When 19-year-old Donné McDaniel became pregnant last year, Tim Wagoner didn't consider marrying her.
"Nah, man, it wasn't really discussed. We're just friends."
They'd dated a year. The pregnancy wasn't planned.
Now their son, Zyhir, is 4 months old. Zyhir stays here, stays there.
It's 11 a.m., a cold fall morning. A darkened rowhouse in Northwest Washington, just off Georgia Avenue. "Cold Case Files," the television cop show, is the only electric illumination in the room. Cries come from the crib by the couch.
"You fussin', shorty? You don't want to be in there?"
A tattooed hand reaches down, pulls little Zyhir up to his lap. "The bottle? This it?"
Wagoner is 27, handsome, neat moustache and goatee, the oldest of five kids. Lean, muscular, not too tall. Maria, his mom's name, is tattooed on his hand. He lives with her and his sisters, making $7.50 an hour working at a teen recreation center in Brookland two days a week. He's studying for his GED.
Wagoner is with his child part of the time, and part of the time he's not. He and McDaniel share child-raising duties but there's no formal agreement, and Wagoner pays no child support.
In many ways, this is a new norm. Single black mothers almost outnumber black two-parent families, and absentee black fathers have become a staple of conversations, sermons and stand-up comics. Some 48 percent of all black children live without their fathers in the home, nearly double the rate of any other ethnic group in the United States. On his block, Tim Wagoner knows more guys his age who have been shot than who are married with kids.
Many single women make it work. But according to the census, children in mother-only families, regardless of race, are more likely to live in poverty, be arrested as juveniles or have children in their teenage years -- all things that lead to a lifetime of difficulty.
But what defines "absentee"? If you see your child once a month, does that make you a nonexistent father? Once a week?
The most important thing
Wagoner grew up without his father around, he says. His stepfather was shot to death when he was a teen, and his uncle, another father figure, was, too.
Now it's his turn to be a father. Now it's his turn to answer a hard question:
What does a daddy do?
There is a pause. Wagoner doodles his index finger around his son's hand. Zyhir is tapping it.
"Just be there," Wagoner says, not looking up from Zyhir. "That's the most important thing. You can buy them all the clothes, all the toys, and it don't matter. Most important thing is that he knows my voice, knows me when he sees me."
There are other things, too, of course: Nurture. Shelter. Love. Protect. Those entail a lifetime of decisions and sacrifices; fatherhood isn't a job with a time clock where you punch in, punch out.
This is going to be hard, because Wagoner has struggled with stability and achievement. Started high school, dropped out. Worked Job Corps. Worked at Target. Worked at a storage company. Worked as a driver for the handicapped. Worked construction. The longest job he has held was six months, maybe seven. He has a record after beating up a guy, and now it's even harder to find work.
Zyhir. Diapers, day care, homework, PTA meetings, high school -- this is the future tapping back at his index finger.
* * *
Black families unraveling
In the 1890 Census, one generation after slavery, 80 percent of black households were mom, dad and kids. It stayed that way through the 1950s, when the census counted 77 percent of black families as united, compared to 85 percent of white families.
This was remarkable, as the black family had been through slavery, the upheaval of emancipation, the segregation of Jim Crow. The black family survived the Great Migration, when millions of impoverished Southern blacks made the journey to Northern urban centers, often dividing families.
By the early 1970s, historians and sociologists say, the sexual revolution and shifting mores changed American views on marriage and child-rearing.
Among blacks, the marriage rate dropped by half between 1970 and 2000 -- far more than any other ethnic group, as relations between black men and women frayed. Black women had long been accustomed to working outside the home, by the pinch of economic necessity, and now found a new freedom to run their own households. Black men, however, found a harsher and rapidly changing work environment: Many urban, semiskilled jobs moved to the suburbs, or were eliminated by technology. Trade unions often locked black men out of better-paying positions. The result left men scrambling to provide for their families, or to keep pace with women's salaries.
For poor families, welfare laws intended to stop fraud penalized a mother if a man was in her household; that had the unintended effect of driving men away, sociologists say. Rising homicide and incarceration rates among black men devastated entire neighborhoods -- almost one out of every two black men between 18 and 35 in the District is under court oversight, according to Bureau of Justice statistics and published criminal justice studies.
Today, federal statistics show that 69 percent of all black children are born to single mothers, more than twice the national average and almost triple the rate of whites. In Potomac Gardens, a public housing complex on Capitol Hill where virtually all residents are black, the president of the residents' association says that of the 208 families, 180 are headed by single moms. Some dads help out a lot, others not at all.
Somewhere along the line, a certain fatalism crept in.
"There's become an almost hyper-masculine, hypersexual idea of black men that has been embraced," says Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., whose book "Becoming Dad" examined black fatherhood. "It probably has something to do with why we leave our children in higher numbers. The thinking is, 'I can't lose the game if I refuse to play the game.' If I'm sure that I can't provide for my family and put food on table and clothes in the closet, then I can say, 'I didn't care in the first place.' "
Forty years ago, people whispered phrases like "illegitimate children." Now you hear "baby-mama drama." "He's my baby's daddy." There came to be the idea that having kids was no problem, but marriage -- that was something you'd want to think about.
"Guys are doing what they learned at home," says Tony Dugger, an activist who works on fatherhood issues with the North Capitol Collaborative, a District nonprofit. "They care about their kids emotionally, but they don't see it as odd that they don't live with them. You can't tell them they're doing something wrong because their life experience tells them it's completely normal."
* * *
What does a daddy do?
Zyhir -- the name's a variation of Zaire -- is sitting on his father's lap. He's wailing. A good, steady wwwwaaannnnhhh that could go for hours. Wagoner is bouncing the boy, his hands encircling his son's tiny rib cage, trying to soothe him. No effect. So Wagoner leans over, pulls a milk bottle from the crib, tilts the child back against the crook of his biceps, taps the nipple on Zyhir's lips.
On "Cold Case Files," a man who garroted his older female companion unwittingly gives himself away. "Little man, he just sent himself to jail," Wagoner says.
Dad and son, a morning of weekday television.
Mom is at work. Donné McDaniel clerks at a children's clothing store in a strip mall in Prince George's County for $8 an hour. She lives in a third-floor walk-up in Hyattsville with her mom and two brothers.
Her expectations of fatherhood are murky. Her dad never married her mom, but he was always around, taking her to doctor's appointments and talking with her, she says. He's still in her life.
"My dad was a great dad," she says, gushing. "He was at school meetings. He even did my hair."
She has four girlfriends who have had children. None of them are married.
She plans to raise Zyhir on her own budget, and says she is not worried about Wagoner as a dad.
"I don't ask him for anything. He takes it upon himself to provide things. So I know it won't be a problem when Zyhir goes to school, or needs other things. I know Tim will be there." (Although, McDaniel giggles, when Zyhir's diapers are "serious business, he brings him right to me.")
The child-care issues, for now, are a family-wide affair:
Zyhir goes over to Wagoner's every day that she works (her schedule changes). Wagoner watches him in the mornings on Mondays and Wednesdays until he goes to work, then his 19-year-old sister Tiffany takes over until 8 p.m., when Wagoner returns. He then ferries Zyhir back to McDaniel's, and has the rest of the evening to himself.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he'll pick up Zyhir, drop him back at his house for Tiffany to babysit while he goes to his GED class. "I like it," Tiffany Wagoner says, "because I want to be a pediatrician, and I love being around little kids."
Saturdays Zyhir spends with the Wagoners; on Sundays, the baby is with McDaniel's mom.
This will last until January, when Tiffany starts taking classes at Montgomery College. McDaniel says she'll likely find Zyhir a spot in a child-care center. Or, Tim says, his mom might watch Zyhir in the mornings after she gets off work. Maria Washington works an overnight shift at Amtrak, cleaning rail cars.
Sated from the bottle, Zyhir drifts off to sleep. Wagoner goes to the kitchen, rustles up another bottle, then takes Zyhir upstairs to Maria, who's sleeping in. Wagoner comes back downstairs, bends down, touches his toes, gets some milk and cereal from the kitchen. He flops back on the couch with the cereal, settling in for "Crossing Jordan."
Trying to get ahead
In October, Wagoner enrolled in Project Empowerment, a District program that pays enrollees to take simple jobs and study for their GEDs so they can move into better-paying jobs. Wagoner had been out of work all summer, during McDaniel's pregnancy.
In one way, this wasn't bad: He lives about a mile from Children's Hospital, where McDaniel went for her checkups, and he could walk to the appointments. He was there when Zyhir was born: "He had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck." There's a picture on the mantel in the living room, Wagoner in his white scrubs, holding his son after the birth.
But is being there enough? Wagoner has struggled to provide himself with a steady job, a place of his own or even a car. He drives around in his mom's Chevy Tahoe.
Now he has to provide for two: "When you have a kid, you can't go around putting yourself first anymore," he says. Right now, he says, his son is the most important thing in his life.
He wants to make changes. He describes his life from 19 to 25 as "a whole lot of nothing."
"My motivation was all messed up," he says. "I had everything backward. I hated school, so I wouldn't go, which only made it take longer, and then I stopped. I went to Job Corps, and messed that up. I was supposed to be helping myself, but I was just living for the moment. . . . I had all that attitude. I'd just wake up and say, 'Ah, I don't want to go to work today.' "
He knows firsthand the pain of a father who doesn't follow through.
"I didn't see my father much. I didn't really care. I didn't think about it much. I didn't have that much to do with him. . . . He'd call about Christmas: 'You want A, B, C?' You'd say something, then not get anything. It was like that. So he'd call, I'd give answers, but I already knew the story."
Now it's his turn as Dad. When he met with the Project Empowerment staff, he agreed to the deal without even asking what the pay was. "I didn't even know. It didn't even matter. I just really got to get that GED, get a good job."
He minds the front desk at the teen center, making sure kids sign in, then watching sitcoms. Six hours of this, twice a week. Two other days a week, he's in a GED class with a half-dozen other adults in the basement of a government building on H Street NE. His most recent paycheck was $260 for a week.
Today, he's in class and the subject is math. He's worn down by a killer headache and it's hard to concentrate. It's also depressing, being confounded by equations that teenagers are doing. He's head-down on his desk, forehead tucked into folded arms.
"What's wrong with you?" the teacher asks.
Wagoner looks up, shakes his head, no. He blinks.
Chatter from the other students:
"He need him some Excedrin."
"Give him some Aleve."
"You got Aleve?"
"They say in this one you supposed to put down the least common multiple."
The girl across the way flips open a pink cellphone, takes a call.
Wagoner tries to focus. If he's going to turn things around, provide for himself and Zyhir, this is where it starts. He has connections at Metro, an uncle who could get him a janitorial job to start, then work his way up. Got to get that GED to qualify.
It's payday, but there's a problem: His check isn't here. He has bills; he and McDaniel split the $50 per week they pay his sister to babysit. He wants to buy a '95 DeVille he's had his eye on -- $3,800 -- a step toward independence from his mom.
But now something so simple, this little check, his first one in the program, can't be found.
"How you not know where my money's at?" he hisses under his breath. "I don't work for free. That's why I quit those other jobs. You work, they can't find your check. It don't take but one time for me. I'm starting all over with this job. I need this money."
Calls go back and forth. The check, it turns out, is waiting over at the teen center. He rolls his eyes, walks out to his car.
"People think all this is a lot easier than it is," he grouses.
One day, when Zyhir is with McDaniel, Wagoner has time to kill. He steps out on the porch to take in the air. A guy from across the street stops by. They watch three kids playing football in the street.
The guy works at Target, where Wagoner used to work as a cart assistant. Wagoner quit because they only had two people to round up carts across the entire parking lot, and man, you had to be kidding. So now the guy is telling him about a co-worker who walked off the job after this female manager talked down to him.
"You can't talk to people any kinda way," Wagoner says.
"My man just left the cart key," the guy says.
"You just can't talk like that."
"Not having that, no kinda way."
The talk turns to the new shoes coming out Saturday, the new Jordans, the new LeBrons.
"Cold Case Files" blares again from the living room.
It's not quite noon, the day spinning out, nothing to do, all day to get it done.
* * *
Addressing the issues
Since a conference devoted to black fatherhood at Morehouse College a decade ago, black men have helped create hundreds of fatherhood programs across the country. The D.C. Health Department just won a $10 million, five-year grant for programs designed to help fathers with the basics of supporting their children. In church basements, community halls and conference rooms, black men are reaching out to one another.
Almost all of the programs involve helping troubled dads with education, jobs, stable housing, sobriety, counseling, or rebuilding commitment to their families. There is little empirical evidence to suggest how these efforts are working. Jeffrey M. Johnson, president of the National Partnership for Community Leadership, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes black fatherhood, says that 9 out of 10 "fatherhood" programs are informal mentoring and offer little life-changing help.
The key misunderstanding about "absentee black fathers," activists say, is the idea that they are divorced from their children's lives. They are involved, to varying degrees, and there are ties to build on, they say, regardless of how it appears to the outside world.
"A lot of the time, [the fathers] are right there in the waiting room when the child is born," says Johnson. "These couples struggle to stay together. But in three years or less, the fathers are usually gone. A lot of them become serial dads. They can't take care of themselves properly, they didn't finish school, can't hold a steady job. They just bounce around."
The District has 35,355 child support cases, 90 percent of which are in arrears, according to the D.C. Child Support Enforcement Division. A total of $393 million is owed. Officials do not break out their caseload based on race, but say most of it is black families.
The No. 1 problem, administrators say, is finding the fathers.
But Joi Yeldell, director of D.C.'s fatherhood programs, says raw numbers do not necessarily carry emotional truth, at least for the 2,000 fathers who have come through the city's workshops: "A lot of people think most African American males in this city don't want to do the right thing for their kids. We're finding, at least for the ones who come through these programs, that they really do."
Jerome Lee, a 38-year-old D.C. school counselor, missed nearly all of his son's youth, locked up in prison for armed robbery. He taught himself to read in prison. Since his release eight years ago he has earned two college degrees, married and renewed his ties to his son.
"None of my friends growing up had their dads around," he says, "and a lot of guys my age just wanted that bling bling, the immediate gratification. I can't make up for the time I missed with my son. But I did make sure he was there at my graduations, seeing his father doing something with his life, and I'm proud that's what he's doing, too."
So much is unresolved. Johnson has worked with thousands of absentee black fathers, their children, the mothers of their children, for more than two decades.
Here's how he sums up a generation:
"There's just so much anger. A lot of them don't even know they're angry, and it's not just fathers and boys. There's a lot of young girls who are angry that their fathers weren't there. . . . I think there's just a lot of repressed anger and we deal with it in homicides, suicides, all sorts of illness and disease, because most people don't explode. They implode.
"The thing I'm left with is the pain. The pain of it all is just excruciating."
* * *
What does a daddy do?
On a windy night in November, Tim Wagoner gets his sister to help bundle up sleeping Zyhir, zipping him into a blue jumper, then tucks him into a portable car seat. He keeps the driver's seat kicked way back for the drive to McDaniel and her mom's.
He carries the quiet car seat up the three flights of stairs, her mom opens the door, and he ducks into Donné's room. She's in loose sweat pants, a shirt, sitting on her bed.
Her face lights up when Zyhir wakes up, gurgling. She has a teenage girl's room: a clutter of clothes in the corner, a lot of DVDs, a nice-size bathroom, a vanity mirror, a television.
Wagoner sits on the edge of the bed and watches a BET special about Prince. McDaniel flops on her back, holding Zyhir aloft. "AhbahbahbahBOOH!" she says. And, "Hey! You're slobbering on my shirt!" Giggles.
She and Wagoner don't say much.
He's gone a few minutes later. He has class in the morning.
"I'll call you," he says.
The bass thumps on the stereo as he rattles back into the District, back toward home, back to the house that holds his family and his memories, but not his son.
Life in late November, the chill settling in.