William Howard Lee Jr.’s path to becoming a better father involved an unexpected revelation.
He had always wanted to be a good father – to break what he calls the “generational curse” of growing up without his own father, of having a stepfather who beat his mom, of spending time in and out of prison. But getting married wasn’t a priority for him. He and the mother of two of his children couldn’t make their relationship work. They argued.
And, before long, the “generational curse” had returned. Mr. Lee wasn’t around his sons as much as he liked, and when he was, the time was often punctuated by argument and anger.
This is the story of many low-income, unmarried fathers, staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo writes in this week’s cover story. There are good intentions, genuine love, and deep regret, yet somehow the cycle repeats. The desire to be a good father stumbles into something familiar and filled with remorse.
Yet Stacy’s story is also about how that cycle can begin to be broken and how Lee has begun to break it. It has been a dozen different things for Lee, such as forgiving his own father and finding the humility to take a job as a dishwasher. But perhaps nothing has changed his relationship with his children more than the realization that he needed to learn to listen. “I didn’t give [my sons’ mother] enough credit for the things she was saying because I really wasn’t fully hearing her,” he says.
In the words of a facilitator at the Fathers’ Support Center that Lee attended, in every relationship “someone has to humble themselves so they can actually have a productive conversation.” Put another way, Lee began to understand the true nature of fatherhood when he began to understand the true nature of marriage, even though he wasn’t married himself.
In low-income communities, studies show, marriage is losing its appeal – a trend examined in detail in the book “Doing the Best I Can,” by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson. For mothers, it once offered stability and protection. It now offers the reverse. Fathers often have few prospects and can end up in prison; mothers can work for themselves. For fathers, the authors say, marriage was a romantic vision – a soul mate and playing ball with kids in the backyard. Now, asked to be more of a partner in parenting, some men are finding the reality of temper tantrums and dirty diapers harsh. As the old visions of marriage crumble, so has the institution.
But marriage was never really about those traditional trappings. It is, at its core, about the beauty of commitment. It is about compromise. And it refines a sense of compassion so large that it rejoices in forgetting self. That is what Lee is learning, married or not.
Fatherhood and motherhood naturally support each other. Yolanda Cole, the mother of two of Lee’s sons, for years felt she had to express both. But these days, something has changed, she says. “All I really wanted was for him to be a good dad to his kids. And he’s making forth the effort.”