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How society can support its youngest fathers

Most new dads under 25 aren’t married. Psychologist Paul Florsheim tells us how to help them be better fathers.

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SALT LAKE CITY — About 40% of babies born in the U.S. have parents who aren’t married. But if the mother and father are younger than 25, that number climbs to nearly 80%, according to Pew Research Center.

This is a startling demographic shift that a former professor at the University of Utah has been tracking for much of his career. In his new book, “Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood,” co-written with David Moore, psychologist Paul Florsheim argues that young fathers need more support from society because “ultimately, their difficulties become ours too.”

That’s because children whose fathers are less engaged or totally absent are more likely to have poorer outcomes in life than those who interact frequently with their fathers — not only academically, but in mental and physical health.

Florsheim, now a professor of public health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Moore, a psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound, began interviewing young fathers when they were both at the University of Utah — Florsheim as a professor, Moore as a grad student. Over time, they conducted interviews with 500 expectant couples in Salt Lake City and Chicago. Two years later, they reconnected with the parents to see how they were doing and how involved the fathers were in their child’s life.

Many times, the results were predictable: The most troubled fathers were the least involved with their children. But others did better than the researchers expected, sometimes even turning their lives around dramatically, giving Florsheim and Moore a chance to examine what made these fathers surprisingly effective.

“Lost and Found,” published by Oxford University Press, shares what the researchers learned and suggests ways that society can help support its youngest families.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Florsheim explains why he and Moore believe that disengaged, unmarried fathers are a public health problem, why solutions begin with prenatal care, and why sometimes being a “good-enough” dad is sufficient.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Paul Florsheim, professor of public health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, interviewed 500 couples in Salt Lake City and Chicago with his co-author David Moore.

Photo provided by Paul Florsheim

Deseret News: “Lost and Found” is a compilation of more than five years of research. Is there any one finding that might surprise people?

Paul Florsheim: Despite the stereotype surrounding young, unwed fathers, the vast majority really want to be good fathers, even if this was a big surprise to them and they were really uncertain about how they were going to be able to manage the experience. During the pregnancy, they were really invested in trying to figure it out.

Even the ones who were really struggling and had some pretty serious problems, we wanted to convey them as sympathetic characters because we really felt like they were.

DN: What is the No. 1 predictor of whether an unmarried father is involved in his child’s life?

PF: The relationship between the mother and the father matters more than anything. The relationship with the child is tremendously important, too, but if the relationship with the partner early on becomes a serious problem, the relationship with the baby tends to suffer quite a bit. Our research shows that if you can help the couple with their relationship, it will help them navigate that transition (to parenthood) regardless of whether they stay together as a romantic couple.

DN: A recurring theme of your book is how much what happens during the pregnancy affects how a father relates to his child. And yet most of our attention is on the mother during a pregnancy.

PF: A father’s ability to embrace fatherhood, and develop a sense of himself as a father, is something that some young men really have a hard time with, particularly during pregnancy. It’s just not real to them. They’re afraid of it.

Some fathers don’t do a good job of making that transition, so intervention is important during that time. There’s a lot of growth that occurs after the baby is born, such as when the father is first holding and diapering the baby, and seeing that this is not only something that he can do, but that it’s a rewarding experience. That experience of feeling that they are a dad, and they’re a good dad, can become a really motivating factor in their lives. Some turn their lives around for that very reason.

DN: You and David Moore call paternal disengagement a public health problem. Why?

PF: An interesting thing has happened over the last 60 years. There are some fathers who are much more engaged as fathers than their fathers were and their grandfathers were. But it’s also the case that there is a substantial part of the population whose fathers are disengaged or quite peripheral. 

For those children, the evidence is crystal clear that while, yes, many children do OK with a single mom, the risks for those kids are significantly greater. Just being in chronic poverty, for example, is much higher for children who don’t have an involved father. It’s also the case that social development suffers, as well as their functioning in school. They’re more at risk of delinquency and substance abuse. And even for those children and adolescents who are doing OK in terms of their development, the hole that an absent father leaves is often sort of a painful part of their experience.

DN: So what are some of the solutions you and professor Moore propose?

PF: There are public health things we can do to help families be more stable and secure given this incredible demographic change, that so many people are having babies out of wedlock. It starts with father-inclusive prenatal care. I see that as the right time to intervene and stabilize families because it’s a window of opportunity when fathers tend to be more engaged.

Where do you go to find young fathers? Well, there’s no place to find them except through prenatal clinics and through the moms. Pregnant women, we have found, are really good allies in getting the father to come in and stay engaged with the services we provided. They’re hopeful and anxious, which opens them up to receiving support and help.

Young men are notoriously averse to any sort of social service or mental health support. But our experience has been that they’re pretty open if it’s presented to them as for the benefit of their child. 

DN: You and Moore say it’s OK for fathers to be “good enough.” Why not set the bar higher?

PF: We borrowed the term from the good-enough mother — which was coined by a pediatrician a number of years ago who was expressing the idea that being a mom is an impossible job and being good enough, striving for that, is acceptable. Many young men have a very constricted view of what their role is in their children’s lives. Most fathers see their role as a breadwinner, and a lot of men we’ve worked with over the years were not particularly good at that. Many had not done well in school and were struggling and were, by their own measure, not good enough. That can be demoralizing and increase the likelihood of a father disengaging from the child. 

Fathers have different things to offer. We want to point out that gender roles have evolved over the past 30 to 40 years, and this allows men and women to expand their notions of what their relationships with the child should be or could be. They can still function in the child’s life in a positive, constructive way. It’s OK to have limitations and still be a good-enough father.

DN: Given the research on how married parents benefit children, why not just promote marriage?

PF:  I think marriage is a good thing. Particularly if you’re having children together, marriage does stabilize the family. But the fact of the matter is, for a variety of reasons, marriage is less compelling than it’s probably ever been. People like the idea of marriage, but they don’t necessarily feel compelled by it. 

So the question is, what do you do, given the state of the world? If having two involved parents is important for the health of children, and so many young people are choosing not to get married, what can we do to support them? 

Marriage provides an institutional structure. Take away marriage, and there’s no institutional structure anymore. Divorce actually adds structure, because it’s a legally binding process. But if people aren’t getting married, they’re also not getting divorced, so this is another institution that is gone.

So that’s how we come to health care and prenatal care: Everyone who is having a baby goes through it. In that sense, it’s an institution. So that’s a way we can bake father support and family support into an existing institution.