Forty percent of babies in the United States are born to unwed parents, a fact that increases the likelihood that young fathers, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will not have a positive presence in their children’s lives.
The absence of a father has negative consequences for all members of the family, said Paul Florsheim, a UWM professor of community and behavioral health promotion in the Zilber School of Public Health. In his new book, “Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood,” Florsheim and coauthor David Moore at the University of Puget Sound examine what happens when these young expectant fathers receive counseling at the same time the mothers attend their prenatal health visits.
The book’s fundamental message is that most young fathers want to become good partners and parents, but like young mothers, many need institutional support to prepare for the challenges of parenthood. Here, Florsheim explains how difficult the transition often is and discusses an innovative father-inclusive prenatal care model proposed in the book.
In what state do you find expectant, young fathers who you’ve counseled?
Fathers come to parenthood with very different skills and challenges. There’s a stereotype that young, unwed fathers will become deadbeat dads. In our experience, the vast majority of fathers want to stay involved with their kids, at least in the beginning. Some are not sure how to do that, particularly if their relationship with the mother of their child is rocky or strained. Some are not well-equipped to contribute financially, and some have been incarcerated or have substance abuse problems. In this book, we try to convey that most of these young men are sympathetic characters because they want to be good fathers but need some help with that.
Historically, marriage has had a stabilizing effect on families in the sense that marriage keeps fathers more tightly connected to as partners and parents. But because many young couples are not choosing to get married, we need to find other ways to support young families. Couples need help knowing how to be parents together, regardless of whether they are married. This is especially the case if they don’t stay together as a couple.
What are some of the specific skills you hope to teach young men?
Many fathers don’t feel confident about how to show their partners they can be helpful. Many fathers get locked into the notion that the only worthwhile thing they can do is to be the provider, to make money. There’s an element of shame when they aren’t making enough money, and that shame can drive them away. If they learn that they can contribute to their child’s development in other ways, it can build their confidence as fathers and partners. Learning to do simple things, like soothe their baby or be kind to their partner, can help them have a broader sense of what it means to be a father. It sounds easy but it does not always come naturally.
You use the term, “a good-enough father,” in the book. What do you mean by that?
A term coined in the 1950s was the “good-enough mother,” emphasizing that mothers cannot be perfect. Imperfection is part of the job description. We adopted that term to make the point that there are different ways a father can succeed. Even if they aren’t successful providers, they can still be “good-enough” by contributing in other ways.
How did you get started on this line of research?
In graduate school I was hired by one of my professors to help study the families of disadvantaged boys at risk for juvenile delinquency. At the time, my job was to oversee other students who were coding family interactions. I was struck by the different dynamics in families with and without fathers and got curious about the fathers who weren’t there. What’s their story? What happened to them? As a young clinician, I was also struck by how some fathers didn’t know how to connect with their kids even though they wanted to. To find answers to my questions about how to help fathers connect, I thought I should to start at the beginning by studying expectant fathers.
Why focus on expectant fathers?
Before the baby is born, parents are hopeful and open to receiving support. It’s a positive moment, so it’s a perfect time to work with young men, to help them become the fathers they want to be. And by working with mothers and fathers together, we help them learn to cooperate.
What’s been the response?
Young men can be tough to recruit into programs intended to “help” them, so we rely on the pregnant women to bring their partners with them to the prenatal visits. Once we get them in and are able to talk with them, we find they are pretty hungry for support. Fathers get very little support when it comes to knowing how to connect and communicate and we’ve found that even a little help can go a long way.
The data that we’ve collected shows we’ve been able to decrease intimate partner violence. And we’ve been able to help these men develop warm, nurturing relationships with their children. We’d like the program to show a benefit to mothers too, but we’re not there yet. We’re less clear how our program translates into happier and healthier mothers. So the program we developed still needs work. We hope to get others involved in developing these sorts of services for young parents.
What are the next steps?
Our services have always been grant-funded and I’d like to move away from that. So I’m starting to work with the 16th Street Community Health Center. They will look for ways for these services to be reimbursed. This sort of program can only survive if it becomes a service covered by insurance, including Medicaid. It’s not cheap, but I’d like to believe that, if you can help fathers be healthy and prevent father absence, it will save money over the long haul.