Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Maternal Relationships and Nonresidential Father Visitation of Children Born outside of Marriage

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Maternal Relationships and Nonresidential Father Visitation of Children Born outside of Marriage

Article excerpt

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 781), I examined how father visitation for children born outside of marriage is affected by subsequent maternal relationship formation, focusing on the timing, type, and stability of maternal relationships. Results showed that fathers were most likely to have not seen their child at all when mothers formed a new relationship early in the child's life, especially if the new relationship was coresidential and the partner engaged in activities with the child. Fathers who initially visited their child were more likely to stop visiting their child if an initially unpartnered mother became partnered. Frequency of visitation was not as strongly affected as whether visitation occurred at all.

Key Words: fatherhood, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing, nonresidential parents.

The decline in visitation among nonresidential fathers over time has been well documented (Argys & Peters, 2001; Furstenberg, 1995). Numerous theories have emerged to explain this trend, looking at the quality of the parental relationship (Carlson, McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008; Sobolewski & King, 2005), maternal gatekeeping (Fagan & Barnett, 2003), or competing paternal obligations (Manning & Smock, 1999, 2000) as potential explanations. Much of the recent research has focused on paternal characteristics, with little consideration of how maternal behaviors other than gatekeeping affect visitation (for exceptions, see Juby, Billete, Laplante, & Le Bourdais, 2007; Tach, Mincy, & Edin, 2008). Further, much of the work on nonresidential father visitation has examined only separated and divorced fathers, with less known about the factors that influence visitation for children born outside of marriage. This research addresses this gap by examining whether nonresidential father visitation of children born outside of marriage is sensitive to changes in maternal relationship status, looking at changes in any visitation at all and the frequency of visitation over time. I argue that nonresidential father visitation might be affected by mothers' new relationships through an effect on men's father identity and their view of fatherhood as part of a "package deal" (Townsend, 2002), an effect that might be particularly strong for fathers having children outside of marriage.

Theoretical Framework

I combine two theoretical perspectives to frame this study. First, I use identity theory to examine the ambiguity of the father identity. Ihinger-Tallman, Pasley, and Buehler (1993, p. 551) argue that the "key element in father involvement ... is the degree of a father's identification with the status and roles associated with being a parent." The fathers who most strongly identify with and place the greatest emphasis on the father role and the father identity tend to be the most involved fathers (Fox & Bruce, 2001; Rane & McBride, 2000). Because fatherhood remains a social construct influenced by multiple factors (Marsiglio & Cohan, 2000), though, the obligations and responsibilities associated with the father identity are ambiguous, even in the best of circumstances. Unmarried nonresident fathers, in particular, face difficulty in constructing their father identity, given their more limited interactions with their children, and these difficulties will affect their parenting behaviors.

Second, I draw on Townsend's (2002) conceptualization of fatherhood as part of a package deal. In many ways, men take their cues about parenting from their children's mother (McBride et al., 2005; Townsend). When parents live together, father involvement is often mediated through mothers, especially when children are young. Matters are more complicated for nonresidential fathers: Not only are they less directly involved in their child's day-to-day lives and reliant upon mothers to facilitate contact, but also the intensive nature of parenting young children requires familiarity and skills that are best developed with high levels of contact. …

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