“Where the boys are”
The Unacknowledged Worlds of Nonmarital Fathers
Despite the seemingly staggering number of single fathers, identifying men to interview was not easy. It was awkward approaching men casually at the mall or at the park (as I had for my article on single mothers) and asking their views on the intimate subjects that had been so freely discussed by women. Fathers pushing swings or strollers were also less plentiful. Several focus groups arranged through nonprofits or at churches were cancelled due to no-shows.
Disheartened, I picked up the phone and called Jennifer, one of the single mothers I had interviewed for my previous MTV article. She had sharedvividly about the difficulties of single motherhood and had stepped me through the process of securing public assistance. I explained that I was now hoping to visit with men about their views on single fatherhood. She paused. “Single fathers?” she asked, as though puzzled by this term. “Gee, I don’t know any single fathers,” she responded flatly, then added, “I know a ton of single moms, but I don’t know any single dads.”
Now I was puzzled. “How about Jake?” I asked hungrily. Jake was the father of her baby; I knew they were on good terms. “Or all the fathers associated with the single moms you mention?”
“Oh!” she laughed heartily, as though a light bulb had gone off, “I never think of Jake as a single father. He isn’t around much. But I guess he is a single father and the others too!” And with that, I gained access to a host, or as Jennifer would say, a ton of single fathers, willing to tell their stories.
I next learned that my quandary finding single fathers to interview had as much to do with my definition as it did a perceived accounting problem: Just who are “single fathers?”
Like Jennifer, who did not readily consider the father of her baby a “single father,” the U.S. Census does not count him either—nor does it count most of the men who become fathers each year outside marriage—unless the unmarried father is over 18 years of age, is the head of his household and lives with and provides primary care for his own biological, adoptive or step-children. These qualifiers, used for the majority of social science research on single fathers, narrow the pool of so-called “single fathers” to roughly 2.6 million men.
In other words, the “single fathers” millions of viewers know via MTV – Ryan, Gary, Tyler and Derek (now deceased)—much like Jake—who were unintentionally
cast into fatherhood at a young age and who participate in their children’s care in various but limited capacities, are largely excluded from the documented mix, as are approximately another 500,000 fathers who are the unmarried and non-cohabitating biological counterparts to the 1.6 million women who give birth outside marriage each year and, according to the Census, count as “single mothers.”
The first father I interviewed was Larry. “I am a big guy, semi-bald,” he explained in his email. I found him easily at the coffee shop where he had arrived earlier to secure a table removed from ears that might limit our conversation. I estimated Larry at 60 years old. Initially, I was uncertain his story fit into the message I hoped to convey about single fathers and unplanned fatherhood, but a friend familiar with my efforts suggested I meet with Larry who was, I’ll admit, the first father out of many I had asked, to say, “Yes” to a meeting! I wasn’t about to turn him down.
Still, Larry fit my description of a “single father:” He was not married at the time his girlfriend gave birth, did not live with his children and would not have been counted by Census or any other organization, even 30 years earlier when his twins were born.
“My girlfriend and I moved in together within a year of dating. I suspected that she wanted to marry me, but I was 29 years old and slow to make a marriage decision—which was good, because within a year I saw red flags in our relationship and determined we had too many differences to marry.
Nevertheless we lived together for another year. I went away for a weekend and was going to break up with her when I returned, but when I got home she told me she was pregnant. And guess what? Twins! Although she knew I did not want children, she had secretly gone to a fertility clinic and had taken fertility drugs. She was 32 and wanted a baby; so in my mind, I got snookered into being a father.
“We split during her pregnancy. I did go with her to the clinic a few times. I had not wanted to be a father under those circumstances, but once a father, I ‘bucked up’ and took responsibility for my sons. Their mother remained the primary care provider and had physical custody of the boys. I was adjudicated as the father in a court filing, which wasn’t a big deal to me, as I knew I was the father and planned to be involved. I got an apartment five minutes from their house, went there most mornings to take them to daycare and some days picked them up after work and stayed there to put the boys to bed.”
Larry went on to explain that he “always had a relationship with his kids;” he couldn’t hide his pride in that—and that his “good relationship with them” continues to this day, 29 years later.
Larry had fit neither the stereotypical portrait of the single father I expected to interview nor the image that media today paint of the oft-times one-dimensional single father who is either black or Hispanic, struggling to make ends meet, employed in a low-wage dead end job, if working at all, and who knocked up some girl who may or may not be his girlfriend and who will probably not be in his life-nor the baby, either-within a short period of time…
Larry stepped me through a lifetime of what it meant to him to be a single father. “welcome to my world!” he bellowed good-naturedly reflecting on nearly thirty years fathering his son from mostly outside their mother’s home.
Jennifer delivered on her word, and, within days of my phone call, I sat face to face with a handsome, bearded young man, 40 years my junior, the father of Jennifer’s baby. Clearly, meeting me was not on his “top ten” list, but out of respect (or I think, love) for Jennifer, he agreed to visit with me. Not specifically a chatty fellow, after some prodding, Jake told his story that, while separate from Larry’s by a generation, seemed strikingly similar.
“Jennifer and I lived together; then we broke up. I didn’t want anything to do with her and was off leading my life when she told me she was pregnant. I flipped out. I wanted her to get an abortion, and I think she was considering it, so I tried to be nice to her and went with her to a doctor’s appointment, and there we saw the ultrasound. It was a real baby, so we just couldn’t do it. I didn’t pressure her to end the pregnancy; she had made it clear that I didn’t have a say in that decision.”
Jennifer gave birth to a son. “I was an involved father for the first two weeks after our baby was born.” (He seemed pretty proud of this contribution; I didn’t tell him I thought it meager.) “I went to her apartment every day and helped out. I loved my son right away. And then I did something that I’m not proud of: I dropped out of their lives. I had signed the ROP (Recognition of Paternity), so had taken some ownership of the baby, but being a dad at that time wasn’t what I wanted or expected—nor was I ready to be a father. I was 23.”
“I didn’t have an education [beyond high school], and I didn’t have much of a job, but I did pay child support when it was court-ordered. I didn’t see much of my son for more than a year, but Jennifer didn’t fuss because my mother stepped in and took the baby to her house, which gave Jennifer a break. My mother was a committed grandmother; she did not want to jeopardize her relationship with her grandchild. I give my mother credit that today Jennifer and I are on good terms and that I am involved regularly with my son.”
Rico was the youngest of my interviewees when he became a father and was probably the closest demographically to the fathers on MTV’s Teen Mom franchise. . . . [He] also needed prodding before warming to the idea of talking about his fatherhood experience, and we also had to overcome a slight language barrier. Rico had been an average student and, typical of high school sophomores, was involved
in a few activities but mostly hung out after school at his girlfriend’s house. “Her mom wasn’t married and didn’t get home from work until six, so we’d go over there and watch TV, have a bite to eat, and then we’d end up messing around. (“Sex,” he explained to me.)
“Holly was younger than me, about 14. I didn’t expect her to get pregnant, that’s for sure. She said she was on birth control, but she wasn’t. We used a condom, too, most of the time. So I guess two things: One, she wasn’t on birth control, taking the pill like I thought, and, two, we must not have timed it right, or we didn’t use a condom that time. I don’t know. I was mad that she would get pregnant. I wanted her to have an abortion, and my dad even offered to pay for it, but she told me that I didn’t have an opinion. Her mom would not let her have an abortion and had agreed to take care of the baby. That was pretty much it for making the decision.
“I haven’t seen the baby much since it was born. Holly moved to a different school, and I moved away to live with my birth dad. I haven’t been a good dad. It has been almost 15 years now, and I rarely see or hear anything about my daughter.” Rico explained that Holly went on to give birth to another four babies, which he thought were fathered by four different men. “This made me think that most of this wasn’t my fault—none of the dads are around— just Holly and her babies.”
“Why wouldn’t our kids be confused?” questioned Larry. “What type of legacy are we passing along?” he pondered before recounting the following story that had haunted him for years.
“I was giving my twins a bath,” he reflected. “They were probably four years old at the time. They lived with their mother down the street, but they were at my house taking a bath, splashing in the tub. I said, ‘Don’t splash.’ They laughed and kept splashing, so I told them again, ‘Don’t splash.’ They said, ‘Mom lets us splash.’ To which I responded, ‘Mom may let you splash at her house, but there’s no splashing at my house. If I would have splashed like that growing up, my mom would have spanked me!’ Well, that did it; they stopped splashing.
“Then a few minutes later, like he’d been sitting there thinking quietly about this, one of the boys asked, ‘But could you splash at your dad’s house?’ Geez, it hit me then; my sons thought I’d had two houses, too! They had a mom’s house and a dad’s house. They thought this was the norm! Made me sad, because this isn’t what I would have wanted for my kids and certainly wasn’t how I’d grown up.”