‘I Had the Stress of the World’: A Report on Youth Fathers
Their Own Fathers
Becoming A Father
Life With Children
Violence and the Children
Jobs and Dream Jobs
Improving the System
This report was researched and written by Melanie Wilson in conjunction with The Alliance for Young Families in Boston, Mass. The Alliance would like to thank the following organizations for their assistance with this project:
Catholic Charities of Lynn, Mass.
Children’s Hospital, Boston, Mass.
Community Academy, Boston, Mass.
Pernet Family Services, Worcester, Mass.
Youthbuild/New Bedford, Mass.
The production of this report was sponsored in part by The Children’s Trust Fund, Boston, Mass.
Recent interest in the subject of fatherhood notwithstanding, the problems of fathers, and in particular young fathers, have generally been overlooked in matters of public policy. In fact, the quality of political attention given young fathers has, if anything, grown somewhat negative in recent years, a trend evident in federal welfare reform legislation, which tends to cast young men as irresponsible losers or even sexual predators while resolutely demanding that they pay up. While such a negative approach might be justified in a minority of cases, in general it neither encourages healthy family formation where chances for it exist nor addresses the very real problems that many young fathers must overcome if they are to become effective parents to their children.
In its effort to make adequate provision for the children of poor parents, society, it must be noted, has taken an altogether different tack toward young mothers. In Massachusetts and most other states, young low-income mothers are typically eligible for a wide range of services, including child care, education, case management and job training. While they often come from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds, young fathers are offered few such services, and almost none that exclusively focus on their status as parents. In light of society’s increasing insistence that these young men play an active role in supporting their children, such scant attention to their needs can prepare them only for failure. And the question of failure is a serious one, because, as a critical mass of literature now clearly indicates, when fathers fail, they do not fail alone. Their children often fail as well, and in ways that ripple through succeeding generations.
The purpose of this report is to present young fathers in a more complete and fully human way than has generally been done in the past, to allow them to explain in their words the forces that shape and sometimes limit their potential as fathers. Our hope is that policymakers can take from the report a new appreciation of the lives of these young men, and that by doing so they will be better prepared to formulate policies helpful to all members of young families.
Between November 1997 and April 1998 the Alliance for Young Families, a Boston-based nonprofit working on behalf of teen parents, conducted six focus groups around the state with young fathers. The Alliance embarked on the project in order to provide its member agencies – providers of services to teen parents – with information about the issues and problems young fathers face. The Alliance agreed to share its findings with the Governor’s Commission on Father Absence and Family Support, which is working on policy promoting responsible fatherhood.
The groups were conducted in five cities: Boston, Lynn, Lawrence, Worcester and New Bedford. Efforts to arrange groups in western Massachusetts were unsuccessful. (The Alliance also collected information from five young fathers in Framingham, though it did not conduct a group with them.) Altogether, 40 young men ranging in age from 15 to 25 participated in the groups. Within this age range, all fathers who agreed to participate were accepted; no other criteria had to be met. Forty percent of the participants identified themselves as Hispanic; thirty percent as African-American; ten percent as white; ten percent as bi-racial; and ten percent as African-Caribbean. Most men had only one child, but a significant minority had two or more.
Three of the groups were convened on a one-time basis for the purpose of the project; the other three had existed prior to the project as support groups. In two of these cases, support group members were joined by young men from other local youth programs, and for this reason the majority of participants in most groups were strangers to one another. Participants were paid stipends of $10 each. Each group was led by a male and female facilitator and lasted approximately two hours.
The bulk of each session was given to structured but casual discussion on a variety of topics, including education, housing, jobs, family conflict, self-esteem and dreams for the future. Following each discussion the young men were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their attitudes and experiences as young fathers. The questionnaire also asked for demographic information such as age, ethnicity, school status and job status.
Though project participants were ethnically diverse, they nevertheless shared a number of characteristics. Most young men had been raised in poor or middle-class households by their mothers and had had no regular contact with their fathers. Most had experienced problems in school, and many had dropped out. Many, probably the majority, had also been arrested at least once, most often for fighting, selling drugs or similar offenses. While some of the young men thus had troubled histories, it is important to note that those troubles seemed not particuarly exceptional, especially in light of the social and cultural environment in which they lived. In manner, dress, speech and most other outward indicators, they indeed seemed exactly like their non-parenting peers, simply ordinary young men on the cusp of adulthood coping, successfully or unsuccessfully, with the stresses of contemporary urban life. The real difference between them and other young men – a difference acute to most of them – lay in the responsibility they now bore to help raise a child.
In fact, it was in their feeling about their children that the group participants were perhaps most uniform: All expressed love for their children, concern for the children’s future and a desire to make a regular contribution, both financial and emotional, to their children’s lives. The extent to which they could actually make such a contribution tended to depend on several factors, some of which were within their control and some of which were clearly out of it. A key issue seemed simply to be maturity itself. While a few of the older participants had obviously outgrown their adolescent problems and become confident, self-directed men, most of the young men seemed to be struggling with their new role as parents. Fully aware of their responsibilities to provide for their children, they were unsure exactly how they were going to do it, either now or over the long term, and occasionally their plans were convoluted and unrealistic. For many, a chaotic, unstable home environment and lack of guidance clearly were obstacles to thoughtful decision-making. For a good many others, problems tended to coalesce around family conflict, particularly conflict with their child’s mother or her relatives. In some cases, family disputes seriously impinged on the fathers’ ability to visit their children consistently or form lasting relationships with them. Of all problems, interpersonal conflict seemed the most weighty and difficult for the young men, and the one they felt least able to resolve.
All in all, more than 60 percent of the fathers said they sometimes “felt overwhelmed” by the various problems in their lives, and nearly 100 percent said they worried “a lot” about the future. Many of the participants expressed a sense that their youth was now over, and that they needed to get on track quickly. Succeeding – or at least settling on a plan of action – had become a matter of great urgency for them, and they felt there was no time left to waste. Indeed, the vast majority of young men agreed with the statement, “I can’t afford to make mistakes or mess up, because people are counting on me.”
Rather than presenting the participants’ remarks in the context of an academic article, we have elected to allow the participants to speak for themselves, an opportunity young fathers – often considered a “hidden population” – have seldom been granted. Below are a series of excerpts taken from the focus group discussions. Quotes are arranged by category and are preceded by introductory remarks based on a quantitative analysis of the questionnaires and on observation of the individuals and groups in action. Following the excerpts are a set of findings and recommendations.
Most young men – 63 percent – grew up in homes without fathers, and only 23 percent said they learned how to be a father from their own father. Relationships with their fathers, absent from the home or not, tended to be poor, and many young men said they planned to be better fathers to their children than their fathers had been to them.
→I myself grew up without a father. To this day, you know, I don’t give two damns about my father. Eighteen years of age, and he’s trying to make an attempt to contact me, and all I can say is, ‘If you die, I wouldn’t even cry. I wouldn’t even go to your funeral.’ And that kind of pushes me to be there for my son …. I’m going to make sure that I’m going to be there because I know what I had to go through growing up without a father.
→It’s the young generation of fathers that are trying to keep fatherhood alive. Old people are the ones that messed it up.
→When I first met him, I was probably around twelve. And I was, you know what I’m saying – I ain’t get to the fact like, ‘You just bounced on me and come back.’ He come back like I’m one of his friends and he can leave the state and come back and see me. I ain’t like that, and I told him that. And ever since I talked to him about that – I actually argued and yelled at him for that- I ain’t heard from him ever since then.
→I’m gonna ride my baby’s mother 24-7. Even though we ain’t together, if she need to go somewhere, I’m going with her. I’m doing this and that. I ain’t trying to end up like my real father.
→He comes by like once a year, okay, to see me. He was there for me when I was a little kid. When I was around five, he moved to Chicago. Last year he moved to New York. Now he comes by once a year. We don’t have that father-son relationship. We can’t talk about nothing.
→My father could have been anything. Instead he ended up an alcoholic.
The vast majority of interviewees became fathers in the context of established girlfriend/boyfriend relationships, and very few planned their children. None of the young men said they seriously considered marriage upon learning of their girlfriend’s pregnancy; indeed, almost all participants agreed with the statement that “having a baby isn’t a good enough reason to get married.” The most common reaction of the young men to learning of impending fatherhood was a predictable one: stress and confusion.
→It was like a whole bunch of things just hit me at once, when I found out. I had just got out of jail, and I lost this job, and me and my mother wasn’t on good terms, me and my family, actually. I didn’t know how I was gonna tell them, and I wasn’t doing good in school, so it was like everything just come at once. I was just stressing. I just laid low for a while.
→Her mom made her take the pregnancy test. She took it, and her mom flipped out on me. Oh man, she was not nice…. She said, ‘You knocked up my daughter, now you’re going to take responsibility. If you don’t pay, she’s gonna attach the check,’ and all this and that. (But) the next thing I know, my girl said, ‘You need to take a blood test.’ I’m like, ‘What you mean, blood test? I’m the only one been up in there, right?’ And she’s like, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’
→I’d only known her like two, three weeks. It was just like the week after I turned 14. She called up and said ‘I’m pregnant.’ I said, ‘Who’s the father?’
→The way it hit me was, you know what I’m saying, I’m going to be a father. That’s a big responsibility. And her, she wasn’t trying to get nothing. First she was saying she’s going to go to Arizona. And that’s when I flipped. Like, ‘Listen, mother, you ain’t going nowhere, not with my child.’ And she was like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t have told you, I should of just went on and moved or whatever,’ and we had a conflict about that. Like, how the hell you gonna just move out there and not let me know I have a child? What, you gonna bring me 10 years later on Jerry Springer, tell me I’ve got a kid? Come on now.’ … I was just confused. I didn’t know how to tell anybody, what to do.
→I got out (of jail), school wasn’t going too good, family, all kinds of stuff, just mass stress was hitting me. Court dates, everything. Probation on my back. Everything was just hitting me at once. No financial support at that time. I had none of that. I just had to get my priorities straight. That’s why I was mass stressed.
Despite the loss of freedom – a majority of participants said their social lives had entirely changed since becoming fathers – 95 percent of group participants said they are happy their children were born. Indeed, most men spoke passionately of their love for their children and regard themselves as competent fathers. The majority of fathers see their children more than once a week, and during visits perform the entire range of caretaking activities. Asked what the most important aspect of the parent-child relationship is, most said love, support and good communication. Although many expressed the wish that they had waited to have children, few said they felt too young to handle the responsibility. Indeed, 85% said they thought they had handled fatherhood well so far, and even more said they considered themselves “good fathers.” Nearly 100 percent of the fathers said they have “big plans” for their children, and that they intend to be involved with their children forever. This was true even of fathers who did not see their children regularly due to family disputes or distance.
→Seeing (my son) in the morning – I think that’s great, you know. Waking up, sleeping, I think that’s the best thing about being a father. Tucking the kids in at night, kissing them goodnight. They’re always going to remember that, you know.
→The best thing is knowing you got somebody to love, somebody to live for.
→All the things I didn’t have when I was young, I try to give it to him. When I was young, I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that. I don’t want him to grow up that way.
→What I like about being a father is the fact that it’s opened up my eyes. I’ve got certain responsibilities….
→If I was to ask myself if I was a good father – I mean, I try to strongly do 150 percent of everything I can. I decided to do it that way. I’m a good provider, I talk to him about everything, and I think that’s important, to talk to him.
→The first time (my stepdaughter) called me Dad, that’s it, no more. I just stopped. I didn’t drink anymore. I just gave up everything. At that point, I was still doing everything I had in the past year – you know, hanging out with friends out on the corner, and running up and down the streets and just going crazy. And then as soon as she called me Dad, it was just like, you know, there’s a responsibility put on my shoulders, and I’m aware that you have to be a role model for that child. And if you’re dead, what is this child going to have to look at? … It’s like, wow, a reality booster, you know. I’m a Dad. I’ve got to act like one, and not a hoodlum, or act like a jerk on the street and get shot up or something like that.
→I looked at all the things I didn’t have, the things that I didn’t accomplish, and I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let my little man run down that road I went down.’
→I was out there doing all this stuff, selling drugs, carrying a gun, you know. Then (my daughter) was born, and I just quit. I didn’t want to do it no more. It totally changed me from the direction I was going. Totally.
→That’s my little heart. That’s my little heart. That’s what’s keeping me alive now.
→When you bring somebody into the world, it’s like everybody say, it’s like a constant wake-up. Like, it’s time to put your toys away and time to pick up your tools and start working.
→Having a kid is like a boost of energy. You got to stay on top. You can’t fall.
→I go out and buy G.I. Joes, and we play with them. Sometimes I even find myself playing with them. Like they would be on the carpet, my son would be upstairs, and I’ll start playing with them. And I’m like, ‘Hey, come here and we’ll play something.’ I feel like an idiot, you know.
→The smile on my kid’s face – that’s the best thing about being a father.
→We worked a little schedule out. She was with him from like eight in the morning to like eight at night, and she’d go to sleep and I’d have him from eight at night to eight in the morning. He’d be up every three hours crying … I used to wake up, and we’d watch that show, ‘The Untouchables.’ He didn’t know what it was about. He was five months old when he started sleeping all night.
Only a quarter of the young men lived with the mother of their child or children, and relationships between the two parents were frequently tense. Forty-one percent of fathers said that after the baby was born, their relationship with their girlfriend went downhill. Half said they argued “a lot” with the mother of their child. The most frequently mentioned sources of conflict were money, access to the child, child custody and problems between the father and the mother’s relatives. Though sometimes those problems were severe, resulting in serious estrangement or even violence between family members, the vast majority of the fathers – 90 percent – said that if their child’s mother needed them, they would be there.
→I didn’t want to be with her no more, and she try to ruin my life. She got mad. She said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna break up with me you ain’t gonna see your daughter.’ I told her I was seeing my daughter. I said, ‘Don’t make me have to go to court for her because you’re going to wind up losing.’ At that point, she was living from home to home and I was in a stable home (and) working. I said, ‘I don’t want to do it to you …. I just want the right to see my daughter.’ To this point, she’s still playing her little-kid games. I get to see my daughter whenever she feels like it. It hurts me because she has a guy and my kid is calling him daddy. When I see her and want to go give her a hug and kiss, it hurts me because she turns away. She don’t know me.
→My son lives in the (name deleted) Projects, and I live two minutes away. I was always constantly trying to be there with my son. I’d go in the house and make sure that his room was all right, I’d make sure that they got food in the house. And it got to a point where she was like thinking that I’m trying to like take over things, and I’m really just trying to take over my son. And now she don’t even – I can’t go into the house anymore. She’s like, ‘You go into the house, I’m going to call the police. I don’t want you in the house.’ But I want to go in the house. I want to make sure my son’s room is all set. You know, that they have food in the house and this and that.
→It seems like we’re men, we’re supposed to be macho, we’re supposed to be tough, we’re not supposed to have feelings. But I don’t know about anybody, but in the same month that my wife took my kid with her – in the same month, I cried more than I’ve ever seen any woman cry. I just broke down.
→Every time a guy steps in the door, I throw her the rules: Don’t let him try to be the father. Don’t let him, because my son only got one father. She’s like – she tell her boyfriend to come argue with me. And I’m the wrong person to come argue with.
→When we first got together, it was all fine – happy, lovey family. But things don’t work out. Either you’re too young and you start growing apart, or things just never click, or when the baby comes there’s too much stress on one of you and it starts affecting the relationship.
→Taking your son is taking your life. If they take your son, you don’t got a life…. It’s like everyday they grab your soul. They pull your soul off your body and you don’t got a life.
→The mother, the mother goes, ‘Oh you don’t take time with me anymore. You don’t love me. You don’t give me any more attention.’ Well, gee, there’s a baby down there. I’m pretty sure he can’t walk. He can’t eat by himself. He doesn’t change his own diapers. If he knew how to do it, it’d be a different story. But (it’s) ‘No, where’s my attention?’
→I provided for my kid and everything – I mean, I took care of the kid since he was born, til five months – and through all that, she still has the nerve to tell me I’m not a good father? Uh-huh. Believe me, I turned around and I smacked the (expletive) out of her. I did it, I did. No, don’t you ever tell me that. I will not take that from anybody. Uh-huh. No girl. I’m too responsible for somebody to tell me that. I go crazy.
→Me and my daughter, we’re wicked close, but if there’s anything I’d want, it’s to be closer to my son. I don’t get to see him as much as I want to…. I get to see him once a week. Yesterday was the first time in a while I got to take him out. I took him to the Aquarium. I used to get to bring him to my house for weekends and stuff all the time, but not anymore.
→I’m going to court to take custody of my child. She leaves my child with everybody. You know what I’m saying? I wake up in the middle of the night, her girl’s calling me, telling me to come get my baby. I’m like, ‘What my baby doing with you?’ You know what I’m saying? My baby should be at home sleeping with her moms or whatever. That’s what I say.
→I was locked up. She said, ‘I don’t want to see you no more.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to see me. You’re in a foster home. My son lives with your mother. (Your mother) told me I’m gonna have custody of my son, and she said I can come see him any day, any time I want.’ So when I got out of jail, out of DYS, I called up: ‘I want to see my son.’ She was there. She said, ‘No, I ain’t ready to let you see your son.’ ‘What you mean, you ain’t ready to let me see my son?’ She said, ‘No, I don’t want to see you.’ It was like that for a while. Then on Christmas she let me see my son. When I saw my son, I felt like crying, I felt like screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I was so happy. I even got his name tattooed on my heart.
→My oldest son’s mother, her parents don’t like me because of the color of my skin. That’s a big problem right there. And my youngest, her family, I don’t know, we just have conflicts, for what reason I still don’t know. It bothers me, you know what I’m saying? I don’t let it affect me or my kids, I don’t take it out on them or nothing like that.
Although only one participant said he had struck the mother of his child, violence, or the threat of violence, was a constant presence in the lives of both the fathers and their children. Often the violence resulted from the culture of drugs and poverty in which some lived, but it also seemed to be a consequence of larger social problems, such as the prevalence of guns.
→When there’s violence when they’re growing up, you know, when they get older, they’ll probably be violent themselves. No matter how much I tried, you know, to have my son back, I never touched his mother. Never have we argued, you know, and (if we do) I send him in the other room. (But) she’s done a lot of bad decision-making in relationships. So no matter how much I fight it, he’s going to be exposed to it anyway. And that bothers me a lot. She’ll get into a situation she can’t handle, who’s the first person she’s going to call? Me. Because she knows we have a commitment of raising a child, and I’m always going to be there for this child. In a way, I don’t feel like I should have to be there every time she makes a mistake, but I feel obligated to protect my son. I remember sleeping and getting a call at three o’clock in the morning. ‘One of my ex-boyfriends came over. He’s upset. He just broke into the house and he’s upstairs, and I don’t know what he’s doing.’ So I find myself in this situation where I’ve got to go in her house with my son in the house, beat the shit out of some guy and kick him out, and my son has to witness that because of her. It really bothers me.
→I’ll grab her, she’ll grab me, and we’ll start hustling around the kitchen. That’s the way we show we’re mad at each other, but we won’t strike each other. And my daughter – well, my youngest daughter, she’s almost three – she’ll pick up a knife, a stick, or anything, and try to hit me and cut me with it, you know, because she’s like, ‘You’re hurting my mommy.’
→My second child, she’s only 10 months old, but she starts crying when we start fighting and then when we stop everything is calm. The kid, you know, she relaxes and she senses that everything is all right, even though it might not be all right.
→The violence, the drugs, this, that and every other thing is going to be. You really can’t take them away from it. You can’t hide it from them. They’re going to see it. You just have to talk to them about it. You’ve got to let them know what the consequences are…. You’ve got to show them, especially like when they’re coming up in their teens, they’re young teens like 13, 14, and they’re really starting to (want) hats, coats, whatever. They should be able to ask you. If they can’t ask you, that’s why they go out there and they stick somebody up for it. Take somebody, beat them up, and that’s when it starts. You’ve got to open their minds before the street does, because it’s going to happen either way.
→Supposedly, my ex-wife has custody of the kids right now, but she did so many things wrong with that because she put a restraining order out on me for child abuse. Okay. And I talked with my daughter, and supposedly there’s been – there’s charges off of me, but there’s not charges for her. She did stuff to my daughter that nobody knows about….
About half the young fathers were in school when the focus groups were held. Of those who were not in school, most had dropped out. Some of those dropouts had subsequently enrolled in GED programs. Seventy-five percent of group participants said they wanted to finish their education, a wish that in some cases meant going on to college, and about the same percentage said they considered school important. With only a few exceptions, most group participants reported negative school experiences, citing boredom, uncaring teachers, violence, and the need to earn money as reasons for quitting.
→When I was about 13, 14, I found out what a girl was. And that got me into trouble, and I was hunted. One guy came to school with a machete, went up to my girl, and said, ‘This is for your boyfriend,’ and just grazed it across her face. And I went to confront the guy. But it so happened one of his friends had brought a nine mil, and he had a rambo knife about 26 inches long, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ At that point, I was like, ‘Oh I’m a man. I’ll go beat his ass real quick, and that’s it.’ I didn’t know what was waiting for me there until one of my friends came up and was like, ‘Look, they’ve got a death threat out on you. Just walk away.’ Being ignorant, I just kept going. I was like, ‘I don’t care, come on.’ And I’d go, I’d confront them. But then his whole crew just came at me, and I ran because I thought there was about twenty of them against me. I ran. I ran so fast that I left them behind. And just one of them caught me. I begged for my life. And from that day on, I never went back.
→I (quit school) because I had my son at a really young age. I had the stress of the world that, you know, I had to support this kid. It was time, and going to high school wasn’t really helping me out. And plus the influence of the street. It was a combination of them both. You could make money both ways: on the street, or get a job. But when you want to support a little boy, and you have so many obstacles against you, you’ll choose the (negative) way for yourself and your child.
→I used to go to school every day basically just to fight.
→I was at Boston High. My grades was like, on point. I come (to Community Academy), they put the work in front of me. I say, ‘I can do this. I did this back there.’ It comes out, I do it, half the paper is incorrect. You know what I’m saying? They were passing me, just to get me out of there.
→I got expelled twice. The first time I got expelled ’cause I was beefing with a teacher. He got in my way and me and him just started scrapping and I put him on the ground. All right, I got expelled that time. Then they brought me back to the same school. So while I’m there, I got in a beef with the principal, ’cause, you know what I’m saying, he wanted to test me, so me and him got in a beef. He didn’t want to pull no charges so they just sent me here.
→I hit the ninth grade, and these two teachers changed my whole life. They taught in a way that made me comprehend what they were teaching. I understood what they were teaching, and at the same time I was having fun….They saw when I swayed away from what was right. They would go up to me and be like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong? You having problems?’ Like, at that time when I was in high school, my uncle passed away, and I went from an A to a D, and my teacher, you know, she said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Well, my uncle passed away.’ And you know, they helped me. They helped me with, ‘Come on, you can do it,’ and really pushing me.
→There was this one teacher – he must have been dumbfounded or something, but the guy didn’t understand. I would go to the class, and every day at the same time I would tell him I’m going to the bathroom and never return. You know? Then there was this other teacher that I would go, I’d tell him, ‘Oh, can I go to the office?’ and I’d go home. I just didn’t care. The next day, he’d see me in the hall. ‘Where were you?’ ‘Well, I went home.’ ‘Okay, bye.’
→I went to Burdett (College). The reason why I went to Burdett is because my family thought real low of me because when my baby’s mother was pregnant, they thought I was going to be nobody, because at a young age I got a child coming up, and I ain’t gonna do nothing but work and all that. But it’s not true. I proved them wrong, because a month after she was going to have the baby, I called schools and everything and Burdett was the best one for me. I went there, and I was working at night, and that’s very tough. I was working at night, and in the morning I have to get up and go to school for like eight or nine hours. That’s no joke. So I graduated there with honors. I was on the dean’s list every month. Know what I’m saying? So the reason I did all that is I had to prove to them that I could do it.
→When I made my decision to drop out, I had no principal, no teacher, no counselor to tell me that you’re making a wrong decision. Nobody, nobody came up to me….
→When I dropped out of school, it wasn’t because I was a father. I dropped out of school just out of pure laziness. I was stupid …. (Now) I want to go back to school. but I want to go to night school, so I can work during the day. So I can have a paycheck, plus go to school.
A minority of interviewees paid court-ordered child support to the mothers of their children. Nevertheless, eighty-two percent of participants said they give money to their child’s mother on a regular basis, though by “regular” some meant only that they give often, not that they give at established intervals. Nor were the payments always in cash; many of the fathers preferred to buy clothes or toys for their child instead, a practice meant to ensure that the mother could not spend the money on herself. Indeed, many focus group participants believed that child support money should be spent only on the child and seemed unaware it could also legitimately be used to pay general household expenses. Many also misunderstood the child-support enforcement system and the penalties for not paying child support, which several young men believed routinely includes imprisonment.
→Sometimes I give (my son’s mother) a hundred, two hundred dollars. And the next thing you know, a week later, I see her with new sneakers, new clothes, and probably a new jacket. Like last week I gave her twenty dollars. This week I went to the house. She’s got the Jordans, a new whole sweatsuit. Come on, where did the money come from?
→I don’t got no problem with paying child support. If only that money can go to a bank and stay there for when my son grows up. The mother don’t touch it at all. She don’t touch it at all…. I buy (him) new sneakers. I buy him clothes and everything. They’re expensive clothes. I send him food, you know. So why do you need to touch that money? He’s only what? He’s three years old, and you get that money every month. I wish I was three years old and getting two hundred dollars every month. I would be living high.
→The baby’s mother got welfare, but we can’t get no welfare. We’re men, we have to go out there and work, put food on the table, put clothes on our kids’ backs, and we have to do so many things at one time that nobody sees it, and they’re quick to judge you on your actions that you did before, to prejudge you. Sometimes you try to prove something, but you can only prove so much.
→I know some fathers that sometimes they have to go out into the streets and sell drugs. It’s not the best thing that I’m proud of, but I had to put food in my kid’s stomach. I regret doing it but it came down to that one time, and I had to do it. Nobody would give me a job, everything was falling apart.
→I see my daughter whenever her mother feels like it. Sometimes I see her once a month. And that hurts. Sometimes she’ll just bring her and it will be like, ‘Oh, the baby needs diapers, the baby need this, the baby needs that.’ Like her birthday was on Tuesday. I told her I’m going to throw her – I’m going to cut her cake and throw her a little party. She goes, ‘Oh, yeah, because I don’t have no money. So you have to.’ I don’t want to feel obligated – I want to do it because I want to.
→After awhile, they rip you … on the child support thing, you know. The way I got around it so I don’t have to pay it no more, my man told me the only thing you have to do is get your girl to give you joint custody. Both of you-all have joint custody. If you have joint custody, you don’t have to pay child support. You just got to, you know, just like be there…. Whenever you have the kid it’s your responsibility to take him, you know, whatever he needs. When she has him, it’s her responsibility. Each and every one of my kids, I got joint custody with all of them. So, if I was to break up and we was to go our separate ways, she can’t take me ….
→My baby call me every week, and tell me, ‘I need this or that,’ or ‘I need this much.’ I ask her for what, and she tells me for what, and I just go get it, know what I’m saying?
→I don’t go without. My son’s first, but even after he’s paid for, I’m still happy. I make enough money so that we can both be happy. But I think if I didn’t have a child, I’d be rich. Every two months he goes through a pair of sneakers, that’s forty bucks. I just bought him a sixty-dollar winter jacket. I just had to outfit him, that was four hundred dollars, and I outfit him every five months, take him out every five months for clothes. It adds up.
→You’ve got to take care of your kid. If you love your kid, it shouldn’t be a problem, but it is tough at the same time because we’ve all got wants. We want stuff, I mean. It’s got to be delayed getting it, unless you care about yourself and not the kid. But it’s tough.
→I send her two hundred dollars a month. She goes, ‘Why do I get a hundred, or sometimes seventy-five?’ I say, ‘Because you’re stupid. You got me in child support. They deduct the other money. You’re on welfare.’ They split it, and then whatever they got left, they send it to her.
→If you’re working for six months, you’re paying child support every week and they’re taking it out of your check – it’s all good. (Then) you’re out of work, you don’t get a job for like another six months. There should be some kind of way where you can (say): ‘I’m out of a job right now,’ you know what I’m saying? Like slow down the payments or something until I get back on my feet. (But instead) they just pass it on. And by the time six months is up and you finally get another job, you owe them probably like five or six hundred dollars. You always end up owing them, either way you do it.
→It’s hard basically, because you got a child, you know…. You got no income, society beating down on your back, want you to support your child. If you don’t, you got to go into court. If it don’t come up you’re paying it, you get locked up, and then you just keep repeating yourself. That’s how it is.
Problems or potential problems with the law was a dominant theme in the lives of many focus group participants, and indeed most had been arrested – often for assault and battery or similar offenses – at least once. For some, the problems were related to school and gangs, for others, to their relationship with the mother of their child, who was frequently perceived to wield most of the power in the relationship, including the power to have them arrested on trumped-up charges at will. Although often the young men no longer engaged in the illegal activity that had led to earlier arrests, some fathers, particularly the older ones, complained about the unwillingness of “the system” to trust them again, even though they had grown up and become responsible.
→You can’t change where you come from, but you can always change where you go. As soon as these kids come into your life, and you find yourself with a heart, you know, you’re not doing the things you were doing before. And then when you want to try to go back and get your children, because they’re in danger or something … your past follows you the rest of your life, and it really shouldn’t. It should start, in my eyes, as soon as the child comes into your life, and you decide, ‘This is my future, and this is my life, and I’m not going to do anything that I’ve done in the past no more.’ That’s a whole new life. That’s like a rebirth for you as well. (In court) they say, ‘Oh, you have a past. You were violent in the past. Why would we give your children to you when in the past you were violent?’ And they don’t look at that for seven, eight years you haven’t been in no trouble, that you’re a totally new person.
→Once you get locked one time, there goes your whole life. They look, they look to try to find some excuse not to give you a job.
→A lot of guys have a chance of winding up behind bars because all the lady has to do is call the police and say the – something that didn’t even happen, but all they have to do is say it and the police have to take their word for it. (Once a police officer) came in and kicked the door down and started screaming at me and almost hit me. When it comes to women playing with men who want to be involved with their children, then that’s (hard) because that’s their manhood.
→My only trouble is being harassed all the time. Early in the morning, you just want to fight them ’cause they just (say): ‘What you doing?’ ‘I’m going to school. You see me here every morning.’ They locked me up for trespassing. The cop, he told me to get on the bus. This is at Forest Hills. He goes, ‘Go get on the bus.’ All right, the bus ain’t even come yet. I’m standing at the stand, waiting for the bus. It’s two of ‘em. They walked away, go out of sight. Come back 15 minutes later: ‘What are you still doing here?…Let’s go, you’re with us.’….They walked up, one grab this arm, one grab this arm. They didn’t even cuff me yet, they just lifted me a little. They like: ‘Trespassing.’
While none of the fathers was homeless, many were living in unsatisfying or temporary situations, sometimes with relatives or friends. Almost three-quarters said that finding a place of their own that they could afford was “a big problem.”
→It’s hard for people to get accepted, even if you’re living on the streets. It still takes two to three years to get a place. For the family housing, public housing, any kind of housing, it takes two to three years to get accepted. And that’s to live in a project that (has) cockroaches, and it’s infested. Lead in the houses.
→I get along with a hundred dollars from section eight. Everybody says with these rents at a hundred dollars a month, you should be living fat. But they don’t understand that I’ve got five kids, I still have to pay my phone bills, my cable bills, my light bills, my food bills, sometimes hospital bills, and I don’t have enough.
→On the restraining order it says that she’s got custody of both kids and is supposed to be living at this (particular) house. Well, she’s also living with my sister’s ex-fiancé. My sister has a restraining order on him for threatening to kill her. And my kids are living in this house?
Almost half the young men held full-time jobs and a third held part-time jobs. Only 18 percent said that a minimum-wage job was “not worth it” and that they were holding out for something better. Though most were working at low-paying jobs, almost all said they felt capable of getting and keeping a good job in the future. Fifty-seven percent said they don’t see anything standing in the way of getting a good job, and 85 percent agreed that the “only thing it takes to get a job is motivation.” Nevertheless, many participants complained about the difficulty of finding living-wage jobs, particularly in urban areas such as Boston. Finding a job with benefits was also a problem for them, especially since about half the fathers said they had no health insurance.
→They say, ‘Oh yeah, you gotta do this, you gotta do that,’ but they’re not even trying to put things out there. Like more openings for jobs, job training. Some places, like you got to go to school, you gotta pay for that. You got to pay for that three-month course or that six-month course. You know what I mean? Some people can’t pay for it. They can get to work, but they just can’t pay for it. It’s just certain things like that that hold brothers back.
→Right now, well, where I was, I was doing construction. Renovation, at the Marriott in Cambridge. Right now we just finished that one. We’re about to go to the Copley. That’s ten dollars an hour. That’s not what I contracted as, but it’s cool. I (really) want to be a tractor-trailer driver, go coast to coast, all that. I like to travel.
→Some (fathers I know) don’t work. Some of them just don’t want to go out and do it. They stay in the house all day and get high. They just spend their time doing that.
→It’s hard for me, because I’m 15…. It seems no one wants to hire a person my age.
→I know a lot of people who are, what you call, they like hiring and stuff, but you need a (driver’s) license. With me, I, what you call, can’t get no license. I got to go all the way to South Carolina to get my birth certificate, if it’s down there. Because my mom died when I was 11 years old, and I don’t know if she had a real copy or not, I don’t know if she lost it or not, and my father, my so-called father, he’s down there, but I don’t know where he’s at….so I’m in a whole lot of trouble trying to get a license and ID.
→To be honest with you, I don’t have no dream. Make enough money for me and my family. I’m not trying to get rich out here. I’m not trying to be no main man. Just enough so that I can survive to have the things that I want, and the things that my family needs.
→I watch TV a lot. I like – you know they got that new show on HBO, that autopsy stuff. You know what I mean, I like doing stuff like that. They check your body, you know, to find out how you died. (I want to be one of) those kind of people.
→I would like to run my own business, you know, have laundromats here and there, storage. That’s where you make the money…. You start off, you really don’t need an education. You just got to know how to manage money and work things out, you know. You don’t got to go to college.
→We need jobs. Real jobs, not packing groceries…. That $5.75 an hour ain’t kicking it. It’s not.
→Based on the things I want, I’d need to make 30 (thousand) or more a year. That’s why I’m trying to get into construction, and from there, I want to go into plumbing, so I can be able to buy a house, fix it myself, and rent it out, and buy another house, and just keep doing that. Have my own business, and all I have to do is fix the houses that I buy.
→That’s why I’m going to go to school and get my degrees and stuff, so I can get a real good job that I really want. That’s why being a doctor’s my dream.
→Me, basically, I just want to get into the field of law, and be an attorney at law, and open my own firm. That’s basically what I want to do.
→About a month ago, I don’t think I was feeling so confident and could say: ‘Oh yeah, I know I can do it. I’m going to have it.’ I don’t think I was at that point. But right now, give me a year. A year from now, and I’ll be where I want to be. My heart’s set on what I want to do. My peers are around me, the people who’s in my situation, my boss. They always give me input on how to do better at what I’ve got to do. And when I have problems I talk to them.
→Right now what I’m doing gives me a lot of fulfillment, because working with youth in the city, talking to the kids, doing the afterschool programs, doing anti-gang workshops – I’ve been through it, so I can go into a classroom and scare the crap out of a bunch of kids, and hopefully they’ll think twice about it. So that’s kind of my way of giving back and hopefully preventing future violence and preventing gang wannabes. At the same time, I’m still in transition. I’m trying to help myself. I don’t really know if this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I’d like to go into the field of broadcasting. I’d like to take some college classes. But being a father – you know my biggest title is ‘father.’
Just over half of the focus group participants said they have not received all the help they need as fathers, and another 13 percent were unsure whether they have. Eighty percent said that young fathers, like young mothers, need support, and 67 percent said they could be a better father if they got some help. The forms of assistance mentioned tended to be related to increased opportunity rather than direct financial support. Participants, for instance, spoke of the need for more jobs; better teachers; more accessible job training; additional help for mothers; parenting classes; family dispute mediation; and affordable housing. Asked what the most helpful thing anyone had done for them since becoming a parent, the overwhelming response was the gift of love and support. In fact, almost three-quarters of the young fathers said family – his parents or her parents – had been a “big help” with the baby.
→In my situation, one of the biggest things … for support would be maybe some kind of young-mother training where it could help them get back on their feet. (My child’s mother) just got off welfare just recently. That was one of the things that made it harder for me.
→I’m single, you know, I live by myself. She has her boyfriend, her income, and her boyfriend lives with her, so she’s got his income plus what I pay for child support. I wish there would be some kind of system where they could evaluate that all the time, because they don’t look at that. I mean, it looks to me like she’s on easy street.
→To me, my only option was leaving school to make money. If I had someone show me the way, you know, workshop things, like, ‘If you stay in school, you can do this, you can do that. Here are the options. Weigh them up.’ Because right now, there are people in high school – there are teenagers having sex – and some of those people are going to get pregnant, and there’s going to be fathers coming out of the high school. Where are they going to go? Is there going to be a place where they can go for advice?
→I want job training that trains you and gets you to that job. We don’t have no information…. I wouldn’t know where to go (to get it). Wait for a commercial to come on TV. Just sit there and watch TV and wait for a commercial.
→You’ll never be a professional parent. You could be a parent for thirty-five years and you’d still be learning something every day. But if there were classes, I’d go over to the class…. I didn’t know how to put on a diaper, I didn’t know how to heat up a bottle, I didn’t know how to mix that oatmeal stuff up, I didn’t know none of that.
→What we need is things for our kids to do that don’t cost anything, or don’t cost very much. My son’s in the Little League, and to get him in there, I had to be a coach. That’s good, I mean I like it, but you can’t always do that just to get your kid in something.
→One 20-year-old father with a particularly troubled past found that his experience with Youthbuild, an education and job training program, had turned him around:
→When I was younger, you know, I had a crazy life, so I didn’t care about nothing. Now I’m in this program trying to see the light and become somebody so my son can look up to me and say, ‘If my Dad can do it, I can do it.’
→Other fathers complained about the human services system, finding it bureaucratic and impersonal. The following remarks were typical:
→I wrote the Department of Social Services, and they wrote me back and said what I wrote them wasn’t clear. I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It was to the point. I had names, dates, everything in there. I just got blown off, you know what I mean?
→I’ve been paying child support since day one every year. Now I owe three hundred and something dollars. And I try to figure it out, and it’s like you’ve got to write to someone. And if you don’t get the right response, there’s no way you can sit down with them and just say, ‘Look, I’m having this problem. Can you help me out and get through it?’ I think they need to educate you on the process so that way you’re equipped with the knowledge and you know what to do.
Obviously the young men who agreed to participate in the focus groups were part of that subset of young fathers most committed to their role as parents; it is undeniably true that many other young fathers are less committed to caring for their children, for reasons that are environmental, personal or both. Even so, we nevertheless assume the attitudes expressed by the group participants to be generally representative of those of many young fathers, particularly those in the state’s urban areas.
To summarize, then, the Alliance found that:
The fathers loved their children and wanted better lives for them than they themselves have had. In particular, they wanted to make sure that their children finished school and avoided involvement with gangs and drugs. Significantly, almost all the young men also wanted to do a better job of parenting than their own fathers had done; some, in fact, seemed motivated as parents almost soley by that desire.
The young fathers understood their emotional and financial responsibilities as parents. In fact, most of the fathers felt they were doing a reasonably good job of fulfilling those responsibilities, but believed they could do an even better job if they had some assistance.
The young men’s problems frequently mirrored those of uneducated, unskilled older fathers, but were exacerbated by their youth and by a lack of guidance from concerned adults in the community. Indeed, contacts with helping professionals – with teachers, police and state social service workers, for instance – were most often negative, and seemed merely to underscore the young men’s sense of frustration and isolation. Because of their hostile experiences with “the system,” many of the young fathers felt alone with their problems and unsure where to go for help or advice.
The young fathers were generally unaware of father-related programs, groups or services that might be available to them, and thus had had little or no chance to meet and talk with other young fathers. Even fathers who attended the same school or job program had often failed to identify one another as fathers, a fact that underscores the social isolation typically experienced by young fathers.
The young fathers were often unclear about regulations concerning paternity and child support, and if given a choice preferred that financial, custody and visitation arrangements be made privately rather than by a court. To the extent that young fathers were participating in the system, they seemed decidedly suspicious of it, either because they perceived it as unfair to them or because they felt unable to resolve problems easily and quickly. At least one young father said the bureaucratic tangle was enough in itself to cause a father to “give up” trying to make support payments.
The following list of recommendations should not be considered exhaustive. Further and more detailed recommendations will likely emerge as more research is conducted on the problems of young fathers.
Information on job training should be made more widely available. Group participants were eager for any information about job training opportunities, including on-the-job training, vocational education and internships, but rarely knew where such information could be obtained. A well-publicized statewide clearinghouse system should be established for young people seeking information on opportunities in their own city or town.
Information about paternity, child support, custody, welfare benefits and related issues should be provided to every young father in the state upon the birth of his child. Though some outreach efforts exist, they are clearly inadequate to reach all young fathers. Personalized, systematic and universal distribution of information is probably the best way to ensure that all young men get the facts they need regarding their rights and obligations as parents.
Opportunities for peer involvement and counseling should be enhanced. Because so few group participants had found opportunities to connect with other young fathers, many of the young men felt gratified by the focus group experience. One 17-year-old even asked the Alliance to arrange a second group simply to give him another opportunity to talk about his feelings – a strong endorsement of the notion that support groups be made more widely available, and in those places where young fathers are most likely to congregate: high school, community college, local youth centers, job-training programs and the Department of Youth Services.
Parenting classes for fathers should be made available in every community. Though most of the participants said they had learned the fundamentals – diaper-changing, for example – by taking care of siblings or other relatives, three-quarters nonetheless agreed that young fathers should take parenting classes. None, however, knew where such classes might be available, and none had attended one.
Gender-specific outreach programs for young fathers should be established. Young fathers have always been harder to reach than young mothers, and services for them must be both aggressive and specific to their particular issues and problems. Services designed for young mothers, therefore, cannot simply be expanded to include young fathers unless structural changes are made and unless workers are trained to address the needs of young men. Furthermore, outreach efforts should focus on fathers not merely as financial contributors to their children’s lives, but as vital emotional contributors as well.
Transportation problems must be addressed as part of any overall strategy for strengthening father-child relationships. Unless he owns a car, a non-custodial young father can easily be separated from his child. In fact, transportation problems seem to have a greater impact on fathers’ relationships with their children, whose whereabouts they cannot usually control, than on their ability to get a job, the location of which they can more or less choose. The problem is particularly acute in cities with limited public transportation services, and is presumably worst of all for young fathers living in areas of the state unserved by transit systems altogether.
Pregnancy prevention efforts should more aggressively target young men. The Alliance did not ask focus group participants about their sexual practices, but it was clear from the discussions that few if any fathers had taken an active role in planning their girlfriends’ pregnancies. That alone is reason to look more closely at pregnancy prevention programs in the state, and to make a more serious effort to focus such programs on adolescent boys as well as girls.