Academic journal article Fathering

A Life Course Perspective on Fatherhood and Family Policies in the United States and South Africa

Academic journal article Fathering

A Life Course Perspective on Fatherhood and Family Policies in the United States and South Africa

Article excerpt

In this theoretical paper, I develop a framework to analyze and to understand men's work and family roles in multicultural societies with histories of inequality. I draw upon a life course perspective--including the concepts of reciprocal continuity, linked lives, and timing of lives (Elder, 1995)--for the basic components of the framework. For each concept, I examine lived experiences of and effect of social structure on poor fathers in South Africa and the United States. In both societies, nonresidential fatherhood emerges from a complex interplay of subordination by race and class, dynamic political economies, and family dynamics. Paternal absence is shaped by migrant labor and coping with un/underemployment, imprisonment, military service, desertion, and divorce. Finally, I offer a set of questions for future comparative research on men's work and family roles in low-income communities.

Keywords: fatherhood, life course, comparative policies, South Africa


Traditional notions of masculinity are under dramatic reconstruction in local, regional, and global communities. In recent decades, we have witnessed and taken part in a profound reevaluation of men's roles in the lives of children and families around the world (Morrell & Richter, 2005). With regard to the potential for enhancing and diversifying commitment of men toward the well-being of children, the debate at the turn of the 21st century is marked by the emergence of the ideal "new father" (LaRossa, 1997) who is both provider and caregiver for his children. The mirror trend of father absence from children's lives is also increasingly evident. In many societies today, poverty goes hand in hand with the almost permanent absence of biological fathers from home. Father absence is of particular concern for poor families, for whom men's contributions could make a real difference in pulling children out of poverty.

In the United States, the rate of non-residential fatherhood continues to climb, with 23% of children under the age of 18 who do not live with their biological fathers (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The widespread incidence of men's absence from families is evident across societies around the world. In South Africa, for example, 52% of children under the age of 18 do not live with their biological fathers (Desmond & Desmond, 2005). Recent studies have provided early looks into the factors leading to and consequences of non-residential fathering (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004; Graham & Belier, 2002; Lamb, 2002; Letamo & Rakgoasi, 2000).

With the study of changing fatherhood in different contexts, researchers also have recognized increasingly complex family configurations in which fathers are embedded. For example, multi-partner fertility is a prevalent status among low-income fathers (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006), but the role of fathers in the subsequent process of multi-partner parenting is relatively understudied (Roy, Fitzgerald, & Kaye, 2006). Similarly, non-biological "social" fathers may be common and influential (Jarrett, Roy, & Burton, 2002), but few household surveys collect information on these fathers (Posel & Devey, 2005).

Although the reevaluation of men's work and family roles unfolds in intimate interactions between parents and children during everyday family life, these roles are also products of race and class dynamics, political economy, and economic restructuring, and state social policy regimes (Brewer, 1998; Marsiglio, Roy, & Fox, 2005). Such regimes include policies such as welfare reform, child support/maintenance, social grants to limit poverty, and efforts to eradicate histories of discrimination and racism (Orloff & Monson, 2002). State intervention has directly shaped the rights and duties of fathers, although at times social policies have run counter to gender equity and moreover have discriminated against Black and poor men (Curran & Adams, 2000, in Morrell, 2005, p. …

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