Academic journal article Fathering

"Just Be There for Them": Perceptions of Fathering among Single, Low-Income Men

Academic journal article Fathering

"Just Be There for Them": Perceptions of Fathering among Single, Low-Income Men

Article excerpt

Using an interpretive life course perspective, we explore how men define their role as fathers based on experiences with their own fathers in the past. Based on qualitative interview data collected from thirty-six low-income fathers, we consider men's relationships with their own fathers in terms of residence and affective evaluations. Our investigation reveals how men negotiate the demands of fatherhood in light of economic constraints and the absence of marriage, focusing on fathering role models and men's perceptions of fathering roles. Overall, men not close to their fathers defined fathering primarily in terms of the breadwinner role as opposed to the nurturing role, which was more apparent in the narratives of men close to their fathers.

Keywords: fathering, role modeling, low income, single parents

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Given the recent explosion of nonmarital families in the U.S., scholars now pay greater attention to the challenges faced by cohabiting households. While a great deal of this scholarship has focused on cohabitation as a retreat from marriage (e.g., Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005; Waller & McLanahan, 2005), researchers have given only limited attention to challenges that cohabiting couples experience in raising children together (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004). Until quite recently, the scholarship on paternal involvement has largely focused on intact families or divorced couples (Goidscheider & Waite, 1991 ; Marsiglio, 1995). Moreover, a great deal of work on fatherhood has been marked by a preoccupation with middle-class men.

The current study is designed to contribute to the small but growing literature on fathering in low-income, nonmarital households. The significance of this study, and the literature to which it aims to contribute, is underscored by the fact that children in nonmarital, low-income families generally receive less attention from their fathers and are at greater risk of family violence relative to their counterparts in married families (Hofferth & Anderson, 2003; McLanahan, 2004). Moreover, research in this nascent body of scholarship also reveals that never married men face particular challenges in defining and enacting their roles as fathers given the lack of cultural scripts available for parents in nonmarital families (Hamer & Marchioro, 2002; Roy, 2006).

With the goal of further elucidating the experiences of low-income fathers in nonmarital families, this study uses qualitative interview data to examine how men negotiate fatherhood in a context marked by both scarce economic resources and the absence of marriage. We begin by outlining the theoretical perspective used to conduct our study. Thereafter, we discuss the methodological considerations that governed the collection and analysis of our interview data. We then review the findings that surface from the interview narratives of low-income fathers in nonmarital households, and conclude by identifying the implications of our research.

Theoretical Considerations

Historical surveys of fatherhood in the U.S. have examined how fathers' roles as teacher and moral guide during the colonial period gave way to the father-breadwinner model following the industrial revolution (Gerson, 1993; Waller, 2002). The model of father-breadwinner, mother-homemaker was particularly dominant in the 1950s when families in which a sole-wage-earning father comprised almost two-thirds of all American households (Gerson). However, starting in the 1970s, men's wages began to decline and women entered the labor force in greater numbers. Divorce rates increased, as did nonmarital childbearing. Additionally, family relationships and gender roles were questioned and redefined through the feminist movement. These transformations, coupled with other economic and social changes, resulted in the decline of the breadwinner role (Gerson; McLanahan, 2004; Waller).

With the decline of the father-breadwinner model, new cultural constructs of fatherhood have emerged. …

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