In 1997, when Eric Marsh was 27 years old, a Philadelphia Family Court awarded him full custody of his (then) two-year old son. It was an inflection point in his adult life that he recalls with some amazement now: “It was rare for dads to be awarded full custody, in this city at least,” he tells me.
Not too long after he won custody of his son, Marsh lost his job and did something that some men are loath to do: He signed up for welfare. “I really encourage men to think about it and be open to it,” he says. The stigmas attached to welfare recipients were not enough to shame Marsh in that moment. He knew his son needed health care and knew his son had to eat, whether he was employed or not.
Marsh admits to not knowing much about fathering when he took on the challenge of being a single parent; his own father was mostly absent when he was growing up. Twenty-five years later, he may be somewhat of an expert. He is co-founder of the five-year-old Fathering Circle, an art project-turned-support organization that has helped hundreds of men grapple with the skills, understanding and experience of what it means to be a father.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, children raised in homes without fathers are at two times greater risk for infant mortality; four times more likely to live in poverty; more likely to have behavioral problems and two times more likely to drop out of school.
“We have a couple of concepts,” he says. “The main purpose of the Fathering Circle is to help men examine how we’re socialized as men, and the harmful effects of that socialization, not only on ourselves, but on our parenting partners and our children.”
The work of the Fathering Circle is mission critical. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in four children live in a home without a father or father-figure (step/adoptive dads). That is over 18 million children. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, children raised in homes without fathers are at two times greater risk for infant mortality; four times more likely to live in poverty; more likely to have behavioral problems and two times more likely to drop out of school.
And these data points are the equivalent of a teaspoon in a teapot of potential trauma. One staggering stat that might resonate with Philadelphians: children in “father-absent” homes are 279 percent more likely to deal drugs and carry guns than their peers/counterparts.
At the core of the Fathering Circle’s mission is a commitment to the arts as an integral tool for social justice. The organization’s short film is one of their early forays into the intersection of fatherhood, the arts, and familial advocacy. For Eric Marsh, the journey has been organized around his commitment to being a better father and becoming a seasoned volunteer.
Graced by serendipity
Marsh is grateful for the serendipity he was granted along the way. One of the requirements for welfare recipients was to attend a job readiness program. He remembers its program facilitator — Kinetic Kendra — fondly. “She asked a question: ‘Well, what are you good at? If you could do anything, what would you?’”
The question seems simple, but for Eric Marsh the query ignited a revelation in him. He knew how to fix things. He grew up in a household in the Olney neighborhood of North Philadelphia, near Fern Rock Station. Although his father wasn’t around much, he came of age in a multi-generational home with his mom, his four brothers, his uncle and his grandmother.
“My mother’s motto was: ‘If you break it, you gotta fix it” he tells me. Some of this was good parenting, but it was also a simple consequence of limited financial resources. “So, I learned to work with my hands and be handy at an early age.”
Marsh chalks it up to the grace of God that while he was in that first class with Kinetic Kendra, one of his new classmates — he was one of two men in a job readiness class of 20 or more — told him about a carpentry apprentice training program, “down the street.” Serendipity. “So, I finished with the job readiness program [class] … ran up the street about four or five blocks, and went into this [carpentry] program.” He passed the test and was able to embark upon a professional trajectory as a carpenter, ultimately entering the union, and establishing himself with a bona fide career.
As men, we are generally socialized to privilege the role of monetary provider as fathers, even though the data suggests that instilling morals and values ranks highest amongst fathers surveyed about parenting. For Marsh, securing a steady income was only part of his preparation for fatherhood.
“I was renting a house, and I was trying to find resources to help me be a better father, or to help me be prepared for being a better father,” he says. “I grew up without my father in my house, even though I was aware of my father. [He] came and visited a few times; we’d been on vacation before; I was familiar with him. [But] there was no parenting. And I’ll never forget. I walked up on my front porch of the house that I was renting, and there was a little paper booklet from a program called PASCEP.”
PASCEP (Pan-African Studies Community Education Program) is a comprehensive, skills-based community-centered program housed at Temple University. Marsh identified a “Frontline Dads” course that looked to be an essential building block for him as a young father. He enrolled immediately.
Frontline Dads is a PASCEP course, but it is also (now) a nationally recognized program on a mission to “facilitate the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and cultural development of African American men and ‘at-risk’ youth by providing transformative programming that will empower them to assume leadership positions in their families, and communities.” Marsh took founder Reuben Jones’ first Frontline Dads PASCEP course. “I was blessed to not only be a student, but then eventually to move up into a facilitator role and also to sit on the board,” he tells me. “But it all started from me trying to be a better father.”
According to Marsh, “[A]ll of us parent with two perspectives: We either parent the way we were parented, or we parent in a way that’s totally different [from] the way we were parented.” His mission was to parent in a way that restored the absence of a father that he felt as a child. He wonders with me what he might have been able to achieve in life if had had just “a little bit more mentoring” from his father.
Becoming a good father — intentionally
Fathering is about more than just mentoring. It’s about showing up, being present in a child’s life in good times — and especially in hard times. Marsh reflects on the circumstances around him gaining custody of his firstborn son. He would visit him at his son’s mother’s house regularly after work. Unbeknownst to Marsh, his son’s mother had a serious drug addiction and was under surveillance by DHS.
One night after visiting his son, Mr. Marsh received a phone call. It was “Ms. Washington from DHS.” She informed Marsh that they had been watching his son’s mother’s home and were prepared to take the children out of the home imminently. She said, “The only reason why I’m calling you is because we have watched you show up at the house every day after work, and I know you’re a good father. So, I want to give you an opportunity to come get your child,” Marsh says to me as he relives the call.
“I dropped the phone and literally ran,” Marsh says. “At that time, she lived maybe five blocks, six blocks from me. I literally ran to the house and took my son and his sister [not Marsh’s child] back to my house with me.”
“The main purpose of the Fathering Circle is to help men examine how we’re socialized as men, and the harmful effects of that socialization, not only on ourselves, but on our parenting partners and our children,” Marsh says.
Marsh was blown away by this experience. He had no idea the extent of his son’s mother’s substance abuse challenges and he had no idea that DHS was close to making an intervention that could have altered his son’s life irrevocably. For Marsh, the stakes for fatherhood have always been high; his ongoing search for experience and information became his most important resource for parenting.
Back at PASCEP, Marsh became a facilitator for an African-centered rites of passage program for boys. That work presented him with an opportunity to work with the Black Male Development Symposium at Arcadia University. “It [was] just a natural extension of showing up and being present,” he tells me. But clearly it was more than that.
Marsh was intentional on and in his mission to become a good dad. He also began to volunteer at Daddy University, under the direction of Joel Austin. Founded in 2004, Daddy University is “dedicated to shaping the lives of fathers, families, and children” through its Parent Academy and other programs. Marsh’s desire and unwavering commitment to learning about fatherhood is what distinguishes him amongst the sea of parents searching for answers in a world where parenting struggles to keep pace with social and technological developments.
The art of fatherhood
About six years ago, Marsh’s sister, Denise Valentine, called him. She was doing work with Philadelphia Assembled, a community activist organization that approaches the arts as a unique tool for pursuing social justice. Valentine was working on a project co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art that would convene over 120 artists to present work on various topics/areas related to social justice. One of the topics was fatherhood, and Valentine suggested that her brother get involved. He was struck by the specificity of fatherhood as a topic for the expansive project and agreed to participate.
Valentine served as an editor/curator for the project and one of her colleagues on the project was Billy Yalowitz. Yalowitz had been asked to edit/curate the fatherhood piece of the project and wanted to interview Marsh on the topic.
“We showed up in his kitchen, and there were, like, three, four other dads there,” he tells me. “And we just got a chance to sit down and talk about what it’s like being a father.” From these humble beginnings, Yalowitz and Marsh partnered with filmmaker Les Rivera to form The Fathering Circle in 2017. “Les would set up a camera and film these conversations,” says Marsh. “But, what we found that was more important than anything was that, yes, the dads would come; yes, they would share their stories and talk about what their experiences were; but at the end of the night, nobody wanted to go home.”
The Fathering Circle is a unique phenomenon in the constellation of parenting and fathering programs in the Philadelphia region. (Marsh would know, given the fact that he has volunteered his time to work in many of them.) The circle creates and holds space for fathers (of all backgrounds) to share their experiences and co-develop best practices for parenting. Their slogan — “Fathering together for the sake of the family” — is a powerful mantra that replaces fathering as an autonomous goal with the urgency of sustaining family by all means necessary.
They started small. “Billy opened up his home and we started meeting in [his] living room. We would have somewhere between eight and 12 dads at any one time. And those were the sessions where guys didn’t want to go home at night” he says. Since then, The Fathering Circle has served over 200 fathers through circles and choreographed playdates. They work with artistic choreographers to facilitate edifying playdates with dads and their children; they don’t necessarily dance, but the choreographers help to guide them and prepare for playful interactions with their children and other dads. The pandemic has limited some of their in-person capacity, but after the murder of George Floyd they began to host Zoom meetings to help fathers process the tragedy and to learn some tips on how they might talk to their children about the criminal state of policing in America.
Marsh admits that at times they act as facilitators and coach some of the dads through complex issues. They apply the principles of co-counseling to this work as well. But in the main, The Fathering Circle is all about being good listeners to and for each other. “That’s part of one of the techniques that we use — our full presence,” he says. “And what we realize is that people start coming up with their own answers. Internally, you know the answer to your own question that you’ve been asking yourself, and that then reveals itself and allows you to start pulling back some of the layers.”
The Fathering Circle has since grown into a movement with its own slate of programs, including the Father Festival in November of 2017, a two-day event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that included spoken word, dance and theater performances based on the experiences of father in the region; film screenings; children’s games; and parenting workshops for men and women. More than 800 people attended the Festival.
Marsh remains humble in the face of it all. He still approaches the work in the same ways that he approached it early in his journey as a community volunteer. Dads don’t volunteer to father their children, but the principles of volunteerism — offering your time and service on behalf of the community — are instructive models for paternal dedication.
Beyond that, Marsh and the Fathering Circle also get something else right: Being a great parent challenges us to be artists in the everyday work of raising children.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly said Eric Marsh received full custody of his child at age 25. Marsh was not. He was 27.
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