Young black fathers tell the truth about their struggle

2 September 2005

Irresponsible, immature, worthless…. are just some of the labels attached to young black fathers by some mums; but what about those dads trying to break the stereotype and embrace young & single fatherhood?

Published with kind permission from Black Britain Magazine – www.blackbritain.co.uk

Young DadSingle, young black fathers are saying they need more support, patience and understanding as they struggle to defy the negative stereotypes imposed on them by the community.

Many young fathers argue contrary to some people’s beliefs, notably the mothers of their children, they are trying to fulfil their roles as reliable, mature and ‘present’ fathers, but are often slapped back down by restrictive legal rights, constant criticism and a lack of recognition .

Plagued by the ‘babyfather’ image and often seen as irresponsible, uncaring and absent; there is a general feeling amongst fathers generally that they are on the sharp end of the stick as they try to avoid being tarnished by the same ‘negative’ brush.

Nevertheless, what about those young fathers who don’t quite fit into that ‘absent dads’ box? Yet despite their efforts, their spotlight is often stolen by the ‘babyfather’ label and the negative connotations attached to it.

In an attempt to peer into the lives, relationships and the issues often surrounding single fathers, Black Britain caught up with two young dads, battling against the odds and the stereotypes that too often weigh the ‘good’ black fathers down.

Disillusionment

For 20-year old Michael Fraser, the initial hopes he had for building his relationship and a family for his 20-month old son, Mark, had to be re-considered after he split up with his girlfriend soon after the birth of their child.

Despite planning and discussing how they would work with each other to bring up the baby; like with so many couples, all carefully-laid plans and good intentions soon deteriorated when the disillusionment sparked off by the pressures and reality of parenthood took hold.

Reflecting on the causes of the break-up, Michael said contrary to him being a ‘detailed’ person, all did not go according to his agenda. He said, “when it comes to the time half of those decisions and agreements go out of the window because things come up that you never really thought about.”

He added, “what really caused the biggest problem was when we didn’t agree on something then the question is whose idea gets put forward… it did become a power struggle at that time.”

Young DadExpectations

Unlike many others in his position, though, Michael who has a relatively good relationship with his ex-girlfriend, has been looking after his son every weekend since he was 6-months old.

However, having spoken to a lot of young mothers and fathers, himself; reinforced with his own experience as a father separated from his child’s mum, Michael explained that he felt bad-feelings following the split-ups caused many mothers to alienate the fathers and make them out to be a lot worse than they really are.

He said: “I do think a lot of the stereotype that has been created about absent fathers is predominantly a factor of the bitterness from mothers. I don’t think it is nearly as much as the father’s fault as it was perceived…..”

However, Michelle Thompson, the Young Parent Team Manager at Surestart in Tulse Hill, South London, says young mothers are not generalising fathers but talking from what they have seen in their own lives. She said: “It’s their personal experiences and it’s their realities. There’s no stereotyping at all.”

“I do see a lot of bitterness from the young women, a hell of a lot and I have to say to them to let it go,” she added, “but then they say ‘he beat me in front of my child’ or ‘he’s got other women’, ‘he’s got this’, ‘he’s got that’… [it’s] a whole catalogue of things.”

Research carried out by the young mothers’ group South London, showed many mums possessed very negative views and low expectations of what they thought men wanted in a woman.

Most mothers thought men wanted good looks, a good figure, sex, and appearance from a woman; whereas the mums said they were looking for trust, personality, love and intelligence.

Referring to young fathers like Michael and Omari as “few and far between” as most are either in prison or just not around, Ms Thompson said: “Generally, they [young mothers] feel the guys are not around and that the responsibility is left to them. And they feel that if the guy is with the mum then she is really lucky… they don’t see that as the norm, they see that as the exception.”

Animosity

20-year old Omari, however, argues although he has tried to be there for his 20-month old son, Jamal, the animosity and differences between him and his ex-girlfriend have made it impossible to compromise.

Like many other separated parents, they have instead been sucked into the vicious circle of criticism and constantly feeling let down, inadequate and misunderstood.

He said: “She’s annoying to an extent where I can hate her and I actually think to myself, hold on, how did we actually… you know…

“I come to see my son, but [still, she says] I don’t spend enough time with him; when I do buy him clothes, it’s not enough clothes; I’ll ask questions to benefit me, so it can benefit him and she’s telling me I should know it already …. It just creates arguments.”

He added: “My situation is messed up because I’m in a situation where I can’t win any argument at all. I can state my views and that’s about it. The only way I can get what I want heard or done is to actually make her see logic….”

Since breaking up with Jamal’s mother in the third month of her pregnancy, Omari admits he does not spend as much time with his son as he would like, as during the day he is studying full time to become a doctor, during the night he works as a music promoter and in between he plays football, with the opportunity to turn professional. “I’ve told my Mum and Dad I need to graduate… I’ve messed up my life at the moment because of having him, but it’s a thing where I have to rectify that now.

“Once I’ve graduated I can choose who I want to be with and try and make things work with the babymother…”

Custody

However, he indicates by not having set access times to see his son; like Michael, he feels mothers often have the upper hand when it comes to having legal rights to their children. “There’s no agreement. There’s just too much control…. If she said to you, ‘you’re not seeing your youth’, what can you do?”

However, a recent law now states that all fathers of any child born after December 2003, will now have automatic parental rights if his name is on the birth certificate, whereas before the father’s name would either have to be married to the mother or he would have to go to the courts to win his rights.

Michael says young fathers need to be more proactive about finding out about their rights. Despite having a parental responsibility agreement with his son’s mother, he still feels the fathers are in a worse position.“I do think that the law definitely favours the mother in most aspects.”

He added, “even with the new regulations coming out men are still at a disadvantage and they know this; and as long as they know this, there is always going to be a deep fear within them that no matter what they do it is out of their control, it is out of their hands how their family is going to turn out…., it all depends on what a judge might say.”

Essential Support

Many are also saying a lack of encouragement and support for young fathers, who like the mothers, have to come to terms with being young, being a parent and being responsible, is hindering their development in parenthood.

Although different attitudes and patterns are noted towards single parenthood in different cultures, for Omari, his Nigerian culture and traditions have conflicted with his ‘unusual’ status as a single, young, father.

Although, Jamal has been accepted by the family, his parents haven’t necessarily welcomed him back home with open arms and the strain of having nowhere to run, no advice and no guidance or support network, takes its toll.

“No one don’t help me. No one gives me money. No one has given me support. Nothing. But my babymother says I don’t see my son, I don’t do this, I don’t do that, but she don’t know what I’m going through. If I really open up, I will just literally break down and start crying because no one knows what I’m going through…”

Omari added, “she’s [son’s mother] got people to talk to, that’s the worst thing about it. She’s got people to talk to, I don’t have anyone to talk to…”

Michael, on the other hand, comes from an African-Caribbean background, where over 50 percent of households are headed by a single parent. He also grew up without his father and consequently was extremely aware of being an active and dedicated dad.

Backed up by a supportive family, Michael, has formed a very close network and often gets together with a small group of dads, including his brother and cousin, so their kids can play together and and additionally so they can give each other the much needed support to confront thos cemented stereotypes and be the supportive fathers they aspire to be.

He said: “I think it’s quite essential for other young dads to be in those kind of circles to give them the impression that they are not by themselves that they have support.

“Even though it sounds a bit corny, it has a lot of impact on the way that it nurtures the mind of the father; there are a lot of fathers who don’t know how to be fathers."

* The names of the young fathers and the children in this article have been changed.

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