  Over and over again she hears low-income couples say they refrain from marrying because they believe that marriage is “holy” and they don’t want to end up divorced.  She writes that among the women she interviewed, “the stigma of a failed marriage was far worse than that of an out-of-wedlock birth…In one memorable interview, a mother quipped, ‘I don’t believe in divorce.  That’s why none of the women in my family are married.’”

So those are some of the reasons why low-income couples who have a nonmarital birth don’t end up staying together.  Now what about why low-income fathers don’t end up staying as involved in their kids’ lives as they say they want to?

Well, one of the biggest reasons is what sociologists call the “package deal” theory- that fathers’ relationships with their kids are mediated by their relationships with their kids’ mothers.  No relationship with the mother, no relationship with the kids.

Edin accepts the “package deal” hypothesis, but not completely.  She argues that even after relationships end, fathers continue to be involved with their kids at surprisingly high rates.  This is particularly true among African-Americans, and Edin hypothesizes that, given the very high rates of out-of-wedlock births in their community, African-Americans have been forced to develop cultural norms which facilitate continued paternal involvement even after the dissolution of fathers’ relationships with their babies’ mothers.

Edin says there are several factors which precipitate decreased paternal involvement after a child’s parents break-up.  The main ones are the establishment of new relationships- when either the father or the mother begins a new family with a new partner.  Surprisingly,  she finds this effect is stronger when mothers start new relationships than when fathers start new relationships.  She writes, “This gendered pattern suggests a willingness on the part of the father to remain involved regardless of his other familial commitments, but less willingness on the part of the mother to facilitate that involvement once she establishes a new family.”

One of the readers who responded to my original post took particular issue with this  argument.  She felt that the ethnographic portrait which I shared essentially suggested that the mother (Gloria) was the reason that the father (Apple) ended up abandoning his kids.

It’s important to note, though, that Edin’s framework of analysis eschews this kind of finger pointing.  She would argue that it makes sense for women like Gloria to push men like Apple out of the picture once they find new partners.  In most cases their new partners are more stable than their old partners, and having the old partners around (even if it’s just to see their kids) threatens to destabilize these new relationships through the creation of jealousy, etc.  In her view, all the actors are trying to make rational choices (good choices) within a context that both limits their range of choices and forces them to make those choices in response to suboptimal incentives (as in, women have an incentive to keep their kids’ fathers away in order to preserve their new relationships).

The second thought I snuck out of naptime with has to do with the relationship between understanding behavior and holding people accountable for their actions.  To talk in overly general terms, conservatives tend to have no patience for work like Edin’s that “contextualizes” behavior.  They see contextualization as just the first step towards excuse-making.  In their view, the only way to get good outcomes is to have high standards and to hold people accountable for their own bad choices.  Liberals, on the other hand, think that context matters and that even good people make bad choices when the wrong supports/incentives/social forces are in place.

And in this, I think both sides have a claim.  I agree with the conservatives that you can’t get anywhere without accountability.  On an individual level you have to assume that people are capable of making good choices and you have to hold them accountable when they don’t.

But at the same time, if you want to fix something you need to know why it’s broken.  The point of my original post was that when it comes to the breakdown of low-income families, simplistic explanations like “the men don’t care about their kids” fly in the face of both intuition (as I said initially, it’s a good bet to assume that all parents love their kids) and the evidence once you actually start talking to parents as Edin has done.

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Reasons to pause when judging other parents

Reasons to pause when judging other parents

A few months ago my sister came to visit with her then 8-month-old son Peter.  It was our first time spending an extended amount of time together as parents and over the course of the weekend it became clear that we approach the job differently.

Most of the differences were trivial.  The first night at dinner she fed Peter pureed vegetables and a spread of those specially formulated air-puffed snacks that Gerber sells just for babies.  I’d always thought those snacks were a little fussy—just one more way that marketers have wedged themselves into our lives—and I was surprised that my sister, who I consider to have good judgment and values broadly in-line with my own, had fallen for them.

Overall my sister is more active and deliberate as a parent while I am more inclined to let things play out as they will, and we both probably think the other goes too far in the wrong direction.  She gives Peter a bath every night.  We give Jay and Wally baths, well…less often than that.  She (like Caroline) was a little shocked that I let Jay wander so far out into the driveway without keeping a closer eye on him.  I was annoyed when, after one of Wally’s exploding poops dirtied the bouncy seat, she wouldn’t let Peter sit in that seat again until I put its cover in the wash.

So, little things like that, which in the context of a close sibling relationship can seem bigger than they are.

It’s no secret, of course, that parenting inspires all sorts of heated arguments and it makes sense that it should, given how high the stakes are for each of us individually and for society as a whole.

Still, it never feels good to sit in judgment of another person (or at least it doesn’t feel good for long).  So, when I find myself persistently judging someone else’s parenting I try to remind myself of the one thing I am more sure of than any other conclusions I might draw about why other people do what they do: just about all parents love their kids more than they love anything else in the world.  This reminder doesn’t obviate the need to have serious discussions about how best to raise kids—but it does soften the tone in which those discussions take place.

Which brings to me to one of the most routinely criticized groups of parents out there: Fathers who aren’t very involved in their kids’ lives.

They’ve been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the release of data showing that more than half of all babies born to women under-30 are born out of wedlock, and to the storm generated by Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which details the widening cultural gap between upper- and lower-class white Americans.

They’ve also been a preferred punching bag of the Republican Party for decades.  Typical of the anger they inspire is this excerpt from The Broken Hearth, written by the prominent moralist William Bennett: “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee…Abandoning alike those who they have taken as sexual partners, and whose lives they have created, they…traduce generations yet to come, and disgrace their very manhood.”

There are a lot of assumptions operating in Bennett’s full-throated denunciation.  The first one I noticed is that he doesn’t seem to agree with what I said above, that all parents love their children.  He replaces that assumption with the specter of the hit-and-run man who loses interest in his partner and in the downstream consequences of his actions as soon as he rolls over in bed.  This is certainly a frightening idea but it doesn’t square with experience: How many men have you ever met who can muster complete disregard for their own children?  I personally have never met any and that, combined with the fact that I don’t know any of the men that Bennett purports to judge (just as I imagine he doesn’t personally know any of them, either) makes me hesitate to think that I understand their situations completely.

The second assumption in Bennett’s denunciation is the idea that unmarried fathers “flee.”  I’m currently working on a story about Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin who studies family formation patterns in low-income communities.  Her current work focuses on children born to unmarried couples.  She finds that fathers in these situations are much more involved than stereotype would have it.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority (83%) of out of wedlock pregnancies occur to couples who are in a relationship at the time of conception, and that half of those couples are living together at the time the child is born.  This certainly belies the notion that all or even most out-of-wedlock births are the product of callous sexuality.

Furthermore, 80% of low-income mothers who have nonmarital births report that their child’s father was supportive throughout their pregnancies and 60% of the relationships that produce a nonmarital birth are still intact by the time of the child’s first birthday.  Again, this runs counter to the stereotype that unmarried low-income men “flee” their families the first chance they get.

But it is true that over time fathers in these circumstances do become less involved with their kids.  Edin finds that 60% of the relationships that produced the nonmarital birth have ended by the child’s 5th birthday—and that only a quarter of those fathers still continue to see their children “several times a week” once they no longer live with their kids at home.

There is no doubt that the current state of marriage and childbearing among low-income Americans is not good.  It’s not good for us as a country and it’s not what low-income Americans, who overwhelmingly report that they aspire to get married and to build nuclear families, want for themselves.

So what do we do about this?  I don’t know.  But I do know that the conversation goes very differently depending on the assumptions you make at the outset.  On the one hand, if you assume that the men involved have no interest in actually being fathers there’s not much you can do besides scream at them (or ignore them).  On the other hand, if you assume that their basics aspirations and values are not categorically different than your own- that they love their children just like I love mine and you love yours- then that at least gives you a place to start.

And with that, I want to share a powerful story from one of Edin’s research projects.  It’s a portrait of a poor, African-American man who had children outside of marriage.  It upended the simple narratives I tell myself about why people in his position do what they do.

Apple’s Story, from Claiming Fatherhood by Kathryn Edin, et al.

Apple, a twenty-six-year-old African American father, was proud that he was “in love and everything” with Gloria, the mother of his three children (ages eleven, nine, and five), during the eight and a half years the two were together.  At first, they saw each other only casually, but within eight months she was pregnant with his daughter Vanessa. Apple, who had to repeat both seventh and eighth grade, had dropped out of school by this point and worked full-time as a drug dealer, but stopped two months shy of Vanessa’s birth. His determination to “go straight” was solidified when the baby was born, and as there was an out- standing warrant for his arrest, he decided that the right thing to do was to turn himself in. He and Gloria fought violently over this decision, which she saw as a desertion, and the altercation landed him in the emergency room from a knife wound in the cheek.

When Apple returned home after serving his sentence in a juvenile facility, he moved with Gloria and Vanessa, now nine months old, into a North Philadelphia row house that Gloria inherited from her grandmother. Everything was “lovey dovey” for a brief period of time—long enough for the conception and birth of a second child. During this time Apple worked twelve-hour days as a sandwich maker at a convenience store. During a store robbery he was injured with a gun- shot wound and, because he had no insurance, was left with a large debt to the hospital. There was also some trouble in the relationship—Gloria admitted that she had been seeing another man and was pregnant by him, though she termi- nated the pregnancy—but she also soon conceived a third child by Apple.

Around the time this third child was born, Gloria became a Muslim and prohibited any drinking in the couple’s home. Things went well for a while, but a fourth child was then born that looked nothing like Apple. For a while, Apple convinced himself that he was the child’s father, but then Apple was caught failing to comply with the drinking prohibition. Another violent fight ensued and Gloria revealed the truth: Apple was not the fourth baby’s father. During this fight, a broken bottle used as a weapon caused serious wounds to his hands and arms that landed him in the emergency room again. Several weeks later, the two had yet another altercation on a trip to the Jersey shore with the kids in Gloria’s car. This time, Gloria called the police and accused Apple of carjacking. Apple’s bail was set at $35,000, and since he did not know anyone with enough money to pay a bail bondsman, he spent two weeks in jail before the charges were dropped.

Because of these two weeks in jail, Apple lost both jobs. Desperate for money, he decided to sell marijuana and was caught and incarcerated briefly, as this was his first adult conviction. Meanwhile, Gloria abruptly married a fellow Muslim, which devastated Apple, who still insists that Gloria was his “first love.” Upon his release, Apple moved in with his mother and began searching for work, finally securing a full-time job making sandwiches at a hoagie shop. He also found a new girlfriend, Jennifer, who had a job and her own apartment nearby. Apple moved in with Jennifer, and fourteen months later they conceived a child, who was born with a heart condition that qualified her for a disability payment of just over $1,000 a month. Jennifer quit her job to take care of the child full-time. With the $200 or more Apple cleared each week from the job plus the disability benefits, the two could cover their living expenses.

Meanwhile, Gloria, who left her husband and began to collect welfare, named Apple as the father of the oldest three children. Given Gloria’s history, his family suggested that he demand a blood test, but Apple decided against it. “I just never wanted to get the blood work just in case one of the [children wasn’t mine]. I would not have felt good about that. Then depression would have set in. So I guess I waived my rights.” Meanwhile, once Apple became involved with Jennifer, any direct contact between Gloria and Apple seemed to result in violent fighting. “I wish I could see all four, you know. I pray . . . we can work it out.  But [Gloria], she just talk vicious to me like, threatens me.” Thus, he visits his children only rarely, though his daughter, the oldest, calls him daily. In fact, the last time he saw them was at a Father’s Day barbecue Gloria threw three months prior, a party to which Jennifer and the baby, Jade, were not invited.

Apple could barely contain his joy over life with his baby daughter. He felt his relationship with Jennifer, who was staying home full time with the baby, was “airtight,” and he gloried in his relationship with Jade, the eight-month-old.  Despite his troubles with Gloria, Apple said, “I am glad I had four children, regardless [of whether] I’m with their mother or whatever. I’m not a rich daddy or the best daddy, but I’m still entitled, still have four children.”

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More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t flee