National Public Radio Gets It on Absent Dads

July 13, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The news media get so much wrong about fathers, families and children, it’s always nice when they get it right as National Public Radio did here (NPR, 7/8/14). Now, there are certainly some things amiss with the article, but, on par, it’s a pretty fair piece of work.

Nominally, it’s about a program in Ohio to connect fathers, particularly unmarried ones, with their children. Of course, we’ve seen such articles in the past, and they tend to run to form. So do the programs they deal with. The usual theme goes something like this: “Fathers are important to children. Please pat us on the back for mentioning the fact. Fathers need to be more responsible and take part in raising their kids. Here’s a program to attempt to do that.”

All of that is fine as far as it goes, which is not very. What those articles invariably lack is any sense – and any information – about the many obstacles our laws and customs place between fathers and their kids. So, they seldom mention family courts that remove fathers from children’s lives via custody orders and then refuse to enforce even the meager visitation they give dads. Gone from those articles is any mention of paternity fraud, draconian child support laws, adoption laws whose sole aim is to cut fathers out of the process of transferring his child to strangers, child protection agencies that prefer foster care to father care, maternal gatekeeping, pop culture that routinely depicts dads as incompetent, boorish and violent, etc.

The irony is palpable. Those articles upbraid fathers for their supposed irresponsibility, but are themselves too irresponsible to notice any of the many ways we prevent even the best dad from caring for his child.

To its great credit, the NPR piece is not like that. Indeed, it actually gets to the heart of the matter. It makes that rarest of efforts – to view fathers as people.

“None of my friends are married,” says 26-year-old Brittiny Spears, who lives with her 4-year-old daughter in a cramped public housing project in Mansfield, Ohio. Spears laments that her daughter barely knows her father but says she had good reason to turn down his marriage proposal. For one, she wasn’t “die-hard in love” with him. For another, she says the man had no job or ambition, even after they became parents.

“He just still wanted to go out and party and be a little boy,” she says. “I already had one kid to take care of. I didn’t want to take care of a grown kid, too.”

That’s straight out of the “single dads are irresponsible” playbook. But NPR doesn’t leave it at that.

A long list of research has explained such choices by citing the depressed wages and dwindling prospects of lesser-educated men in today’s globalized economy. But [Community Action Commission program manager Jennifer] Jennette feels strongly that family — or at the least more supportive, stable relationships even if couples aren’t together — can be life changing. And she worries that a generation raised without two parents at home doesn’t know how to create that.

Comes the dawn! Yes, men who weren’t raised with fathers don’t tend to make very good fathers themselves. As boys, they might not have set eyes on a responsible man until perhaps a coach in high school, by which time it’s generally too late. Read Harvard’s Kathryn Edin on the process by which a single man fathers a child, but the mother gradually removes him from the child’s life and any responsibility for it via an ever-longer line of boyfriends. Those men don’t want the dad around, the dad doesn’t have the money to assert his parental rights and father and child lose contact. Then the child grows up and repeats the only pattern he’s ever seen, both in his own life and in his friends’.

Jennette is right; family can be life changing, but it has to be given the chance. How many of those single fathers had the opportunity to be around when the mothers of their children were pregnant. How many were allowed to be with their newborn and establish the hormonal connection that all parents need? How many were shoved out of little Andy or Jenny’s life before the child could form the vital attachment to them children need?

The simple fact is that, all too often, those necessary things are denied fathers and, because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn the value of a father to a child, those men check out. Why wouldn’t they? We do them and ourselves no favors by pretending that the only answer to that multifaceted riddle is that fathers should suck it up and be responsible. We prefer to view men in the vacuum of their own agency – free actors with the strength to do whatever they choose. Our failure to see them in the context of their own lives, their own upbringings, their own societies and subcultures is (a) profoundly wrong, both factually and morally and (b) self-defeating. If we really want to correct the scourge of fatherlessness, we’ll put aside our fantasies of paternal irresponsibility and meet these men where they live. Jennifer Jennette gets that.

So she’s working on mothers to get them to see their own roles in fatherlessness. Imagine that! Here’s a woman who understands that mothers may play a part in marginalizing fathers. And here’s NPR giving her a voice!

“Now the shift and the focus has turned more to helping people learn a new way of thinking,” Jennette says. “For that person to look inside themselves as to why their behavior might be the way it is based on how they were raised, and how therefore they can change their mindset to change their behavior.”…

“I was always a finger-pointer. ‘You did this, you didn’t do that,’ ” says Melissa Stutzman, a divorced mother of three. “And now I’m starting to think well, maybe I had some things to do with it … and maybe I’ve got to work on me first and worry about him less.”

Although it gives the matter short shrift, the NPR piece actually grapples a bit with the notion that the family court system has something to do with fatherlessness.

One theme at the [Commission of Fatherhood] meeting: Men are not always the bad guys they’re made out to be. Ohio law is considered “mother friendly”; child custody automatically goes to the mother if a couple is unmarried, to the great frustration of parent Eric Viall. He says his 8-month-old daughter’s mother is a drug addict, and he saved up for five months to hire a lawyer and sue for custody.

“They’ll get you for child support in a second,” Viall says, “even though you’re unmarried. So we have to pay for children that nobody cares if we see or not. Nobody cares if we’re a father, as long as we give them a check.”

But the best aspect of the article is its grasp of the fact that the problem of fatherlessness extends into all areas of American life. The fingerprints of fatherlessness can be found on issues as diverse as poverty, crime and incarceration, poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, depression and mental illness, teen pregnancy, suicide and difficulty forming romantic attachments. Amazingly, time and again, we see governmental agencies and the mainstream media pretending that, in some way, all those issues and countless others, exist in a vacuum. So we attempt to treat the symptoms of the problem instead of one of its primary causes – absent fathers. Correct that one thing – fatherlessness – and we go a long way toward correcting a host of social ills that plagues us in innumerable ways and drains public revenue.

“You cannot think about fatherhood in a vacuum,” says Renee Thompson of Ohio State University, Mansfield, who’s helping lead the countywide outreach to fathers. She says you can link the lack of fathers at home to a whole host of problems that cost taxpayers money, from mass incarceration to poor job skills and unemployment.

“By seeing men more engaged in the lives of children, we’re hoping to see a decrease in delinquency,” Thompson says. “We’re hoping that some character things will start to be instilled: responsibility, accountability, just helping young people understand this is what it means to grow up.”

Of course we’ve known all this for decades, at least since Daniel Patrick Mohnahan spoke out about it in the 1960s, a fact the NPR piece mentions. It’s beyond belief that we’ve come this far down the road he warned about. It’s astonishing that it’s taken us this long to admit what we knew to be true back then.

But better late than never.

Thanks to Don for the heads-up.


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