2 Harvard Sociologists Challenge 'Deadbeat Dad' Stereotype

Generic image (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)
Generic image (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

The stereotype of a father deserting the mother of their children to bear the burden of child rearing alone is being turned on its ear by Harvard sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, who wrote the book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.


The pair interviewed numerous men in New Jersey about their relationships with their children, and Slate reports that their responses are often the opposite of the absent-father trope.  

… the single best book on fatherhood I've read in a long time, Doing the Best I Can by Harvard sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson. The book begins by sourcing the media stereotype of the inner city "hit-and-run" dad to the aptly named Timothy McSeed, who starred in a 1986 CBS special report called "The Vanishing Family: The Crisis in Black America." McSeed bragged on the show, "I got strong sperm," and said he didn't use condoms because "girls don't like them things." Then, when his girlfriend delivered his sixth child, footage showed him dancing around the delivery room shouting "I'm the king!" Bill Moyers won many awards for the show, and it was picked up by dozens of news outlets and the world was convinced that it understood the motivations and character of this new multiplying breed of the unwed father: vain, callous, and egomaniacal, interested in his children as trophies but not as vulnerable little beings.

In their book, Edin and Nelson go back at the McSeed caricature and pick it apart in surprising ways. The authors spent several years camping out in a two room apartment in East Camden, N.J., and following and interviewing 110 mostly unmarried white and African-American fathers there and in Philadelphia, trying to figure out what fatherhood means to them. What they found is that for these so called "deadbeat dads," the relationship between the man and the mother of his child is usually pretty shaky, but the father-child bond is utterly central to the man's life, so central that these dads often sound like the most sentimental of mothers. They hate the idea that they are just a paycheck, especially since they usually aren't providing much of a steady one. (That's what the moms are doing.) So instead "they insist that their role is to ‘be there,'" the authors observe, "to show love and spend quality time."

Read more at Slate.