Early Father Involvement in Fragile Families

Publication Year


Book Chapter

The proportion of children born to unmarried parents has risen dramatically in the past 40 years, with fully one third of births now occurring outside of marriage; the proportions are even higher among minority populations –42% among Hispanics and 69% among African Americans (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000). The rise in the fraction of nonmarital births, along with demographic changes in marriage and divorce, has yielded a growing group of “fragile families”—unmarried parents who are raising their children together. Such families are deemed fragile because of the multiple risks associated with nonmarital childbearing (including poverty) and the vulnerability of the parents’ relationship. New research shows that more than four fifths of unmarried couples are in a romantic relationship—and just under half are living together—at the time of their child’s birth indicating that they may be more “familylike” than typically perceived (McLanahan, Garfinkel, Reichman, & Teitler, 2001). To understand how unmarried-parent families may differ from more traditional families and the consequences for children, it is important to examine the nature of fathering across various types of fragile families.

A growing number of studies have explored the consequences of father involvement for children, with an emerging consensus that (positive) involvement by fathers is generally beneficial to child well-being (Lamb, 1997; Marsiglio, Amato, Day & Lamb, 2000). Yet, most of the extant research has focused on married or previously married fathers or is limited to special samples of unwed fathers, such as teen fathers. Therefore, understanding the factors associated with involvement by unmarried fathers—and the consequences for children—is an important new area for research. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study provides a unique opportunity to examine this understudied group of fathers using a large nationally representative sample of nonmarital births.

In this chapter, we use data from the Fragile Families Study to examine five measures of involvement by unmarried fathers around the time of a child’s birth. After briefly reviewing the relevant literature, we present descriptive information about fathers’ characteristics and their involvement. Then, we present our multivariate analyses and note specific characteristics that appear to be strongly linked to greater father involvement. Finally we discuss particular methodological issues related to father involvement using the Fragile Families data.

Book Title
Conceptualizing and Measuring Father Involvement
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates