The Good, the Bad, and the Invisible Father: A Phenomenological Study of Fatherhood in Men with Substance Use Disorder

By Söderström, Kerstin; Skårderud, Finn | Fathering, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad, and the Invisible Father: A Phenomenological Study of Fatherhood in Men with Substance Use Disorder


Söderström, Kerstin, Skårderud, Finn, Fathering


Parental substance addiction is associated with high rates of neglect, family conflict, abuse and maltreatment (Lee, Bellamy, & Guterman, 2009). Hence, it represents a serious threat to children's development and health. Most of the research on this subject deals with negative consequences from maternal addiction. According to Babcock (2008), the father's role in the risk scenario has been reduced to genes, toxicology and the quality of his sperm. McMahon and colleagues have in several articles documented the lack of attention to the fathering role of substance abusing men (McMahon, Winkel, Luthar, & Rounsaville, 2005; McMahon, Winkel, & Rounsaville, 2008; McMahon, Wnkel, Suchman, & Rounsaville, 2007). The authors describe fathering as an important, but largely neglected, treatment issue for drug-abusing men. The emphasis on risk and harm outcome restricted to maternal addiction has left a gap of knowledge about the way in which drug-using fathers experience and interpret their parenting roles (Taylor, 2012).

In the commentary "Finding poppa in substance abuse research," Phares (2002, p. 1120) suggested that "By including fathers and mothers in the research and clinical agenda, we can move in the direction of what is really important- preventing substance abuse and other types of developmental psychopathology in the first place." The present article moves in that direction by investigating how men with problems of addiction think, talk, and feel as fathers.

Addicted fathers are not only underrepresented in drug research, but also in policy documents and health service programs. Lee et al. (2009) argue that little is known about best practices for engaging fathers in parenting and prevention efforts, and that there is a gap in our understanding of the subjective barriers to fathering among this group. Results from a descriptive study of men enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment raises questions about the extent to which public policy initiatives designed to promote more responsible fathering are reaching this population (McMahon, Winkel, Suchman, & Rounsaville, 2007; McMahon, Winkel, & Rounsaville, 2008). The authors call for innovations within the drug abuse treatment system to better support men interested in becoming more effective parents.

Taylor (2012) found that, although many substance-addicted men were not fathering in a practical sense, they nonetheless held well-developed notions of what qualifies as good parenting and a desire to better fulfil their roles as a father. The author calls for greater acknowledgement of fathering issues and of men's parenting status in the provision of services. She concludes that addressing their parenting issues whilst treating their drug addiction problems could potentially facilitate better, more responsible, involved, and perhaps most importantly drug-free fathering.

Arenas and Greif (2000) describe how drug-addicted fathers bring to treatment many uncertainties about their relevance for their children. Whether they are in contact with their children or not, they often believe their children are better off without any contact with them. Feeling like a potential burden or irrelevant to their children might be strengthened by the practices of child welfare practitioners. Brown, Callahan, Strega, Walmsley, and Dominelli (2009) document how fathers are made invisible in child protection work, suggesting that fathers are not considered as central in protecting and providing adequate care for children.

In contrast to the above, Eriksson (2004) has showed how Swedish social policy aimed to create gender equality, shared parenting, and a new fathering role sometimes collides with child protection. In a study of Swedish family court proceedings, she found that men with violent and other destructive behavior were to some degree perceived as good fathers and that contact with these fathers was encouraged, regardless of the child's reactions. …

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