When Father’s Day approaches, Chicago author John W. Fountain says he sometimes feels a hollowness. “I feel Father’s Day in my bones like an injury,” he said.
Fountain, Roosevelt University professor and author of “Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood,” has written extensively about the pain of growing up with an absent father.
“I saw my father led from the apartment in handcuffs when I was 4,” he said. “The next time I saw him was in his coffin after a car accident. I couldn’t remember what he looked like. I didn’t remember what his voice sounded like.”
The special place of a father in a boy’s life is difficult to maintain for families with “nonresident fathers,” according to Waldo E. Johnson Jr., professor of social work at University of Chicago. “An increasing number of children are growing up in households without fathers but for multiple reasons,” Johnson said.
Divorce, abandonment and estrangement from a child’s mother can lead to children missing the influence of a loving dad. Sons in fatherless households are often at risk for risky behaviors such as early sexual experimentation, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and poor schoolwork. In Chicago, boys in poverty and African-American and Latino boys are especially at risk of street violence, Johnson said.
Johnson is helping to bring a special longitudinal study to Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood aimed to connect nonresident fathers and sons.
A $3 million pilot program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will recreate in Chicago a successful “Fathers and Sons” study run by Dr. Cleopatra Caldwell at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. In that study, of 158 father-son pairs, researchers proposed that a two-month intensive bonding experience and parenting classes might influence a boy’s choices as he grows up. Boys ages 9-12 participated with their fathers.
“What we found was that not only did the boys make healthier choices as they grew up, but their fathers also had better health outcomes,” Caldwell said of the 10-year study.
In Chicago, 400 dads and sons will be selected — with the moms’ approval — to participate in twice-weekly three-hour parenting, nutrition and recreation classes. The project has been recruiting dads and sons through the KLEO Community Family Life Center in Washington Park, where classes will take place. The study will also give fathers information about resources available for issues such as drugs or alcohol and depression.
Fathers sometimes don’t know how to begin to connect with their children, Caldwell said. One exercise is for the sons to create a diagram of the persons most important in their lives. If someone unfamiliar to the father is on the list, the father is encouraged to get to know that person.
“The purpose of this activity is to allow the fathers to see who is important in their sons’ lives, especially with regard to their friends,” Caldwell said in an interview.
In Flint, the program emphasized culturally significant elements to African-American fathers, such as the Ghanian symbol of “Sankofa,” meaning “return and fetch it.” According to the study’s materials, this symbol “illustrates the idea of retrieving and going back, never forgetting your history and knowing you can undo mistakes.”
Fountain said some fathers don’t realize how much children long to be with them. The great recession in Chicago was especially hard on blue-collar fathers who may have been out of work or underemployed, he said.
“Your son would rather get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sleep on the floor next to you than eat steak and sleep in a condo,” he said. “Money is not the only thing fathers provide. We provide confidence and empowerment, identity, wholeness. Who can put a price tag on that?”
Part of the project will be a letter-writing exercise between fathers and sons, Caldwell said. The voices of children and their fathers speak through these letters, she said.
“Dear Dad, I wish that me and you can be with each other every day. I wish that you will give me something for my birthday. I want you to be there when I want you. I need you to be at school to see what I am doing so I can learn,” wrote one 8-year-old.
“I want us to have a relationship and maybe even understand each other a little better, I’d like to make a little into a lot. And I hope that by the end of this program my wish may come true. Love, Daddy” wrote a father.
Another son wrote: “This is what I want you to know about me … I am responsible for my own actions and I want you to know that I LOVE YOU with all my heart. And I know that you will be there for me when I need you. But also sometimes you will not be there.”
Fountain said as he got older and had children of his own, he realized how difficult parenting was.
“The older we become, the more empathy we have,” he said. “We look in the mirror and understanding who our fathers are — we see the reflection of our father.”
“I believe as individuals we get to make our own choices,” he said.
I made a decision as a boy I would never desert my children. You make that decision every day,” he said.
Fountain will be speaking on Father’s Day at the Faith Community of St. Sabina in Chicago.
“I think in making a decision to be a father, to put forth the effort, even with our imperfections as people, has helped heal the little boy inside of me,” he said.
In Flint, the program has helped fathers realize how important they were to their sons, one Flint participant said.
“The best thing I learned,” said Willie Smith, of Flint, “is how much I mean to my son.”
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— Fathers and sons project seeks to strengthen bonds —