Wed. September 11
When a Child Is a Second Chance
When I opened Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, I wasn’t expecting to include it in this series on portrayals of penitence. The new study by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson picks up where Edin and Maria Kefalas’s 2005 Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage left off. Sticking with the same economically-depressed Philadelphia neighborhoods, Doing the Best I Can asks young men how they became fathers, how they think they’re doing as dads, how they could do better, and what fatherhood means to them.
It’s a terrific book and I can’t do it justice here. The authors’ analysis is infused with empathy, rather than the artificial sweetener of relativism. They’re alive to the moral and spiritual concerns of the men they interview; they don’t portray inner-city men as inarticulate lumps of machismo.
And one thing they find is that many men welcome fatherhood because it offers a chance to redeem their pasts. A child is a sign of hope, a vote in favor of life in neighborhoods where death, violence, and self-destruction often seem to hold the majority. When they asked the men, “What would your life be like without your children?” they didn’t get complaints “about lives derailed, schooling foregone, and job opportunities forsaken.” Instead they heard, “I’d be in jail.” “I’d be dead, because of the simple fact that it wasn’t until Brianna was born that I started to chill out.” “Without the kids I’d probably be a dog. I hope not with AIDS.” “Kids give you something to live for.” A child symbolizes, requires, and offers unconditional love— as one young man in a similar study put it, a child is “a part of me that’s never been bad.”
Listen to Ritchie, a 34-year-old white man whose heroin addiction left him homeless and rooting through dumpsters for food, but who held down a job and “didn’t let a week go by without seeing his nine-year-old boy.” Ritchie’s clean now and considering buying a home with his girlfriend. “My son is my savior,” he says. “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.” Ritchie recalls the depths of his addiction: “I had long hair and was unbathed for days at a time, and I remember crying to my son, telling him how I was sorry. And I remember my son hugging me, saying it was OK, as long as I just came to see him. That Christmas I didn’t have anything for him. He said me just being there was all the present he needed.”
There are many stories like Ritchie’s. When a child and a woman persevere in loving a man even when he’s at his worst, he begins to trust that they won’t abandon him. To justify their love, he begins to get his life in order. Loving and caring for this child becomes his atonement for the drug abuse and failures of his past.
You can see where the problems come in. First of all, what if the woman and child won’t put up with this behavior? What if they’re not thrilled just to see Dad, even if he’s unwashed and unsober? How much pain should a kid endure in order to be part of his father’s redemption song? It’s hard to ask a child to have hope and faith for you.
Often the men in Doing the Best know that they’ve acted wrongly with one woman and one set of children. They feel that those relationships are broken beyond repair, but a new relationship and a new child hold out hope for the future. They can be a good father to at least one kid, and by fathering one child well, atone for the ones they left behind. (If you’re hearing some echoes of Gilead and Home, those heart-rending novels of marriage and childrearing as forms of forgiveness, you should. The psychological dynamics and spiritual longings at work here are not inner-city phenomena.) But what about the first family? How must it feel to see your father living out the blessing of his second chance, when you were his first chance? Often, in families with multiple fathers, children living under the same roof experience sharp inequalities based on whose fathers are involved and whose are absent. Edin and Nelson note that “almost no father in our study spread his time or financial resources equally across his kids unless they all lived in the same household.” Moreover, the women feel an obvious and understandable resentment: They don’t get second chances, or if they do, they’ve still got to fix up their first chances as best they can.
One of the most striking aspects of Doing the Best is its emphasis on the men’s intense moral judgments of themselves and need to view themselves as capable of moral action and atonement. This need drives a lot of their actions, from marrying girls they barely knew before the girls got pregnant to redefining fatherhood so that financial contributions are less important and emotional closeness is more important. The drama of fall and rise, stumble and rise again, plays out as these men strive to do better than their own fathers, and better than they did in the past.
Doing the Best is clear—sometimes even harsh—about the ways these strategies of redemption through procreation don’t work. They are a poignantly low-rent form of utopianism: an attempt to accomplish a superhuman, spiritual goal through human strength alone.