Nearly half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, costing over $20 billion annually to federal and state systems. Unintended pregnancies are concentrated among racial minority, young, unwed, and low-income women. Unintended pregnancy is associated with adverse maternal and child outcomes. Most studies measure unintended pregnancy and its effects from only the mother’s perspective. Furthermore, disagreement between mothers and fathers on pregnancy intention is common. In the Fragile Families study, 15% of cohabitating fathers and 36% of non-cohabitating and non-romantically involved father disagreed with mothers on pregnancy intentions. The purpose of this study is to examine mothers and fathers’ pregnancy intentions, as well as the association of mothers’ and fathers’ pregnancy intentions disagreement as predictors of father involvement at 36 months postpartum.
This study is a secondary analysis of data of 2,891 couples (1,147 were observed) from the Building Strong Families (BSF) evaluation. Parents in BSF were unwed at the time they entered into the study and were highly socioeconomically disadvantaged. BSF asked both mothers and fathers about their pregnancy intention; 60% during pregnancy, the remainder within 3 months postpartum. Pregnancies could also be wanted but mistimed (occurring too soon), ambivalent (unsure if wanted), or not wanted. We defined an intended pregnancy as both wanted and timed. Multiple regression models examined the effect of mothers’ and fathers’ reports of their pregnancy intention on fathers’ involvement when the child was about 36 months old measured as: self-reported engagement in caregiving activities, physical, and cognitive and social play, and warmth, as well as observed father responsiveness and hostile parenting. Controls included parent race, age, education and the number of children the couple had.
Fathers who felt ambivalent or did not want the pregnancy reported less warmth toward the child (b = -0.04 and -0.05 respectively, p<0.05), less engagement in caregiving activities (b = -0.15 and -0.26 respectively, p<0.01), less physical play (b = -0.19 and -0.32 respectively, p<0.001), and less cognitive and social play (b = -0.14 and -0.32 respectively, p<0.01) with their children at age 36 months. Overall, greater couple disagreement in intendedness significantly negatively affected father’s warmth (b = -0.02, p<0.001), and cognitive and social play (b = -0.05, p<0.05). There was no independent effect of mothers’ pregnancy intentions on other outcomes. There were no effects of mothers or fathers’ pregnancy intentions on observed father responsiveness or hostility toward the child.
Overall the study results indicate that pregnancy intendedness has a significant association with later father involvement, but not mother involvement. These findings suggest there may be multiple pathways through which unintended pregnancy influence aspects of father involvement. This study may be interpreted to provide some support for fathering vulnerability hypothesis, in which fathers’ involvement, as compared to mothers’ involvement, may be more susceptible to external influences.