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, Winter 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 abuse undermines caregiving competency and increases the likelihood of abuse and neglect of children. Both research and clinical interventions focus disproportionally on maternal substance abuse, whereas the role of fathers with addictions is largely ignored. The study used a qualitative design to investigate fatherhood from the perspective of men with a substance addiction. Eight fathers in residential rehabilitation treatment programs participated in focus group discussions. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to identify three figures of fatherhood: The good father, the bad father, and the invisible father. The three constructs are discussed in relation to Western trends and discourses of fathering and implications for childcare. Gender expectations and the father's right to participate on equal terms as the mother in the child's life are discussed against the notion of the best interest of the child. Conclusion: The drug-problem, gender expectations, couples conflicts, and professional practices related to child protection issues all influence these men's active participation as fathers. The fathering role in at-risk populations and the issue of co-parenting needs more attention in research, clinical interventions, and service programs. Implications for clinical practice are discussed.

Keywords: addiction, fatherhood, parenting, caregiving competence, child protection, mentalization

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. …

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