Nadya Sabeva, Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families. You can also read part one, part two or part four of the series.
The 10-month-old twins call Frandy “Da Da.” He changes their diapers, mixes up their formula and helps shoulder the burden of providing food, clothing and medical care.
But the girls aren’t his children; Frandy’s girlfriend Cassie was pregnant when they started dating. When, a few months later, the two decided to move in together, “I knew raising the kids was part of the package,” said Frandy, a 23-year-old from inner-city Boston.
His own 6-year-old daughter lives across town with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Frandy sends a check every month.
Such complex family arrangements are becoming increasingly common — particularly among the poor, like Frandy and Cassie. Nearly 40 percent of unwed parents with low education levels share child-rearing responsibilities with a co-residential boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a 2013 report from the United States Census Bureau. Oftentimes these couples share at least one biological child, but in 27 percent of relationships, moms or dads are stepping in to raise children they didn’t conceive.
U.S. government programs designed to help such families, however, haven’t evolved with the population. Based on decades-old stereotypes that single mothers are raising children alone and single dads are “deadbeats,” the majority of U.S. anti-poverty programs almost exclusively serve women and children, said Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a Wisconsin-based think tank that focuses on supporting low-income parents.
The welfare system, as a result, can become a muddled mess of rearranging rather than relieving poverty. Single, non-custodial fathers bear the brunt. But dads don’t suffer alone. Because the poor pull together to support one another, everyone absorbs the pinch.
“It’s like seven people in bed together, sharing a very small blanket,” Boggess said. “If you move the blanket over to cover up one person who’s chilly, someone else is going to get cold.”
Sprawled across the width of a bare mattress on a recent afternoon, one leg under a blanket that’s coming apart at the seams and one leg out, Cassie was trying to take a nap. But her little girls weren’t having it.
Next to her, one twin was bouncing up and down. “Unnn-gah!” she squealed.
From a crib across the room, twin number two replied with a squawk.
Frandy, Haitian by descent, is a barrel-chested man with long dreads he keeps swept back in a low ponytail. Hearing the noise, he poked his head into the bedroom. “You OK, babe?” he said. He and Cassie can’t afford their own place, so the family of four shares a bedroom in his mother’s apartment in Dorchester. His sister lives in the next room over with his four nieces and nephews.
“I can’t get any sleep with them around,” said Cassie, groggily. “They’ll just go back and forth all afternoon.”
Four chubby little arms reached for Frandy. He scooped the babies up. One laid her dimpled cheek on his shoulder. One laced her fingers through his braids.
Frandy sees his relationship with Cassie’s twins as a second chance at fatherhood.
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