The Essence of Fatherhood

For over thirty years, the essence of fatherhood had escaped me. At one-and-half my biological father died, at fourteen I was evicted from my forever family, and by fifteen I was a ward-of-the-state. My passage from a boy to a man was devoid an intimacy with its quintessential purpose. But that all changed the day my son was born.

Most transitions to fatherhood are filled with the normal ups and downs. On good days, you upload proud pictures to social media and engage in secret handshakes with other club members. On others, there are dirty diapers, uncool fashion changes, and a general sacrifice to one’s bank account. Plus, whatever stresses your kid’s mother decides to lay on you. Fatherhood is a humbling lesson in patience, support, and growth in maturity. And for father’s still coping in the aftermath of their own childhood trauma, these adjustments are magnified.

They say as a parent, you relive your childhood watching your kid grow up. I hope this isn’t true. During my youth, I experienced parental rejection on several occasions, was detained by police officers for the first time at 12-years-old, and legally orphaned twice before I completed ninth grade. I spent years neglecting to from new relationships and was apprehensive to the idea of starting my own family. While I was in the phase of expectant parent, I constantly doubted that I could learn to be a good father. I feared the unknown, and prepared for anxiety raising tantrums and triggering rejections. Why did I even deserve be a father? The system had constantly reminded me I wasn’t good enough for family. What was I going to name my son? I had no family tree to offer him and any surname would lead to unsettling legacy questions as he grew older. I soon realized fatherhood had opened an uncomfortable doorway to the past and was going to be a journey to trusting the concept of family again.

Now, as a former foster youth and a father of an infant, I have another fear. There is scientific research that suggests childhood trauma can be passed on through genetics. And I grow concerned every time I hear my son crying. Did he get it? Did I pass on the crazy gene to him? I often wonder if he will be overwhelmed by feelings of isolation. And I worry that he will have trouble concentrating, or display a propensity for impulsivity. But I usually stop worrying, whenever I look at his mother. However, if fatherhood presents multilayered trepidation for me, as a foster kid many years removed, early parenthood for youth transitioning out of care, must be a terrifying experience.

To be a foster kid is to forever feel like an outcast of society. You are often shunned by peers, lack natural role models, and consumed with an overwhelming feeling of disempowerment. This hampers your adolescent development in decision making, problem solving and executive functioning. You are likely to fall behind in school and struggle with mental health issues. You will feel inclined to self-medicate, turn to the streets for a sense of belonging, and take solace in the familiarity of unhealthy relationships. Your environment leaves you at high risk for incarceration, homelessness, and early parenthood. You, in all probability, will become a voiceless statistic.

For expectant or parenting fathers transitioning out of care, early parenthood often arrives in the midst of an adolescent “miseducation” and absence of a father figure. It can be easy to dismiss young fathers if they are struggling with a criminal history, chronic unemployment, or issues of domestic violence. We cannot just quit on these young men. We need to connect them to father’s programs, employment programs, anger management classes, toxic masculinity courses, and domestic violence awareness. Early fatherhood is too often a confusing, isolating, and disempowering experience. We need to utilize resources towards strengthening support systems, rather than laying blame and judgment on young fathers.

Recently, I attended a father’s forward initiative in Upper Manhattan. A group of father’s from the community gathered to discuss fears, issues, and concerns, they had in a raising a child. The meeting was a positive way to engage in support and discussion with other fathers. For young father’s transitioning out of foster care, these type of coalitions and meetings can be a additional resource. If these programs aren’t offered locally in your area, there are other ways to connect.

A few online resources I’ve found helpful, include web conferencing through the Child Welfare Information Gateway and ACEsTooHigh (Adverse Childhood Experiences). One particular webinar I found informative was presented by Ricky Baccare of Healing Hurt People- Philadelphia. It was titled “Masculinity and Violence: Trauma, Control, and the pressures of Masculinity.” This presentation illustrated how our society's misconceptions can promote a self-disempowering version of masculinity. And how the pressure to maintain masculinity, can drive us away from developments in fatherhood, employability, and an overall growth in accountability―especially when concerning young fathers in foster care or transitioning out.

Without this educational awareness, we can have a tendency to fall back into what we know, rather than choosing a long term unfamiliar path. Let's break the cycle together.

Approximately half of the 21-year-old males transitioning out of foster care reported getting a partner pregnant, compared to 19% of their non-foster care peers.

― The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

The Center for the Study of Social Policy is a non-profit organization with offices in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. One of their main objectives is to provide tools and resources to community leaders for the purposes of strengthening families and protecting at-risk children. In 2015, one of their senior associates, Charlyn Harper Browne, PhD, published a detailed paper titled “Expectant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care: Addressing Their Developmental Needs To Promote Healthy Parent and Child Outcomes.”

According to the report, the children of expectant or parenting youth are at high risk of intergenerational child protective services involvement. “Based on the work of Dworsky & DeCoursey (2009), CSSP (2014a) reported that “children of parenting foster youth also experience a greater risk of being abused or maltreated and are five times more likely to spend time in the foster care system than children of same-aged mothers in the general population”

The data also showed that 40% of adolescent mothers involved in child welfare have had a second child during their teen years. And for expectant or parenting young fathers, they can often be involved with vulnerable partners. In these situations, they face a multitude of simultaneous challenges. They still need support transitioning out of care and development in their own adolescence. But, they also take on the multifaceted role of protector, provider, and nurturer. In addition, they can benefit from understanding the challenges their partner may be going through. Acknowledging the necessity of a healthy relationship with the mother of your child is the first step to fatherhood. She is not your rival and is to be respected. Creating open communication strengthens the relationships of young families, blended families, co-parents, partners, or even single parents.

Young fathers can also have a limited understanding of their parental rights. They often make the mistake of relying on peers to inform them, and they need to educate themselves for their specific situations. This includes establishing paternity, unmarried parents’ rights to

visitation, eligibility for publicly funded child care, and eligibility for public assistance. If you don’t know your rights as an expectant or parenting father, ask a child welfare professional. If you’re a child welfare professional, voluntarily provide knowledge to father’s free of judgment.

Finding a positive identity is also important for young fathers transitioning out of foster care. From their time in the system, they have already encountered obstacles towards discovering a healthy adolescent identity. Exposure to certain media, peers, and even adults, can lead to a debilitating insecurity or illogical direction. And if early parenthood is added to the dynamic, questions concerning identity may elicit complicated and troubling self-reflection. Who am I? What legacy am I going to pass on to my child? Who is my child going to be? If young fathers can’t find satisfying answers to these questions, within themselves, it can create powerful feelings of shame and regret. The ability to confidently self-identity in a positive manner, is an important component to the stability of emotional and mental health in all human beings.

“However, achieving a clear and satisfying sense of “who I am” may be challenging for expectant and parenting youth in foster care. For example, youth in foster care may have the challenge of developing their racial or ethnic identity outside of their biological family or even outside of their racial or ethnic group. “Without these anchors, many youth identify instead with the culture of foster care and feel forced to adapt and change who they are based on their living situation” (Casey Family Programs, 2010, p. 3-4).

What can we do to increase positive outcomes? The statistics tell a grim tale and constantly witnessing disheartening outcomes can take its toll. However, we need to keep working and spreading awareness. Here are a few experiences listed in the report that are associated with better outcomes for expectant and parenting youth in foster care and their children.

Staying in Foster Care to Age 21:

Data from the Midwest Evaluation indicated that “youth who stay in foster care to age 21 tend to fare better than those who leave at age 18. They are more likely to delay parenting, go to school, or be employed” (Comlossy, 2013, p. 2).

Foster Care Placement Stability:

Putnam-Hornstein, Cederbaum, King, and Needell (2013) found that the rate of childbirth among adolescents in foster care in California varied by factors of foster care placement, including episode length, placement stability and placement type. The highest birth rates were observed among youth who had four or more placements.

Access to Safe, Stable, Affordable Child Care:

Given that the lack of childcare was identified in the Midwest Evaluation as a significant impediment to attending school or going to work (Comlossy, 2013; Courtney, et al., 2011), having access to safe and quality child care could be associated with better outcomes for adolescent parents in foster care.

Interacting with Better Trained Adults:

Based on peer-conducted interviews with youth in foster care, The National Campaign (n.d.) concluded that having better trained foster parents, social workers and others who work with youth in foster care (for example, in regard to sex education, making mental health referrals, being non-judgmental and sensitive to their needs) would help expectant and parenting youth in foster care make healthy decisions about sexual and reproductive matters.

Being Aware of One’s Legal Rights as a Youth in Foster Care Who Is Also a Parent: “Counseling pregnant and parenting youth on their legal rights, responsibilities, and options surrounding issues of permanency, adoption, guardianship and placement” (CSSP, 2013a, p. 3) was identified as a possible measure for improving outcomes for expectant and parenting youth in foster care.

Father Involvement:

A young mother in foster care and her child can benefit from the involvement of the child’s father when it is safe and appropriate. Research findings indicate a positive association between the involvement of nonresident fathers and child-well-being outcomes (Florsheim, et al., 2012; Florsheim, et al., 2003; Wilson & Prior, 2010).

Thank you to Charlyn Harper Browne Ph.D and the Center for the Study of Social Policy for providing information through a public domain used in this article

Information highlighted in red comes directly from the report Expectant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care: Addressing Their Developmental Needs to Promote Healthy Parent and Child Outcomes © 2015, Center for the Study of Social Policy.