The Effect of Fathers' Presence At Birth On Involvement Over Time
Identifying the factors and pathways associated with positive father involvement is important given the mounting evidence of the potential benefits of men’s contributions to their families. Family and parent characteristics such as the parents’ relationship quality and status, parenting with multiple partners, and low income have been identified as factors contributing to reduced involvement over time. However other mechanisms that might account for variation in father involvement, and may also serve as important service targets, have been less well explored. One often described, but rarely empirically examined phenomenon is fathers’ participation in the “magical moment” of birth. This study is designed to estimate the effect of fathers’ presence at birth on their involvement over the first 24 months of their children’s lives. Presence at birth is hypothesized to be an important indicator of longer term involvement as it represents a unique opportunity for bonding between father and child and role/identity establishment for the father.
A sample of 248 young, low-income, pregnant women (ages 14-21) was recruited to participate in a randomized-controlled trial testing a community-based home-visiting intervention. All participants were African-American and predominantly from working-class or lower income backgrounds (94% of the young women received Medicaid). At the time of enrollment the women were primarily first-time mothers (89%) and residing with their mother or primary care-giver (78%).
A propensity score matching approach was used to estimate the effect of fathers’ presence at birth on the level of the fathers involvement with his child at 4-, 12-, and 24-months postpartum while controlling for prenatal factors likely to be related to father involvement including: fathers’ geographical accessibility, employment, children with other partners as well as parents’ ages and past relationship quality. Indicators of father involvement included: financial support, involvement in decision making, frequency of contact, care giving, paternal grandmother contact with the child, and the mothers’ assessment of whether the father was “doing things that a good father should”.
Father presence at the birth of the child was did not have a statistically significant effect on any involvement indicators at 4 months or 12 months. However, father presence at birth was statistically significantly related to an increased likelihood of involvement at 24 months on all indicators of father involvement.
Conclusions and Implications
The finding that the effect of the fathers’ presence at birth on involvement is not apparent until the 24-month follow-up is intriguing, and points to the need for further investigation. Other factors may be more influential in sustaining father involvement over the earliest stages of fatherhood but the benefits of fathers’ presence at birth become more important over time which may be useful for timing interventions designed to support father involvement, and leveraging this “magical moment”. This study demonstrates that fathers’ presence at birth may be one of multiple pathways to support on-going father involvement among low-income families, yet future research is needed to shed light on the mechanisms that account for this unexpected pattern of findings.