Saturday, March 15, 2014

Why Fathers Leave

By Rachel Miller-Bradshaw 
There is no acceptable excuse for able-bodied men to shirk the financial responsibilities for children and leave the burden solely on their mothers.  And the label “Deadbeat Dad” is hung justifiably as a badge of shame around the necks of such irresponsible fathers.   It is well established that children are better off psychologically, socially and morally when both parents are present in the home to provide nurture, education and security, and our society promotes the ideal that a family should include a mother and father.  

In the documentary ON MY OWN, scheduled for release in April, former NBA star Allan Houston, founder of the Legacy Foundation, discusses how his father’s teaching gave him “the mental capacity to work, to not quit,” which he says made a big difference in his life.

National statistics on absentee fathers are shocking, but nowhere are the numbers more alarming than in African American communities.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 70% of black children live in a home without a father.  What might be referred to as a “fatherlessness epidemic” has long been raging out of control in these communities.   The problem is overwhelming and widespread, and while analyzing the great migration of these fathers away from their households may be a useful academic exercise, the problem needs a lot more than just research and discussions; well thought-out strategies and workable solutions are mandatory, but sadly they are either in short supply or non-existent.

A New York Times article entitled U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner (May 29, 2013) discussed how women with children under the age of 18 are either the sole or primary breadwinners slightly more than 40% of the time.  Men are socialized to derive their sense of self-worth from providing for their families, as opposed to teaching values and giving time to them (the mother’s traditional role).  This is an even greater issue among African Americans, where men face higher levels of unemployment and disenfranchisement due to institutionalized discrimination and criminal convictions. 

ON MY OWN also presents Scott Leach, formerly of the Forestdale Fatherhood Initiative and now the founder of Daddy’s Toolbox, Inc., who reminds fathers that “their worth is not in their wallet.”  Some men choose to remove themselves [from the household] when tensions develop over their inability to contribute financially.  Leach notes that when sole financial responsibility falls on the mother, even though the father is present in the home, it can be “very taxing on a marriage or relationship,” especially in a society that aggressively promotes on-time bill paying and the acquisition of material possessions.

The problem of absent Black fathers is deeply rooted in American history.  African men, forcibly transplanted to these shores, were not socialized here for traditional fathering roles due to a practice by slave owners in which these men were used as “bucks,” reproducing with various women, after which they were removed from the home.  Although this practice is 150 years removed, it is believed still to be a strong factor in the condition of fatherlessness in the Black community.  This long-entrenched behavioral pattern, combined with excessively high unemployment rates, help legitimate family abandonment by Black men.  As an example, in the 1950s and ‘60s, inner-city factory jobs were mostly filled by low-skilled Black male workers.  When these jobs were outsourced, many of these men moved on without their families, and there was a corresponding increase in the number of Black women who became single mothers and applied for welfare benefits.

At a time when greater numbers of women are graduating from college, opening more businesses, and filling workforce vacancies at higher percentages than men  (that is, when woman are encroaching on turf that had once been largely the exclusive domain of men), there has emerged a movement that is trying to help redefine what it means to be a father.  This fatherhood initiative is attempting to boost the morale of fathers, address the way society judges men, and inspire women to encourage men, and to be empathetic to them as they confront this period of role reorganization.   These fatherhood organizations are actively trying to promote this new definition of fatherhood.  

And the government has a role, too.  President Obama’s much publicized “My Brother’s Keeper” program – an effort to help young men of color succeed as long as they are willing to do their part and work hard – has the potential to bring about positive change by helping men who might otherwise abandon their families “reach their full potential, contribute to their communities and build decent lives for themselves and their families.”  All of which are important stepping stones on the path to alleviating the “fatherlessness epidemic” that has become the scourge of the Black family in America.

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