The Changing Face of Fatherhood in Connecticut
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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.
W ill 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.”