Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Understanding Men's Prenatal Experience and the Father Involvement Connection: Assessing Baby Steps

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Understanding Men's Prenatal Experience and the Father Involvement Connection: Assessing Baby Steps

Article excerpt

Cabrera, Fagan, and Farrie's research provides a useful springboard to encourage scholars to think broadly and productively about theoretical, substantive, methodological, and social intervention issues related to men's prenatal experiences, transitional life course events, and subsequent engagement with their young children. To their credit, the authors have taken valuable "baby steps" on the path to building a more nuanced understanding of the conditions and processes comprising this complex matrix of phenomena. The authors make a unique contribution to the literature by using panel data to examine how three factors, defined as "life transitions" (father identity salience, fathers' relationship quality and residential status with the child's mother, fathers' employment status), might mediate the link between unmarried prospective fathers' prenatal and postnatal experiences. In the spirit of advancing a research agenda in this area, I stress the merits and limitations of the data Cabrera and her colleagues use while elaborating conceptual and methodological themes to guide future research.

ASSESSING RESEARCH CLAIMS, STRENGTHS, AND LIMITATIONS

When discussing their results, the authors boldly claim that "they are the first to explain the process by which unmarried fathers' prenatal involvement has an effect on father engagement when the children are 1 and 3 years of age using a nationally representative sample of mostly unmarried couples." I agree the study is novel, but I urge caution when interpreting phrases such as "explain the process" and "nationally representative sample." Multiple, overlapping processes define men's prenatal and postnatal experiences. Because the study is based on limited measures (especially in terms of prenatal experiences), it only begins, substantively speaking, to "explain" selective aspects of what is taking place. Thus, a more thorough conceptualization and access to more detailed measures would make it easier to assert theoretically grounded claims about unmarried fathers' experiences. Moreover, because the Fragile Families (FF) sample for this analysis (as the authors acknowledge) is characterized by a high rate of nonresponse and attrition, as well as possible selection effects, the sample is biased toward men who are more involved in their partners' and children's lives.

The authors also state that "our findings suggest that early involvement with the mother and the child during the pregnancy places unmarried fathers on a positive trajectory of increased commitment to the mother and subsequent higher engagement with their infant." Here, again, the finding is noteworthy, but caution is warranted when interpreting the statement because the data do not clearly measure fathers' level of involvement with or orientation toward prenatal "children" per se. Consequently, we are left to interpret the theoretical and substantive meaning of a vague measure of men's prenatal activity. I return to assess these issues below, offering suggestions for future data collection as well. That said, had more refined measures of men's prenatal experiences been available in FF, I suspect the general pattern of results would have prevailed, though it would have been possible to dissect more precisely whether certain aspects of prenatal involvement mattered disproportionately.

In addition, because time is relative, we should be careful interpreting the authors' contention-preserved in the article's title-that they are focusing on the "long reach" of men's prenatal involvement. A panel design that follows individuals for 3 years has distinct advantages, but the truly long-term implications of men's prenatal experiences are beyond the scope of the data used in this study. Even the researchers point out that the strength of association between the prenatal and postnatal measures is attenuated when comparing findings on the basis of the Year 1 and Year 3 data, respectively.

When studying life transitions men might experience in response to fatherhood, the authors infer that some men altered their perspective on life and family and then made reasoned decisions. …

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