Consequences of Fatherhood for Men Themselves

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Becoming a father has an impact on a man's own psychological development and well-being. As Parke (1981, p. 9) noted, "the father-child relationship is a two-way process and children influence their fathers just as fathers alter their children's development." Three aspects of this issue have been examined: (1) marital relationships, (2) work and occupational issues, and (3) "societal generativity" (to borrow Snarey's, 1993, phrase).

Impact on marital relationships. Perhaps most attention has been devoted to the impact of the transition to parenthood on marriage. The general finding from a large number of studies is that there is a decline in marital satisfaction, especially on the part of men, as a consequence of the birth of a child (see Belsky and Pensky, 1988, for a review). The psychological adjustments associated with the transition to fatherhood are clearly evident in the longitudinal study by Cowan and Cowan (1985, 1992). Their project followed families from pregnancy until the children were 5 years of age. These investigators found that father's marital satisfaction showed a modest decrease from pregnancy to 6 months postpartum, but a sharp decline between 6 and 18 months postpartum. In contrast, mothers showed a much more linear decline, beginning in the postpartum period and continuing across the first 2 years. In this same period of 18 months, 12.5% of the couples separated or divorced; by the time the child was 5 years of age, this figure was up to 20%.

In spite of the dip in marital satisfaction, two caveats should be noted. First, even though marital satisfaction decreases for men (and women) after the onset of parenthood, marital stability (i.e., the likelihood of staying in the marriage) increases relative to childless couples, for whom the national average is 50% (Cowan and Cowan, 1992). As the Cowans (1992, p. 110) noted, "the marital stability of couples who have preschool children is protected. Although new parents may be experiencing increased tension or dissatisfaction as couples, their joint involvement with managing the baby's and the family's needs may lead them to put off, or possibly work harder on, the problems in their marriage—at least while the children are young."

Not all of the couples showed a decline in marital satisfaction: 18% of the couples showed increased satisfaction with their marital relationship. This figure rose to 38% for couples who participated in a supportive intervention program during the transition to parenthood (Cowan and Cowan, 1992; C. Cowan, 1988). Similar diversity in the pattern of change in father's marital satisfaction is evident in Belsky's longitudinal study (Belsky et al., 1984, 1989). During the transition to parenthood, marital quality declined in approximately 30% of the families, improved in another 30%, and in nearly 40% of the families showed no change.

A variety of reasons has been suggested for this decline in men's marital satisfaction, including (1) physical strain of childcare, (2) increased financial responsibilities, (3) emotional demands of new familial responsibilities, (4) the restrictions of parenthood, and (5) the redefinition of roles and role arrangements (Belsky and Isabella, 1985; Cowan and Cowan, 1992; Snarey, 1993). However, as Cowan and Cowan (1992) found, there is little support for the hypothesis that, as the number of negative changes increase, marital satisfaction declines. In their study, they found little relation between declining marital satisfaction and any single negative change. Perhaps a cumulative negative events model (Rutter, 1987) holds, in which an increase in the number—regardless of quality—of negative shifts is associated with shifts in marital satisfaction. However, several lines of evidence suggest that discrepancies in expectations on the part of mothers and fathers concerning the relative roles that each will play may be an important determinant of postpartum marital satisfaction. Cowan and Cowan (1987,1992) found that when there was a larger discrepancy between the wives' expectations of their husbands' involvement in infantcare and his level of actual participation, there was a greater decline in wives' marital satisfaction between late pregnancy and 18 months postpartum. Belsky, Ward, and Levine (1986) found a similar decrease in marital satisfaction when mothers' expectations about father involvement were not met. Men showed a similar effect of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior. McDermid, Huston, and McHale (1990) found greater negative impact of the onset of parenthood when there was a discrepancy between spouses' gender-role attitudes and the division of household and childcare labor, and McBride (1989) found that traditional fathers who held conservative gender-role attitudes, but were nonetheless involved in childcare, reported higher levels of dissatisfaction. Finally, Hock (1987) found similar results for mothers who wanted to work outside the home, but did not; they were more depressed than mothers whose attitudes and roles were congruent. On the positive side, when expectations and behaviors match, some evidence suggests that marital satisfaction is correspondingly high. Osofsky and Culp (1989) reported that in a 3-year longitudinal study of transitions to fatherhood, when fathers were satisfied with the division of family tasks and decisions, marital and sexual adjustments were satisfactory. In summary, research suggests that discrepancies in parental expectations about roles, rather than the level of change per se, may be a key correlate of men's marital satisfaction after the onset of fatherhood. It is important to underscore that marital relationships are both determinants as well as consequences of paternal involvement, as previously noted (Pleck, 1997).

One of the limitations of much of the literature is the focus on infancy. Less is known about the impact of being a father on marital satisfaction after the child's infancy. An exception is the longitudinal study by Heath (1976) and Heath and Heath (1991) that followed a cohort of college men born in the 1930s into their thirties and midforties. Competent fathers were in satisfying marriages. However, these two indices also related to psychological maturity, leaving open the possibility that fathering activities lead to marital satisfaction and maturity or that maturity is the common correlate of being both a competent father and husband. Because of limitations in sample size, reliance on qualitative indices, and the lack of adequate statistical analyses, these results remain suggestive rather than definitive. However, Snarey (1993) found support for the relation between paternal involvement in childhood or adolescence and marital satisfaction. In a follow-up longitudinal study of men originally studied in the 1940s and1950s by Glueck and Glueck (1950), Snarey (1993, p. 111) assessed the marital success of these men at midlife (age 47): "Fathers who provided high levels of social-emotional support for their offspring during the childhood decade (0-10 years) and high levels of intellectual, academic and social emotional support during the adolescent decade (11-21 years) were themselves as men at mid-life, more likely to be happily married."

In sum, it is clear that there are hints of long-term positive effects of father involvement on marriage, but these data must be interpreted cautiously for several reasons. First, it is clear that there are negative effects of increased father involvement, as noted earlier in the discussion of maternal gatekeeping. Some women may view increased father involvement as intrusive and unwelcome. Second, much of the literature is based on cohorts studied several decades ago. In light of the changing work and family lives of both men and women in the new millennium, conclusions based on earlier periods may not be readily applicable (Pleck, 1997).

Impact on occupational success. There are two perspectives on this issue. First, a short-term perspective suggests that as fathers increase their involvement they perceive higher levels of work-family conflict (Baruch and Barnett, 1986). This work-family stress is more likely to be reported by fathers in dual-earner rather than in single-earner families (Volling and Belsky, 1991). Many fathers wish they had more time for family and more flexible job arrangements (Parke and Brott, 1999), and although there are clear trends toward more family-friendly policies, the workplace barriers remain formidable (Levine and Pittinsky, 1998; Parke and Brott, 1999). A long-term perspective, on the other hand, suggests that father involvement is positively linked with occupational mobility, but the evidence is rather meager and limited by reliance on studies from earlier (and perhaps inapplicable) historical eras. For example, occupational mobility is also affected by father involvement. In his longitudinal study, Snarey (1993) found that the father's childrearing involvement across the first two decades of the child's life moderately predicted the father's occupational mobility (at the age of 47 years) above and beyond other background variables (e.g., parent's occupation, his IQ, current maternal employment).

Fatherhood and men's self-identity. Men's sense of themselves shifts as a function of the transition to fatherhood. A variety of dimensions has been explored in prior research, including fathers' role definitions, their self-esteem, and their sense of generativity. Roles change for both men and women after the onset of parenthood. Cowan and Cowan (1987,1992) assessed role shifts during the transition to fatherhood and found that men who become fathers decreased the "partner/lover" aspect of their self and increased the "parent" percentage of their self-definition. In contrast, men who remained childless significantly increased the "partner/lover" aspect of their relationship over the 21-month assessment period. Self-esteem, however, was not affected by the transition to parenthood for either fathers (or mothers) in the Cowan's project. Grossman (1987), who studied men's transition to parenthood, found that first-time fathers who were both more affiliative (i.e., importantly connected to others, enjoyed empathetic relationships) and more autonomous, viewing themselves as separate and distinct from others, had significantly higher life adaptation scores. Fathers of firstborns who were more affiliative at 1 year of age also reported being higher in emotional well-being. As Grossman (1987, p. 10) indicates, these findings suggest that "separateness and individuation are not sufficient for men's well being; they need connections as well." Does fatherhood have a longer-term impact on men's psychological development? Heath (1977), in a longitudinal study of college men, found that fatherhood related to men's ability to understand themselves, to understand others sympathetically, and to integrate their own feelings.

Finally, does fatherhood affect generativity, a concept derived from Erikson's (1975) theoretical writings? Snarey (1993, pp. 18-19) provided a succinct summary:

The psychosocial task of middle adulthood, Stage 7 [in Erikson's stage theory] is the attainment of a favorable balance of generativity over stagnation and self-absorption Most broadly, Erikson (1975) considers generativity to mean any caring activity that contributes to the spirit of future generations, such as the generation of new or more mature persons, products, ideas, or works of art Generativity's psychosocial challenge to adults is to create, care for, and promote the development of others from nurturing the growth of another person to shepherding the development of a broader community.

Other theorists have distinguished among different types of generativity (Hawkins and Dollahite, 1997; Kotre, 1984; Kotre and Hall, 1990). Snarey (1993) described three types that apply to fathers: (1) biological generativity (indicated by the birth of a child), (2) parental generativity (indicated by childrearing activities), and (3) societal generativity (indicated by caring for other younger adults: serving as a mentor, providing leadership, and contributing to generational continuity). Although serious questions have been raised about the utility of Erikson's stage notions, especially the inevitability of the ordering of the "stages" and their universal applicability (P. Cowan, 1988), the concept of generativity is nonetheless a useful marker for assessing the long-term relation between fathering behavior and other aspects of mature men's lives. Recently, Hawkins and Dollahite (1997) cast generative fathering as a theoretical corrective to earlier views of fathers as inadequate and deficient.

A series of studies has examined the relations between fatherhood, especially paternal competence, and involvement and social generativity. Heath and Heath (1991) noted a link between fatherhood satisfaction and community participation; fathers who were higher in reported parenting satisfaction were more likely to be active participants in community organizations or professions in the prior decade. Similarly, Valliant (1977) found a positive relation between societal generativity and social adjustment and paternal competence. Men who held positions of responsibility for other adults and who were well adjusted socially were rated higher in terms of their psychological closeness to their children. Is men's societal generativity at midlife related to the level of care and support they provide their children? Snarey (1993, p. 98) rated father's social generativity on a 3-point scale and tapped whether "he demonstrated a clear capacity for establishing, guiding and caring for the next generation through sustained responsibility for the growth, well-being or leadership of younger adults or the larger society... beyond the sphere of the nuclear family." Snarey found that men who nurtured their children's social-emotional development during childhood (0 to10 years) and who also contributed to both social-emotional and intellectual-academic development during the second decade (11 to 21 years) were at midlife more likely to become generative in areas outside their family. Again this contribution of fathering participation to societal generativity was evident after a variety of background variables was controlled for. Snarey offered several interpretations of these findings. First, a disequilibrium explanation suggests that parental childrearing responsibility results in demands that are difficult to meet and that, in turn, promote (Snarey, 1993, pp. 117-118) "increased complexity in the fathers' cognitive emotional and behavioral repertoire____This commitment beyond the self, in turn, prepares the way for societal generativity which involves a commitment beyond the family." Second, perhaps a nurturing predisposition may underlie both parenting and societal generativity and account for the continuity across time. Third, the arrival of children often leads to increases in men's participation in neighborhood and community organizations on behalf of children, which, in turn, may continue into their midlife years. In summary, although the processes are not yet well understood, it is clear that involved fathering relates in positive ways to other aspects of men's lives. As Snarey (1993, p. 119) noted, "men who are parentally generative during early adulthood usually turn out to be good spouses, workers and citizens at mid life."

Other work (Palkovitz and Palm, 1998) inspired by this generative perspective suggests that engagement in fatherhood roles may present a sensitive period for men in the development of religious faith and in religious practice. Although further empirical work is necessary to adequately evaluate the utility of this emerging perspective, it represents a promising new direction for fatherhood research.

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