How much do fathers matter when they are not living with the mothers of their children? They matter a great deal, and this is underscored by Watch Them Grow, a report written by Dr Owen Corrigan and published by Treoir. Treoir promotes the rights of unmarried parents and their children. For his report, Dr Corrigan analysed the findings of the Growing Up in Ireland study of more than 11,000 children and their parents.
For example, the report finds, the quality of the relationship between the non-resident father and the mother can even affect the child’s physical development. The research examined the same families when the child was nine months old and again when the child was three.
Children whose parents’ relationship improved over the period were twice as likely to be able to throw a ball overarm and almost twice as likely to be able to grip a pencil in the correct fashion. These little markers show how deeply the relationship between the parents can affect the child even when the parents do not live in the same home.
Father/child contact affects the whole system within which a child lives. For example, the more contact the father had with the child the less stressed the mother was.
That contact alone can improve the financial situation within the family. For example, if a father increases the amount of time he spends with his child, the risk of the mother becoming unemployed goes down. It looks as though the sharing of parental duties makes it easier for the mother to hold on to her job. Again, that might seem pretty obvious but it underlines the fact that the more fathers are in touch with their children the more the whole family benefits.
When my children were at school, I had the opportunity to observe how an unexpected half day can wreck a parent’s working day. It comes as no surprise at all to see that when the second parent is around and involved and can pick up the slack, the mother has a better chance of staying in her job. Lots of research shows that, by and large, lone mothers want to work. The reality, of course, is that many struggle to keep working without the help of the other parent.
Sadly, half of the non-resident fathers were making no financial contribution to the child’s upkeep. About one-fifth of the fathers who were contributing when the child was nine months old had stopped contributing in any way by the time the child was three. That is a disturbing figure. Some men may be unable to afford to contribute anything, but anecdotal evidence suggests to me that others are all too willing to get out of doing the right thing by their child and by their child’s mother.
The frequency of contact was also an issue, and I suspect that disagreement about financial support may have contributed to this. For instance of those children who had daily contact with their father when they were less than a year old, almost half no longer had daily contact by the time they were three. Why?
Perhaps the demands of work, perhaps a deteriorating relationship with the mother; and that deterioration could be the fault of either party, or both. Almost a third of lone mothers had no contact at all with the father.
The report urges the Government to foster contact between non-resident fathers and their children. It also criticises changes in taxation that could reduce financial support from father to mother. It seems to me, though, that there is much that some of these men could do without having to be encouraged by the Government.
After all, some men live in despair because they cannot get access to their children so it is hard to be sympathetic towards those who could have such access but who do not take advantage of it.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.