“But like I said, my son is my savior and he means the world to me.”

There was a time in my life that drugs were so important to me that that is all I concerned myself about and it came to a point where my family and my son, I didn’t see him that often. I probably wind up five to six thousand dollars in back support. Wound up to the point where I was living on the street, it got so bad that I was wanted by the police. My son was probably five and I remember going to see him with a full facial beard that I never carry. I had long hair and was unbathed for days at a time and I remember crying to him telling him how I was sorry. And I remember him hugging me, saying it was okay, as long as I just came to see him. One Christmas I didn’t have anything for him, and he said me just being there was all the present he needed. And so when I hit this bottom I wanted to commit suicide; that is how bad it was.

A friend of mine said he could send me to Florida and hook me up with his mother who would let me live there and his brother could give me a job doing drywall. But the thought of never seeing him again ripped through me. That night I knew that I had to break down and face everything that I caused in order to keep him in my life. He was my savior; he got me through that, and today I get to bitch about the things that normal people bitch about. I don’t have enough food in my refrigerator, I don’t have enough money in my pocket but I got the roof over my head. My son loves me. We get to be clean and take showers. We have clean clothes, so I try not to be ungrateful. It didn’t happen overnight, it was a day-to-day thing. But like I said, my son is my savior and he means the world to me.”


Across the political spectrum, unwed fatherhood is denounced as one of the leading social problems of today. Doing the Best I Can is a strikingly rich, paradigm-shifting look at fatherhood among inner-city men often dismissed as “deadbeat dads.” Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson examine how couples in challenging straits come together and get pregnant so quickly—without planning.


The authors chronicle the high hopes for forging lasting family bonds that pregnancy inspires, and pinpoint the fatal flaws that often lead to the relationship’s demise. Drawing on years of fieldwork, Doing the Best I Can shows how mammoth economic and cultural changes have transformed the meaning of fatherhood among the urban poor.


Intimate interviews with more than 100 fathers make real the significant obstacles faced by low-income men at every step in the familial process: from the difficulties of romantic relationships, to decision-making dilemmas at conception, to the often celebratory moment of birth, and finally to the hardships that accompany the early years of the child’s life, and beyond.

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Meet the Authors

Kathryn Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology at the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.  She was previously a Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School.  She is the author of six books and more than 50 journal articles.  Her previous book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, co-authored with Maria Kefalas, sought to answer the question of why so many low-income women were having children without marrying.  Based on in-depth interviews and observations, the authors found that, rather than undervaluing marriage, low-income women held marriage to a very high bar.  Child rearing was so central to their views of themselves that they were unwilling to postpone starting families until they could find suitable husbands, which could take years, if ever.


The Russell Sage Foundation published Kathy’s first book, Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work, written with Laura Lein (University of Michigan).  This work shed new light on a question that was central to the ongoing debate about welfare reform: Why weren’t single mothers working?  Edin and Lein found that most mothers were working – largely off-the-books – and combining resources from several sources (welfare, work, the fathers of their children, grandmothers) in order to make ends meet for themselves and their children.  The book generated widespread interest and debate, and led to a profile of Edin in the New York Times Magazine.


A frequent commentator for print and broadcast media, Kathy Edin has also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate on welfare and marriage issues.  She is chair of Harvard’s Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.  She is a Trustee of the Russell Sage Foundation, a member of ASPE’s Self Sufficiency Working Group, and on HHS’s advisory committee for the poverty research centers at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Stanford.  She is a founding member of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Network on Housing and Families with Young Children and a past member of the MacArthur Network on the Family and the Economy.

Kathryn Edin
“Edin is one of the nation’s preeminent poverty researchers.  She has spent much of the past several decades studying some of the country’s most dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods.  But unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.”
— Stephanie Mencimer, Mother Jones
“Nelson has given us a wonderfully intimate glimpse into how rituals and belief animate the religious experiences of black-southerners.  This is an important work that will challenge scholars of religion and race to rethink the nature of religious experience.”
American Journal of Sociology on Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Timothy Nelson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and a Research Associate in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.  He was previously a  lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He is the author of numerous articles on low-income fathers and is the co-author, with Kathryn Edin, of the book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, published in June 2013 by the University of California Press.


Currently, Nelson is working on a book with Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein (University of Michigan) on the work and child support experiences of 440 low-income fathers interviewed across four metropolitan areas: Philadelphia, Charleston, SC, Austin and San Antonio.  He is also working with Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins University) on a project examining the intersections of family, work and religion in the lives of working-class fathers.


Nelson’s prior research has focused on African American religion and congregational studies.  His prior book, Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Congregation was published by NYU Press in 2004.  Nelson received his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1997 and has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Timothy J. Nelson

Learn about the joys and struggles of being a father in the inner city by reading a free excerpt from Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.