Parenting a child with a neurodisability (such as autism, epilepsy, learning disability or cerebral palsy) can be a life altering experience. However, the scholarship on parenting is often gender-neutral and less is known about the unique parenting experiences of fathers of children and youth with neurodisabilities or the meanings that these experiences hold for them. This paper fills that gap through a presentation of fathers’ narratives providing detailed and contextualized accounts about the experiences of connecting to their child and discovering a role for themselves through their parenting experiences.
Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, a qualitative research approach, was employed to explore fathers’ experiences of parenting their child. Seventeen interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 11 biological fathers of children and youth with neurodisabilities. Canadian fathers were recruited from a national study on parenting children with ND, study advertisements, and word-of-mouth referrals.
The children presented with a range of conditions and a range of functional impairments.
An interview guide with open-ended interview questions facilitated a “conversation with purpose” and aimed to elicit the participants’ stories moving from the time before participants entered fatherhood to their projections for the future. Respecting the tenets of IPA, data collection consisted of multiple in-depth, semi-structured interviews that were conducted at a time and place most convenient for study participants. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and analyzed for themes that reflected the fathers’ experiences of parenting their child. Interpretive analyses were developed around substantial verbatim excerpts of the interview data as well as descriptive and reflective field notes. The interpretive process was informed by the six-step IPA framework. Efforts were made throughout the research process to ensure methodological rigor (i.e.: reflexivity, sensitivity to context, grounding findings in participant narratives).
Fathers’ narratives yielded striking and evocative stories. Three master themes emerged. “Forming connections – from disruptions to new understandings” describes early struggles and joys in fatherhood and the influence of children’s reciprocal contacts. “Taking our place in the world” describes fathers’ negotiations with the world inside and outside of their family. “Anticipating, emerging and growing” describes how fathers came to understand themselves and grow in new ways as a function of their relationship with their child
Fathers focused their parenting energy on understanding and forging
emotional connections with their child, though this was, at times, a slow and frustrating process and a difficult and solitary journey. Fathers expressed reticence to ask for emotional support for themselves and expressed a need for information to help them to understand and support their child. Fathers focused on protecting the integrity of their family, facilitating the social acceptance of their child and thinking about future life course of their child, experiencing personal growth and pride.
The findings of this study revealed the importance making visible and understanding fathers' poorly understood parenting experiences. Practice implications include the importance of noticing fathers’ emotional connection with their children, acknowledging fathers as resources in the family unit, and prioritizing fathers' information needs.