As traditional family structures are falling apart for working-class men, many of them are forging new kinds of relationships: two old high-school friends who chat so many times a day that they need to buy themselves walkie-talkies; a father who texts his almost-grown sons as he goes to bed at night and as he wakes up in the morning. Christians often talk about a “God-shaped hole,” a need inside us that can be filled only by faith. But perhaps we share a “family-shaped hole.” When the old structures recede for men, they find ways to replace them with alternative attachments, bonds with one or two people that offer the warmth and intimacy typically provided by a wife or significant other. If anything, these improvised families can prove more intense because they are formed under duress and, lacking a conventional domestic routine or a recognized status, they must be constantly tended and reinforced. While researching a recent book she co-wrote about working-class fathers, Doing the Best I Can, the sociologist Kathryn Edin noticed something surprising. The men she spoke with were exceptionally emotional when it came to their children – children whom many of the men did not live with and were not steadily providing for. They had taken the ethos that fathers should be involved with their children and “kind of gone overboard with it,” Edin explained to me, “so they were even more expressive than middle-class men.” Often this emotiveness spilled over into other areas or landed on children who were not their own, or even on other adults – a sibling or cousin, a childhood best friend – as if the men were inventing a new language of intimacy. In some cases, when a man was courting a woman, Edin found that he would court her child so intensely that it seemed “the child was the main audience for his affections,” not the mother. Edin concluded that for men who are failing the traditional tests of marriage and parenting, this kind of intense emotional connection “is the last form of identity available.” It’s a way to maintain a sense of family if you can’t be a reliable breadwinner, or even keep up with child support.

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