Academic journal article Family Relations

Mothering through Recruitment: Kinscription of Nonresidential Fathers and Father Figures in Low-Income Families*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Mothering through Recruitment: Kinscription of Nonresidential Fathers and Father Figures in Low-Income Families*

Article excerpt


We identify and discuss mothers' early strategies to recruit nonresidential biological fathers, intimate partners, male family members and friends, and paternal kin to support the needs of young children in low-income families. Using the concept of kinscription and longitudinal ethnographic data on 149 African American, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic White families from Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study, we developed a model of recruitment that includes three related processes: the search for legitimacy with conventional fathers and partners, the consequences of maternal advocacy for intimate relationships, and protection of children and reduction of risks to family well-being. Results indicate that mothers' co-opting of fathers and father figures to support their children is shaped by men's immigration status, the tenuous nature of romantic relationships, and fathers' intergenerational caregiving responsibilities. Implications for theories of coparenting and partner dynamics in low-income families and for policy and programs are discussed.

Key Words: low-income families, mothering, nonresidential fathers.

How low-income single mothers and nonresidential fathers sort out responsibilities for taking care of their children remains a keen policy interest in American society. Social demographers have noted the separation of marriage from childbearing in recent decades (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000), leading current scholarly and political discourse to focus on variations in formal partner (e.g., marital) statuses in poor families and paternal involvement. However, few studies have explored the implications of the separation of intimate relations from childrearing, and we have limited insight into the processes underlying whether and how nonresidential fathers maintain involvement with unmarried mothers and their children (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004; Waller & McLanahan, 2005). Paternal involvement is particularly relevant in low-income families, in which men's providing and caregiving can help pull children out of poverty.

As single mothers, many low-income women seek out resources to support their children's well-being. Often, they turn to nonresidential fathers and related male role models to secure contributions. From this perspective, recruitment and maintenance of paternal involvement can be considered to be a strategy for unmarried women in economically disadvantaged families to be "good mothers." Unfortunately, few researchers have explored paternal involvement from the perspective of what low-income single mothers do to acquire resources for their families (Dominguez & Watkins, 2003). Survey research in particular can obscure subtle variations of men's behaviors and mothers' paternal recruitment strategies.

Following basic assumptions from a grounded theory approach (LaRossa, 2005), our goal in this analysis was to discover new theoretical perspectives on coparenting and partnering in low-income families. We modified this approach by drawing on a kinscription framework (Stack & Burton, 1993), which describes the recruitment of individuals to do family labor. We defined paternal recruitment as the negotiation of connections with a range of men (biological fathers, boyfriends, nonintimate friends, paternal and maternal kin) in order to improve children's life chances in economically disadvantaged communities. By contextualizing a critical dimension of kinscription, we examined how mothers recruited specific men to fulfill essential parenting needs. The processes of recruitment, we assert, were the first steps in mothers' negotiation of fathers' contribution to children's development.

Mothers' Influence on Paternal Involvement in Low-Income Families

Although researchers have recognized that mothers influence the roles of fathers, and more pointedly, paternal involvement with children, the nature and degree of this influence is a matter of considerable debate (Doherty, Kouneski, & Erikson, 1998; Walker & McGraw, 2000). …

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