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Unwed Dads Choose to Care for Their Kids

Fathers who accept responsibility for their children help to counter a destructive - and growing - social problem

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1993


BRUCE DAVIS remembers exactly how he felt three years ago when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant: scared. He was only 20, he hadn't completed his education, and he didn't have a job.

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``I'd always had a fear of fatherhood,'' Mr. Davis says. ``I thought I'd be a singer or a preacher, but I never thought I'd be a father. I was afraid I'd do the same thing my father did to me, and that's to be nonexistent. [Responsible] fatherhood is not very common in my family on either side.''

Despite his fears, Davis was determined not to repeat the pattern of fatherlessness. He attended the birth of his son, now two years old, and helped care for him. He and the baby's mother, Carla, eventually married, and last year they became parents of a daughter. Davis now works as a security guard and a minister.

Talk to young urban fathers like Davis and two themes appear again and again, unprompted: fear of being a father and sadness at never having known their own fathers. As they share their concerns and hopes for their children, they display a vulnerability distinctly at odds with media images that portray them as indifferent and irresponsible.

Unmarried parenthood knows no economic or racial boundaries. Nearly 30 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried mothers. In 1991, there were 1.2 million nonmarital births - a record high. In some 3 out of 4 cases the father is never legally identified, says David Blankenhorn, president of the New York-based Institute for American Values.

Wherever they occur, these births constitute a problem of such magnitude that Mr. Blankenhorn, author of a forthcoming book, ``Fatherless America,'' calls fatherlessness ``the most socially consequential family trend of our era.'' The absence of fathers, he says, whether through divorce, separation, or unmarried births, is ``the most important fact in understanding trends in child poverty as well as other social problems we're now experiencing'' - juvenile delinquency, domestic violence against women, declining school performance, and the deteriorating physical and mental well-being of children.

``We calculate that tonight, 36 percent of the children in America will go to sleep in a home where their father does not live,'' Blankenhorn says. ``Before they reach 18, more than half will spend at least a significant portion of their childhood living apart from their father.''

Today, he continues, ``Fathers are not seen as very important. They're either seen as bad or not necessary. But looking at the facts of child well-being, we have to say that children do need their fathers. We have to invigorate fatherhood as a social role for men.''

To ``invigorate fatherhood'' among young men in Boston's Roxbury district, where, as in other urban areas, the rate of teenage pregnancy is high, Michael O'Neal directs an agency called Fathers, Inc. During the past five years Mr. O'Neal has worked with hundreds of young fathers, helping them ``take responsibility for their actions.'' In classes covering everything from feeding a baby to preparing a resume, he emphasizes the rewards of family life.

O'Neal's office at Roxbury Community College contains the tools of his unusual trade. A Cabbage Patch doll named Home Boy gives prospective fathers practice with diapers. A stack of tiny bibs sits on a file cabinet, and a growth chart hangs on a wall.

The question people ask most frequently, O'Neal says, is, ``Why do these young men have children?'' He tells them, ``Men sometimes have children, one, because they want to have somebody to love them, and two, because they want to have someone who will remember them. Violence claims so many young men.''

That fear of the tragic consequences of violence shadows the lives of many in O'Neal's group. David Corbie, the father of 9-month-old David Jr., says, ``I thought by the time I was 24 or 25 I'd be dead, so I wanted to see Junior now. Looking at recent statistics, I feel that everyone is in danger of not seeing the next day or the next week. Youths are being wiped out, and they want children to remember them by.''

Mr. Corbie offers another reason for early childbearing: ``People are looking for family. If they can't get family through parents, uncles, aunts, they think, `Why not make your own family?' ''

Although Corbie admits that it was ``a shock'' to learn that his girlfriend, Antonia Ray, was pregnant, he has been involved in caring for their son from the beginning. Before he started his current job as a file clerk for a health-care company, Corbie looked after the infant while Ms. Ray worked as a secretary. The baby now goes to a day-care center.

Another father in O'Neal's program, Raoul Colon, has had full responsibility for his 18-month-old son, Tony, since he was three weeks old. ``I never expected it, but I don't have a problem with it now,'' Mr. Colon says. He credits O'Neal with giving him the courage to be a single father.