Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City
?by kathryn edin and ?timothy j. nelson?
california, 294 pages, $29.95

Our cultural consensus about lower-class single dads is bleak: They are on a road to perdition without the picturesque, thrilling detours that mobsters, jewel thieves, and rock stars take. Consider ­Timothy McSeed, the aptly named villain of the 1986 PBS special “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America.” In an interview that offended liberals and conservatives alike, the denizen of Newark, New Jersey, admitted to Bill Moyers that he had sired six children by four different women. Did he wear condoms? No, McSeed said, “girls don’t like them things.” Did he fear that pregnancy might result? Even if he did, he said, he was “not going to stop [his] pleasures.” Did he support his children financially? No. After one of his children was born, McSeed danced around the delivery room, fists in the air, shouting “I’m the king! I’m the king.”

Heedless, hedonistic, and insolvent, the “deadbeat dad” or “baby daddy” has been in the crosshairs of public policy for more than a generation. Laws that require non-custodial fathers to pay child support have been tightened; limits on receiving welfare payments have been set. Across the political spectrum, public intel­lectuals and political leaders heap scorn on them. In his 2001 book The Broken Hearth, former Education Secretary and Drug Czar Bill Bennett wrote that “it is these absent men, above all, who deserve our censure and disesteem.” President Obama has reminded these men that “what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”

But is the consensus right? Have lower-class single fathers changed, and if so, how? Two sociologists, Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, then at Harvard and now at Johns Hopkins University, set out to answer these questions a decade ago. The result of their work is Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, an absorbing, gritty, poignant book that should prompt a thorough reexamination of public attitudes and policy regarding lower-class single fathers.

The main strength of this book is in its ethnographic field work and in-depth interviewing. For seven years, Edin and Nelson, a wife-and-husband team, talked with and re-interviewed 110 black and white lower-class men in Camden and Philadelphia. Indeed, they moved into an inner-city neighborhood in Camden, where, like Elliot Liebow in the 1967 classic Tally’s Corner, they followed some of the subjects around on their errands and peregrinations. (The term “inner city” is slightly misleading: Although the men live in poor and working-class neighborhoods, they hold jobs—butcher, drug store clerk, nursing home aide—we think of as respectable.) The method suffers from selection bias, and Edin and Nelson admit that their subjects were more likely to be good fathers than those who declined to speak with them. Still, the profiles are illuminating, and while the authors don’t claim that they refute the notion that some baby daddies are deadbeat dads, the picture that emerges from their study is that for every fiend like McSeed, there might be one or two more well-intentioned but lost and hapless souls.

The men’s attitude toward the news of an unplanned pregnancy is a welcome if intricate surprise. True, some teenage fathers deny paternity, and most of them deny it if there is any doubt about the actual father. Yet most lower-class single dads rejoice in the news. “I never said I wasn’t responsible, that I had nothing to do with it,” Amin Jenkins, a thirty-one-year-old black Philadelphian, said, adding that he “really, really loved” his youngest, Antoinette. Jenkins recalls rubbing his girlfriend’s abdomen, talking with her, and spending time with her—a low bar, to be sure, but a lot better than absence.

This joyful attitude has consequences. According to the authors, “men rarely counsel their partners to have an abortion,” and “most men we spoke with believe abortion is wrong.” These men say their girlfriends had the ultimate power to abort, but they don’t adopt the pro-choice mindset that only planned pregnancies are worth continuing. They perceive the birth of a child as nothing less than a shot at redemption, a chance to set aright a life gone wrong, an opportunity for transcendence. “My son is my savior,” thirty-four-year-old Ritchie Weber says of his youngest. “No matter what I went through, the boy stuck by me. He never got mad at me, everything was always OK, and that is why today I can’t do enough for him.”

In general, the single man’s attitudes toward work and love are more ­inconsistent. When his girlfriend is with child and soon after the child is born, the single dad is a moral exemplar. In hopes of spending more time with his young charge and recognizing the demands of fatherhood, he suspends the “stupid shit” of criminality, drinking, whoring, and gambling. He might be working a “chicken shit” job, but it brings home a paycheck. But any future hope he might have of becoming Chris ­Gardner, the heroic single father of the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, ends when his relationship with the girlfriend sours. Then he becomes a cad. He gets a “piece on the side,” gets drunk or high, and participates in “multiple partner fertility”—that is, having multiple children with multiple women.

Men’s attitudes toward spending time with their offspring are also complicated. On one hand, the authors found, these single dads treasured being with their kids at some point. Maurice, a thirty-eight-year-old black father of three, spends his summer months with his youngest daughter on a quest to find “the perfect water ice,” a snow-cone-like treat popular in Philadelphia. On the other hand, the authors report, the dads were most likely to shower attention on the child in his or her first five years and withdraw it afterward. Maurice’s middle child refuses to stay over at his house or join him on outings, claiming that doing either is boring. He attributes her refusal to the many years he spent as a drug addict. Why should she reestablish a relationship if he might go away again?

The other strength of the book is its clear-eyed, sober judgments about these men. Based on the title of the book, a reader might assume that the authors validate or excuse their subjects, as the late William Ryan, the Boston College sociologist who coined the phrase “blaming the victim,” did in response to the famous Moynihan report on the black family in 1965. Instead, Edin and Nelson show that the road to earthly hell for lower-class men is paved with immediate rather than deferred pleasures.

Men don’t woo and court women; they “get together” with them, a relationship one step beyond “hooking up” but well shy of being committed. Men don’t practice “safe sex,” let alone abstain; they practice unprotected sex in part because wearing a condom implies their partners are tramps or having sex with other men. A man doesn’t discuss, much less plan for, the possibility of bringing a child into the world; he discovers his girlfriend is pregnant after only a few months of being with her.

To the credit of these men, they perceive spending time with their children as a pleasure. But the problem is, as Edin and Nelson note, their expansive view of relationships is not supplemented with a strict sense of personal responsibility. The man’s commitment is not to his girlfriend but to his child. This might sound benign, but it turns the traditional relationship on its head. Instead of the old “package deal” in which the woman came first and the children second, this new “package deal” puts the baby first and the girlfriend second. Fatherhood becomes less about fulfilling a set of responsibilities—breadwinning, protecting the kids from harm, serving as a moral guide, providing discipline—and more about subjective feeling. As the authors note, these men act more like kindly uncles than real fathers.

What can be done? Edin and Nelson call for the courts to give unwed fathers a share of custody over their children. Readers might be surprised to learn that unwed single mothers, even with little support from the courts, can take children away from the unwed single fathers. This scenario happened to Amin Jenkins. After his daughter turned three, his girlfriend moved out of their apartment and vanished; his girlfriend’s mom refused to disclose where her daughter and granddaughter lived. Jenkins did not see his daughter again for years.

“If we truly believe in gender equity, then we must find a way to honor fathers’ attempts to build relationships with their children just as we do mothers’—to assign fathers rights along with their responsibilities,” the authors write. This proposal is sensible and sound. Why should single mothers possess 100 percent authority over their children’s time?

Unfortunately, Edin and Nelson don’t examine the role that religious institutions could play in the lives of lower-class single dads, except to mention that few men have ties to organized religion. This is an oversight. The Promise Keepers movement of the mid- to late nineties aimed to transform middle-class, suburban fathers into dutiful stewards of their families. Michael McManus’s Community Marriage Policies have worked with churches to promote marriage. Neither social movement aimed to work with lower-class single dads in the big cities, but who is to say that an enterprising priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam won’t seek to heal and transform a growing legion of lost souls?  

Mark Stricherz is D.C. bureau chief of the Colorado Observer.