Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City

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Book Review: Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City

Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. For that book, Edin and coauthor Maria Kefalas lived in rough Philadelphia-area neighborhoods, alongside the single mothers they interviewed. The new book tells the other side of the story. Staying in the same neighborhoods, interviewing the same mix of white and black parents, Edin and Nelson find heartbreaking stories of childbearing and parenthood as a kind of cry of protest against violence, hopelessness, and self-destruction.

Pregnancies are unintended but typically welcomed by men who view fatherhood as a chance to prove their own ability to act rightly in their own eyes and those of their peers. The story of unwed fatherhood begins when the future fathers are children. Their feelings about having been abandoned by their own fathers come through clearly in Doing the Best I Can. Not all of these scattershot relationships result in a pregnancy, but many do. The statistics here are startling: among young unmarried inner-city parents, the average gap between the beginning of their relationship and the conception of their first child is just six or seven months.


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Nobody else in their lives reacts this way except, sometimes, the girlfriend. The young man cleans up his act, at least for a while. He and his girlfriend pledge to stay together and begin to talk about marriage. Sometimes they actually do get married. This method of forming relationships, including marriages, minimizes the element of choice, which many young adults find paralyzing.

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Getting married because of a pregnancy seems to offer a paradoxical kind of reassurance. But if a young man gets married because his girlfriend got pregnant, then even if the marriage goes wrong later, he can at least tell himself that he tried to do the right thing. But staying committed to a spouse one barely knows is as hard as it sounds.

Kathryn Edin, Ph.D.

These shotgun relationships typically fall apart, leaving both the man and the woman embittered and mistrustful. Men and women face sharply different risks with these relationships. Men face a painful blow to their sense of self and a return to the anchorless life of the young man with nobody to care for and not much to hope for. Plus, she, he, and the community at large assign her—not them—ultimate parental responsibility. Nonetheless, these men have a real desire to parent at least one child well—better than they were parented themselves.

Unfortunately, the ideal of marriage they share with richer Americans requires them to attain economic security before they wed. But the men interviewed here are struggling, with virtually no models and little support, to do better than they did before—and better than their own fathers.

Read More From Kathryn Edin

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. Please email comments to letters commonwealmagazine. Making Do. This method of forming relationships, including marriages, minimizes the element of choice, which many young adults find paralyzing. Getting married because of a pregnancy seems to offer a paradoxical kind of reassurance.

But if a young man gets married because his girlfriend got pregnant, then even if the marriage goes wrong later, he can at least tell himself that he tried to do the right thing. But staying committed to a spouse one barely knows is as hard as it sounds. These shotgun relationships typically fall apart, leaving both the man and the woman embittered and mistrustful. Men and women face sharply different risks with these relationships.

Men face a painful blow to their sense of self and a return to the anchorless life of the young man with nobody to care for and not much to hope for. Plus, she, he, and the community at large assign her—not them—ultimate parental responsibility. Nonetheless, these men have a real desire to parent at least one child well—better than they were parented themselves.

Unfortunately, the ideal of marriage they share with richer Americans requires them to attain economic security before they wed. But the men interviewed here are struggling, with virtually no models and little support, to do better than they did before—and better than their own fathers. Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. Please email comments to letters commonwealmagazine.

Making Do. By Eve Tushnet. Share Share Twitter Print. Published in the February 21, issue:. View Contents. Related Books. By Paul Baumann.

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