Biases and Blindspots: Putting Fatherhood in Perspective for Family Prosperity

June 19, 2020 |

My mother was 18 years old, in college, and still living with my grandparents when she had me. She became a single parent at a time in her life when she did not have any resources or support to help her through the quest ahead. I saw her struggle and sacrifice her success to ensure mine, and I often wonder how our lives would be if she had access to more opportunities throughout her life. 

My mother’s story is a common one for many families with low incomes, especially those headed by single mothers. Her experience drives my passion for the work I do interacting with parents as a program associate with Ascend at the Aspen Institute. However, it is also at the at root of my bias towards single mothers – a prejudice that has created a blind spot where my empathy for fathers should be. 

I have never demonized fathers or spoken ill of them. I have a great father and amazing father figures in my life. I fully understand their importance for family stability – but to me, mothers always came first. My bias has also been reinforced by the fact that when we talk about families with low incomes, we often highlight mothers as the recipients of services and do not bring fathers into the picture unless they are paired with mothers as partners. In June of 2018 during an Ascend forum on state solutions to support families, I realized how biases like mine can hurt fathers and the work to build family prosperity significantly. 

One of the speakers at this convening was Stephan Palmer, a gentleman who worked with the State of Connecticut to bring family voice to their programs and to highlight the importance of engaging fathers as part of their efforts. During a call to prepare him for his panel, Stephan shared that he had been a teen dad and became a single father when his four children were still young. Shortly after, he moved from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut where he and his children faced homelessness and other economic hardships. When Stephan asked for supports from the state, he was told government agencies could not assist him because he was a single father. It was also made clear to him that if he had been a single mother, he would have qualified for several programs that could have put him and his family on a path to self-sufficiency. 

Stephan’s story stayed with me because mothers were always the focal point of my work. I thought about how inequities affected mothers; how they struggled to work full-time, secure child care, and attain an education; and how they were affected by siloed programs and lengthy application processes. Fathers were not salient when I was thinking about these issues and imagining solutions for them. In my current position, I don’t have the power to shape policies or create programs, but how many of the people who have this power suffer from this same bias? 

Unfortunately, Stephan’s story is not unique. In partnership with the GOOD+ Foundation, Ascend hosted another convening in November of 2018 focusing on fathers and fatherhood, and the message was the same – programs often exclude fathers, both custodial and non-custodial, to the detriment of their families. This should raise the question for everyone who works with families to build their well-being: how are fathers being brought to this work and what happens to their families when they are excluded?

On Father’s Day last year, I read an article in the Chicago Reporter titled Breaking myths about black fatherhood this Father’s Day. In this piece, Saeed Richardson dispels the stereotype of the absent Black father and outlines some of the negative effects that this stereotype has on the Black community. He cites a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease and Prevention that shows most Black fathers live with their children (the article cites 2.5 million versus 1.7 million who don’t) – a rebuttal to the common messaging around many Black children growing up fatherless. The study also found that when Black fathers live in the same home as their children, they are more involved in their children’s lives than fathers of any other ethnicity. This picture of Black fatherhood is often not what is shown in the mainstream. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of the offices creating programs to support families may still be blind to this reality.

This example of Black fathers boldly highlights the implicit biases and blind spots surrounding fathers or any family structure that doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of a family unit. But this problem also points to a straightforward solution – policymakers and practitioners must engage the families they work with in the programs that are created for them. Stephan, who is a Black father, was largely ignored by the system until he started sharing feedback to the Connecticut Department of Human Services on their programs and initiatives. Through this opportunity, he pushed policymakers not only to acknowledge the importance of fathers, but also to create legislation requiring state grantees to incorporate fathers in their programming. 

Connecticut is not the only state taking on this work. Colorado, Utah, and Washington are also working with families through advisory councils and family voice councils to ensure they catch their blind spots before they affect service delivery and programming. These initiatives are setting an example for other government agencies because they are intentional in recruiting custodial and non-custodial fathers, grandparents, and other caretakers as their members. Moreover, these services show the different iterations of families that should be considered in the programs the government creates. 

At Ascend, we have been working to more actively promote fatherhood as an important piece of building strong families because we recognize that bringing fathers to the table not only closes gaps but also ensures our work is more effective. In The Father Factor: A Critical Link In Building Family Prosperity, we share examples from the field, many of them from Ascend Network Partners, of innovative programming for fathers at different stages of their lives. Earlier this year, we deepened this work by launching the Aspen Institute Fatherhood Learning and Action Community. Five government agencies – the Connecticut Department of Social Services; the Maryland Department of Human Services; First 5 Alameda County; and Olmsted County Health, Housing, and Human Services – are working with six nonprofit and research partners and three fathers to identify and document policy barriers and opportunities for father engagement and support. This community is developing a set of policy recommendations and best practices to strengthen the engagement of fathers for family economic mobility.

Ascend’s work around fathers and fatherhood is the result of honest conversations between organizations and the fathers accessing their programs. And while the field-level momentum to better engage fathers is encouraging, there is still more work to be done to ensure whole family engagement is the standard and not just a practice. If Black fathers were part of the conversations surrounding parenthood, there would not be so many misconceptions about their level of commitment and involvement with their families. There would also be more thoughtful conversations about the implications forced absences have on the way in which we serve families. Similarly, if those in power spoke to more mothers, fathers, grandparents, and caretakers before creating programs, we would close more gaps in services and have a more honest dialogue about what today’s families need to succeed. We can make working together the norm, we just need start seeing families as partners in this work.

Eddy Angélica Encinales is Ascend’s program associate for operations and policy.

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