Original Research Note
Breiding-Buss, H., Smith, B., & Walker, P. (2012). Solo fathers with young children and their social needs. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 186- 193. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/897-solo-fathers-with-young-children-and-their-social-needs.html
Solo fathers with young children and their social needs
Harald Breiding-Buss, Brendon Smith & Peter Walker
Father and Child Trust, New Zealand
Solo fathers are an ‘invisible’ group in society, although Census data suggests they make up almost 5% of families in New Zealand. No research other than a review of Census data in 1999 has been done on this family type in New Zealand, and there is also very little published research overseas, especially where it includes young children. This is of concern as it implies that there are a substantial number of children in New Zealand whose living circumstances we know nothing about. The Father and Child Trust concluded a study on 13 solo fathers with children 0-8 years of age, where there was little or no mother involvement. The fathers were interviewed on a range of subjects, including their parenting, issues for their children and themselves, their views on fatherhood, and the effectiveness of parenting services. The sample of solo fathers was quite young (24 on average at the time of the birth of the child), with low educational and income status, and the majority became solo fathers because of parenting failure by the children’s mothers and after state intervention. There were strong signs of low social connectedness, inconsistent parenting, depression and emotional stress, which would all contribute to the low ‘presence’ of this family type in New Zealand society. This article discusses the implications of solo fatherhood (and involved fatherhood in general) for early childhood practitioners working with families.
Key words: Fathers, parenting, single parents, childcare.
I want to make people understand that I can do a good job! (Solo father of an 18 month old boy).
The Father and Child Trust was established in Christchurch in 1997 and the organisation has been seeing men raising young children in very isolated and often very difficult circumstances by themselves. The men seemed to be almost completely missing from government-funded socially targeted services such as Family Start (Early Start in Christchurch) and Parents as First Teachers.
There is an almost complete absence of information about solo fathers and their children in New Zealand and, in fact, internationally. We know nothing about how the children fare and whether and how being raised in such a non-typical family type impacts on them.
We know almost nothing about the fathers, the stories that turned them into solo fathers, their needs or their environments. We have no more than a vague idea even about their numbers, although they are clearly not uncommon. This is, in our view, an unacceptable situation.
The purpose of this study was to get a better picture about what social needs solo fathers and their young children have and whether they are sufficiently connected with services and other support. We were looking for patterns that would help us identify issues when working with solo fathers, questions that we should ask, things that we should look out for, and we decided that we would ask the fathers on a variety of subjects with the goal of identifying areas of concern and further research rather than concentrate on just one aspect in more depth for this reason. The fact that we were unable to obtain funding for the study seriously limited our scope, however.
In the 2006 Census, 17% of solo parent households were classified as male-headed, making up 4.7% of families overall (MSD,2008). However, the Census questionnaire was not set up to accurately measure family type, and the actual involvement of separated parents cannot be deduced from Census data. Both ‘single mother’ and ‘single father’ households in the Census would include a large number of children who effectively have two homes and for whom both parents have substantial involvement in their care.
In our support practice at the Father and Child Trust, solo fatherhood of young children is more often a response to parenting failure by the mother and/or adverse conditions in her living circumstances rather than the result of a choice by either parent. While fathers sometimes assume sole care very early in the children’s lives, this often comes after a period of non-contact between father and child as well as abuse or neglect by the mother. As such, solo fatherhood often begins with a child needing to re-attach, and the father maybe being monitored by services. Almost by default they appear to be families with high and special needs.
Thirteen solo fathers were selected for this study predominantly from Father and Child Trust client files in Christchurch and Auckland, however two fathers were referred from outside specifically for the study and were not known to Father and Child staff before. This is, therefore, not a representative sample. There was no or little mother involvement with the children, which was generally restricted to a few hours per week, or supervised access.
Most of the fathers in our sample were quite young when their first child was born: the average age was 24 at the time, and four of the 13 were teenagers. Three of the nine fathers who answered this question disclosed a criminal conviction, and most were on low incomes even before they took sole care of their children ($550 per week on average). None of the fathers who disclosed their educational background had tertiary education, and the majority were tradesmen or had worked as unskilled labourers.
The sample was almost equally divided between seven fathers with only children under three years of age and six fathers with at least one child between three and seven years. Some responses differed significantly between these two groups.
Confidence, beliefs and self-care
The solo dads believed that they were not disadvantaged as men and that they could parent as well as a woman, but half of them also agreed that they ‘would not want to be a solo dad if there was another way’. Fathers with older children (over three years) especially felt that society was not supportive of solo fatherhood. In general, fathers with children under three years felt more comfortable on a number of confidence and acceptance indicators, but they also felt isolated more strongly and had a higher likelihood to say that they sometimes struggled with depression.
Isolation and depression was the likely reason for the low community involvement indicated by the fathers in the study. Most of them said they generally did not have children’s friends over, and they also did not use opportunities for parent-help at early childhood education facilities or school. Libraries were also generally ignored, even though the fathers were clearly aware of the importance of reading to their children and making books available in the house. This low community involvement of men that would be available to ease the lack of male presence in early childhood education programmes is a missed opportunity for the early childhood education sector.
The traditional social role of financial provider featured strongly in fathers’ responses, particularly amongst the ones with older children. There was a strongly held belief that their children ‘missed out’ because they were not doing a good enough job as providers, and the dads were almost unanimous that it was important to have a good income to provide children with opportunities. The two roles (sole carer and good provider) are very hard to reconcile, and this was a source of much stress and doubt amongst the fathers. Although the fathers did not use ECE services heavily, it was quite common for solo fathers coming to the Trust’s attention overall to have young children in fulltime care while they worked. It appeared that the pressure to be a good provider was felt more strongly the older the child became.
For the majority of children in the study there were safety concerns about the mother. These ranged from physical and verbal abuse to drinking and drugs as well as having inappropriate people around. Intervention by Child Youth and Family often played a role in the father taking full care of the child. While this reflects some of the support needs fathers approach the Father and Child Trust with, we do not know if this is indicative of solo fathers as a group. Evidently, a significant portion of solo fathers have very high social needs, and more research on this family type is quite urgently needed for this reason.
Some of the fathers believed that it was important that they have a female partner to act as a female role model or as a ‘mother figure’, but this belief seemed to be rooted in the fathers’ own upbringing rather than any issues they saw with their children. Fathers who grew up mainly in a solo mother household generally held the view that this was important, while the others were less sure, and some rejected this idea altogether.
Fathers varied in their approach to parenting, but they generally favoured rewards for ‘good’ behaviours over punishment of ‘bad’ ones. However, there seemed to be little knowledge about parenting techniques, and no consistent application of any: parenting was generally reactive rather than proactive. Use of video games as a joint activity was very prevalent, probably due to the quite young sample age of the fathers. Even fathers with very young children said they regularly ‘played video games together’.
Interestingly, many fathers also felt that their child was ‘underachieving’, including fathers of younger children. The development of children in sole care of their fathers would also warrant some further research.
Employment and money-related statements rated most highly with the solo dads overall. “Having more money” scored 10 out of 10 for every single one of the dads, and “Helpful employers” was the second-highest rating statement (9.3 on average).
Apart from work and money-related matters, not having enough time for things other than the child came through strongly as a theme throughout the interviews, and in this section in particular. “Somehow having more time to do the things I like” scored an average 8.2 on a scale of 1-10 and was the highest scoring for fathers with children 3 and over. For fathers with children under three, “someone to talk to” topped the list at 9.0 on average.
“Someone to talk to” was also the biggest identified support need (other than money and employment) for the teenage fathers we surveyed in a similar study (Breiding-Buss et al, 2003). In both studies the fathers did not indicate this need anywhere else during the interviews or discussed it any further out of their own volition. Although solo fathers clearly wanted to talk about their situation, they did not disclose this need verbally and proactively in an open-ended question. It was as though they felt it was not something they had the right to bother anyone else with.
For practice this means that family support and early childhood education practitioners may have to enquire about how the father is coping emotionally rather than expect him to ask for help or broach the subject. It also means that the father’s need for emotional help may be hidden under other issues that he may have approached an agency about.
Our study asked the fathers about which agencies they have been in contact with and how helpful they have been, both for the family overall and for themselves as fathers. All agencies rated significantly higher in terms of their usefulness for the family rather than the father, and the difference was most pronounced for Plunket, which was also rated as the least useful overall (below Child Youth and Family and Work and Income). One-on-one services such as Early/Family Start and Parents as First Teachers were seen by far as the most useful services. However three fathers no longer had any contact with Early Start after they had separated from the mother and did not initially have care of the children. They ranked the service low as a result. Midwives drew the most divergent responses, with about half the fathers ranking them as very helpful and the other half as very unhelpful.
When asked to describe the ‘perfect’ service for solo fathers, some answers included:
Three or four drop in centres that do everything, so that no matter where you are in Canterbury you wouldn’t be far from one, a place that does everything from WINZ stuff to child care to lawyer stuff to counsellors
Visible, easily contacted 24/7. In the public eye a lot. Drop-in centre. Activities for solo parents to do. BBQs, walks, sports days.
Like what the women have. Unlimited access to any service.
Help for dad. A place to stop in and have a talk and drink and get info if you need it.
Family support was also very important for fathers, with both their own mothers and fathers ranking almost equally high as being supportive and useful. Amongst other family members it tended to be the male ones (cousins or uncles) that solo fathers sought out, with the exception of sisters who also rated highly where they were mentioned.
It was encouraging to see that, in general, the fathers had high levels of confidence in their abilities and were at least trying to use generally accepted positive parenting practices (such as avoiding alcohol around children, using ‘time out’ rather than smacking, using activities rather than food as a reward, etc.). If nothing else the answers to these questions showed awareness that positive (encouraging) parenting techniques are preferable to negative (punishing) ones.
But the picture emerging from the dads in our study is one of a somewhat tense situation for many of them. There was a low community involvement, feelings of isolation, a high incidence of depression issues, unhappiness with the situation and a feeling that social services were not so keen on working with fathers. The dads indicated a certain amount of stress in that they wanted more time away (a break) and that sometimes they had to work hard to keep their emotions in check. Add to that some financial stress and the fact that some of the dads felt their children were missing out due to their fathers’ low income, and you have a recipe for a high risk of impulsive negative reactions.
The main problem with access to services seemed to be for those fathers whose children moved into their care after the very early years. It is a key reason why services should always try to involve a father even if they think they are dealing with a ‘single mother’ household. Our study strongly supports the idea that services reaching out to fathers is a particularly crucial issue for vulnerable children, as these may have a higher likelihood to move into the care of their fathers, if not permanently then for long periods of time.
The fathers prioritised the financial security of their children ahead of other needs. If this is typical for solo fathers overall then organisations that include help with tax returns, budgeting, financial entitlements from government and finding child-friendly jobs would be most attractive to solo fathers.
The low social connectedness of solo fathers, especially of very young children, is a concern. While schools and early childcare services offer ample opportunities for children to socialise and interact with each other, closer friendships between children tend to be formed if the parents are involved in the same networks, and if children have the opportunity of one-to-one interactions. Children of isolated parents run the risk of missing out on important lessons on all kinds of relationships and concepts related to, for example, friendship and loyalty. Low social connectedness also increases stress and the risk of depression. The solo fathers of very young children in our study rated ‘someone to talk to’ amongst the highest support needs, indicating that suitable outlets for frustration and stress may not be available to them.
The limited engagement of fathers with their local communities also means that the community-based response model that the government currently favours is likely to be ineffective for them. Men may be more effectively reached at or near their workplace than where they live, and they are less tied to geographical communities. This study along with our practice at the Father and Child Trust indicates that solo fathers are motivated to go where they can provide the best financial situation for their children - where the jobs are. Although they may present with high social needs, they may not live in the high-needs communities that government prioritises for funding. The current practice of allocating funding based on geographically quite small communities especially in Auckland is probably the main obstacle to the establishment of an effective service for fathers there.
Solo fathers could also be an important resource for the community; they could help by providing more male faces in early childhood education facilities, where they are so desperately needed, or volunteers in organisations that help other fathers or parents in general. At the moment this resource is not utilised, and our society is the poorer for it.
Breiding-Buss, H., Scanlan, T., Guise, T. & Voice, T. (2003). The support needs of teenage fathers. Retrieved from: http://fatherandchild.org.nz/papers/the-support-needs-of-teenage-fathers/
Davey, J. (1999). Children living in sole father homes in New Zealand. In: S Birks (Ed.), Perspectives on fathering II (Issues Paper No 6). Palmerston North, NZ: Massey University Centre for Public Policy Evaluation.
Lees, D. (2007). Going further with fathers. Auckland: Maxim Institute.
Luketina, F., Davidson, C. & Palmer, P. (2009) Supporting kiwi dads, Families Commission Research Report No 5/09. Wellington, NZ: Families Commission.
MSD (2008). Social report. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Social Development.
About the Authors
Harald Breiding-Buss founded the Father and Child Trust in 1997 as an agency supporting the father and child relationship (see http://fatherandchild.org.nz). His work includes numerous articles on social issues, support and policy affecting families and fathers, focusing particularly on ‘invisible’ types of fathers.
Brendon Smith and Peter Walker have been support workers in Father and Child’s Auckland and Christchurch offices and conducted the majority of the interviews. Brendon is a member of numerous child and family-related groups and collaborations in Auckland, including CYF community panels and the Board of Perinatal Mental Health NZ.
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