Studies show that father involvement with his child (FI) and a positive coparenting relationship (CO) are related, and both strongly associated with positive child outcomes. Research on the role of maternal gatekeeping in relation to FI demonstrates that mothers exert control over whether and how fathers engage with their children and that the CO is likely to influence FI more than the reverse. However, much of this research examines middle-income married families; there is a comparative lack of studies that examine the causal direction of associations between CO and FI among low-income unmarried families. Using Family System Theory, this study examined mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions of each other as coparents and the reciprocal associations of these perceptions with FI across two time points among low-income families with young children.
We used data from the Building Strong Families project, a longitudinal examination of 5,102 couples’ relationship and parenting across the first three years of their child’s life. Analyses used father and mother reports of CO when children were approximately 15 (T1) and 36 months old (T2) assessed with 10 items from the Coparenting Alliance Inventory. Father involvement was reported by fathers at T1 and T2 with items assessing engagement in (1) caregiving (e.g., helped child get dressed), (2) social-cognitive activities (e.g., read or looked at books), and (3) spending time with child (e.g., one or more hours a day). Covariates included key sociodemographic factors, multiple-partner fertility, depression, relationship quality, and parenting stress of each parent. Cross-lagged analyses conducted in Mplus 8.2 examined the extent to which fathers’ and mothers’ co-parenting perceptions influenced FI and were in turn influenced by FI across two time points.
The cross-lagged model showed excellent fit to the data (RMSEA=.01, CFI=1.00, TLI=.99) and demonstrated that changes in all three forms of FI at T2 (caregiving, social-cognitive play, time spent with child) were predicted by mothers’ perception of fathers as coparents at T1 (β= .070, β=.057, β=.152, respectively). Fathers’ perceptions of mothers as coparents at T1 predicted change in the amount of time fathers spent with their child at T2, but was not associated with the other two forms of FI. Conversely, change in mothers’ perception of CO at T2 was only predicted by the amount of time fathers spent with their children at T1 (β=.032), but was not predicted by other forms of FI. Change in fathers’ perceptions of CO at T2 was predicted by fathers’ engagement in social-cognitive activities at T1(β=.052), and by mothers’ perception of CO at T1 (β=.109).
This study demonstrated that low-income positive fathering behaviors are shaped by mothers’ perceptions of fathers’ parenting more so than fathers’ parenting behaviors influence mothers’ perceptions, and are consistent with earlier findings related to maternal gatekeeping. The findings suggest improving low-income unmarried couples’ coparenting relationships and mothers’ beliefs and perception of fathers as coparents may promote FI. Further research on the bidirectional associations of FI and CO considering various contexts (e.g., residential/non-residential, single/dual earning status, among different racial-cultural groups) are needed.