Mon. December 10
A World of Good Intentions
Feed the kittens in the kitchen,
Set food out for the strays,
Try hard to do your best–
The magpie will have his way.
–Mountain Goats, “Magpie”
The next two books in our marriage-and-family series can be considered as a pair for several reasons. Both Jennifer Hamer’s 2001 What It Means to Be Daddy: Fatherhood for Black Men Living Away from Their Children and Elizabeth Marquardt’s 2005 Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce describe families in which the parents have split up and allow members of those families to describe them in their own words.
Strikingly, both books portray families in which the adults are trying—painstakingly, often heartbreakingly trying—to do the right thing. And yet the structure of these marriageless families works against the adults, and their children, at every step.
The books differ sharply in most other respects. Marquardt’s book is more fluently written, includes a large-scale quantitative survey whose findings are described throughout the book and tabulated at the back, takes religion and religious seeking as one of its big questions, and is written from the perspective of children of divorce (although she takes pains to empathize with divorced parents, including her own). Hamer’s book is relatively silent on religion but much more aware of racial and class differences, and takes a parental perspective, allowing the much-stigmatized group of men who don’t live with their children to describe their fatherhood in their own words.
In both books, men end up much more disconnected from their children than women. Mothers and fathers diverge sharply—the whole point of Marquardt’s book is that divorce spins the two parents off into their own two separate worlds, and bridging the gap between those worlds becomes the child’s job rather than the parents’. In both books men or their children note that a bachelor’s apartment isn’t often a great place for kids. Both books describe mothers and fathers who have sharply different truths, sharply different stories about the other parent, the relationship, moral values, parenting styles . . . everything. Reconciling these different truths, Marquardt points out, is a task left to the children.
Both books point out that what was a barely manageable, difficult situation when we were dealing with two divorced or broken-up parents trying to raise the children they had together becomes even tougher when the parents find new partners. Both books suggest that community and religious organizations have profoundly failed people struggling to live within these fractured families.
Hamer, to my mind, succeeds at one of her core tasks: humanizing live-away fathers, showing the huge obstacles they face and just how hard they work and how much they often love and sacrifice for their kids. She makes a strong case that calling these men “absent fathers” simply ignores their ongoing if erratic presence in their kids’ lives. But she also wants to argue that these fragmented families are simply one valid alternative form of family formation; she implies that marriage is not a solution for these families or for other impoverished young black adults trying to shape their lives. And here her own evidence tells against her. In their own words the men in her study described barrier after barrier to their fatherhood created by the fragmented structure of their families.
I came away from both books believing that our current rates of family breakdown aren’t inevitable. From reducing our insane incarceration rate (“because I have a record” is a leitmotif of Hamer’s book) to providing greater help for people in troubled marriages, there is so much more we could be doing. And we can do it, as these authors show, without blaming or stigmatizing parents who break up or divorce.
This post is part of a series by Eve Tushnet about the postnuclear family. Our new family landscape may look chaotic, but the books in this series can help us understand what’s going on with sex, love, and marriage in America.