Role of male partner vs. biological father
It was initially important to identify the “father” or “male partner” prior to moving forward with descriptions of paternal involvement. Focus group participants recognized that the “ideal” situation is that the “love partner” and the “biological father” are the same person; however, they recognized that this is not always the case. There was a general consensus that, should a man become involved with a pregnant woman, he would also accept partnership in the pregnancy, “fill the gaps” of an uninvolved biological father and support her through the process. Therefore the expectations of a “love partner” are similar to that of the ideal biological father.
“I don’t see any difference, because if you’re gonna be participating, or be a part of the child’s life, and also along with the expectant mother, then you are assuming these roles as a father, a dad, a caregiver.” [Male]
The participants also had clear definitions about the various roles a male can have. A “Daddy” was described by the women as “someone who comes and goes,” the “sperm donor,” or the “biological father.” On the other hand, a “Father” is the male who nurtures and raises the child, regardless of the biological relationship. Finally, a “Man” is someone who “steps up” and raises another man’s child (which they recognized to be a growing trend). Women do not desire a “Daddy;” they want someone who will be a “father” or a “man.” The men agreed with the definition, but insisted that taking care of another man’s child is not to be seen as an obligation or a requirement for being a “man,” but rather as a caring act.
Characteristics of the “ideal” father
Participants were very specific regarding the characteristics of an “ideal father” during pregnancy and provided details regarding activities demonstrating ideal involvement. The ideal father is present, accessible and available, an active participant during the pregnancy. He is present at prenatal visits, ultrasounds, Lamaze classes, parenting classes, in the delivery room cutting the umbilical cord, and helps with birth-related paperwork.
“He's going to the appointments, and he is accessible and available… When I call, he answers…he comes. And when he's there, he's there. He's present.” [Female]
However, apart from the expectation for the partner to be present, respondents emphasized the need for him to be an active participant in the pregnancy process.
“From going with her to the first ultrasound, the first doctor's visit; each time they go he should be a part of that and encourage her. … not just a standby, but actually a participant.” [Female]
An active father cares about the pregnancy, asks questions of the mother and healthcare provider, and is eager to learn more about the process and what is required for a healthy pregnancy. Further, a father provides physical and emotional support to the woman carrying his child. He helps the mother make important decisions such as creating a birth plan or choosing a name for their child. He encourages the mother and provides positive affirmation about her body image and reassures her about her ability to be a good mother. He knows about the changes in her body and understands the influence of hormones. He empathizes with her and is patient with her, remaining calm when her emotions fluctuate. Simply listening to her and allowing her to vent provide great emotional relief to the mother.
“His role should be one of an encourager…[Giving] positive affirmation … build her confidence so that she can embrace this new [challenge and that] they can embrace it together as a unit.” [Female]
Both men and women participants emphasized this idea of “togetherness” during pregnancy and beyond, which offers great security for the mother. It is the idea that there is an equal investment and interest in having the child, and that the required responsibility of having the child is willingly shared between the two parents. This is important so the woman can feel she is not alone.
“It’s our baby, not just my baby…We have to go through this together and not everything just towards me. Not me just going to the doctors, we need to go through all this together.” [Female]
The ideal father is also a comforter and caregiver, making certain she feels as comfortable as possible. Examples participants provided include: “he rubs her feet,” “does midnight runs to satisfy her cravings,” “takes her shopping and to the movies.” Respondents also described how the ideal father is supportive in the physical environment, the home. He helps with the cooking, cleaning, washing clothes/dishes, and taking care of the other children in the home. They recognized the importance of the father in encouraging healthy behaviors during pregnancy, helping her manage her diet and exercise during the pregnancy: ensuring that she eats a balanced and healthy diet, taking her for walks, exercising with her.
“Making sure she eats healthy, go to her doctor’s appointments. If she has to take off because of a high risk pregnancy, he’ll maintain the bills, or other kids, if there are other kids, just whatever is needed.” [Male]
Interestingly, in all five focus group, financial support was not brought up by male or female participants until the moderator specifically asked about it. This indicates that, contrary to popular belief that men are seen primarily as the financial provider, it was not at the forefront of their thinking about fathers’ role during pregnancy. When asked about it, participants indicated that financial support is important, however, emotional and physical support is crucial during the pregnancy period. Ideally, he would help maintain the bills and stay employed. They specified that men should be involved regardless of their ability to provide financial support. Overall, the ideal father is seen as the protector who does what is necessary to ensure the safe journey of the baby and the mother.
“The role of a protector is very important, because if he understands how cigarette smoking can impact her, if he’s smoking, then he should understand the impact that it has on wanting to protect both his partner and the unborn child. So I see his role as protecting to ensure a safe journey.” [Male]
To adequately embrace all of these characteristics, respondents felt strongly the ideal father must be responsible and mature. He must have a sense of responsibility for caring for the child and possess the maturity to carry out the requirements of the role. Here the issue of age comes into play, as participants recognized younger fathers are not always well prepared to handle the emotional responsibility that comes with expecting a baby.
Defining male involvement
In addition to characterizing the ideal father/partner during pregnancy, participants were asked to define a father’s involvement during the pregnancy period. The following 2 definitions were specifically verbalized at the conclusion of the discussions, with the group members deciding the appropriate wording and agreeing with their final statement:
“The role of a man during pregnancy is to be present, to support, to understand, to be patient, and to have sympathy for the woman carrying his child.”
“The role of a man during pregnancy is to provide emotional, physical and (if possible) financial support to the woman carrying his child.”
An important concept raised in the focus groups was the “love relationship” between the couple - the mother and the father or male partner during pregnancy. This relationship was cited as pivotal in terms of male involvement in the pregnancy. While many women mentioned this as the ideal or preferred situation, male participants also emphasized their relationship to the mother would determine the level of their involvement during the pregnancy process.
A female participant explained: “If I’m pregnant and I have this significant other,… and I tell them, you know, ‘Be with me,’ that's the main thing, ‘Just be with me’ during this time.” A male participant resonated the sentiment that the “man will treat that child in an equal proportion to how he feels about the woman.”
The emotional or romantic connection (or lack thereof) can heavily influence the level of involvement by the father as well as the mental well being of the mother both during and after pregnancy. The following comment by a male participant explains the dilemma that men face when he fathers a child with a woman whom he feels little emotional connection:
“When my wife was pregnant, I was at all the appointments…so I was there…I think it depends how you feel about that girl…[If] you just got some random chick pregnant you’re not going to feel like going to an appointment with her, you’re not going to feel like, encouraging her. It’s like, ‘Man I can’t believe I got this chick pregnant.’…He needs to find some support for himself to be like, ‘you have to do this’, it has to be some kind of encouragement for him.” [Male]
Being romantically involved with the mother was cited as contributing to her emotional well being and important in relieving the bouts of depression that can occur in pregnancy.
“Since he’s not in the picture, for a woman, automatically, she’s depressed. I don’t know too many women who are pregnant and want their man to not be there. Normally she wants him there and just the near presence of knowing he is still a part reduces your stress level.” [Female]
It also contributed to her feeling of security that this person will be there even after the pregnancy.
“She wants to know that he’s in this as well as she is, and that parenting is a two-way street. It’s not just about mom. And mom needs to know that he’s going to be there afterwards and provide the same love and support that he’s providing when she’s pregnant.” [Female]
During the discussion men and women highlighted that often, the couple’s relationship takes precedent over focus on the child. As one female respondent put it: “Nobody thinks about that baby. No one thinks about [it being] their pregnancy. All they see is the mom, dad, and the relationship.” The general consensus was the focus should be primarily on the child, regardless of the status of the couple’s relationship.
In the discussion surrounding the couple’s relationship, participants often stressed the significance of healthy communication between parents. Largely they felt that “communication beforehand,” or in the early stages of the relationship prior to conception can have important implications to how the pregnancy experience is managed. Another aspect raised is the differences in communication styles. Women felt men often cannot articulate their feelings well and are not as open to sharing [their emotions] thus straining the parental relationship. In contrast, men felt women often were loud and accusatory when they attempted to talked with them.
“Men and women aren’t the same. Men have a difficult time communicating. We don’t communicate well with each other. And we certainly cannot express feelings.” [Male]
Benefits of fathers’ involvement
The primary benefits of having a father or male partner involved during pregnancy were the reduction of maternal stress levels and the encouragement of positive maternal behaviors. Participants believed these to have implications for the health of the baby. They reasoned that if the mother’s physical and mental health was optimal, then the benefits would be observed in the baby.
“Be agreeable, take less stress off of her cause by her being an African black woman, infant mortality rates is high, and if you put all this stress on her, it’s putting stress on the baby.” [Female]
Indeed, African American participants in particular were very aware of the higher rates of infant mortality within their community compared with others. They strongly felt that if fathers would be more involved and help reduce maternal stress levels, it would positively impact infant outcomes. Participants expressed that African American mothers as a group are more vulnerable to lack of PI:
“I think particularly in African-American community we have too many single parents. We have far too many. Not only that, the divorce rate is high in African-Americans too so we need to establish strong relationships and build stronger marriages.” [Female]
Barriers to fathers’ involvement
Participants recognized that there are sadly, many barriers to fathers’ involvement during pregnancy. These can be broadly categorized using Bronfenbrenner’s socioecological model [21
] (Figure ).
Figure 2 Barriers to fathers’ involvement during pregnancy. In this figure we dissect the barriers to father’s involvement by levels in the socioecological model. Within in each sphere of influence starting from the individual and extending out (more ...)
As displayed in Figure participants indicated that the major deterrents to father’s involvement at the individual level are: an unhealthy relationship between the father/male partner and the biological mother, and men in general not knowing their role or not wanting the new responsibilities (financial and time) associated with having a child. They attribute this largely to general lack of education available for expecting men, lack of positive role models in the family sphere, and dysfunctional family foundations. The expense and insufficient availability of paternity testing can also be a deterrent for involvement if the man questions the legitimacy of the child being his. A lack of understanding of the role of Child Support and lack of knowledge of regulations and legal financial responsibilities were also cited as significant obstacles to men’s involvement.
Participants also bemoaned the popular public acceptance of casual sexual encounters which belittles the role of parenting. Participants felt that males do not adequately prepare for the possibility of pregnancy. Furthermore, they believed that societal, perpetuation of gender roles places the responsibility of caring for children on women. Men are expected to provide financially, but media based stereotypes, are not obligated to provide emotional or physical support. Participants wished examples of men being good fathers were better marketed. In addition, participants felt that social problems such as involvement in gangs and violence contributed to absent fathers through incarceration or homicide.
Of note, participants commented on the importance of the relationship of the father and the mother’s family. Specifically, respondents felt that if the mother of the mother, i.e. the grandmother, fostered an accepting relationship with the biological father he would be more apt to be involved in taking care of the mother and the coming child. This is in line with family systems theory, which posits that cross generational triangulation patterns can reverberate across generations [22
In sum, participants viewed involvement of fathers during pregnancy time as very positive for the mother and the child. However, they also recognized many prevailing barriers to a man fully realizing his role as an expectant father.
Community recommendations for increasing fathers’ involvement during pregnancy
Participants identified a number of strategies that could increase the involvement of men during pregnancy. Figure displays these recommendations by target populations including women, men and health care providers. Primarily, participants were unanimous that there needed to be education for men to increase their knowledge of paternity rights and expectations, as well as the pregnancy process. Alongside educational efforts, participants desired interventions that provided men with links to vital resources (paternity testing, information on child support regulations, second chance programs) and employment opportunities, especially for those with a disability or previous incarceration. Participants also emphasized that health care providers and women also need to appreciate the involvement of men during the prenatal period and its impact on maternal and child health. Finally, participants recognized the importance of providing support and training to men and women, particularly communication skills, that might strengthen their relationship as it pertains to the child’s needs.
Figure 3 Recommendations for programs aimed at improving pregnancy outcomes by increasing male involvement. Recommendations were provided throughout the focus group data and focused mainly on education for men and the services that should be provided to promote (more ...)