Becoming Custodial Dads: Exploring Parenting among Low-Income and Working-Class African American Fathers

Article excerpt

The authors use an ecological framework and grounded theoretical analysis to explore the circumstances in which working-class and low-income custodial African American fathers gain custody of their children, their transition from part-time to full-time parents, and the role of support networks in enhancing or inhibiting these men's parenting. Twenty-four men from an impoverished Midwestern urban area participated in the study. The findings suggest that these men, and perhaps others sharing their demographic profiles, generally become parents by default and are often reluctant to take on a full-time, single parenting role. Adaptation to the role seems to be enhanced by these men's use of extended kin support networks and shared living arrangements. However, low wages, a lack of sufficient assistance from public assistance programs, and informal custody arrangements often inhibit their fathering.

A growing number of fathers are assuming primary care for their children. Since the 1960s, fathers have attained custody of their children at an

increasing rate. In 1996, custodial fathers comprised 16% or 1.9 million of the 11.8 million custodial parents in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). These trends have been accompanied by a growing literature focusing on fatherhood (Blankenhorn, 1995; Griswold, 1993; Popenoe, 1996) and the experiences of single-parenting fathers (Bianchi, 1995; Greif, 1985, 1995; Greif & DeMaris, 1990; Heath, 1999). However, past studies on custodial fathers do not reflect the diversity within this population. Rather, studies tend to be based on samples consisting of White, middleclass, divorced men involved in formal parenting support groups. Low-income men and men of color are less likely to participate in such formal parenting networks. As such, they are particularly absent from the literature (Cochran, 1997), even though in the mid-1990s, they made up 12% of all custodial fathers and 6% of all custodial parents within the Black community (National Urban League, 1998).

It appears that since 1980, the growth in White custodial fathers is an outcome of their divorce from their children's mothers (Garasky & Meyer, 1996). However, relative to White men, African American males are less likely to have ever married the mothers of their children (Garasky & Meyer, 1996). Thus, the number of Black custodial fathers has increased because of never-married single fathers gaining custody of their children. Black fathers' parental experiences and concerns may differ from those of their White counterparts. As a group, they do not seem to fare as well economically. They are also more likely than most other demographic groups to experience incarceration, crime, unemployment, underemployment, poor health, and homelessness (National Urban League, 1998; Perlo, 1996). These and other disparities in social and economic characteristics may contribute markedly to how men become custodial parents, the circumstances under which they perform the paternal role, and their perceptions about their duties as fathers. The few studies on African American fathers tend to explore the roles of noncustodial paternal payment of child support (Graham & Beller, 1996; Roy, 1999), men's interpretation of the provider role (Bowman & Sanders, 1998; Hamer, 2000), adolescent fathers (Allen & Doherty, 1996; Dallas & Chen, 1998), or fathers' involvement with their children (Bowman & Forman, 1997; Hamer, 1997, 1998, 2001; McAdoo, 1997). These samples are also generally exclusive of African American men who are single-parenting, primary caretakers of their children.


We know very little about the parenting experiences and potential of what seems to be a growing population: working-class and low-income, nevermarried, single-parenting African American men who are taking primary responsibility for their children's daily care and well-being. Given this, our study provides an exploratory analysis of this critical population of fathers. …


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