Academic journal article Fathering

Gatekeeping in Context: Babymama Drama and the Involvement of Incarcerated Fathers

Academic journal article Fathering

Gatekeeping in Context: Babymama Drama and the Involvement of Incarcerated Fathers

Article excerpt

In this study, we explore the process of negotiation between mothers and fathers to secure, to restrict, and to define men's roles in their children's lives. Field notes and life history interview data were collected with 40 incarcerated men in a work-release program in a Midwestern metropolitan community. Partnering relationships were marked by confusion and conflict due to incarceration, deteriorating commitments, and stresses of low-income family life. Half of the participants described their children's mothers' efforts to discourage their involvement, while almost 75% noted instances of mothers' encouragement of their involvement. We use Identity Theory to frame the transformation of father identities in response to correctional policies and negotiations with their children's mothers. We conclude with implications for the study of the process of maternal gatekeeping and paternal involvement in correctional facilities.

Keywords: fathering, gatekeeping, incarceration, low-income families, identity theory

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Researchers have begun to pay closer attention to the ways in which fathering is situated in unique contexts (Marsiglio, Roy, & Fox, 2005). As the papers in this issue indicate, research on fathering and families in correctional facilities is underexplored (Day, Acock, Bahr, & Arditti, this issue). With a rapidly growing population of incarcerated offenders in the United States (Western, Pattillo, & Weiman, 2004), many men strive to develop relationships with their children from a distance. They may rely on mothers as important catalysts for these relationships (Clarke et al., this issue; Roy, 2005).

However, we know relatively little about how mothers encourage and/or discourage men's involvement during incarceration. Relatedly, how does this range of maternal gatekeeping behaviors shape men's identity transformation behind bars? In this study, we explore what incarcerated fathers describe as "babymama drama": the process of negotiation between mothers and fathers to secure, to restrict, and to define men's roles in their children's lives.

INCARCERATED MEN AS PARENTS AND PARTNERS

Research on incarceration and family life has commonly explored how men's family experiences lead to careers in crime and resulting incarceration (Laub & Sampson, 2004). In contrast, many recent studies discern how incarceration reshapes family life (Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). If families offer a fabric of interdependencies that keep men embedded in social relationships (Currie, 1985), then the sudden, involuntary separation of partners, parents, and children can lead to economic, psychological, and interpersonal problems for the entire family system (King, 1993). Qualitative studies have examined how incarceration presents extreme difficulties for paternal involvement and partnering relationships (Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003; Nurse, 2002; Roy, 2004).

As Clarke et al. (this issue) suggest, patterns of couple relationships are both complex and informal before and after incarceration. Over the course of confinement, some partnering relationships deteriorate considerably (Hairston, 1995). Women take on new roles as sole providers and decision-makers for their families, and they experience depression, loneliness, demoralization, and frustration with their incarcerated partner (King, 1993; Hannon, Martin, & Martin, 1984). Loss of emotional support from partners can trigger feelings of abandonment, isolation, rejection, and loss of self-esteem in men as well (Freedman & Rice, 1977). Incarcerated men can lose trust in their partners, straining communication and contributing to deterioration of relations (Showalter & Jones, 1980). They fear losing control of these relationships, particularly when partners threaten to leave them for new boyfriends (a process that young incarcerated men in Nurse's study (2002) called "the summer shake"). …

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