Beware the self-fulfilling prophecy!
One day, in the South Bronx, I observed the following: a young Latina mother with two boys, around ages 6 and 10, standing in front of a bodega. The mother seemed agitated. The older boy was looking up and down the street. The mother burst out, “Your father ain’t shit!” The older boy quickly retorted, “You ain’t shit!”
Regardless of how a mother might feel about the father of her children, the children don’t feel the same way. This young mother might feel that way, but she should never verbalize it in front of her children. People don’t have to be together to be amicable, especially around the children. I would bet that later, this same mother will say something like this to her son: “You’re just like your father!”
Mothers, in the absence of fathers, do extraordinary jobs raising their children. Still, an extraordinary mother cannot even be an ordinary father.
Granted, too many fathers are absent, but many are fully present. In fact, many are the custodial parent, and we don’t hear much about them.
When I conducted parenting classes on Rikers Island for men, I did the following exercise. I would draw three columns on the board. At the top of each column were the following categories: “My Father”; “The Ideal Father”; “Me.” I instructed the men that this exercise called for them to be brutally honest, with themselves, and hopefully they’d shared. I would start with “The Ideal Father.” A long list of positive characteristics made it under this category: strong; provider; caring; present; teacher; leader, etc. I then went to “My Father.” Under this category there were mostly negative characteristics. As they listed them they laughed: sperm donor; absent; unknown; piece of shit, though a few positive characteristics would make the list. Finally, the spotlight was on them as fathers. As we compiled this list, the laughing stopped. When we compared them and their fathers, they saw that they had become their fathers, at their worst. I would point to the characteristics of “The Ideal Father,” tell them that they know what being that kind of father looks like, that they could strive to embody those characteristics.