The Changing Face of Fatherhood in Connecticut

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Connecticut Magazine
Hartford, CT

It’s late on a Monday afternoon at Madonna Place in downtown Norwich.

Men ranging in age from their early twenties up to mid-fifties trickle into the plain brick building, congregating in the kitchen. They greet each other with fist bumps and handshakes, load paper plates with pizza, sit down at the table and start talking about busting their asses at work, trying to negotiate child visitation with ex-wives and girlfriends, navigating legal issues, going fishing with their kids . . . and motorcycles—you know, guy stuff.

Will Marquez, facilitator of the weekly “24/7 Dad” group that’s gathering here, exchanges pleasantries with each man as he enters. He asks a soft-spoken man named Travis, who has three daughters, about a new job he recently started. “Do they have enough work for you? Do you think you’ll be there a while?” inquires Marquez, a married father of three who has been running this group for about a year. Travis nods. “Good,” responds Marquez. “If it looks like they’re going to run out of work, call me. I know a place that will probably be hiring in September, making buoys for the Coast Guard.”

Around 5 o’clock, the dozen or so men—who differ in cultural background, skin color and ethnicity but share a common desire to stay connected to their children—move down the hall into a conference room and take seats around the long oval table. For the next 90 minutes, they will engage in activities centered around becoming better dads.

The program being held here at the nonprofit Madonna Place is an offshoot of the John S. Martinez Fatherhood Initiative, a statewide effort to support and promote the positive interaction of fathers with their children. About 90 percent of the men in this program are single dads, usually near the lower end of the economic spectrum, referred either by a social services agency or others who have successfully completed the program. Participants are required to attend 12 sessions to gain a certificate of completion, which can be handy in custody proceedings and visitation disputes, although all are welcome to stay for as long as they want to improve their parenting.

On this night, the group is playing a game revolving around famous TV fathers, identifying shows by theme music and trying to determine what positive qualities each starring dad has to offer. Eventually, they agree that almost all of the depictions of fictional fathers are far from their own experiences. “If I did something wrong, my dad kicked my ass across the room,” laughs Joe, father of four. “We didn’t talk it over.”

The discussion is boisterous, intelligent, insightful and sincere, even a bit crude at times. James Evans, head of the “Good Times” clan, gets the highest marks from the group for being closest to reality. Says Keith (who himself was one of six kids raised by a single dad), “James was a hard-working man living paycheck to paycheck, doing the best he could to deal with paying the bills, abusive relationships, drugs, muggings and stabbings. He was a disciplinarian, he yelled, but he took care of his family.”

The group also acknowledges the parallels between their lives and Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor from “Home Improvement,” and the need to seek advice on how to be a better father.

Finally, the opening theme to “The Cosby Show” plays, and after ticking off Cliff Huxtable’s positive—if unrealistic (at least to the group)—parenting qualities, the discussion comes around to how well he was able to communicate with his wife Claire. “Yeah, that’s great,” says young dad Josh of Cliff’s verbal skills, “but what if your ex doesn’t wanna talk to you any more?”

“You gotta keep trying,” says Marquez. “For your kids, you gotta keep trying.”

“I know,” sighs Josh. “But it ain’t easy.”

Dads . . . we all have one but not all of us can be one.

And even if you can be one, being a good one—or at least a quasi-competent one who will not ruin your kids any more than “normal”—can certainly be a challenge in the second decade of the 21st century. With so much more available to children with each generation, from social media and smartphones to designer drugs and an ever-increasing number of violent games and media, and with so many ways to turn, it’s getting tougher by the minute—Mike Brady would be frazzled just trying to keep up with his kids’ Instagram feeds alone. And Phil Dunphy might be the father of a “Modern Family,” but he seems overwhelmed more often than not.

Of course, no matter how much TV and movies try to portray “real” fatherhood, the real story is always dramatically different, as the “24/7 Dad” group suggests—very rarely can a family crisis be wrapped up in 30 minutes, or even over the span of a few days. Not many actual dads are lovable goofballs who somehow manage to do the right thing in the end. And the concept of the nuclear family (Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids and a dog named Santa’s Little Helper) has essentially been nuked.

Here in Connecticut, a.k.a. the Land of Steady Habits, “traditional” household rates have been steadily declining. According to U.S. Census data, in 2000, there were 676,467 married households, or 52 percent of the state population. By 2010, that number had dipped to 672,013, or only 49 percent, despite the overall population of the state having grown from 3.41 million to 3.57 million. In other words, there are more single parents—and single dads—than ever before, which means fatherhood has become an evolving enterprise.

“With the advent of the feminist movement and things associated with that, with women joining the work force in unprecedented numbers since the 1970s, the roles of mothers and fathers have been significantly redefined,” says Ronald Rohner, professor emeritus of human development and family studies at UConn, as well as director of the Ronald and Nancy Rohner Center for the Study for Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection. He has spent decades studying the relationships between parents and children, both here in Connecticut and around the globe.

“Whereas traditionally Dad’s role was kind of an instrumental one, task-oriented and sometimes a disciplinarian—the old Victorian idea—and Mom’s role was more of a nurturer and the affective role, that dichotomy, however true that might’ve been, these gender roles have been transformed enormously,” he says. “Now dads, very often, are playing more of the nurturing role than ever before in American history at the same time that mothers are playing more of the instrumental role as they continue on in the workplace.”

Anecdotally, most of us know this, as it seems fathers are now more actively involved in their children’s lives than ever before. If you’ve never witnessed it firsthand, just go to any daytime school event, which used to be a nearly mom-exclusive domain, and you will now see an abundance of dads in attendance, often actively participating behind the scenes as well.

A recent study from the National Center for Health Statistics also bears this out. Comparing data from surveys done in 2002 and 2006-10 shows increased involvement from fathers (both those who lived full-time with their children and nonresident dads) in almost every aspect of child rearing—nearly nine out of ten resident fathers reported that several times a week they played with and bathed or dressed their children under age 5; the same percentage also reported eating meals with and talking about the day with older kids aged 5-18. Nonresident fathers also were more heavily involved in the daily lives of their children, participating more regularly in helping with homework and transportation to activities.

The U.S. Census has also shown that the number of stay-at-home dads has more than doubled in the last decade, going from 98,000 in 2003 to 214,000 by 2013.

Fathers are not only getting more involved, they’re getting more gray, too. According to the National Survey of Families and Households, the average age of a first-time dad in the U.S. has increased from 25.3 in 1987-88 to 27.4 in 2011. Similarly, census figures show that since 1980, birth rates have steadily increased for men aged 30-49—in the case of men aged 35-39, the rate has jumped from 42.8 births per 1,000 in 1980 all the way up to 64.6. In other words, men are embarking upon fatherhood later in life.

“Women in America are not marrying as young,” says Rohner, who points out that the increase of women pursuing careers has caused them to wait longer to a start a family, which in correspondence, has pushed up the age of dads—a positive development all around. “So now we’re getting dads who have enough experience, they know more clearly what their lives are all about, they have more stability and have more economic resources, so they can be more attentive, more loving, toward their children than might have been possible at an earlier age.”

“Fathers are really critical in our children’s lives—they’re the ones who teach our boys to be men, they model, and they teach our daughters about men also,” says Merle Hornstein, who for 18 years has been teaching the Parenting Education Program that is mandated by Connecticut Superior Court for divorcing parents. Working in three locations instructing three to four classes each month, Hornstein has observed a wide range of parents, and has noticed that fathers have become much more active in taking care of their children.

“It used to be said, ‘The parents are getting divorced and of course, the kids are going with Mom,’” she says. “Well, that’s not necessarily so today. There are many dads who are very successfully raising kids, who have sole custody, who have joint custody, who are taking a lead in child rearing. We need to remember that they don’t know all the rules, either—they didn’t open up to page 10 in the book today. So we have to give them credit for learning, same as moms do, how to parent.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Anthony Judkins, program manager of Connecticut’s Fatherhood Initiative since its inception in 1999. “When you have children, there are no instructions on being a father,” he says, which was part of the impetus for the Fatherhood Initiative.

Designed to promote the positive involvement of fathers with their children, the Fatherhood Initiative is targeted at men “who really looked like the women who were on welfare at the Department of Social Services,” says Judkins, meaning those who have issues around incarceration, low levels of education, housing and food insecurities and employment issues. The program began with three pilot programs around the state; it now has ten certified programs, including ones in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Britain, in addition to Norwich. Judkins says that from 2006 through 2013, the Fatherhood Initiative has been able to serve more than 5,080 men, and that’s with limited financial resources. Finding funding for such social programs is always an ongoing challenge, as is changing public perception.

“Folks are looking at men and they see them as able-bodied and that they should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and it’s not as simple as it seems,” he says, pointing to employment as one of the biggest roadblocks to improved paternal relations. “When you have been incarcerated and you are a felon, when you have low education levels, when you have child-support debt that continues to mount—those things are sometimes insurmountable. To me, these guys are very resilient because a person who is making a decent wage that has issues around child support, they can pack it in pretty easily because I don’t think they’ve been through the ringer like these guys have.”

The fatherhood program at Madonna Place in Norwich reports that it has served 152 fathers so far, with 302 children benefitting from it. They also report that 56 percent of unemployed fathers obtained employment after program enrollment, and that 60 percent of fathers initiated, resumed or caught up on child support payments because of the assistance they received. All positive results that have translated to better relationships with their children.

“What I’m finding over the years that we’ve been doing this work is that I listen to all the statistics that come out around fathers and guys not being engaged and men not caring about their children, and I don’t believe that,” says Judkins. “I’ve worked with a lot of young men over the last 15 years and what I’m finding is that guys want to be involved. Sometimes they just don’t know how to be involved, and there are other issues that keep them from being involved.”

Often, the biggest challenge in becoming a more-involved father is just physically being able to make the time.

“I think our society has become so horribly fast-paced that sometimes parents who are working, who sometimes need to work multiple jobs, doing whatever they need to do to have an income, lose focus and therefore, a lot of kids can suffer,” says Hornstein of the Parenting Education Program. “The challenge is balancing parental life with how do you raise your kids, and sometimes, we need to step back and say, ‘What’s most important in my life right now? Do I really need to take that second job, or could I manage on one, which will give me more time with the kids because indeed, raising my kids right now is what’s most important?’”

As Hornstein points out to her classes, children never ask for a divorce (or to have a single dad), but they should always be able to expect a father who puts his child’s well-being before his own.

Regardless of marital status, the importance of a loving father figure in a child’s life can’t be understated.

“For decades, even centuries, there was a widespread belief in much of the world that all children needed for normal, healthy development was a loving relationship with their mothers, and that fathers were there primarily as financial supports,” says UConn’s Rohner, who challenged that notion with research on every continent except Antarctica and interviews with tens of thousands of families and children, and made an interesting discovery. “We find that fathers, pretty much worldwide, often show up as being very, very important—and sometimes more important—than moms, especially in terms of children’s psychological adjustment,” he says.

Rohner and his colleagues discovered that behavioral problems, “issues of aggression, of violence, drug and substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts,” are all more likely linked to perceived rejection from a father than a mother. As a consequence, Rohner says, “Whatever way that dads can show that they really care, that they are loving, affectionate and warm, then they’re going to be much more successful as dads.”

“There is no one right way or wrong way to be a dad,” he adds. “That’s a fundamental thing we’ve learned in our cross-cultural research. Parents have all sorts of ways that they can express their love—or lack of—toward their children.”

Back at Madonna Place, the evening is wrapping up with a hypothetical exercise. Will Marquez describes a scenario where it seems as though a teenaged son is smoking marijuana, and asks the fathers assembled how they would deal with the situation, especially given that many of them have used it themselves.

Before the discussion goes too far, a man named Jeff raises his hand—he thinks his 15-year-old son may already be using marijuana. “I was that age when I started smoking, so trust me, I can tell,” he says.

The group offers a wide variety of advice, some of it a bit draconian, most of it common sense and practical. Jeff, appreciative of the fraternal support, listens to it all. “I think I have a good idea of how I’m going to address it now,” he eventually says.

The group breaks up for the evening. Travis, the soft-spoken father of three, is still seated at the table, completing an exit survey—this was the twelfth and last session he needed to attend to get his certificate of completion.

“So are you done here now that you’ve got it?” someone asks him.

“No,” he says with a smile. “I’ll definitely be back for more.”

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