We can put a different spin on Bob Marley’s classic: Is one person’s—a mother’s—love enough to sustain a man? What if his father isn’t there? Does a son need someone else to fill that gap?

In a new book by Etan Thomas, an NBA veteran, he shares his thoughts along with essays from various other celebrities—mostly African American male athletes—on fatherhood. A central theme is the consequence for a son of growing up in a household headed by a single mother, and how this may shape that son’s eventual desire to be present for his own children.

This book isn’t ripe with numbers. It’s seeped instead with poignant and personal accounts from men who struggle over fatherhood. ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott says of his two daughters: “It’s the only thing in my life that every moment I am aware, conscious, and cognizant that I am the father; they are the two most important things to me on the face of the earth. Loving your children is a feeling; it’s an action; it’s a verb. Literally it’s emotions you feel can knock you over.” In the forward by Tony Dungy, he says, “Men in our society have been fooled into thinking that we can get joy and satisfaction from everything except fatherhood. If I make enough money … if I get enough accolades … if I get this contract … if I get whatever, that’s really going to make me happy. Maybe it can, to a certain extent, but it does not give you a joy like seeing your offspring flourish.” 

This book doesn’t settle any debates about the value of fathers, or the consequences of growing up in a household headed by a single mother. But it does provide moving accounts of individuals who succeeded in the face of family challenges, and how many of these men have sought to become a different sort of father as a result. Thomas himself grew up primarily with his mom and brother after his parents split when he was young; he comments on the anger that grew within him over his absent father. While he and many others deeply thank their mothers for being a bedrock, a theme is the other family and community members who helped support a son’s development, in turn suggesting that one person’s love may not be enough. 

Men mention a coach, a pastor, a teacher, a grandmother, a grandfather, an uncle, a college professor—others who demanded accountability and provided inspiration. From Thomas’ perspective, he now seeks to fulfill this same kind of support—telling his story to men in prisons and low-performing schools. His inspiration for this book originated in a discussion with Jim Brown, former NFL star, who proclaimed that growing up in a single mother household doomed a child to failure; Thomas and others have shared their stories to show the potential for success and the variable pathways within that context. Barack Obama’s story sounds as loudly here as any.

I finished reading Thomas’ book today while here in Kingston, Jamaica. The accounts in this book resonate with family dynamics on this Caribbean island too, where about half of all children are born into “visiting households,” or contexts where the parents live apart. As part of a large study of fatherhood here, we’re just beginning to look at patterns to see how men view their roles as fathers, and how fatherhood influences their behavior. Few here would be looking to basketball players for their inspiration. On the other hand, a son might be watching the world’s fastest runners in the upcoming Olympics, drawing inspiration from the display Jamaican sprinters have in store. Or maybe he’ll turn to other family and community members for more immediate support. Either way, the rich profiles shared by Etan Thomas and others in his book fit some of the wider family patterns here and increasingly elsewhere in the world, as sons struggle with variable roles fulfilled by their fathers, and over the fathers those sons will become.

Reference: Etan Thomas with Nick Chiles. 2012. Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge. New York: New American Library.

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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