Parents caring for children with special health care needs (SHCN) face courtesystigmatization, or stigmatization conferred due to association with a stigmatized individual. Fathers in the general population also experience flexibilitystigma in the workplace, if they use flexibility options such as sick leave or telecommuting for family reasons. Flexibility stigma is conferred due to fathers not adhering to male gender expectations in the workplace. Research so far has either studied courtesy stigma or flexibility stigma. The current research fills this gap and investigates how fathers of children with SHCN experience and deal with courtesy and flexibility stigma.
In-depth phone interviews were conducted with 18 fathers who cared for a child with SHCN recruited nationally through blogs and family support listservs. Fathers were on average 44 years old, identified predominately as Non-Hispanic White, and had on average 2 children. Most of the participating fathers were married (N = 16) and had a household income between $40,000 and $89,000 (N = 10). In the semi-structured interviews fathers were asked to describe their experience as fathers of children with SHCN in the workplace and in the community. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and thematic analysis was used for identifying themes.
Fathers in this study reported both courtesy and flexibility stigma in the workplace. Use of flexibility was stigmatized since fathers acted against traditional gender norms when prioritizing family or care responsibilities. Fathers addressed flexibility stigma either by seeking out family friendly workplaces or by seeking mid-level management positions that allowed for an adequate combination of flexibility and responsibility. Disability-related courtesy stigma in the workplace was dependent on the SHCN type and was addressed either through disclosure and education of the employer or through keeping the information secret. Courtesy stigma in the community depended on SHCN type with mental health or behavioral issues resulting in increased stigma. Support from other parents of children with SHCN reduced stigmatization, but the lack of father specific support groups was mentioned as barrier. Fathers also showed instances of internalized stigmatization and were reluctant to socialize out of fear of stigmatization.
Conclusion and Implications
Fathers of children with SHCN experience both flexibility stigma and courtesy stigma. Research needs to further investigate the interactive effects of flexibility and courtesy stigma and how it affects fathers’ ability to meet their work and care responsibilities. Policy developments need to consider the effects of stigmatization to address the chasm between availability and use of workplace supports. Similarly, training in disclosure practices should be provided to enable fathers’ use of flexibility while limiting employment-related costs. Practice needs to provide father specific support services, since this research demonstrates the relevance and limited availability of peer support, which can help fathers to effectively deal with experiences of stigmatization and to learn strategies to combat courtesy and flexibility stigma in the workplace and the community.