But What If I Don't Want to Be a Dad?

A year after President Obama launched his "fatherhood initiative" to address the problems facing 23 million children in America living without their dads, one researcher thinks she can do the president one better with a controversial new plan.

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Not all academics agree with such a drastic measure. But there is some consensus that there's got to be a better way, particularly for lower-income fathers.

"It's all punitive -- be a good father or else," says Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University who, along with her colleague from Harvard Kathryn Edin, wrote Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. "It's a completely insane policy that says, 'By the way, when you fail to contribute [to your child] economically, we'll lock you up. And when you're locked up, you still have to pay the money you owe, and you don't get to see your kids.' " (Kefalas says that prison officials have told her they prefer that children do not visit their fathers in prison, so as not to "reward" the inmates.)

Exacerbating America's propensity to punish fathers it deems unfit is the fact that, in low-income communities, the definition of fatherhood is far different from what it is in the middle class, according to Kefalas. "If you push them about what being a father means, men and women describe it as someone who will always be part of the mother's life and the child's life," she says. "It's almost a proxy for marriage. The men say, 'I might get locked up and my life might take me to other places, but I'll always have a connection to you and this child.' "

That, Kefalas says, is when the fatherhood initiative gets messy. "Because what [the government] is saying is, 'We want you to behave like middle-class fathers, despite the fact that you have no middle-class resources."

Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, echoes Kefalas sentiments, saying, "A lot of time, people speak about deadbeat dads, but we are realizing there are dead-broke dads." Casey, whose nonprofit organization provides training programs and resources for underprepared fathers, wouldn't comment on financial abortions, but he did say that men who don't want to be dads should "keep their stuff in their pants." For those who don't, he stresses the importance of recognizing that good fathering can mean simply being present, even if they can't provide financially for their children. "Just be there," he says. "There are no perfect dads."

Among young parents, Hamer found, "there's no conversation about what it means to be a parent. That was part of the issue for these men; they didn't really understand what their place was."

Kefalas, on the other hand, says that her research yielded almost the opposite conclusion: Not only were young men discussing the possibility of children with their sexual partners, but they also talked to their women about wanting babies.

"A very distinctive phenomenon among low-income populations, across white, Hispanic and black men, was that you'd hear guys going, 'I wanna have a baby by you' to their 17-year-old girlfriend," Kefalas says. "Now, what does that mean? A cynic would say it's just a pickup line, and I'm sure there are young men who say it in that cynical sense. But I also believe that in that moment, many of them believe it to a certain extent."

(Here, it's important to remember that not all absent fathers were never married to their child's mother. In a study from 1991, only 39 percent of the lone mothers sampled were never married.)

Hamer says she's "not sure she'd disagree" with financial abortions, but she's skeptical of their success in low-income communities. "I think it would have a greater impact on men who actually have the means to provide financial assistance to their children."