Changing Societal Conditions as Determinants of Father Child Relationships

A number of society-wide changes in the United States have produced a variety of shifts in the nature of early family relationships. Fertility rates and family size have decreased, the percentage of women in the workforce has increased, the timing of onset of parenthood has shifted, divorce rates have risen, and the number of single-parent families has increased (for reviews see Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1991; Hernandez, 1993; Marsiglio, 1998). In this subsection, the effects of two of these changes— timing of parenthood and recent shifts in family employment patterns—are explored to illustrate the impact of social change on father-child and family relationships. Exploration of these shifts will serve to underscore an additional theme, namely the importance of considering the historical period or era in which social change occurs.

Timing of parenthood and the father's role. Patterns of the timing of the onset of parenting are changing, although those changes are not evident from an examination of the median age of parents at the time of the birth of their first child. In the first half of the 1950s the median age of woman at the birth of her first child was her early twenties, and in the 1990s it was approximately the same. This apparent pattern of stability, however, masks the impressive expansion of the range of the timing of first births during recent decades. During this period, women were having babies earlier and later than in previous decades. Two particular patterns can be identified. First, there was a dramatic increase in the number of adolescent pregnancies, and, second, there was an increase in the number of women who were postponing childbearing until their thirties. What are the consequences of this divergent pattern of childbearing?

A number of factors need to be considered in order to understand the impact on parenting of childbearing at different ages. First, the life course context, which is broadly defined as the point at which the individual has arrived in his or her social, educational, and occupational timetable, is an important determinant. Second, the historical context, namely the societal and economic conditions that prevail at the time of the onset of parenting, interacts with the first factor in determining the effects of variations in timing. Let us consider early and delayed childbirth in light of these issues.

The most significant aspect of early entry into parenthood is that it is a nonnormative event. Achieving parenthood during adolescence can be viewed as an accelerated role transition, as noted by McCluskey, Killarney, and Papini (1983, p. 49):

School age parenting may produce heightened stress when it is out of synchrony with a normative life course. Adolescents may be entering parenting at an age when they are not financially, educationally, and emotionally ready to deal with it effectively.

In addition, adolescent childbearers are at higher medical riskbecause of poorer diets, malnutrition, and less intensive and consistent prenatal care (Hofferth, 1987; Moore and Brooks-Gunn, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook). Teenage childbearing is less likely to be planned and is strongly associated with higher levels of completed fertility, closer spacing of births (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Lansdale, 1995; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, and Chase-Lansdale, 1989) lower educational attainment—especially for females—and diminished income and assets as well as poverty, relative to individuals who delay childbearing (Card and Wise, 1978), and again the effect is particularly severe for women. In turn, this has long-term occupational consequences, with early childbearers overrepresented in blue-collar jobs and underrepresented in the professions. Finally, teenage marriages tend to be highly unstable;

separation or divorce is two to three times as likely among adolescents as among women who are 20 years of age or older (Furstenberg et al., 1989).

In part, this pattern is due to the fact that the fathers also are often adolescents and, as in the case of teenage mothers, are often unprepared financially and emotionally to undertake the responsibilities of parenthood (Lamb and Elster, 1985; Lerman and Ooms, 1993; Marsiglio and Cohan, 1997; Parke and Neville, 1987). As Lerman (1993, p. 47) noted, "young unwed fathers are generally less well educated, had lower academic abilities, started sex at earlier ages and engaged in more crime than did other young men." Low family income and having lived in a welfare household increase the likelihood of entry into young unwed fatherhood. This profile was especially evident for European American unwed fathers. In spite of the fact that African American males are four times as likely to be an unwed father as European American males, African American unwed fatherhood is less likely to be linked with adverse circumstances but is a more mainstream issue. Several factors reduce the likelihood of becoming a teenage father, including church attendance, military service, and higher reading scores. In view of the low rates of marriage and high rates of separation and divorce for adolescents, adolescent fathers, in contrast to "on-schedule" fathers, have less contact with their offspring. However, contact is not absent; in fact, studies of unmarried adolescent fathers indicate a surprising amount of paternal involvement for extended periods following the birth. Data (Lerman, 1993) based on a national representative sample of over 600 young unwed fathers indicated that three fourths of young fathers who lived away from their children at birth never lived in the same household with them. However, many unwed fathers remain in close contact with their children, with nearly half visiting their youngest child at least once a week and nearly one fourth almost daily. Only 13% never visited and 7% visited only yearly. These estimates were based on the fathers' own reports, but other work (Mott, 1994) that relies on maternal reports yield lower contact estimates. Mott found that approximately 40% visited once a week and a third never visited or visited only yearly. Several studies report declines in contact as the child develops (Lerman, 1993; Marsiglio and Cohan, 1997; Rangarajan and Gleason, 1998). According to Lerman's (1993) analysis of the national survey data, 57% visited once a week when the child was 2 years old or under, 40% for ages 2 to 41/2 years, 27% for ages 4/2 to 71/2, and 22% for 71/2 and older. Nearly one third of the fathers of the oldest group never visited their offspring.

Coley and Chase-Lansdale (1999) suggested that there is considerable instability in levels of father involvement with their children across time. In a sample of low-income, African American, unwed fathers, nearly 40% either increased or decreased their level of involvement between the child's birth and when the child was 3 years old. A variety of factors contributed to these variations: Paternal employment and education were both linked to higher levels of involvement, as was harmonious mother-father relations (romantic or not).

These declines in father participation appear to continue across childhood and adolescence. Furstenberg and Harris (1993) reported the pattern of contact between adolescent fathers and their offspring from birth through late adolescence. Under half of the children lived at least some time with their biological father at some time during their first 18 years, but only 9% lived with their father during the entire period. Instead, children spent approximately one third of their childhood with their fathers, and this was more likely to occur in early childhood. During the preschool period, nearly half of the children were either living with their father or saw him on a weekly basis. By late adolescence, 14% were living with him, and only 15% were seeing him as often as once a week; 46% had no contact, but 25% saw him occasionally in the preceding year.

Fathers who rarely or never visit are less likely to pay child support (Lerman, 1993), which, in turn, adds to the mothers' financial burden and may indirectly have negative effects on the children. The direction of effects is still being debated; perhaps fathers who can provide financial support are more likely to stay involved as a parent or, alternatively, those who stay involved are more likely to seek employment in order to fulfill their role as provider (Coley and Chase-Lansdale, 1999; Garfinkel et al., 1998). Finally, European American (30%) and Latino (37%) fathers are more likely to have no contact with their offspring than African American fathers (12%).

How have increases in the rate of adolescent childbirth altered the father's role? Or, to pose the question differently, how was being an adolescent father different in a historical period when adolescent childbearing was relatively rare compared with a period in which the rate is significantly higher? First, as rates of adolescent childbearing rise and the event becomes less nonnormative or deviant, the social stigma associated with the event may decrease. In combination with increased recognition that adolescent fathers have a legitimate and potentially beneficial role to play, adolescent fathers' opportunities for participation have probably expanded. Second, the increased availability of social support systems such as daycare may make it easier for adolescent fathers (and mothers) simultaneously to balance educational and occupational demands with parenting demands. Longitudinal studies of the long-term impact of achieving parenthood during adolescence are clearly necessary, as well as more investigation of the impact of adolescent parenthood during different historical periods (see Parke and Neville, 1987).

Finally, there is a variety of deleterious effects of early childbearing for the offspring. First, there is a greater risk of lower IQ (Brooks-Gunn and Furstenberg, 1986; Moore and Brooks-Gunn, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook). It also affects academic achievement and retention in grade (Furstenberg et al., 1989). Nor are the effects short lived; they tend to persist throughout the school years (Hoffreth, 1987). Social behavior is affected as well, with several studies showing that children of teenage parents are at greater risk of social impairment (e.g., under control of anger, feelings of inferiority, fearfulness) and mild behavior disorders (e.g., aggressiveness, rebelliousness, impulsivity; Brooks-Gunn and Furstenberg, 1986). In assessing the effects of early childbearing, it is important to remember that the deleterious impact on children is due to both teenage mothers and teenage fathers. Both contribute to these outcomes, and it is oversimplification to attribute the effects to fathers or mothers alone. Early fatherhood clearly has profound consequences for men, their partners, and their offspring. At the same time, we must keep in mind that there is variation among early fathers as well as late fathers. The image of all young fathers as uninvolved and uncaring is an outdated stereotype (Marsiglio and Cohan, 1997).

In contrast to adolescent childbearing, when childbearing is delayed, considerable progress in occupational and educational spheres has potentially already taken place. Education is generally completed, and career development is well underway for both males and females. Delayed-timing fathers have described themselves as being in more stable work situations than early-timing fathers, being more experienced workers, and having their jobs and careers more firmly established than early-timing peers (Daniels and Weingarten, 1982). Although they are expected to be more satisfied with their jobs, as job satisfaction has been found to be positively associated with age until midlife (Kalleberg and Loscocco, 1983), and less likely to experience the "life cycle squeeze," during which one's ability to generate income has not yet progressed as fast as the need for income with the introduction of children (Rodman and Safilios-Rothschild, 1983), support for this view is limited. Neville and Parke (1997), in a study of early-timing (under 25 years of age at first birth) and late-timing (over 30 years of age) fathers, found that delayed-timing fathers were more satisfied with their jobs, but the effect was due to socioeconomic status (SES) and salary differences between the groups rather than the timing of birth per se. The financial strains associated with early career status therefore may be more likely to create conflict between the work and family demands of early-timing or normal-timing fathers than those of delayed-timing fathers. Neville and Parke (1997) found some support for this proposition, but qualified it by the gender of the child. Specifically, younger fathers of girls and older fathers of boys reported more interference by work in family life than did older fathers of girls and younger fathers of boys.

What are the effects of late-timing parenthood for the father-child relationship? Are fathers who delay parenthood more or less involved with their offspring? Are their styles of interaction different from those of early-timing or on-time fathers? What are the consequences of late-timing parenthood for father involvement? Retrospective accounts by adults who were the firstborn children of older parents report that having older parents was an important influence in their lives. Many reported having felt especially appreciated by their parents (Yarrow, 1991) and described fathers who were between the ages 30 and 39 years when the respondent was born as more accepting than fathers who were younger or older (Finley, Janovetz, and Rogers, 1990). Parents' retrospective accounts of parenting have also been found to vary with timing. Daniels and Weingarten (1982) found that early-timing fathers are less involved in the daily care of a preschool-age child: Three times as many late-timing fathers, in contrast to their early-timing counterparts, had regular responsibility for some part of the daily care of a preschool-age child. Cooney, Pedersen, Indelicato, and Palkovitz (1993) found in a nationally representative sample that late-timing fathers were more likely to be classified as being highly involved and experiencing positive affect associated with the paternal role than were on-time fathers. Finally, men who delayed parenthood until their late twenties contributed more to indirect aspects of childcare, such as cooking, feeding, cleaning, and doing laundry than men who assumed parenthood earlier (Coltrane and Ishii-Kuntz, 1992).

The timing of the onset of parenthood is a powerful organizer of both maternal and paternal roles. In the future, investigators need to examine not only both maternal and paternal interaction patterns with each other and their children, but within the context of careers as well. More detailed attention to cohort issues is warranted, as indicated by the suggestive findings of Daniels and Weingarten (1982), who found that women who had children in the 1950s and the 1970s were more likely to follow different patterns of balancing work and family life. Late-timing mothers in the 1950s were more likely to follow a sequential pattern in which outside employment and parenthood follow one another. By the 1970s women were more likely to follow a simultaneous pattern in which outside work and parenting coexist in parents' lives. Presumably the decision to delay the onset of parenthood was easier in the 1970s than in earlier decades because of increased acceptance of maternal employment, less rigid role definitions for men and women, and the greater availability of support services such as daycare that permit simultaneous family and career options. It is likely that this shift toward a simultaneous pattern of work and childrearing helps to account for the increased levels of father involvement in late-timing families.

There are qualitative differences in styles of interaction for on-time versus late-timing fathers. In a self-report study, MacDonald and Parke (1986) found that the age of a parent is negatively related to the frequency of physical play. Even after the age of the child is controlled for, the size of the relation is reduced but generally reveals the same pattern. However, this relation appears stronger for some categories of play than for others. Some physical activities, such as bounce, tickle, chase, and piggyback, which tend to require more physical energy on the part of the play partner, show strong negative relations with the age of parent. The negative correlation between the age of a parent and physical play may be ascribable to either the unwillingness or the inability of older parents to engage in high-energy affectively arousing activities, such as physical play, or to the fact that children may elicit less physical activity from older parents. Moreover, Neville and Parke (1987, 1997) found that older parents were likely to engage in more cognitively advanced activities with children and to report holding their children more than younger fathers did. These and other studies (e.g., Zaslow, Pedersen, Suwalsky, Rabinovich, and Cain, 1985) suggest that older fathers may be less tied to stereotypical paternal behavior, adopting styles more similar to those that have been considered traditionally maternal.

Observational studies of father-child interaction confirm these early self-report investigations. Volling and Belsky (1991), who studied fathers interacting with their infants at 3 and 9 months of age, found that older fathers were more responsive, stimulating, and affectionate. In another observational study, Neville and Parke (1997) examined the play patterns of early- and late-timing fathers interacting with their preschool-age children. Early- and delayed-timing fathers' play styles differed; the early-timing fathers relied on physical arousal to engage their children, whereas the delayed-timing fathers relied on more cognitive mechanisms to remain engaged (see also Parke and Neville, 1995).

Timing effects are important not just for fathers but for grandfathers as well. Moreover, not only is age per se important, but the timing of entry into familial roles may be a determinant of interactional style as well. In their study of grandfathers interacting with their 7-month-old grandchildren, Tinsley and Parke (1988) found that grandfathers' ages related to the level of stimulating play. Grandfathers were divided into three categories: younger (36 to 49 years old), middle (50 to 56 old), and older (57 to 68 old). Grandfathers in the middle-aged group were rated significantly higher on competence (e.g., confident, smooth, accepting), affect (e.g., warm, interested, affectionate, attentive), and play style (e.g., playful, responsive, stimulatory). From a lifespan developmental perspective, the middle group of grandfathers could be viewed as being optimally ready for grandparenthood, both physically and psychologically (Parke, 1988; Tinsley and Parke, 1988). Unlike the oldest group of grandfathers, grandfathers in the middle group were less likely to be chronically tired or to have been ill with age-linked diseases; and, unlike the youngest grandfathers, they had completed the career-building portion of their lives and were prepared to devote more of their time to family-related endeavors. Moreover, the ages of the middle group of grandfathers fit the normative age at which grandparenthood is most often achieved; thus, for these men, the role of grandfather was more age appropriate than it was for the youngest and the oldest groups of grandfathers.

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