by Omar Epps, Malik Yoba and Emily Abt
The image of the “deadbeat dad” has been and remains pervasive but there are millions of men in America who live in defiance of this stereotype. Our film “Daddy Don’t Go” was born from these parallel and enduring realities: that one in three American children is fatherless but there are also countless fathers fighting to be active in their children’s lives who deserve to be seen.
In an effort to better understand the obstacles these men face, we followed four disadvantaged dads –Roy, Nelson, Omar and Alex – over the course of two years as they struggled to be present fathers. The issues in the film are close to our hearts. Omar is the product of a fatherless household but now a proud father of three. Malik credits his own father with being the inspiration for his perseverance during a tough custody battle. Emily’s grandfather was excluded from her father’s life for his inability to pay child support. So we were all deeply committed to exploring the issue of fatherlessness when we began making the film three years ago, what did we learn along the way?
Persistent unemployment is a major problem for disadvantaged fathers. All four of the fathers in “Daddy Don’t Go” very much wanted to work but struggled to get and keep steady jobs. They are certainly not alone in this struggle. Working, in America, is in decline. The number of men ages 25 to 54 who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s.
Making this film had us yearning for the work programs of the New Deal era when millions of men were given the opportunity to work and provide financial security for their families. Our current government has made great efforts to enforce child support payments but where are the large-scale job programs for disadvantaged men that could really make a difference?
Our second big take-away from making “Daddy Don’t Go” is that while there have been vast improvements; our family court system still treats men like second-class parents. Child support payments are mostly shouldered by men but only 18% of fathers have custody of their children. This means that a man’s financial role in his child’s life continues to be prioritized above his emotional one.
Fatherhood related legislation is much more progressive in Nordic countries than it is here. For example, in Norway mothers get six months maternity leave but so do fathers. If a man doesn’t use his leave, it goes away and isn’t given to his partner so the legislation ultimately treats parents as equal. Here in the United States, there’s no federally mandated, paid maternity or paternity leave. We need both. Legislation that supports low-income, working families is critical for disadvantaged fathers. Men need workplace flexibility and paid leave when a family member gets sick just as much as women do.
Our third, and most critical lesson learned from making the film is that disadvantaged fathers very much want to parent but family conflict sometimes gets in the way. Many of the men we interviewed felt humiliated by the mothers of their children. In the words of one interviewee “I said to myself, if she keeps making me feel all worthless, I’m gonna bounce.”
Malik feels that the years and money he spent in the family court system fighting for his parental rights were hideously painful but well worth it in the end. He and his ex became excellent co-parents once they got all their emotional baggage out of the way through concerted effort and counseling. Malik asserts that we can’t let family drama get in the way of parenting. We can’t let a child suffer the loss of her father simply because her parents don’t get along. We need to broaden federal funding for programs that provide emotional support and counseling to families in need.
So why does all this matter? After all, studies show that the children of lesbian families fare as well, if not better, than their heterosexual counterparts. The key is a two-parent household. A 2014 study of over 40 million children and their parents by researchers at Harvard University found that family structure showed the strongest correlation with economic mobility — more so than other factors such as racial segregation, income inequality, school quality or social capital. Family structure is particularly important for fatherless boys who are more than twice as likely to become absent fathers themselves.
These findings were part of the catalyst for President Obama’s 2014 initiative “My Brother’s Keeper” which addresses the growing social disparities that disadvantaged boys face. President Obama has been a tireless and dedicated advocate for the responsible fatherhood movement for many years. When he announced his Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative in 2010, he reflected on his own childhood by saying, “I still wish I had a father who was not only present but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for my family what my father wasn’t for mine.” Since President Obama’s childhood in the 1970’s, the number of children growing up without their father has risen from 10.3% to nearly 28%. We must do something to reverse this trend. Children who grow up without a father have a significantly higher risk to live in poverty, do poorly in school and run afoul of the criminal justice system.
We want people who watch “Daddy Don’t Go” to empathize with the fathers in our film and the millions of American men with similar struggles. We still primarily value fathers in terms of their ability to provide for their children financially versus their ability to be nurturing caretakers. This antiquated way of viewing fathers needs to change. It damages men and women alike, but most especially, it hurts children. A man who doesn’t have a job or can’t afford child support can still be there for his kids. We must find ways to empower disadvantaged men to stay present for their children against the odds. So on this Father’s Day lets honor all dads, including the ones that struggle.
-Omar Epps and Malik Yoba are fathers, actors and the Executive Producers of the documentary film “Daddy Don’t Go”. Emily Abt is a mother, filmmaker and the Director of “Daddy Don’t Go”. Their film will be released on Vimeo this Father’s Day.