ACF: Violence and Unstable Relationships with Mothers Impede Fathers’ Contact with Their Kids

January 7, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As I reported yesterday, the fathers in the four programs evaluated for the Administration for Children and Families were among the most marginal of anyone in society. They’re poor, uneducated and most have a criminal record. But they’re highly motivated to improve their relationships with their kids, so they involve themselves in these Responsible Fatherhood programs.

Now, as I mentioned, “responsible fatherhood” looks like a bureaucratic term for “paying child support.” The two (out of three) reports I’ve read make no mention of the organizations studied lifting a finger to either help the fathers obtain an order of visitation or enforce the same. The focus is on job training for the purpose of paying child support to the mothers or the state.

Of course job training isn’t the only service on offer. Improved relationship skills come into the picture as do parenting skills. Those are good things, but have little value if (a) Mom doesn’t want a relationship with Dad or (b) Mom refuses to allow Dad access to the child.

As to (a), only 5% of the fathers wanted to improve their relationships with the mothers of their children, so those programs seem pointless. So what about (b)? That was one of the major subjects of the third evaluation of the four RF programs. That evaluation involved in-depth interviews with fathers involved in the four programs. It turned out that the single biggest obstacle to father involvement with their children was the mothers themselves and their gatekeeping behavior. Indeed, that part of the report is a quotation from one of the fathers: “’She Makes it Really Hard to Be a Dad.”’

[F]or the men in this study, the primary barrier to fathers’ continued involvement with their children is the ongoing contentious relationship with the mothers of their children. “Gatekeeping” on the mothers’ part, both overt and subtle, is common. Although gatekeeping can take different forms, it broadly refers to beliefs and behaviors of mothers that inhibit fathers’ involvement in the lives of their children.

Of course, these being interviews with the fathers, only their perspectives are on display. Mothers, children, other relatives, neighbors, etc. weren’t interviewed. But it’s valuable to know how these fathers see their situations. Few are the studies that ask fathers what their experiences of fatherhood, the court system, etc., are like. So it’s refreshing to read what fathers have to say, unadulterated by other points of view that are so often at pains to denigrate fathers and how they view their world.

One thing that stands out about the fathers in these programs is that they and their partners tended to simply fall into parenthood, neither wholly by accident nor wholly on purpose.

Although rarely planned, some pregnancies were in the vein of “come what may”— not intentionally planned but also not altogether unexpected or unwelcome. Kurtis, a 31-year-old father of one, recounted how his son came to be: “I guess we were together . . . four years before [my son] came along. And I mean it wasn’t really an accident . . . she was on birth control and I just told her get off of it. If it happens then it happens. And so we was prepared for it, but we didn’t plan it.”

That’s a pattern identified years ago by the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The Campaign estimates that fully half of all pregnancies (not all births) are unplanned. Couples either don’t use contraception or do so sporadically and simply accept what comes. In the case of the fathers interviewed, the advent of a child typically spurred them to tighten their relationships with the mothers.

Even where the father was not in a stable relationship with the mother when an unplanned child was conceived, the couple often attempted to try to build, or rebuild, a relationship around the impending birth. For example, Ramon, a 29-year-old father of two explained, “At that time we were madly in love. Yeah, I mean her being pregnant and me taking her back and forth to see the doctor and everything it kind of drew us closer together. We became very, very close; we were like best friends.”

That in turn is what’s reflected in some of Professor Kathryn Edin’s work. (Unsurprisingly, Edin is one of the authors of this report.) She found that men like these fathers typically find a new purpose in life when a child comes along.  They tend to see the child as in need of their assistance, guidance and protection which they’re strongly motivated to provide. But Edin has also found that those fathers often find themselves marginalized by the mothers of their children. Motherhood, Edin found, is viewed as a “package deal,” wherein mothers and children are an inseparable unit. Men may come into or leave their lives, but the dyad remains. As mothers gain boyfriends, fathers find themselves to be unwanted interlopers.

But, as the ACF report makes clear, those weren’t the only things coming between the fathers and their kids.

[S]ome fathers suggested that the breakdown of relationships did not rest on their shoulders alone. Based on their own personal experiences, some said that the mothers’ unwillingness to adjust their lifestyles after becoming mothers—that is, by giving up “drinking and drugging” and “going out to the clubs”—caused couple conflict and sometimes led to breakups…

According to the accounts by the fathers, many of the mothers of their children had experienced abuse and neglect, behavioral and mental health issues, struggles with addictions to alcohol or drugs, and unstable housing.

So despite the behaviors of some of the mothers that were clearly detrimental to their children and their ability to care for them, they and the kids remained a “package.”

Domestic violence also came between the fathers and mothers. The fathers’ stories sound much like the findings of various studies of DV that record fathers being arrested for mothers’ violence and mothers initiating violence.

Some fathers claimed they were the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence in their relationships. Jayden, a 40-year-old father of one child, explained, “She could get violent and we would fight. She fights like a dude. She’s only like 5’4” but it just became too much with the violence and all that.” Some fathers claimed that even in instances where they did not initiate the violence, they often ended up being incarcerated as a result of incidents of domestic abuse.

Mutual violence seemed to be a typical characteristic of many relationships, according to fathers. Fathers characterized these relationships as marked by pushing, shoving, and slapping. According to some fathers, mothers would entice them into a fight by “throwing the first punch,” provoking them to become violent as well.

Inevitably, violent relationships proved to be short-lived ones.

Mitchell’s relationship with the mother of his child was violent and he repeatedly ended up in jail because of the violence. He explained, “Our relationship was a constant cycle of makeup, breakup, I go to jail. Makeup, breakup, I go to jail. I was like, you know what, this is it.” Ultimately, he broke the cycle by ending the relationship.

But breaking up was often not the end of the fathers’ troubles. The mothers proved adept at using the legal system against them.

In general, breakups tended to be very adversarial. Several fathers claimed that in the aftermath of a breakup their partners sent angry and threatening emails and text messages, stalked them, threatened to follow them to their work site and jeopardize their jobs (a few apparently followed through on these threats), complained to their probation officers, or made false allegations of domestic violence to the authorities. Some fathers believed that their child’s mother filed for a formal child support order, rather than continue with an informal agreement, out of spite. Some fathers also claimed that their child’s mother had restricted access to their child in retaliation, particularly when the father had moved on to a new partner.

The instability, conflict, and mistrust that characterized fathers’ relationships with the mothers of their children in most cases gave way to a permanent breakup. These highly conflictual breakups left deep scars—scars that, from the fathers’ perspectives, marred a couple’s ability to act cooperatively in the interest of their children.

Tomorrow I’ll get more into how the mothers controlled fathers’ access to their children.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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