Maternal and Child Health Journal

, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 641–647 | Cite as

Barriers to Unmarried Father Involvement During Infancy: Qualitative Study from Professionals’ Perspectives

  • Mageen C. CainesEmail author
  • Paul Rebman
  • Patricia A. Harrison


Introduction Unmarried fathers in the U.S. face barriers to establishing a relationship with their newborn children that married fathers do not confront. Our study was implemented to determine how systems and services could be modified to better support the engagement of unmarried fathers. Methods We conducted interviews with 35 professionals who interact with primarily low-income unmarried mothers and fathers to elicit their perceptions of such barriers. We developed a social ecological model to inform the study design and used purposive sampling with chain referrals to ensure a wide breadth of perspectives. Themes and subthemes categorizing personal and environmental factors were placed within five nested categories corresponding to different levels of influence on unmarried fathers’ behaviors: public policy, community, institutions, interpersonal relationships, and intrapersonal characteristics, and their intersections. Results Participants challenged as inaccurate the stereotype of unmarried fathers as disengaged and uninterested in being involved with their children. Rather, they described the marginalization and devaluing of unmarried fathers by government policies and family service systems and programs and also the dearth of resources available to them. They called on decision makers to adjust policies and services to be more inclusive of unmarried fathers, to promote father engagement more actively, and to urge direct service providers to respond to fathers as valued individuals. Discussion Adapting to the common reality of nonmarital childbearing will entail a systematic shift in the integration of ways in which we value, understand, include, and serve fathers.


Qualitative research Unmarried father involvement Social ecological model 



This project was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Grant No. R40MC26807, and the R40 Maternal and Child Health Field-initiated Innovative Research Studies Program. The information or content and conclusions are those of the authors and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Adamsons, K., & Johnson, S. K. (2013). An updated and expanded meta-analysis of nonresident fathering and child well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 589–599. Scholar
  2. Alio, A. P., Kornosky, J. L., Mbah, A. K., Marty, P. J., & Salihu, H. M. (2010). The impact of paternal involvement on feto-infant morbidity among Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 14, 735–741. Scholar
  3. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (2000 May). Dispelling myths about unmarried fathers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.Google Scholar
  4. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101. Scholar
  5. Bronte-Tinkew, J., Bowie, L., & Moore, K. (2006). Fathers and public Policy. In N. Cabrere, H. E. Fitzgerald, & J. D. Shannon (Eds.), Fatherhood: theory, research and practice: Proceedings of the National Fatherhood Forum. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.Google Scholar
  6. Charmaz, K. C. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Limited.Google Scholar
  7. Coleman, W. L., & Garfield, C., American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2004). Fathers and pediatricians: enhancing men’s roles in the care and development of their children. Pediatrics, 113, 1406–1411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Corbin, J. M., & Strauss, A. L. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  9. Foundation, R. W. J. 2014. Program Results Report. Fragile families and child wellbeing study. A national long-term study of the causes and cnsequences of childbearing outside marriage. Retrieved August 27, 2018, from
  10. Hines, P. M., & Boyd-Franklin, N. (2005). African American families. In M. McGoldrick, J. Giordano & N. Garcia-Preto (Eds.), Ethnicity & Family Therapy 3rd edn., (pp. 87–100). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  11. Huntington, C. (2015). Postmarital family law: A legal structure for nonmarital families. Stanford Law Review, 67, 167–239.Google Scholar
  12. Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Osterman, M. J., Driscoll, A. K., & Matthews, T. J. (2017). Births: Final data for 2015. National Vital Statistics Reports, 66(1):1. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Google Scholar
  13. Panter-Brick, C., Burgess, A., Eggerman, M., McAllister, F., Pruett, K., & Leckman, J. F. (2014). Practitioner review: Engaging fathers—recommendations for a game change in parenting interventions based on a systematic review of the global evidence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55, 1187–1212. Scholar
  14. Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  15. Polkinghorne, D. E. (2005). Language and meaning: data collection in qualitative research. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 137–145. Scholar
  16. Public Law 103–66. Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1993.Google Scholar
  17. Public Law 104–193. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.Google Scholar
  18. Rebman, P. A., Caines, M. C., & Harrison, P. A. (2018). In-hospital paternity establishment: Experiences and meaning perceived by unmarried parents. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 29, 491–501. Scholar
  19. Stokols, D. (1996). Translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health promotion. American Journal of Health Promotion, 10, 282–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Tong, A., Sainsbury, P., & Craig, J. (2007). Consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ): A 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 19, 349–357. Scholar
  21. Waller, M. R., & Plotnick, R. (2001). Effective child support policy for low-income families: Evidence from street level research. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 20. 89–110.;2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply  2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mageen C. Caines
    • 1
    Email author
  • Paul Rebman
    • 1
    • 2
  • Patricia A. Harrison
    • 1
  1. 1.Minneapolis Health DepartmentMinneapolisUSA
  2. 2.Global Health CorpsMusanzeRwanda

Personalised recommendations