A new book by married-couple social scholars Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson compiles the stories of more than 100 low-income fathers in Philadelphia and Camden—and suggests some intriguing new perspectives.
Kervan, a black 21-year old who had been working construction but has just finished bartending school, says that without his kid, “I’d probably be in jail.” Quick, who is black, 24, and a student at the Community College of Philadelphia, says, “I’d be dead, because of the simple fact that it wasn’t until Brianna was born that I actually started to chill out.” Apple, a black 27-year-old who washes dishes six days a week at a hoagie shop on South Street, says, “I guess after I got caught up in the bad life, as far as jail, the kids helped me keep my head up, look forward. I got something to live for. Kids give you something to live for.” Lee, who was just laid off from an optical lab and is currently working odd jobs to get by, is an African-American 42-year-old father. He says, “Without the kids, I’d probably be a dog. I hope not with AIDS.” Thirty-seven-year-old Seven, an on-and-off house painter, tells us, “I couldn’t imagine being without them because when I am spending time with my kids it is like, now that is love. That is unconditional love. It is like a drug that you got to have.”
For these men the imagined alternative to becoming a dad is not a college degree or a job as a CPA, it is incarceration, death, rehab, “the bad life,” “a dog with AIDS.” Kids, on the other hand, are something to live for, to fight for, “a drug that you got to have.”
Self is a 21-year-old African American who is certified as a home health aide but can only get part-time work at a nightclub. He recalls, “What influenced me to have children was that I felt alone. It’s a good feeling to always know that I have somebody to relate to. Somebody that’s going to look up to me, to learn from me and things like that.”
White metal finisher and part-time construction worker Alex, 22, says that without his children, “I would be out getting high because I would not have anything. I would have my girlfriend but my baby is the most important thing in my life right now.” Will is white, 24 and works part-time as a mechanic, and teaches boxing on the side at the Joe Frazier gym. He says, “I think I’d probably be in jail. My little brother is in jail, and I figure without kids, whatever he was doing I’m sure I would have been doing it with him.” A white building superintendent and jack-of-all-trades, Bill, 38, says, “I’d still be out there. I’d still be fucking off, drugs and all. I think about my kids and there’s just this hope I have now of getting a good relationship with them.”
We ask Lacey, a black 42-year-old who works as a cook in a restaurant in North Philadelphia, “How did you see your future before you became a father?” “I didn’t have no future,” he replies. “I didn’t care. I lived for the moment.” We ask, “Did you think you would live to see 42?” “No. Nobody did,” he admits, and then adds, “Nobody expected me to be there to see 17.” Lacey now lives with his fiancée and daughter and the nine-year-old child whom he gained custody of a year ago. He gets up at 5 a.m. to ensure he’s on time for his 7 a.m. shift, works 40 hours a week, never touches anything stronger than beer, and spends most of his leisure time with family—visiting with his 18-year-old daughter and her kids, offering advice to his 17-year-old son, or spending time with his fiancée and the two little girls who live in his household. “I spend as much time as I can with my family,” he says with satisfaction.
His life wasn’t always this way, though. The two oldest children— only nine months apart—were conceived on the heels of his release from prison at 23, after his murder conviction was overturned on a technicality. Both women lived on his mother’s block, and “it was back and forth. I’d mess with her for a minute. I’d go mess with the other one for a minute. Once one got my nerves, I went with the other.” In both cases, Lacey says, he was “just not thinking” when conception occurred. By 24 he was incarcerated again for robbery. He began seeing the mother of his nine-year-old while in prison, where, somehow, she got pregnant; Lacey wasn’t released until the child was five. Lacey treasures all his kids, but especially the youngest, because she offers him the opportunity to watch one of his children grow up. When asked what his life would be like if he didn’t have children, he says, “I can’t imagine that one. I really can’t. I can’t imagine it. ’Cause my life without them, it would be empty. It would be empty. That’s what kept me going in prison, knowing that I had to come out and be there for them.”
For young men who haven’t yet had a chance to make many mistakes, a child—so pure and innocent—is a symbol, almost a magic wand that has the power to vanquish the oppressive sense of negativity that quite literally surrounds those who come of age amid frequent violence in the inner-urban core… The neighborhood context throws the decision of how to respond into sharp relief: Against these often lurid backdrops, embracing new life offers young men a chance to participate in something viewed as utterly good.
Those who have lost their way in these environments may especially welcome the chance to turn their lives around. They may look at their past and regret “rippin’ and runnin’” with the wrong crowd, dropping out of school, getting caught up in dealing or using “substances,” or having sexual liaisons on the side. Some can clearly see how they failed their other children. But with each new pregnancy, there is a possible child who exists only as pure potential, and this is where men’s optimism shines. Being a father to this baby is a saintly calling in an evil and chaotic world, and a relationship he hasn’t screwed up yet. Who wouldn’t be excited by such an opportunity?
How does this turn out in the long run? Unfortunately, not so well for most of these fathers. The story we tell in Doing the Best I Can is much like a Greek tragedy in which the fatal flaws that bring about the hero’s demise—both as a partner and father—are evident from the beginning.
Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson (University of California Press), is available now in both hardcover and ebook. The authors are scheduled to appear on WHYY’s Radio Times this Friday.
* Names have been changed to preserve the privacy of subjects in this selected excerpt from Doing the Best I Can.