As we celebrate the fathers and father figures who have impacted our lives, let’s also think about championing fatherhood. Not just as a holiday to buy ties and tools, but also as an opportunity to redefine and revalue fathering as important work. Last year, I made the apparently very controversial decision to forgive $38,750 amount of my ex husband’s child support arrears. Read why below in my piece on NYTimes.com, and let me know what you think..
But too often, fathers are seen as accessory parents or bumbling second rate caretakers. On the other side, our society only defines fathers as deadbeat or not, solely by financial contribution. And we lump the unwilling to pay and the unable to pay in the same prison-bound barrel, regardless of what other meaningful contributions that father may make to the child’s welfare.
Here’s my story:
Earlier this year, I spent three hours sitting on a hard, wooden bench in the Queens County Family Court, waiting for a judge to approve my petition to forgive $38,750 in child support arrears from my ex-husband.
The judge said, “Well this is a rare one,” then asked me several times if I was aware of what I was doing and if I had received legal counsel. When I told my single mom friends, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of treason. “Child support is all we have!” one friend exclaimed.
I admit, Chris Rock is one of my favorite comedians. In one of his ROFL performances he talks candidly (how else would he do?) about parenting and women who think it is just fine to raise their children without the father. Here is the cleaned up version of his comments, to the best of my ability: “A bunch of girls think that you don’t need a man to raise no child. Shut up! (expletive expletive) …Yeah, you can do it without a man, but it don’t mean it’s to be done. You can drive a car with your feet if you want to, it don’t mean it’s a good (expletive) idea!”
I couldn’t agree more. Not everything that can be done, should be done. Here’s a better idea: For us to end the cycle of poor health, poverty, under achievement in schools and irreparable emotional scars on our young boys and girls, we need to end the dangerous narrative in our community that we don’t need our men and that our children will be just fine without their fathers. This is a lie.
Men are critically important to infant health and childhood development. Women need the support of their male partner to give their babies the optimal nutrition from birth–breast milk. Children need their fathers from infancy, point blank.
But let’s face it from the baby showers to so-called family supportive posters with no dad to be found, men often get pushed out of the picture. Add to this an “I got this” mentality among black women and a dangerous thinking in our community that glorifies the single moms that do it all without a father and you’ve got the makings of a serious problem–one that can impact the health outcomes for black infants.
A while ago, I (jokingly) wrote that I feared Essence magazine might cancel my subscription or ban me from the office building (I’m a former senior editor) for saying something that may sound harsh on black women but needed to be said. It was this (no joking): Black women may be unknowingly contributing to the breakdown of the black family by continuing a cultural legacy of acting like we don’t need our men. Saying, “forget him” or that we will be just fine. This is dangerous thinking on our part (read my full post here). Yes there was a time during slavery when we couldn’t count on our men as caregivers and providers because they could be taken away from the family at any given time. Later many of our men went North for work and women had to run the family on their own. But those days are over. But ideas that our men are unreliable and unnecessary linger like a painful scar–and our children pay the price.
Last week I was in San Antonio at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation‘s First Food Forum, an annual gathering of breastfeeding-related grantees. I had the pleasure of moderating a dynamic panel discussion on the role of male caregivers with some amazing men involved with male engagement in various ways. Here’s what I learned:
We have to stop assuming absent or distant dad’s just don’t care and allow that feelings of inadequacy (men are told to provide and protect. If he can’t do that he may feel be has nothing to offer and just stay away), his own fears or perhaps the mothers attitude may also play a part.
A few weeks ago, I attended the screening of a documentary called Spit’in Anger, produced by the non-profit, Father’s Incorporated. The powerful film chronicles the impact of absent or distant fathers on the lives of several men of different ages. The story included the journey of Kenneth Braswell himself, the founder and executive director of Fathers Incorporated, who has spent over 23 years advocating for fathers and creating father support programs but never dealt with the impact of his own absent father . Too many black men have grown up without present fathers and have never had a safe space to express that pain –many men at the screening opened up that night (read Kenneth’s recent letter to LeBron James). It was a powerful evening. But it became very clear to me that when it comes to fatherhood, men can be what they didn’t see. And, more to the point, “Hurt people hurt people.”
So we need to create space for understanding black men beyond “he ain’t isht” judgments and valuing their contribution only in dollar amounts.
We have to stop saying our men “don’t care” when that is our assessment not their actual words. When I work with young moms and they say the father “doesn’t care” I always ask ‘what makes you feel that way?’ A young mother of a two-month old in Milwaukee told me, the father showed up at the birth and that was it. I shared that showing up at the birth sounds like someone who cares to me. After we talked she realized that after he showed up at the hospital nobody in her family spoke to him. Some members were very rude and that he might have felt pushed away.
And my good friend Kuroji Patrick, a devoted father of five and a powerful advocate for male caregivers particularly as it relates to breastfeeding support, always talks about being ignored or not addressed by doctors and nurses while actually standing next to his wife. By and large negative stereotypes about our black men affect doctors, nurses, lactation consultants and other healthcare professionals. This has to stop.
As women we have to stop confusing our relationship with the father with the child’s relationship with the father. Those are two separate things. As a divorced mother, I learned this lesson myself. One has nothing to do with the other. Neither does child support. Whether or not my ex-husband had given me a dime has never come in between my children spending time with their father. My children being with their dad is priceless to them (and me) and I could never equate that to money or material things.
We need a new way of being and a new mantra for the sake of our babies. It goes like this: We need our men. We need our men. Our children need their fathers. Breastfeeding mothers need their men.
And until we have tried everything, put aside our baggage, asked ourselves the tough questions, let go of our judgment, and opened up every opportunity for our child’s father to be in that child’s life–that we are not driving cars with our feet anymore.
Kimberly Seals Allers
Kimberly is a Food and Community Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation increasing awareness of the first food–breast milk.
You’ve probably seen enough on Father’s Day and gift buying, so we’re also focused on beyond Father’s Day and offering single dads great tips for managing fatherhood all year round.
Mark Peters, Founder and CEO of DressMeDaddy.com shares these five suggestions to support newly single dads as they embark on their co-parenting journey.
1. Spend the time you have with your kids doing things!
Spend the time you have with your kids doing things. You may not be a husband anymore, but you are still a father. Be present with your kids and actively engage them. When you interact with your kids, you build a relationship. Play games, read books, cook, play sports, go fishing, do projects around the house…whatever it is, create memories finding things you have to do together. (Peters also advises creating a “no phone zone” to maximize time between dad and child).
2. Don’t let your anger and frustration with your ex define and dominate the time that should be devoted to your children.
Focus on what you can control and quickly develop a mental picture of what you want it to look like in the future! There are so many emotions associated with divorce – anger, resentment, disappointment, relief – it is easy to let them get in the way, especially in your relationship with your kids. When your kids look back on this time of their life what do you want them to say about you? This is your time with them. Create a memory worth remembering. The rewards will be amazing. Make sure your kids feel safe, secure, loved and important.
3. Prioritize your life!
Create a list of all of the important things in your life (including professional, financial and personal) to create balance. State everything in detail and then stick to that list. (Peters states his daughter ranked number one on his list no matter what came after).
4. Stay busy! Continue doing things you enjoy!
Take up a hobby if need be: Reading, developing a new business opportunity, working out, catching up with old friends, investing, gardening, etc. are all great ways to keep yourself actively engaged.
5. Talk to someone. Seek counseling if it will help improve your well- being.
Although many newly single dads may have spent numerous hours in therapy with their ex-wives to no avail, this may still be a great time to find a trusted counselor and figure out what you did wrong in the relationship. In order for you to improve your own life, you must figure out what internal changes you must make.