Faith in Our Fathers

Father’s Day is a day when Americans take time to honor and recognize their fathers and the contributions they have made. However, popular discourse suggests that recognition should be reserved for father-types such as Howard Cunningham on “Happy Days” or Heathcliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” because they represent “responsible fatherhood.” According to a number of social commentators, religious leaders, and politicians, a responsible father is one who is gainfully employed and lives in the same household with his children. This narrow notion of socially acceptable fatherhood subtly suggests that male parents who do not live with their children or who are unemployed or underemployed do not measure up. Further, the stigma often attached to non-traditional fatherhood is often extended to families. Non-resident fathers are deemed responsible for “broken families” that are often linked to troubling outcomes such leaving high school before graduation, violence, and teenage pregnancy. It should be noted that many of the social ills linked to non-resident fatherhood are prevalent in minority communities; therefore, the image of “absentee fathers” often has a brown hue.

The outline of the image of black and brown absentee fathers is often credited to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noted scholar, diplomat, and politician, who published The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965. In this book, Dr. Moynihan asserted that the expansion of welfare safety nets was linked to the rise of out-of-wedlock births and the disintegration of the African American family structure. The subtle message here was that a welfare check was a substitute for Black fathers. The commodification of Black male bodies is not new in a land built on the backs of slaves. It is also not new in a culture where the measure of a man is determined by his paystub, bonus, or bank account balance. However, limiting the significance of a father to his financial net worth denies other priceless dimensions of fatherhood that are not associated with income or wealth. Untold are the stories of countless fathers who care for young children while they are seeking work, or disabled. There are considerable numbers of black men who parent children without a direct biological relationship. These “nontraditional” fathers are rendered invisible in popular culture because Americans seemed to be much more interested in emphasizing the negative rather than accentuating the positive dimension of black fatherhood. The tragedy is that we miss opportunities to learn important lessons that could help more black men with children recognize that their value as parents extends beyond the contents of their wallets.

Raising the next generation is one of the most important responsibilities of a society; however, disputes over the constitution of family may have diverted our attention from 21st century threats to child health, development, and well-being. Technology has allowed individuals to be increasingly connected and isolated simultaneously. Virtual worlds can trap developing minds into echo chambers void of debate, critical thought, and civility. Young people need guidance to navigate an increasingly complex world and fathers can help children to make sense of the mounds of available and accessible information about themselves and the world around them. Social scientists suggest that emphasis on competition, convenience, and connectivity may be overwhelming youth today as it has been predicted that millennials and future generations will be likely to have lower levels of prosperity and poorer health prospects than baby-boomers and gen-Xers. Fathers can play a key role in reversing these trends; however their parental reservoirs have been damned by normative roles of silent sponsorship.

Fathers need support (just like mothers do) to learn how to be parents in order for them to provide and/or share developmentally appropriate experiences, and insight. Male parents can support, nurture, and counsel their children, regardless of their financial status or address. Motivated fathers can be great parental partners and have the capacity to carry the bulk of the parenting burden if necessary. Four out of every ten babies are born to unmarried parents so it is critically important encourage males who have children to grow as parents. We need less condemnation and more creativity, caring and compassion for males who have children. The future of our communities rests on our ability to help males who procreate become productive and positive parents who are available to invest in the lives of their children.