Fathers in Postdivorce Families Seen Through the Eyes of Mothers and Children

Inge Bretherton, PhD
Professor, Child and Family Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Timothy Page

Barbara Golby

Reghan Walsh

During the 1970s a new father ideal began to take hold in the popular press and the professional literature on families, fueled in part by mothers' growing participation in the paid labor force and the impact of feminist perspectives on gender roles (Benokraitis, 1985; LaRossa, 1988). Fathers who served as trailblazers of this "new father" image participated in childbirth classes, were present at their children's birth, and played a very active role in infant and child care (Pleck, 1987).

The shift in the popular and professional conception of fathering did not lead a majority of couples to engage in genuinely shared parenting (e.g. Darling-Fisher & Tiedje, 1990). Mothers still do a greater proportion of child care and are more likely to assume the role of "managerial" than fathers (e.g. Parke, Burks, Carson, Neville, & Boyum, 1994; Coltrane, 1995). Nevertheless, fathers' contribution to childcare did increase significantly in households where both partners were employed in the paid workforce (e.g. Barnett and Baruch, 1988). Moreover, as reported by Bretherton, Lambert and Golby (1995), many "new" fathers tend to see themselves as more involved, more affectionate and caring than their own fathers whose primary role had been that of breadwinner. Instead, these fathers model much of their own childrearing practices after their mothers.

Paradoxically, during the very period when studies of married families began to report greater father participation in caring for children, studies of postdivorce families--instigated by the steep rise in marital break-ups--expressed concern about the phenomenon of the "fading" or "vanishing" father. For example, drawing on data from the 1987 National Survey of Households and Families, Seltzer (1991 a,b) found that weekly father-child contact occurred in only 25% of the postdivorce families with children. Sixty percent of divorced fathers only had contact with their children a few times per year, while 30% had no contact at all. Fewer than 33% of postdivorce parents mentioned discussion of coparenting issues during the preceding 12 month period, and--in line with this finding--the percentage of fathers reported to have a great deal of influence on important child rearing decisions was quite small (17%).

More recent studies suggest that the new father ideal may be catching up with postdivorce families with regular father contact on a noticeable rise (e.g., Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992). Factors accounting for this phenomenon may be fathers' insistence on the right to have a continuing relationship with their children, coupled with stronger enforcement of child support laws (Arendell, 1995). Also influential were widely reported findings by Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989) demonstrating the continued importance of divorced fathers for adolescent children, even when contact prior to adolescence had been tenuous or nonexistent.

What has not been sufficiently acknowledged is that an increase of father participation in postdivorce parenting of necessity requires a higher level of interaction between divorced parents than had been the case when fathers were more disengaged. Little is known about how families handle this shift in coparenting. The current study begins to fill this gap by providing quantitative and qualitative information on maternal and child conceptions about postdivorce coparenting and child-father relations in families with preschoolers in which most fathers have regular contact with their children two or more years after the marital break-up.

The study was not initially conceived as one of postdivorce coparenting. Its primary aim had been to shed light on what protective factors enabled mothers to successfully reorganize and redefine the parent-child attachment relationship after a divorce. However, the topic of coparenting with fathers loomed unexpectedly large in mothers' responses to two structured, but open-ended maternal interviews about postdivorce social support and the mother-child relationship. Similarly, the continuing psychological importance of the father for preschool children emerged strongly from their responses to a story completion task, enacted with small family figures. In previous studies this task predicted the quality of mother-child interactions and the mother's sensitivity/insight, assessed during an in-depth interview of the parent-child attachment relationship (Bretherton, Biringen, Ridgeway, Maslin and Sherman, 1989).



The 71 mothers and children (41 boys, 30 girls between 4.5 and 5 years of age) who participated in our study were an, on the whole, well-functioning group of individuals, as gauged by maternal depression scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, 1976) that were in the typical range and teachers' or care providers' ratings of the preschoolers' social competence and behavior problems that deviated little from available normative data (based on Behar & Stringfield, 1974; Olson, 1985; and Pianta, 1996). The families had been divorced for a minimum of two years. Mothers were employed or in fulltime education, or a mixture of both. They were primarily recruited through public court records.

Information about the child's father and the family was provided by the mother via questionnaires and interviews:

  1. A demographic questionnaire providing education, age and income information.
  2. The Sources of Help Questionnaire (SOHQ) designed by Wan, Landesman-Ramey and Jaccard (1996) to assess mother's satisfaction with four types of social support (tangible help, emotional support, companionship, and parenting advice), rated separately for different support providers. Overall dissatisfaction/satisfaction with each source's help is also rated on an 11-point scale. ranging from -5 to +5.
  3. The Social Network Interview (SNI), a structured interview adapted from Cochran, Larner, Riley, Gunnarsson and Henderson (1990) during which the mother generates a list of the individuals most important to her and provides explanations as to why these individuals are important and why they might be a source of stress. A question about the child's reaction to dating. This interview provided much information about the child's father. It also yielded information about new maternal and paternal noncohabiting and cohabiting partners.
  4. The Parent Attachment Interview devised by Bretherton and Ridgeways (see Bretherton et al, 1989 to assess the mother-child relationship (this interview yielded a lot of spontaneous discussion of the child'sfather even though only one of the questions pertainedto him).
  5. A "Wrap-Up" interview providing information about maternal satisfaction with custody arrangements and positive aspects of the divorce.
  6. The Marital Autonomy and Relatedness Inventory (MARI; Schaefer & Edgerton, 1979) filled out retrospectively, that is, in terms of how the mother remembered the relationship at the time of permanent separation.
  7. The Beck Depression Inventory (only mentioned tangentially here to indicate that the average depression score of the mothers included in this study were not particularly high).
  8. The Child Care Arrangement Questionnaire. (Landesman, 1990) which included maternal ratings of satisfaction with the father's involvement in finding suitable child care (Note 35 mothers gave the father the lowest score of -3).
  9. The Crowne-Marlowe Social Desirability Questionnaire Crowne & Marlowe (1980), designed to tap the extent to which respondent give positively biased answers as part of a more comprehensive personality inventory.

Information about the child and the child's view of the family and the father was gathered via:

  1. The Expanded Attachment Story Completion Task(ASCT), consisting of ten story stems (story beginnings) drawn from the original ASCT, devised by Bretherton and Ridgeway to elicit young children's attachment representations (see Appendix of Bretherton, Ridgeway and Cassidy, 1990) and four additional stories taken from the MacArthur Story Stem Battery (Bretherton, Oppenheim, Buchsbaum & Emde, 1990). In three of these story stems the protagonist child was faced with a dilemma. In the first, the protagonist child had to choose between obeying mother and helping a sibling (the story was first used by Buchsbaum and Emde, 1990). In the second, the choice was between empathic behavior vis-a-vis the mother or engaging in a pleasurable activity with a friend. In the third the conflict was between solidarity with a friend or a sibling. One story, concerning the protagonist mother's sadness in response to the loss of a close relative, was developed by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler (personal communication, 1990).

    The original ASCT was correlated with the quality of the child's attachment to the mother (Bretherton et al, 1990) and with a ratings of maternal sensitivity/insight as assessed in the course of the Parent Attachment (Oppenheim et al. 1997).

    During the ASCT the child is presented with small family figures (a bear family consisting of mother, father, two siblings of the same gender as the subject, a grandmother, the family dog and two friends) and appropriate simple props. After acting out and narrating the stem according to the standard protocol, the male interviewer invited the child to "show me and tell me what happens next." The warm-up story was designed to acquaint the participating child with what was expected during the story completion procedure. The ten subsequent stems portrayed accidental mishaps, pain, fear, separation-reunion, loss, authority, cooperation, empathy and competence, intended to activate thoughts and feelings about attachment and authority interactions, as well as moral conflicts. The last story (family activity) was freer in form and was used principally to create a positive ending to the session for those children who found the task difficult. The warm-up and wind-down stories were not coded.

    The Expanded ASCT was adapted for children of divorce by presenting the parents as living in two separate houses, symbolized by two small square pieces of felt set up at opposite ends of the child-sized table at which the task was administered. At the beginning of each story stem. In one stem the father was presented as the active parent while the mother remained in her "house." In the remaining stories, the mother was used as the acting parent in the story stem while the father stood on his "house." However, the children were free to introduce the father figure into their story completions if they so wished. Caring, authoritative, punitive and aggressive parental behavior and care-seeking,compliant/disobedient and aggressive child behavior enacted during the stories were coded, as were portrayals of spousal interactions and family reunifications.

  2. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary test (PPVT) was administered to the children order to ascertain the extent to which verbal ability might account for the children's responses to the story completion task. The PPVT is a nationally standardized comprehension test (Dunn & Dunn, 1981).

Summary of Findings and Discussion

Several points stood out in the mothers' reports about the child's father: The generally low esteem in which they held him two or more years after the divorce decree was striking. This was manifest not only in mothers' very low average ratings of social support from the child's father, but in the high proportion of mothers who gave him the lowest possible score on the 11-point SOHQ and the 6 point daycare involvement scale. It was also evident in the preponderance of mothers' negative over positive remarks about the child's father during the SNI. It was encouraging, however, that mothers were able to distinguish between their own view of the child's father and the children's view, seen in the somewhat greater number of positive evaluations of the father's relationship with the child during the PAI where there was a greater focus on the child.

Equally striking was the overall consistency of maternal perceptions of the child's father, as demonstrated by the systematic intercorrelations among almost all father-related maternal reports, including the retrospective reports about the marriage, current evaluations of coparenting, the father-child relationship, satisfaction with custody arrangements and father involvement in day care provision for the child, and fathers' drug/alcohol problems. Given that the father-related evaluations were not correlated with maternal perceptions of the helpfulness of other members of her social network, these correlations cannot be attributed to a general tendency on the part of mothers' tendency to see all others as positive or negative. Finally, a more negative than positive view of the child's father was related to mothers' comments on positive aspects of the divorce obtained from the wrap-up interview. That is, many mothers expressed relief that they did not have to deal with input or control from the child's father anymore, and that they were closer to the child, more focused on the child, or even that the child was "all mine." Also of note was the contrast between mothers' generally negative perspective on the child's father with descriptions of new noncohabiting and cohabiting partners.

Overall, the study reveals a notable discrepancy between mothers' and children's perspectives on the postdivorce situation. Whereas a minority of the mothers had a fairly positive coparental relationship with the fathers of their children, and were able to communicate about coparental issues, negative views were more common, with the mothers who reported their ex-husbands serious alcohol or drug problems feeling especially negative. The mothers' negative feelings about the father as a coparent and about father participation in child rearing, though understandable, are problematic because fathers obviously remained important to the children. In this study this was evident from the mothers' own reports during the PAI, but also and especially from children's story completions.

Although boys and girls differed in the frequency with which they enacted particular story themes, both boys and girls chose to incorporate the father very frequently into their story completions, even though the story format itself only permitted, but did not encourage this. Furthermore, many of the children poignantly enacted family and spousal reunifications.

Interestingly and provocatively, girls and boys' parent-child and spousal story themes were correlated with how the mother evaluated the child's father in questionnaires and interviews. However, the correlational patterns differed sharply by child gender. For boys, portrayals of the mother-child relationship as authoritative (reasoned and reasonable verbal discipline/guidance and child compliance) were related to how positively the mother evaluated the father's supportiveness, both in the SOHQ, the SNI and the PAI and story completions depicting negative-hostile interparent relations were negatively correlated with SOHQ- and SNI-derived maternal assessments of father supportivenes (positively with SNI-derived measure of father problems). For girls, by contrast, father support was related to portrayals of mother-child attachment, but many of the father-related correlations were directly opposite to expectations. That is, when mothers reported more father problems during the SNI and talked more extensively about low quality fathering during the PAI , girls portrayed the story father as engaged in more nurturant father-child interactions. Girls portrayed the mother-child relationship as less authoritative when mothersreported positive coparenting and more authoritative when mothers reported that communication between her an the child's father was conflicted or nonexistent, and they enacted a more authoritative father-child relationship when mothers commented about low quality fathering during the PAI. Post hoc examination of the data showed that this may be due to some girls in the study who portrayed high levels of positive parent behavior in conjunction with negativity, an hypothesis that will be examined more closely in future analyses in which story resolutions rather than themes will be examined. Interestingly, other data from the study (not included here) suggested that girls' positive story portrayals of mother-child authority were related not to how she saw the child's father, but how effective she perceived herself to be in terms of engaging the child's cooperation (Bretherton, Page & Golby, 1997).

Yet, the children's story completions suggest that the father remains important to them and that they worry about the fact that the family is no longer together. Mothers' interests and children's interests, then, are somewhat at loggerheads, with many mothers wishing to minimize their contact with the child's father (though they realize this is not possible) and many children wanting more accessibility and contact. In addition, gender differences in correlational patterns between story completions and maternal evaluations of the child's father suggest that boys positive perception of the father may be fostered by positive parental relations.

The findings raise questions about how divorced parents can be supported in developing coparental relations that alleviate children's concerns about the parental divorce as much as possible. Doing so is important both in terms of current relationships and eventual outcome because studies have shown again and again, that parental discord is detrimental to children's development (see particularly the meta-analysis by Amato and Keith, 1991a and b). It is for this reason, that professionals encourage divorcing and divorcedparents to put their differences aside and act in the best interest of the child.

While this is laudable advice, it is not sufficiently acknowledged that it is quite often exceedingly difficult to follow it in the context of a failed marital relationship. Not only mothers, but fathers also tend to have a very negative view of their former spouses as people and parents (Arendell, 1995). Divorce mediators are attempting to ameliorate this situation by demanding that divorcing spouses with children take parenting courses. However, more useful might be information that lead to greater insight into emotional challenges of severing a spousal relationship while continuing a coparental relationship as well as training in conflict resolution. more important.

In addition to parent education in relationship and conflict resolution, a different perspective on the postdivorce family might help. Many fathers (and we suspect, mothers also) see the father as no longer part of the family. Instead, however, of regarding the postdivorce family as a broken family that deviates from the two-parent norm, it might be more productive to view it as a family together by two parental partners who are no longer spouses who coreside. Given that every second U.S. marriage is likely to end in divorce (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989) and the importance for children of having access to both of their parents, the enhancement postdivorce parenting is an issue of the highest priority.

Copyright © 1998 Inge Bretherton, Timothy Page, Barbara Golby, and Reghan Walsh.

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