Limited research has examined the relationship between parental health and parenting behavior. The literature that does address this has almost exclusively focused on mothers. These studies find that, overall, physically-limited and unhealthy mothers are less involved and engaged parents than their healthier peers. At the same time, a more robust literature finds that mental health negatively impacts parenting for both mothers and fathers. Importantly, poor physical health often impacts mental health in adverse ways. In total, these studies suggest that physical and mental health may work together to impact parenting behavior. Given this literature, this paper addresses two gaps: (1) how physical health impacts fathering behavior and (2) how physical and mental health may work together to affect parenting among fathers.
We used the Survey of Contemporary Fatherhood (SCF), a national sample of fathers (n= 2,182) with various parental roles (e.g., biological parent, social parent). The sample matches CDC estimates of the racial/ethnic composition, educational attainment, and paternal roles of fathers over age 18 in the United States. Measures of fathering behavior—developmentally appropriate to the children—were used, standardized, and combined into single measures. These measures are: paternal warmth (a= 0.81), paternal emotional and social engagement (a= 0.83), use of positive control/monitoring (a= 0.87), and the use of harsh punishment (a= 0.91). Physical health was addressed with a measure for the severity of health limitations (i.e., no limitations, moderate limitations, severe limitations), while mental health was measured with the CES-D 20 scale (a= 0.91). Control variables included race/ethnicity, relationship status, paternal age, child age, child gender, educational attainment, father’s employment, family income, parental role, father’s residential status, maternal gatekeeping, co-parenting quality, and number of children. OLS regression analyses were used to test our research questions and formal tests of mediation were conducted using the bootstrapping method (5,000 bootstrap samples, significance determined by 95% bias-corrected intervals).
Main effects models indicated that fathers with moderate physical limitations were significantly less warm toward their children (b= -0.156, p<.01) and used positive control less frequently (b= -0.099, p<.05) than fathers with no health limitations. Fathers with severe physical limitations were less warm (b= -0.170, p<.001), less engaged (b= -0.138, p<.01), used positive control less frequently (b= -0.1588, p<.01), and administered harsh discipline more frequently (b= 0.400, p<.001) than men with no limitations. Additional models indicated that depression was a significant mediator of physical health limitations. Indeed, only the use of harsh discipline remained significant for fathers with severe physical limitations after the inclusion of depression in the model. Meanwhile, depression was significantly related to all four fathering behaviors.
Congruent with prior research on mothers, our findings suggest that poor paternal physical health has deleterious impacts on parenting. Our findings further point to poor mental health, which frequently accompanies physical maladies, as a key mechanism in this relationship. These results point to the importance of integrated medical and mental health care for men with physical health limitations, which may reap benefits for fathers and their children.