Abstract: Exploring the Role of Fathers' Birth Presence in Mothers' Mental Health Outcomes (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Exploring the Role of Fathers' Birth Presence in Mothers' Mental Health Outcomes

Saturday, January 16, 2016: 11:15 AM
Meeting Room Level-Mount Vernon Square B (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Cynthia Osborne, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Daniel Dillon, MPAFF, Senior Research Associate, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Holly Sexton, MA, Senior Research Associate, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX

A father’s attendance at the birth of his child represents an important opportunity to support the mother, affirm his role as father, and bond with the child. Prior research has typically considered fathers’ birth presence as a proxy for early involvement, linking it to father engagement during the prenatal period and over the child’s first few years. Others have shown that low prenatal father involvement predicts the failure to attend the birth and establish paternity, a signal of further low involvement to come. Some evidence exists to suggest that fathers’ birth presence may even have a positive delayed effect on later involvement when controlling for confounding factors that influence attendance itself.

Though these studies support the notion that fathers’ birth presence is strongly associated with father involvement before and after the birth, few if any have evaluated the relationship between fathers’ birth attendance and mothers’ socioemotional wellbeing following an unmarried birth. We hypothesize that a father’s absence from the birth acts as an objective and easily measurable signal of paternal social support and parental relationship quality. Building on previous research linking poor marital relationships and limited social support from the father to increases in postpartum depression, this study examines the association between unmarried fathers’ birth absence and early socioemotional outcomes for the mother. Further, we ask to what extent the association between fathers’ birth absence and mothers’ socioemotional wellbeing is mediated by father involvement, financial support, and relationship quality over the child’s first year.


To address these questions, we draw on data from Waves 1 and 2 of the Paternity Establishment Study (PES), a longitudinal birth cohort study of Texas mothers who gave birth outside of marriage in January 2013. Collected 3 months after the birth, Wave 1 includes information on fathers’ birth attendance, while Wave 2 provides an updated look at the status of the parental relationship, father involvement, and maternal and child wellbeing 15 months after the birth. Our final sample consists of approximately 580 mothers who completed both waves. First, we provide a descriptive portrait of the association between fathers’ birth presence and several indicators of mothers’ mental health 15 months after the birth, including maternal depression and parenting stress. Next, we model the relationship between fathers’ birth presence and each indicator of mothers’ mental health, given a vector of sociodemographic controls. In subsequent models, we incorporate an array of potential mediating variables, including father involvement, father support, and parental relationship quality. 


Results suggest that fathers’ birth absence is significantly associated with increased maternal depression and parenting stress at 15 months. This association, however, is largely explained by the extent to which fathers are involved, supportive, and in a quality relationship with the mother over this period.


Rather than implying a solution in higher rates of birth attendance, our results highlight the importance of fathers’ birth absence as a signal of elevated risk—especially in view of its observability and usefulness as a point of intervention for the policy and medical communities.