Fatherhood initiatives are often designed to engage low-income fathers, and can be predicated on a limited scope of underlying assumptions of fatherhood and family. Since the experience of “fatherhood” is shaped by structural opportunities and barriers, seeking to understand fatherhood from different sociocultural standpoints is critical to better adapt fatherhood programming. However, few studies have explored how socioeconomically disadvantaged men construct their identities as fathers. This study aimed to explore how socioeconomically disadvantaged men in a fatherhood program came to shape their identities as fathers.
Grounded Theory was used to identify key facets and a theory of how socioeconomically disadvantaged men enrolled in a fatherhood-program in a Midwest city shape their identities as fathers. Twenty-six fathers participated in semi-structured virtual focus groups between September to December 2021. Interviews were transcribed verbatim. One masters- and two doctoral-level trained coders conducted open, focused, axial, and theoretical coding. Three Community Scholars (previously incarcerated Black fathers) vetted the codes and coding structure at each stage, and the coding structure was refined based on their analysis. The coders documented reflexivity in a shared journal, which was referenced throughout the coding process. Participants were 39 years old on average, predominantly Black (88.5%), previously incarcerated (85%), low-income (84.7% earning less than $2,000 a month), not fully employed (61.5%), and currently single (76.9%). Their children’s age ranged from 2 months to 18 years.
The men’s definitions of fatherhood were largely constructed upon their past and present hardships. While aspiring to embody the role of a traditional patriarch (i.e., to protect, provide, and be a role model), they also pursued nurturing their own children and other children around them to counter their past experiences of non-nurturing or absent fathers. Men described a wider view of fatherhood that most closely mirrored kinship care. Being physically present in children’s lives was acknowledged as the foundation to achieving advanced stages of engagement as a father, which may be connected to both the absence of father figures in their childhood and their own absence in their children’s lives due to incarceration. Efforts to achieve engaged fatherhood were met with barriers; namely, the lack of interpersonal (e.g., co-parenting strategies) and systemic supports (e.g., access to child). However, through strong motivations and interpersonal support, a healthy sense of self as an engaged father was achieved by some men, signifying resilience. Shared (e.g., Black, heterosexual male) and differing identities (e.g., age, life experience) shape commonalities and divergence in their fatherhood.
Conclusions and Implications
These findings provide a theoretical framework illuminating the developmental trajectory and intersectional nature of the construction of fatherhood among previously incarcerated, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and predominantly Black fathers. This framework could contribute to identifying the unique barriers and facilitators to healthy fatherhood for this population, enhancing a holistic, trauma-informed, and socially just approach to research and practice.