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Expectant Fathers’ Beliefs and Expectations about Fathering as They Prepare to Parent a New Infant

As the socio-cultural expectations for fatherhood have evolved in recent decades, men are now expected to (and are expecting to) participate more directly in raising their children. This rising expectation is not limited to any particular socio-economic group, but few studies have been conducted concerning the fatherhood expectations among lower-income men. What are their perceptions and expectations around parenting their children, and how do those beliefs square with reality?

In a recent issue of the journal Social Work Research, published by NASW Press, Carolyn Joy Dayton, PhD, LMSW, IMH-E®(IV), Raelynn Buczkowski, LLMSW, Maria Muzik, MD, MS, Jessica Goletz, BA, Laurel Hicks, LMSW, Tova B. Walsh, PhD, MSW, and Erika L. Bocknek, PhD, LMFT, published their findings from a series of interviews with expectant fathers in the Detroit area. The findings were part of a larger longitudinal study of parents in the lower income bracket. From the interviews, five major themes arose:

Being There

One of the most frequent refrains throughout the interviews with these fathers was the idea that fathers wanted to “be there” for their children. Many of the fathers who were interviewed talked about the importance of being present in his child’s life. Often this was tied to the fact that his own father had not been present during his childhood and his desire to be more available to his own child or children. The sense that fathers wanted to “be there” for their children was associated with a deep sense of responsibility and pride. This sense of pride was often related to the man’s own personal history of struggle and loss, and his intent to parent his own child differently than he had been parented.

Fathering Older Children

Despite the fact that they were expecting a new baby, fathers talked most frequently about parenting older children. Many fathers talked explicitly about their fathering roles with their children once the children were beyond the infant and toddler periods of development. Fathers frequently referred to participating in school activities with their children, discussing social and interpersonal problems with them, and sharing athletic activities.

Preparation for Life in Society

Related to parenting older children, a third recurring theme in these narratives was the importance of fathers in preparing their children to be successful in the broader community and society. Fathers saw themselves as teaching or training their children to become good citizens and described these activities as occurring with their children once they were beyond the early childhood (that is, infancy and toddlerhood) periods. Fathers discussed preparing their children for life in society in terms of four roles as: (1) being an educator and life coach, (2) providing emotional support to his children in dealing with life’s challenges, (3) serving as a positive role model for his children, and (4) facilitating children’s active engagement within the community.

Heaviness of the Fathering Role

Throughout the interviews there were many instances of fathers who described fathering as an especially difficult task. The heaviness of the fatherhood role was described in terms of responsibility for raising a child and worries about providing financial support to the child and family. The sense of responsibility for another life was expressed as the need to care for children who are inherently dependent on the father. Fathers also expressed a sense of loss of their own freedom. Additionally, many fathers spoke about the importance of providing financial or concrete (for example, clothing, food) support to their children. Often there was an explicit acknowledgment that financial support was only one of the ways in which a father cares for his children.

Parenting Support

When asked about who they rely on for parenting support, most fathers described the women in their lives. Many fathers said that they relied on the mother of the baby for support and cited other female relatives, such as their own mother or grandmother, as a primary person who they could count on for parenting support. Two areas of concern emerged: (1) the fact that they did not have positive male role models in their lives to turn to for advice and (2) a belief that women were the parenting experts, not men.

Based on these interviews one particularly salient point emerged: early childhood is a time when fathers in higher-risk contexts are likely to be more involved in the lives of their children; yet the current findings, in contrast, suggest that fathers may view themselves and their parenting contributions as more important once their children are older. It may be the case that when fathers are physically present during early childhood but fail to see a parenting role for themselves, they miss the opportunity to develop strong early relationships with their infants and young children. Feeling left out of early parenting processes coupled with missed opportunities for father-infant relationship building may lead some fathers to disengage from their families over time.

Early interventions with fathers that help them identify ways in which they can be involved in parenting their infants and very young children may help develop and support the early father–child relationship such that it endures over time. Indeed, prior research suggests that when fathers are actively involved in early infant care, they tend to feel more efficacious as parents and their partners are better able to cope with infant distress. Similarly, the quality of the co-parenting relationship is also associated with the positive development of the father–child relationship. Early interventions that support the development of a positive co-parenting relationship may promote continued father involvement even when the parental romantic relationship does not endure.

Social workers can help expectant fathers to see how they can be involved in the lives of their children even when they are infants and young children, so that the fathers are more likely to be able to fulfill the roles they expect for themselves when the child is older. This research into fatherhood perceptions can inform social work practice with expectant parents, and help social workers empower expectant parents, including fathers, in raising well-socialized children.

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