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.”

Related content from Growing Sideways

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


8 thoughts on “Reasons to pause when judging other parents

  1. I’m really not sure what you’re getting at here, Kevin. I realize that this is a blog and not a magazine article, but the structure of your post basically goes as follows: 1. Some parents disagree on what it means to be a good parent. 2. There are allegations that lower income fathers abandon their children. 3. All of your friends love their kids and would never abandon them. 4. Here’s a lower income dad whose ex-girlfriend is the real reason he doesn’t see his children.

    Do you see the pattern here? You’re basically implying that in cases where dads do abandon their kids (which, let’s face it, happens a lot today and has happened a lot historically), it’s not a surefire sign that they are bad parents (?!) *and* it might be the fault of the children’s mother. How is this possibly a good statement to make?

    Again, I know that the blogging format allows one to get away with a lot more than a published essay, but I was honestly a bit shocked by the thin arguments in this post. Family politics is difficult and mysterious, even to academically trained anthropologists. I would personally steer clear of trying to offer any kind of defense for the members of America’s thousands of broken families. Each case is different. You can certainly argue, for example, that though Apple has some level of emotional involvement with his kids, if he’d been a good father, he would not have made so many pregnancies happen without proper planning for the kids’ futures. So, in essence, I’m not sure what your thesis is here.

    • Hi Ana- I agree with you that the structure of the piece was more free association than argument, and that as a result it left some unintended implications hanging out there. I do think that Apple was a bad parent just like I think that any parent who walks away from a kid is a bad parent. What I was trying to say is that when a dad (or a mom) walks away from a kid it’s not necessarily because he’s not interested in being a father or doesn’t love his kid, which I think tends to be the assumption that people like Murray and Bennett make. And I think there’s a big difference between a parent who doesn’t care and a parent who’s not involved, even if their actions look the same at the surface.

      I also agree with you that the lede with my sister was clumsy and established the wrong expectations for the rest of the piece. All I was trying to say by retelling her story is that when thinking about how other people parent I think it’s a good idea to always begin with the most generous assumption: That they love their kids. (In my sister’s case that assumption led me to look at her parenting decisions as “just her way of doing things.” I did not mean, though, that I look at absentee fathers in that same relativistic light.)

      Last thing…I just reread Apple’s Story and I see what you mean, about it implying that Gloria is the real reason he’s not involved with his kids. That was not how I read it initially- to me the story demonstrated how all the circumstances of their lives (drug dealing, jail, physical violence, infidelity, poverty, poor family planning) made it very hard for both Apple and Gloria to put their lives together the way they wanted to. I realize that writing that makes me out to be a weak-kneed apologist for bad behavior. Usually I assume the opposite position- circumstances be damned, do the right thing- but as I was reading Edin’s work yesterday I was struck by the complexity of the factors that shaped the eventual dissolution of Apple’s relationship with his kids.

      All that said, thank you very much for taking the time to put the screws to my post. I agreed with a lot of what you said and I was glad to be spurred to clarify some of my points, which I hope I did.

  2. I have to say, Kevin, I don’t share as generous an interpretation of the world as you do. I frequently see both men and women who lack the emotional regulation and personal discipline to be good parents. They may love their kids, but this love seems different from the love that I have for my children. My love for my kids is the reason I work two jobs, restrict to a minimum my kids’ time in front of the TV, brush their teeth, read to them and tell them stories even when I am totally beat. In short, it is a love that is inseparable from a sense of responsibility to feed, clothe, shelter, guide and protect. It’s not always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it is a little bit miserable.

    My life and work experience suggest that a majority of parents from varied economic and cultural groups see parenting the way that I do, but not all of them. I feel like there is a pretty big minority whose love for their kids is more more theoretical or impotent, largely because these folks perceive many aspects of their own lives to be beyond their control. I recognize that I may form judgments without knowing the full context of their experience. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to identify with the parents of asthmatic kids who can’t be bothered to smoke outside, or those I hear cursing and threatening their kids through a closed door in the pediatric office. Some people resent their kids. Some people want to leave. Some go and really don’t look back. (I hear a lot of “I don’t know anything about family history on his/her father’s side…”) And a many people want to parent better, but lack rudimentary emotional, educational, and familial resources to do so. Of course, the challenge is figuring out how to support this final group…

    • Caroline and I spent our recently concluded dinner talking about the points you raised, Liz. So thanks for such a thoughtful contribution.

      I have a few thoughts in response, none of which are probably going to be surprising. They all kind of orbit the individual agency/force-of-culture debate.

      First, I think it’s incredibly, incredibly hard to be poor. And second, I think that lower class Americans, per Murray, do lead distinct cultural lives from middle class Americans. These two points together make me hesitant to judge.

      The other thing I’d say is that I dont think I deserve full-credit for all the things I do to promote my kids’ well-being. Like you, I read to them, feed them healthy food, limit their TV intake, etc. But the middle class culture I’m a part of makes it relatively easy to do those things, in the sense that it provides me with the resources to do them and the cultural norms to keep my behavior in line even when I’m beat and would rather just plop Jay down in front of YouTube. We feed Jay healthy food because that’s what we’re eating. It would actually take more effort to feed him junk. And I read to him every night in part because I have the time to do so, and in part because I feel significant pressure from my class culture to do so. So, I think my cultural position bolster and facilitates a great deal of the ‘good’ parenting decisions I make.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the fast response! It definitely clarifies your points. I think it’s really interesting, incidentally, that we read Apple’s story so differently. I immediately zeroed in on his emphasis that Gloria stands between him and his three older kids.

    I do really enjoy reading your blog, which is thoughtful and well-considered — which is why it often sparks follow-up questions. Keep it up! 🙂

  4. Kevin,
    Saying that culture is a product of economy is a bit demeaning of us lower class folks, I think. Just because I am a single mom with a bunch of kids, doesn’t mean that I don’t do my best. My kids eat good vegetarian food, bought with food stamps. They all learn how to cook, making cookies and eggs by the time they are first grade, and white sauce in high school. They can sew, and we go to Shakespeare in the park, art openings, the science museum, the pool, the park. Last summer I drove them to the ocean. I wanted to be the one to show them it. Yesterday, while my 7 year old was home sick, she asked me how to spell sphere. My teen can produce a tv show, is in a garage band, can play guitar, sing, won the city award for his metal sculpture, the only one out of two high schools, and is funny with a dry sardonic wit. His sister is in speech, she is in AP classes, and is intent on getting at least a year of college done in high school. My other kids can understand others with an empathy so sweet it makes a mama’s heart ache. One is done with college. One will go to kinder next year, and she is ready. Without Head Start to teach her colors, because she likes to paint and likes to go to the Russian Art Museum, the global market, and the farmer’s market. She can pack a jar for pickle canning. She likes to play Wii, and so joins the rest of the lower class with gaming habits. So does her sister, who at 10 likes rose windows and physiology, and is also empathetic like her 12 yo sister. They enjoy the Emily Windsnap series and Harry Potter.
    We made $28K last year, with income and child support. Yet we had no arrests, or side businesses, or whatever. Poverty is hard but not earth shattering. It doesn’t make us less of a parent or a person. It doesn’t make us less smart. It did not take away the feel of a child who fell asleep in your arms, or a good meal shared together, or the feeling that our tribe is bigger, somehow, than the sum of the members. We could watch the stars, and have a fire, and listen to the wind and the rain and the big band sounds of a free concert. We could lay in the sun. We could celebrate birthdays with a homemade almond cake, a chocolate cake with homemade toffee, with a rainbow layer cake.
    Don’t belittle the poor by telling low income people what we can’t do, or are not expected to do. To paraphrase the celebrated Dr. Seuss, whose birthday is this month, “A parent’s a parent, no matter how poor.” Let’s enjoy our families.
    I am a teacher at a daycare. I take care of other people’s kids, too. They frequently think I am “less important” than they are also, since they have a more important, to them, career. And yet the trust me with their child. Hmmm. Seen “the help”?

    • Hi Tracy,
      Thanks very much for taking the time to share such a rich portrait of your family’s life. Your children are very fortunate to be growing up in such a stimulating, caring environment. And I apologize that my comment came across as insulting. I certainly did not mean it that way. And your reply is a good reminder that, when talking about sociological trends, it’s important to be clear that we’re talking about averages, not any one individual’s behavior.

      All I was saying in my comment is that a lot of the types of outcomes we’ve been discussing in this thread (ie: i teen pregnancy, or dropping out of high school, or getting incarcerated, etc.) strike me as being caused by economic rather than cultural conditions. I certainly could be wrong about that- it is a very complicated issue- and I only meant to propose what to me seems like a reasonable explanation.

      Thank you again for reading my post and contributing to the discussion. I really appreciate it. And I’d love to hear from again.

  5. I’m just glad I’m not the only guy that has his ex’s come after him with knives and busted beer bottles. But dropping kids everywhere you light, selling dope and jacking cars is only right under very specific conditions. It’s not a general solution.

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