Families & the Community

Unmarried with Children: Fatherhood in the Inner City

By Holly Kurtz — June 13, 2014 7 min read
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With Father’s Day fast approaching, it seems worth noting that a significant proportion of children are not living with their biological fathers. Just over 40 percent of the children born in 2012 had unwed parents, according to U.S. Census data. Though half of unmarried parents are living together when their children are born, just over one-third remain with one another five years later, a proportion that is much smaller than the percentage of married parents who are still together within five years of their child’s birth (85 percent). Nearly one-third of American children live apart from their fathers.

These figures are reported in Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, a book by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, a lecturer and researcher at the same university. Published in 2013 by the University of California Press, it’s due out in paperback this summer.

Given the high average rate of unmarried parenthood, it would be wrong to say that the low-income fathers who are the focus of this ethnographic study are alone in abandoning marriage. But there’s a big difference between the marriage rates of higher and lower-income parents. Using education levels as a proxy for income, Edin and Nelson report that 6 percent of college-educated mothers’ births are outside marriage as compared to 60 percent of births to mothers who dropped out of high school. This represents an enormous change. According to a report by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, 95 percent of middle-age men in the top 10 percent of annual income were married in 1970, as compared to a relatively modest decline to 83 percent in 2011. But for middle-age men in the bottom quartile of earnings, 86 percent were married in 1970 as compared to half in 2011.

In their book, Edin and Nelson set out to explore why the low-income men who have been most affected by this change have increasingly chosen to father children outside of marriage. Their approach is impressively thorough. The researchers set up shop in a small apartment in East Camden, N.J., where nearly three-quarters of children are born to unmarried parents. This neighborhood and other areas nearby were their stomping grounds for the next seven years. “On street corners and front stoops, in front rooms and kitchens, at fast food restaurants, rec centers, and bars,” they observed, interviewed, and re-interviewed more than 200 low-income men, black and white, between the ages of 17 and 64. All had fathered at least one child outside of marriage. Combined, the men had fathered more than 200 children.

Like respondents to large-scale survey research, the vast majority of men who participated in the study were romantically involved with their children’s mothers at the time of their child’s birth. But when Edin and Nelson dug deeper, they found that these relationships were relatively new, often no more than a few months old. Most frequently, pregnancy was neither planned nor actively avoided: The couple was not ignorant of the birds and the bees. It was just that they had never seriously discussed contraception and/or the possibility of having children together. For the women who generally make the final call about whether to keep the baby, there was often little incentive to delay motherhood. In a 2005 study of single mothers, Edin and a co-author found that “young women in these environs see children as their chief source of meaning and identity, and other sources of esteem are in short supply.”

Despite the unplanned nature of the conception and the fact that the men often had limited economic prospects, the fathers typically greeted the pregnancy with joy. Only rarely did they try to deny paternity. They “ached” to play a positive role in what was too often a chaotic or negative environment. Fatherhood was their chance.

“For these men, the imagined alternative of becoming a dad is not a college degree or a job as a CPA, it is incarceration, death, rehab, ‘the bad life’ ...” Edin and Nelson write. “Kids, on the other hand, are something to live for, to fight for...”

Excited about the pregnancy and the possibility of redemption that children represent, the men make a go at the relationship as well.

“Shotgun marriage may have faded from the American scene, but the shotgun relationship is for real,” Edin and Nelson reflect.

Yet these relationships seldom work. For one thing, the couple does not know one another very well. For another, the fathers’ views of marriage are at once deeply cynical and loftily romantic. On the one hand, they believe “that most women, at their core, are heartless mercenaries who won’t continue to love if a man doesn’t continue to ‘do.’ ” On the other hand, they are seeking nothing less than a soul mate.

”..I am talking about that insane love,” one such father told the researchers. “The love to where you will do anything for this person. You will stand out in the rain until she stands at the window, until the lights go out. That’s how much you love this person. Just unconditional love to where there is nothing, nothing that you wouldn’t do for this person.”

Not surprisingly, nurturing the never-ending needs of a newborn does not necessarily foster the conditions for the cultivation of such insane love.

“The old-fashioned ‘package deal'—where the adult relationship takes priority and men’s relationships with the children comes second—has been flipped,” Edin and Nelson write. “The fact that it’s now mainly about the baby and the mother is seen principally as a conduit to the child is what is at the heart of the relationship’s fragility.”

Fairly quickly, most men return to their pre-fatherhood lives. Although they wanted the children and are required by law to support them financially, they typically contribute only a small portion of the true cost of raising a child. It’s not that they doubt that a father should be a good provider. It’s that “the definition of good provider is unexpectedly broad,” Edin and Nelson explain.

“First, in the terms used by one father, he must be ‘all man’ and provide for himself, not relying too much on his mother or his girlfriend,” Edin and Nelson write. “Second, he must mollify those in his current household by paying some of the bills...After settling these accounts, he can offer his nonresident children some portion of what remains. This sharply abridged sense of financial responsibility— ‘doing the best I can...with what is left over’ —is what drives both men’s sense of obligation and their financial behavior.”

Although society might judge them primarily based on how much money they provide for their children, the men who participated in Edin and Nelson’s study “vehemently reject the notion that they should be treated as mere paychecks.”

Instead, they emphasize the softer side of fatherhood. What they really want to offer their children is love, communication, and quality time. They want to be friends who serve as role models by sharing cautionary tales in the form of their own catalogs of past mistakes. Yet too often, these good intentions are never realized.

Rarely does a father lose interest in his child. More commonly, the barrier is shame. The father is incarcerated. Or maybe he is so broke that he can’t buy his kid an ice cream cone. Other times, the mother prohibits the father from seeing his child. Sometimes it’s for the baby’s own protection, (e.g. the father is drunk or violent). Other times it’s for her own reasons (for example, she may be mad at the father or her new boyfriend doesn’t like him coming around). If the child, understandably, acts standoffish after long absences, that, too, can push the father away.

"[G]iven the trauma of so many men’s childhoods and the tenuousness of their present circumstances, the strength to ‘rise above’ is sometimes simply lacking,” Edin and Nelson conclude.

Edin and Nelson’s findings confirm larger-scale, quantitative studies in that they indicate that black fathers are more likely than white fathers to be intensively involved with children conceived outside of marriage. But in the end, for black and white men alike, it often seems easier to start fresh with a new woman and a new baby than to repair past mistakes.

“While children usually remain with their mothers throughout childhood, men move from one household to another as relationships fail, then form,” the researchers write.

Edin and Nelson summarize past research that finds that, nationwide, 70 percent of young men who have fathered children outside of marriage manage to stay intensively involved with at least one of their offspring at any given time. It’s the result, they suggest, of “serial fatherhood.”

Yet children need their fathers’ love and support throughout their entire lives, not just in brief bursts. If this is to happen, Edin and Nelson suggest that nothing less than a “paradigm shift” must occur. They note that societal institutions such as the courts tend to emphasize unmarried fathers’ responsibilities without protecting their rights. Edin and Nelson propose that men might be more likely to fulfill their financial duties and even avoid serial single fatherhood, if their efforts to build relationships with their children were honored and guaranteed.

“How one might implement this approach is still unknown,” they write, “but in reading these pages, it is hard to conclude that continuing on America’s current path is the wisest course.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.