I always knew my father wasn’t much of a family man. He was in and out of prison. He would show up and then disappear for two or three years.
After I went into foster care at the age of 10, I wondered,“Why didn’t he want any part of me?” I wanted him to help me answer questions like, “Can I make it in life?” and, “What is my purpose?”
Kids at Risk
I’m not alone in missing a dad. More than half of all black children don’t live with their fathers; one in four Hispanic kids and one in five white kids live apart from their dads.
Research shows that kids who don’t have dads are much more likely to be poor, depressed, fail in school, commit crimes, have sex early on and (for girls) get pregnant. Children of single mothers are also more likely to go into foster care.
Why would a man put his kids at such risk?
To find out, I went to a program in Harlem called POPS (Providing Opportunity for Parental Success). POPS runs a workshop to help fathers reunite and connect with their children and offers counseling, mediation with family members and legal help.
Robert Sanchez, the program manager, caught me off guard because he was dressed in a suit, but actually, he had a little bit of the hood in him. Sanchez didn’t get to know his own father,“a dope fiend and alcoholic,” until he was 15 years old.
Sanchez also fathered a daughter at 18. Soon after, he was arrested and sent to prison for 15 years. While incarcerated, he wrote to his daughter, had her visit and kept communication open with his daughter’s mother. Now they see each other about twice a month.
Fatherhood and Fear
Sanchez said the main reason fathers don’t stick around is fear. Having a child is scary! Guys worry that they don’t know how to care for a child and they don’t want to look stupid.
Lots of fathers have no idea how to be a good parent because they never had one themselves.
Some disappear because they get caught up in the streets or prison, others don’t stay because of baby mama drama.“Fifty percent of our fathers have a volatile relationship with their child’s mother,” and almost none are married to them, he noted. Frustrated with their child’s mother, men may stop seeing their kids to avoid fights and conflict. Or, the mothers may not let them visit.
Not Just a ‘Roll of Bills’
Many men believe a father’s only role is to provide for their children. Men with jobs are more likely to be present in their children’s lives. Those without money often don’t stick around because they “associate fatherhood as an extension of their pocket, and think ‘I’ll stay out of the child’s life until I have money,’” Sanchez explained.
But even the poorest fathers can support their children in important ways, Sanchez said. A father is not just a roll of bills, but “a guiding light, a teacher, a friend, a protector, an enlightener. A father is a supporter, someone you can go to for understanding and love.
“One question I ask my fathers is, ‘What is one great thing you remember about your dad?’” Sanchez said.Their answers never have to do with money. “That child is not going to remember the sneakers, but he does remember the time you took him to the park, or to a baseball game, or made him feel good about himself.”
Real fatherhood, said Sanchez, is “if you gave them a hug every day,” spent time with them, and showed you really cared about their feelings. In POPS, dads learn child development and how to care for their children.
POPS teaches dads to hold a newborn, and how a baby communicates his needs by crying. Men learn how easy it is to play with their children, help them with homework, ask about their interests, or discover something new by taking kids on outings.
If the mother won’t let a dad see his kids, POPS workers take the dad to family court and show him how to establish paternity, get a visitation order and enforce his legal rights to see his children.
Find a Role Model
Being a good father is about understanding your own anger, your past and your parents, and looking for role models who can help you find new ways to be a parent, Sanchez explained.“I made it my business to know what a father was, with positive fathers and role models around me,” he said.
He encourages dads to search for mentors to help them. A good role model is someone who is accountable (shows up when he says he will and keeps his promises), takes responsibility when he makes mistakes (admits he’s wrong, apologizes, and makes amends), and knows how to listen without criticizing. Once you find one,“tell him that you admire him and ask if he can give you guidance,” Sanchez advised.
Sanchez wanted to break his own family’s cycle of father absence so badly that he was willing to do things that were new and uncomfortable for him, like not using drugs or alcohol, forgiving people who wronged him, earning a master’s degree and traveling all over the world. I admire that. When it is my turn, I am going to try to do the hard work to break my family’s cycle as well.
Reprinted from Represent, a magazine by and for youth in foster care. www.youthcomm.org