In contrast to research that suggests that either fathers' motivation or economic constraints would drive their decisions to become caregivers, this study provides new evidence that disadvantaged fathers take different paths to involvement in the early years after their child's birth (Deutsch 1999
). In particular, interviews with new parents indicate that while some motivated and skilled men actively chose to become caregivers with the support of their partners, others developed motivations, skills, and parenting supports in response to situations in which they were out of work or the mother was experiencing new challenges. While previous research has highlighted the growing rift between fathers who are highly involved with their children and those who have disengaged from their lives (Furstenberg 1988
; Gerson 1993
), longitudinal interviews in this study further show that it is important to consider how the same father can be “engaged” or “disengaged” in different contexts (see also Coley and Chase-Lansdale 1999
By focusing on the situations of disadvantaged fathers who act as caregivers of young children, this study also points to some important similarities and differences with the literature on shared parenting in middle-class families in the United States. Because research on higher-income couples has often assumed that families can cover their basic expenses (Dodson and Bravo 2005
), for example, men's employment has been approached primarily as an impediment to caregiving. In this study, fathers in coresidential unions who worked fewer hours or different shifts than the mother did have more time to care for children, but underemployment and nonstandard schedules could also take a large toll on them and their romantic relationships, threatening paternal involvement over the long term. Among those men who had separated from their child's mother, stable employment was actually viewed as a prerequisite for transitioning into a care-giving role, even though these men then sometimes needed to change jobs or work schedules that interfered with their parenting duties. Overall, a more complex story about the meaning of work emerges among less advantaged fathers, indicating that employment can simultaneously provide an opportunity for and a constraint on men's involvement.
This study also shows that disadvantaged fathers' motivations for involvement took on specific meanings in situations where families experienced instability, but these motivations also varied by the situations in which fathers were caring for children. Although the motivations of some disadvantaged fathers in coresidential unions who actively chose to be caregivers echoed those of higher-income men (Coltrane 1996
; Gerson 1993
), these fathers talked about things like commitment, equity, and children's needs in ways that recognized the fragility of couples' relationships, the difficulty of sharing responsibilities when parents lived apart and the consequences of paternal absence for children. Other fathers in coresidential unions were motivated to care for children more as a way of contributing to the household when they were out of work. Some research suggests men who are economically dependent on their partners would be more reluctant to share domestic work with their partners (Brines 1994
). The different response we see among some fathers in this study may be an adaptation to recent changes in U.S. welfare policy that have pushed more mothers into the low-wage labor market during a time when their partners have experienced diminished employment opportunities (Mincy 2006
Even less has been known about why men increase their involvement as caregivers after their relationship with the mother ends. In this study, nonresident fathers' desire to respond to their children's needs when mothers faced new challenges appeared to be a powerful motivation to increase their involvement. The motivations of fathers who become more involved over time seem to be consistent with both the “best interests of the child” doctrine and with ideas about family adaptation and familism in African American and Latino communities (Jarrett and Burton 1999
). Taken together, parents' accounts suggest that disadvantaged men can mobilize a diverse set of motivations for involvement, which give them different options for defining what it means to be a “good father” outside of the breadwinning role (Daly 1995
; Gerson 1993
; Marsiglio and Cohan 2000
; Waller 2002
Consistent with research on more advantaged families, this study also shows it was less common for highly skilled men to choose a caregiving role than for fathers to develop competence as parents “on the job” (Coltrane 1996
). Similarly, when parents lived in coresidential unions, mothers' support for their partner's involvement was necessary to initiate and maintain a large caregiving role. However, parents' accounts suggest that fathers who became caregivers following union dissolution more often turned to new partners and female family members, rather than their child's mother, for support as parents. Some previous studies have shown that men tend to have weaker social support networks for parenting than women (Pleck 1997
). At the same time, the reliance of some fathers in this study on female kin and new partners is consistent with other research on lower-income black fathers in the United States (Hamer 2001
; Roy and Burton 2007
) and the United Kingdom (Reynolds 2009
[this volume]), suggesting that these types of social support may be particularly important for men in disadvantaged communities.
Developing Fatherhood Programs for Caregivers
In the United States, the federal government has sponsored three multisite demonstrations of fatherhood programs operating through community-based organizations.8
Within a context of stricter child support enforcement, these programs have mainly focused on helping noncustodial fathers find work so that they can better comply with their support orders.9
Other services have included helping fathers manage their child support orders; providing intensive case management and peer support; and, in some programs, offering support for parenting skills, cooperative parenting, and child access and visitation. Despite recent interest encouraging fathers' participation in their children's early lives, no federal-level demonstrations that I am aware of are designed to support men who play pivotal roles as caregivers in their families.10
My conversations with parents show not only that some disadvantaged fathers are instrumental in the care of young children but also that these men are in real need of supportive services. Their accounts further suggest that policies and programs that overlook paternal caregivers may not only miss the opportunity to support relationships that benefit at-risk children but may also unintentionally undermine men's involvement. Although developing fatherhood programs for paternal caregivers would represent a new policy emphasis, this would advance the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative's goal of promoting children's well-being through more effective fathering and family stability. It would also help promote an ethic of care by recognizing daily parenting activities as critical contributions to society that deserve as much support through social policy as parents' economic activities (e.g. Gordon, Benner, and Noddings 1996
; Sevenhuijsen 2003
; Tronto 2001
). Below, I discuss how we could draw on lessons from previous fatherhood demonstrations in the United States to design interventions aimed at supporting men's involvement as caregivers.
One lesson from previous fatherhood demonstrations is that programs with strict eligibility criteria can have difficulty recruiting participants. Although fathers in these programs often voiced a strong interest in receiving help with employment, distrust of organizations affiliated with child support enforcement may have dampened their interest in participating (Martinson, Trutko, and Strong 2000
). Results from the current study suggest that fatherhood programs that target paternal caregivers might not experience the same difficulty generating interest, since these men have strong motivations to be involved with their children. Fathers also expressed a desire to improve their employment situations, to receive more support for their parenting, to be better informed about their legal custody and child support situations, and to learn about other supports. Despite having incentives to join in fatherhood programs, some fathers may still be reluctant to participate if the programs focus on child support compliance rather than legal assistance.
Child support and custody
Evaluations of fatherhood programs have also found that it is easier to increase men's participation in the child support system than to increase their child support payments. Previous research shows many fathers have low skills, lack stable employment, and may not have sufficient income to pay child support without impoverishing themselves or their families (Garfinkel, McLanahan, and Hanson 1998
; Mincy 2006
). Fathers rarely have the option of hiring a lawyer to assist them with child support and custody problems and may be distrustful of legal assistance provided through the courts (Pearson and Thoennes 2000
). Given the complexities of legal child support and the custody system in the United States, some men in this study were not aware that they could suspend or modify these orders when their child lived with them, and others were unable to do this without legal assistance. Without this help, men were at risk for accruing large arrearages and being subject to enforcement actions, including incarceration. In addition to providing legal assistance to men around child support and custody, programs could work with states to reduce the arrears of men who are caring for their children (Pearson et al. 2003
Evaluations of fatherhood and welfare-to-work demonstrations that include fathers have shown relatively modest increases in men's earnings and employment. These outcomes may be partially explained by the fact that programs have focused on providing job search and readiness services to help unemployed fathers find work quickly (Martinson, Trutko, and Strong 2000
). They have generally not provided educational opportunities, vocational training, or other training programs that would help men gain skills and acquire better-paid jobs with potential for growth (Pearson and Thoennes 2000
In this study, fathers said they needed to work full-time to meet their family's needs, but they did not want to work multiple jobs or extra hours that prevented them from caring for their children. These fathers would benefit from training programs that helped them secure higher-paid employment, perhaps through paid apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities that allow them to cover their basic expenses while they participate (Pearson and Thoennes 2000
). Many fathers also wanted more support combining caregiving and full-time employment. Although the United States expanded funding for child care as part of welfare reforms, most families who are eligible for support under this program are not receiving assistance (Dodson and Bravo 2005
). The United States also lags behind many other countries on policies that help parents balance work and family, such as paid maternity and paternity leave, paid annual leave, paid leave to care for sick children, and maximum work week regulations, indicating a major need for improvement in this area (Heymann et al. 2006
Previous evaluations have also shown that peer support sessions were a popular component of fatherhood demonstrations. Participants reported that sharing experiences with their peers helped them to feel less isolated and to make positive changes in their lives (Martinson et al. 2007
; Pearson and Thoennes 2000
). Some programs were also successful at combining peer support with workshops on parenting, child development, and coparenting. The accounts of fathers in this study also suggest peer support could help them manage the stress associated with routine caregiving, learn from other men in their situation, and develop new parenting skills. Because social support from their child's mother, a new partner, or female family member was often critical for men to move into and maintain a caregiving role, help negotiating different kinds of coparenting arrangements would also be beneficial.
Finally, evaluations have also shown that fathers need help connecting to services in their communities. Because fathers in this study were considered noncustodial parents in the eyes of the state, however, they did not qualify for cash assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or for wage supplements through the more generous Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Noncustodial fathers cannot receive health coverage through Medicaid unless they are disabled. Although eligibility for Food Stamps is not based on the presence of a child in the home, benefits for “childless adults” are time-limited (Sorensen and Zibman 2001
). When fathers coreside with the mother and child, means-tested benefits calculated on the basis of the house-hold's income also make it more difficult for two-parent families to qualify for these benefits. If mothers report that they do not live with the father to maintain eligibility for assistance, fathers are likely to incur child support arrears. The kind of intensive case management offered by fatherhood programs could help men connect with available services, but as these examples suggest, larger policy changes are also needed for paternal caregivers in diverse contexts to access critical sources of support.