Text and photos by WHITNEY LIGHT
How to be a better father? At Strive, a community-based center in East Harlem, counselors in the “Strong Fathers, Stronger Families” program of intensive workshops help fathers of all ages to answer this question, one of significance for not only the health of individual families but the nation at large. One in three children in America – 24 million – lives without their biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And research shows that children with absent fathers have poorer outcomes for health, education, productivity and more. For many men who come to Strive, a large part of keeping the bond between father and child strong means finding stable employment, which counselors there help them do. But economic stability is only part of the answer. Using workbooks provided by the National Fatherhood Initiative, staff also lead participants to discuss the life skill aspects of fatherhood: how to build trust, how to discipline, and how to communicate with girlfriends or wives. The workshops also unpack societal definitions—what is a man? what is a father?—making room for each father’s experience. Below are the portraits and thoughts on fatherhood of some of the men who participated.
“At this point in my life, I’m just trying to prove to him that I will be there when he needs me.”
Iysa Muhammad, 22. With his son, Iysa Muhammad Jr., 3.
In April, a week after he was laid off from a full-time job at a car wash in Virginia Beach, Muhammad came to Strive seeking job search and fatherhood guidance. He used to commute a few times a month to visit his son in New York City, where he lives with Muhammad’s former partner. Although the couple are not together, Muhammad has decided to stay in the city and seek local work in order to be a more physically present parent. “Before he came along I didn’t care what happened to me. He motivates me to do better.”
“I’m humbled by the fact that I don’t know what to tell the children about how to live a good life.”
Abe Kantor, 36. With his stepson, Benjamin Gitel, 12.
For four years, Kantor, who sought parenting advice at Strive, has been stepfather to Benjamin Gitel and his sister, Molly, 11. He is also the biological father of Batiya, 2. Parenting is complicated by the fact that both the older children have autism, requiring special attention and training. “My weakness is not knowing what to do in all situations.” He worries about their day-to-day physical safety, such as in crossing the street, he said, yet is awed by their independent character. “My children want to be very grown up, so there’s not much I can give them in terms of support if they already know what to do. I can just have a seat, and there’s not much I can do.”
“There’s going to come a time when she’s going to have to go, and I’m not going to be able to be there. That’s why I’m trying to install in her now the basics.”
William Rivera, 40, and his daughter, Madison Rivera, 4.
Rivera came to Strive this spring seeking parenting advice as well as job search guidance. With his daughter, his main challenge in recent months has been balancing discipline with her desire for independence. “I want to explain to her why she shouldn’t do something, without hurting her feelings, you know?” He is also trying to land a job as an exterminator, for which he is state certified since 2010. He is hindered by lack of a vehicle, as well as a past that contains a criminal record, he said. “It hurts sometimes when you see your kids and they say, ‘Daddy, can you get me this?’ And they deserve it. They haven’t done nothing wrong. You don’t have the money.”
“Your child has to feel like they can converse with you. Here I am I’m 30 years old and I can’t have a conversation with my dad, because he’s just not approachable, he’s just not adaptable.”
Reginald Barnes, 30, and his son, Jaiden Barnes, 2.
Barnes came to Strive seeking parenting and job advice. A son arrived sooner than he expected in his relationship; he was emotionally but not financially prepared, he said. Currently, he is in school to be a licensed medical assistant and expects to graduate in October. He looks forward to being a good provider. “Daddy has to always have it, and I remember that from my grandfather,” he said. “He was the only real father figure I had in my life, and I thought he was rich, growing up.” The guidance from Strive also has shown him the importance of emotional engagement and physical presence with his child, such as attending birthdays and recitals, he said. “Everything has to center on that person. Your life no longer belongs to yourself.”