Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City

Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City

by Kathryn Edin

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Across the political spectrum, unwed fatherhood is denounced as one of the leading social problems of today. Doing the Best I Can is a strikingly rich, paradigm-shifting look at fatherhood among inner-city men often dismissed as "deadbeat dads." Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson examine how couples in challenging straits come together and get pregnant so


Across the political spectrum, unwed fatherhood is denounced as one of the leading social problems of today. Doing the Best I Can is a strikingly rich, paradigm-shifting look at fatherhood among inner-city men often dismissed as "deadbeat dads." Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson examine how couples in challenging straits come together and get pregnant so quickly—without planning. The authors chronicle the high hopes for forging lasting family bonds that pregnancy inspires, and pinpoint the fatal flaws that often lead to the relationship’s demise. They offer keen insight into a radical redefinition of family life where the father-child bond is central and parental ties are peripheral.

Drawing on years of fieldwork, Doing the Best I Can shows how mammoth economic and cultural changes have transformed the meaning of fatherhood among the urban poor. Intimate interviews with more than 100 fathers make real the significant obstacles faced by low-income men at every step in the familial process: from the difficulties of romantic relationships, to decision-making dilemmas at conception, to the often celebratory moment of birth, and finally to the hardships that accompany the early years of the child's life, and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post/WonkBlog - Harold Pollack
"An essential book."
Library Journal
Social commentators as diverse as Bill Cosby, Louis Farrakhan, and Gloria Steinem have lamented the absence of fathers in the lives of inner-city children. In contrast, Edin (public policy & management; Promises I Can Keep) and Nelson (social policy; Every Time I Feel the Spirit), both at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, present a study of unwed urban fathers, without nostalgia, judgment, or irony. Based on 110 interviews conducted in Camden, NJ, and Philadelphia, the book offers an unflinching examination of how these men view children, families, romantic relationships, and the world around them. While the authors highlight patterns, set the interviews against trends, and contrast their subjects with two-dimensional portraits in the media, there is limited explanation or theorizing. Foremost, this is a chronicle of perspectives from "disadvantaged fathers living in a struggling rustbelt metropolis at the turn of the twenty-first century." VERDICT This thoroughly researched and well-crafted study analyzes how these men view their lives, actions, and family bonds. Similar to William Julius Wilson's When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, now over ten years old, it will appeal to readers interested in focused surveys of urban life. Those who prefer an approach that's long on theory or policy solutions may be disappointed.—Ahmer Qadeer, Brooklyn

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Doing the Best I Can

Fatherhood in the Inner City

By Kathryn Edin, Timothy J. Nelson


Copyright © 2013 Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95513-4


One Thing Leads to Another

While witches and goblins lug candy-laden pillowcases and orange, plastic pumpkin-shaped buckets up and down the streets of Philadelphia, black thirty-one-year-old Amin Jenkins is experiencing the best moment of his life. It's October 31 and he's in the delivery room of the University of Pennsylvania hospital welcoming his baby Antoine into the world—a boy who he says "looks exactly like me." Though he admits the child was far from planned, Amin is proud that he "never said I wasn't responsible, that I had nothing to do with it"—"it" being Antoinette Hargrove's pregnancy. Far from it. "From the time that she was pregnant I was always involved, talking to her and spending time with her and rubbing her stomach."

By the time the baby arrived, Amin and Antoinette were clearly a "couple." By then, Amin was certain that he "really, really loved" Antoinette and was cautiously optimistic about their future together. Eighteen months later, however, "the communication just stopped." Amin explains, "as time progressed we started having certain irreconcilable differences and that caused our fire and that spark to diminish." Soon both were "seeing other people" on the side, which led to a "retaliation-type situation." Finally, around Antoine's third birthday, Antoinette, fed up with the tit for tat, moved out, leaving no forwarding address. Antoinette's sister and mother weren't willing to reveal where she was living. A year later Amin is still crazy about Antoine but doesn't know his address; he can only see his son when the boy visits Antoinette's mother.

What brings inner city couples like Amin and Antoinette together in the first place? How well do they usually know each other before becoming pregnant? Is it usually true love or little more than a one-night stand? Faced with an unplanned conception, how is the decision made to go ahead and have the baby? Do the pressures of pregnancy fracture an otherwise strong relationship, or is it pregnancy that transforms a fairly casual liaison into something more—at least for a time? And what aspects of men's larger life stories—their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood experiences and the neighborhoods they come of age in—both drive their desire and hamstring their attempts to forge a lasting relationship with the mother of their child? As we will see, the way in which men like Amin become fathers can tell us much about the many struggles they will face after their children are born.

Following a quiet career at James Alcorn Elementary, Amin's seventh- and eighth-grade years at Audenreid Junior High were pockmarked by suspensions for fighting, stealing, cutting class, and any other form of trouble available. By fifteen he'd been expelled from South Philly High and assigned to the Absalom Jones disciplinary school, and a year later the criminal justice system remanded him to a year in juvenile detention for burglary. Immediately after his eighteenth birthday, Amin was convicted of robbery and served his first real time. Out at twenty, he managed to stay free just long enough to father his first child (Antoine is his second) with a woman he barely knew—a child he denied—and acquire a GED before embarking on another and more lengthy prison stint, this time on multiple charges including burglary and aggravated assault. He wouldn't see the outside again until twenty-seven.

Amin's behavior seemed inexplicable to his poor but respectable three-generation South Philadelphia family, ruled by a strict grandmother with high expectations—the one who helped raise the kids and "steer us right" while his mother worked long hours keeping house for well-off Jewish families in West Philadelphia. This prodigal son's older siblings embraced and even exceeded their grandmother's goals, staying out of serious trouble, finishing school, getting married, and going on to lead middle-class lives. The sister he's closest to because they share the same father pretty much stayed on the straight and narrow too; now she holds a coveted state job.

But Amin is the youngest and the only boy. For him the neighborhood—the racially charged Grays Ferry on the westernmost border of South Philadelphia—took a special toll.3 In the mid-1960s his mother, Betty Jenkins, had been one of the first blacks to move into the hardscrabble working-class Irish community. With her mother and two oldest daughters in tow, Betty took up residence in Tasker Homes, a federal low-income housing development built for white war workers in the 1930s that, three decades later, had just begun accepting black applicants. Amin came of age there in the late eighties and by that time both the housing project and the surrounding neighborhood had taken a nosedive. Amin describes Grays Ferry as a "very, very rough community. Very racist, prejudiced. When you grow up in an environment such as that, it does have a tendency to affect and to infect your attitude and your disposition."

In this community everyone from peers to the police seemed intent on scapegoating black boys like Amin: for the declining economic fortunes of its industrial workers; for the deteriorating streetscapes; for the mounting racial tension; for the plunging property values and epidemic white flight. An enormous animosity toward whites who, in his view, were always ready to "start something" with the neighborhood's black residents and a bottomless anger toward authority figures were the contaminants that turned to poison in Amin's teenage years. Engaging in a little self-analysis, he says that it was these dispositions piled on top of the aching sense of abandonment he felt when his father simply drifted away that explained his compelling desire to find trouble whenever the opportunity arose. Not until age twenty-six, in Houtzdale Prison, located in a remote area of western Pennsylvania, did Amin find the space for reflection that led to redemption. "The last eleven months of my prison term was when I began to realize that I was wasting time," he explains. "I had to do better things with my life."

After his release Amin moved back in with his mother, who was still living in the now nearly all-black Tasker Homes. To prove the sincerity of his jailhouse conversion, Amin immediately hit the streets looking for work and eventually landed his first real job stocking shelves at Rite Aid. Determined to do even more to ensure he could "take a different course in life," he enrolled in evening classes at the Community College of Philadelphia to earn certification as a dietary assistant, a career choice inspired by his twenty-three-cent-a-day job in the prison kitchen. This coursework eventually qualified him for a position in the dietary department at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, just across the Schuylkill River from Grays Ferry.

Flush for the first time with real wages, Amin then made another positive move. He and his mother decided to pool their resources and trade life in public housing for home ownership. Over a year's time, the two managed to put away five thousand dollars. Thanks to a special program offered by a community-development corporation, this was sufficient down payment for a mortgage on a renovated row house in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. Soon, Amin and his mother were fitting the key into the lock of their own home and marveling at the freshly painted walls, gleaming wood floors, and the kitchen equipped with brand new appliances.

Amin's new world was the 2900 block of Diamond Street, just east of Fairmount Park and a few streets away from the historically significant "Mansion Row" running the length of the 3200 block. There the traces of the neighborhood's nineteenth-century heyday as a wealthy Jewish streetcar suburb are most evident, albeit in dilapidated form. On Amin's own block, the decrepit "mansions" with their turrets and pillars give way to solid, spacious three-story brownstones, some with dusty red or white metal awnings. It is a relatively good block, unbroken by the gaps of vacant lots that lend a bombed-out look to most others in the neighborhood. In Strawberry Mansion, lots cleared of some of the most flagrantly neglected and structurally unsound structures in the city nearly exceed those with residences. This is not to say that the 2900 block doesn't have "vacancies"—as passersby, we can't help but notice as light reflects off the broken window glass that leaves several abandoned structures exposed to the elements.

Although Strawberry Mansion was well away from the peers that had led Amin astray in the past, "out of the frying pan and into the fire" is how many outside observers would see his first concrete step toward upward mobility. While there is no Grays Ferry–style racial tension here—the neighborhood is 98 percent black—there is little else to commend it: sky-high poverty, unemployment and crime, failing schools, abysmally low property values, and, other than the massive church and synagogue structures that anchor nearly every other block, almost no amenities.4 Nonetheless, Amin viewed the move as an astonishing achievement and incontrovertible evidence that the prodigal son had returned home.

About this time, buoyed with newfound optimism about his future, Amin began to take notice of Antoinette, a coworker who was signaling her attraction to him. Flattered by the attention, he reciprocated. "She was attracted to me when I first saw her, and I made my approach," he recalls. We ask Amin to tell us how he and Antoinette met and what led to having a child together. His reply is noticeably succinct. "We began to socialize and communicate and then from there we began to affiliate and at some point in time we became intimate and my son was born."

In just a few words or a single sentence, inner-city fathers like Amin can often summarize what passes for courtship of the women who become their children's mothers. Perhaps this is because everything usually happens so fast: in Amin's case it was only fifteen months' time before "attraction" had led to "affiliation," then to an intimacy that resulted in conception. Nine months later Antoine entered the world. Amin's relationship with Antoinette is the most significant adult bond he has ever had outside of his tie to his mother, yet he, like most others we spoke to, uses vague, even bureaucratic language to describe his relationship in the period before pregnancy. In these accounts "affiliation"—a term indicating that a couple is "together"—often takes the place of other expected words like love or commitment.

Typically though, the two are definitely "together" by the time a child is conceived; Amin assures us that this was the case for him and Antoinette when Antoine was conceived. In fact, he can more or less pinpoint exactly when the two moved from "socializing" to togetherness. As men like Amin define it, this state is halfway between what middle-class youth refer to as a "hookup"—sex with no commitment—and a "real relationship." In the hookup phase, many men claim they use condoms quite consistently, and women in these communities confirm these assertions.5 But once the couple moves to "the next level" of togetherness, condoms, defined more as disease prevention than birth control, are left in the nightstand drawer. Indeed, if both partners have "tested clean" from STDs, men who continue to use condoms might as well be calling their female partner a "cheater" or a "whore."

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas's in-depth conversations with single mothers in many of these same neighborhoods suggest that women may overinterpret this signal and define what men deem mere togetherness as something more. It is perhaps because of this that their vigilance with regard to the pill, patch, or the shot so often falters once this level of couple cohesion has been achieved. Most—though by no means all—pregnancies brought to term among the men we spoke with across the Philadelphia metropolitan area were conceived in the context of bonds that, in their view, at least meet the minimum criteria of "togetherness," the point at which he, and then she, typically stops using protection.

How selective are the men about the women who will bear their children? Do they "choose" their children's mothers with care, or do they just end up together by chance? Let's turn to the stories of Tim O'Brien and John Carr. These men have never met, yet their lives have amazing parallels. Both are as Irish as the shamrocks proudly displayed on the marquees and in the windows of their neighborhood's pubs—the Starboard Side Tavern, Dempsey Irish Pub, Shannon's, Bob's Happy Hour—and in the front windows of homes. Both Tim and John grew up in Greater Kensington, northeast of Center City Philadelphia, where tattoos and bumper stickers, like the bars and front windows, often feature symbols of ethnic pride. This area was an eighteenth-century industrial suburb that now encompasses the very economically and ethnically distinct Philadelphia neighborhoods of Kensington, Fishtown, and West Kensington. Tim and John were both raised by single mothers and have had little contact with their fathers since childhood. Both dropped out of Kensington High in the tenth grade due to utter lack of interest in school. Both have been touched by the area's feverish drug trade—John as a dealer and Tim as a user. Finally, both became fathers at a young age and in the context of exceedingly fragile, short-term relationships with girls they "stole" from their friends.

Kensington proper, where John resides, is enmeshed in a slow and bitter battle between its older inhabitants—the Irish and the Poles—and the newcomer Puerto Ricans, Asians, and African Americans, though whites are still the largest ethnic group and make up almost 80 percent of the population. The nonwhites, whom John and many fellow Irish Americans view as "intruders," began permeating the northwest boundary between Kensington—the poorest majority-white neighborhood in the city—and the largely minority neighborhood of West Kensington in the 1980s, gradually eroding the de facto Berlin Wall of Kensington Avenue. This frightens young men like John, for across that divide lies West Kensington, once also a relatively stable, working-class, and staunchly white area and now 70 percent Latino and 20 percent black. It is also the poorest and one of the most violent areas of the city; the correlation between the area's changing complexion and social and economic conditions is one many white Kensingtonians take as causation.

John grew up just east of that line on the 1900 block of East Hagert between Jasper and Emerald Streets. Brick two-story row houses are tucked in here and there along the denuded street, dwarfed by multistory shells of textile mills that still create a decaying corridor five blocks long—the formerly proud homes of Albion Carpets and the Bedford Fast Black Dye Company at the corner of Hagert and Jasper, Job Batty and Sons Carpet Yarn and William Emsley and Brothers' Washington Mills at Hagert's intersection with Emerald, William Beatty's Mills one block farther on at Coral Street, Annot's Steam Power—later Standard Rug—between Coral and Amber, the Weisbrod and Hess Brewery on the corner of Amber Street, and many more. Several are abandoned, though some have been converted into smaller manufacturing concerns or affordable live and work spaces for struggling artists. Built in the late 1800s, these are Dickensian four-to-six-story red brick affairs—some embellished with arched window openings and other fancy brickwork and topped with tall chimneys. Some area mills are still crowned by rusted iron water receptacles proudly bearing a defunct company's name. Neighborhood lore has it that in the turn-of-the-century golden era, one could walk down any one of Kensington's industrial streets like East Hagert and find a job in fifteen minutes. But more than fifty years of deindustrialization have taken a severe toll.


Excerpted from Doing the Best I Can by Kathryn Edin, Timothy J. Nelson. Copyright © 2013 Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Edin is Distinguished Bloomberg Professor in the Department of Sociology and also teaches in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She is the coauthor of Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, and Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.

Timothy Nelson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Church.

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