Panel Paper: Making Sense of the Obstacles to Fatherhood: A Cultural Understanding of Absent Fatherhood Among Black Fathers

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 1:40 PM
Nambe (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Matthew Alemu and Alford Young, University of Michigan
Single-mother-led households have increased tremendously over time in the U.S, particularly among African-Americans. Since 1940 unmarried births have occurred more frequently in black households compared to their racial counterparts. Most recently the 2010 census revealed that 68% of African-American births were to unmarried women, compared to 26% for whites. Underlying these disproportionate trends is the growing precarious state of black men—particularly low-income black men— who have endured increasing rates of unemployment and incarceration leading to their growing absence from the home.  

Much work has studied the growing unemployment and subsequent disenfranchisement experienced by low-income black men. Despite good intentions, policy interventions—such as child-support enforcement—have been shown to penalize many low-income black men who want to support their children but struggle to do so. Though helpful this earlier work assumes a direct correlation between work and fatherhood and doesn’t consider other types of absence such as emotional absence that can occur when fathers are present physically. Also, it failed to consider the impact that external forces have on the way low-income black men make sense of work, relationships and fatherhood. Recent work has enhanced our understanding of how forces like poverty and/or social isolation impact the meaning-making process. For example, research shows that the father-son relationship is in constant negotiation with larger macro forces like the labor market and social welfare policies. Additionally, scholars have shown how the way marginalized black men navigate the world of work is influenced by their social proximity to the mainstream world that they are often disconnected from. However, in these studies references men make to their absent fathers when discussing fatherhood goes unassessed.  When studying low-income black men and disconnected fathers, scholars often view the fatherhood status of the men being studied as non-influential attributes of the men rather than as points of analysis.

Scholars understand that the social context that children grow up in gives them a view of life from which all later experience is viewed which greatly shapes their adult conduct. Yet no research has included absent fatherhood as something capable of impacting the way that children grow to make sense of the world, and more specifically their roles as fathers. To address this void I ask three questions. First, what are the ways in which absent fatherhood occurs?  Second, what are the narratives of absence that low-income black men carry of their absent fathers? Third, how do men’s recollections of absent fathers impact the way they construct meanings of fatherhood, masculinity and relationships and how these meanings affect parenting behavior?

As absent fatherhood increases overtime we cannot not ignore the intergenerational implications of it on young children who grow to become men and likely absent fathers themselves. This research is an attempt to start a dialogue on understanding absent fatherhood through understanding the impact of absent fathers on how children grow to make sense of their responsibilities and roles as fathers.