What is going on with men today, particularly working-class men? What do they want, and why can’t many of them seem to get their lives together?

Those are questions raised by David Leonhardt’s recent New York Times article on the gender gap in academic achievement, and Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s Slate essay on why they believe it may make sense for single mothers to ditch their working-class partners.

In my last post, I suggested that the story is more complicated than “men are floundering, women are flourishing.” One complication is that many working-class fathers are now embracing fatherhood with admirable zeal. The white, working-class fathers I interviewed in Maytown, Ohio for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project typically demonstrated fierce devotion to their children. In Maytown it is not uncommon to see tattooed young men pushing pink baby carriages down the sidewalk, or climbing the jungle gym at the park with their toddlers. Even if they are no longer in a relationship with the mother, working-class men want to stay involved in their children’s lives.

For instance, when Toby found out, at 19, that the girl he had been with for but a few weeks was pregnant, he cried with joy. They got engaged and set a Halloween wedding date. But during the engagement, he found suspicious emails between her and her male co-worker. The first time it happened, she cried and begged him to give her another chance. The second time it happened, he told her to leave.

Now, he is left with what he describes as “really bad trust issues.” He doesn’t trust women, and therefore he can’t see himself ever getting married. Instead, he focuses all his energy on fatherhood.

Even if they are no longer in a relationship with the mother, working-class men want to stay involved in their children’s lives.

“I’m just gonna do me and do my kids, and that’s it,” he says. By his kids, he means his ex-fiancée’s toddler daughter, whom he adores as his own, and his infant son. At the time, he was hoping to win full custody of both of them, but he had a civil agreement with his ex-fiancée whereby he got the kids five days a week. Being with his kids, he says, is the only time that he’s really happy.

“I’ve always wanted something that was mine, something that I made,” he said. “And I got that.”

Then there’s Rob, 24, who admits to a history of cheating and drug use and trouble with the law. But all that stopped after the birth of his second son, when he decided it was time to stop his “rambling man” ways.

“They’re going to have some structure in life, because I never had it,” Rob says of his children. His own mother abused drugs during his childhood, and his parents divorced. He was only eleven when he smoked his first joint and drank his first beer. That’s why Rob is adamant about giving his boys opportunities to play sports, work, and go to college—the kind of structure that will keep them out of trouble.

Rob is a roofer, and during the summer months works long hours. But over the winter, he doesn’t have steady work. So one winter Rob and his cohabiting girlfriend (the mother of his two sons) agreed that it made more sense for her to work full-time and for Rob to stay at home with the boys. Rob loved the arrangement, and he says he would have been fine staying a full-time dad if it weren’t for the fact that his girlfriend got dissatisfied with it.

Once, another unemployed father, 20, was updating me on his life. He spent most of the time telling me how he loves that he gets to spend so much time with his daughter. His fiancée works and he currently stays home with their daughter. “She is so attached to me,” he beamed, holding his baby girl, bedecked in purple ruffles and polka dots, on his hip. He didn’t mention work until he was about to leave. “Oh, and I got a job interview at McDonald’s tomorrow,” he said as an afterthought. Some men derive so much meaning from their children that they have little problem trading work (albeit menial and low-wage work) for full-time fatherhood.

These are hardly the stories of men who, according to Cahn and Carbone, “seem to prefer their freedom.” To the contrary, they are changing diapers and manning strollers and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over their kids.

Sometimes, absent fathers don’t want to be absent; instead, they feel unjustly shut out of their children’s lives.

Even the stories of absent dads are complicated. For instance, one dad who has barely seen his toddler daughter says that more than anything he wants to be with his daughter. While a judge did award him the right to keep her at his house at designated times, to do so he has to contend with a mother who says that he’ll have to get past her parents as well as her new boyfriend’s parents—and their .45 handgun.

Another now-absent father married the mother of his child when he found out they were pregnant because he believed it was the right thing to do. But a year into marriage, his wife started sleeping with the next-door neighbor and demanded a divorce. Initially, he refused to sign the divorce papers his wife kept handing him. “What about what God says, and what about Trenton [their son]?” he asked her. He did finally sign the divorce papers, and a few years later he made the heart-wrenching decision to sign over his rights as father to her new husband. Their son was autistic, and more than anything, the father concluded, his son needed the stability of one family, not shuttling back and forth between families (like he had done as a child).

Sometimes, absent fathers don’t want to be absent; instead, they feel unjustly shut out of their children’s lives.

Are the stories of the working-class fathers I interviewed exceptions to the general trend? It’s always possible. But the stories I heard are supported by other qualitative research. For instance, based on their interviews with 110 low-income men in Philadelphia and Camden, Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson concluded that “the ‘hit and run’ image of unwed fatherhood … is a caricature and not an accurate rendering—a caricature that obscures more than it reveals.”

The real story, they say, is of men who, after finding out they are fathers, swear that they will get their lives together and be devoted fathers. When the relationship with the mother becomes difficult,  instead of running from their children altogether, they buckle down and “reclaim fatherhood by radically redefining the father role”: they narrow fatherhood to “being there” and being a best friend, leaving the disciplining, breadwinning, and moral guidance to women. When they get pulled back into “the stupid shit” (a term for risky behavior, like drug abuse), their relationship with their children suffers. And when they get the next woman pregnant, they see a chance for redemption—but typically replay the same story.

Men’s struggles with the “stupid shit” are real. And sometimes they do abandon their children. But we also shouldn’t let their struggles obscure an astonishing story: young, working-class men who came of age in fragile families and a deindustrialized economy are throwing themselves into fatherhood with an intensity that would have been hard to imagine in older generations of working-class fathers.

That’s why instead of marginalizing men further from parenthood, we should focus on empowering them with the dignified work and character strengths that will prepare them well for responsible marriage and fatherhood.