Whilst single-parenthood is often presented as being synonymous with the single-mother, there is still a significant and growing minority of men who are single-fathers. Single-fathers accounted for 10% of single-parents in the US in 1981 and grew to 15.5% by 1993 and then to 24% by 2013 (Rawlings, 1982: 11; Eggebeen et al., 1996: 442; Livingston, 2013). It has since remained relatively stable. Given this sizable minority, it is worth considering the experiences of single-fathers to form a picture of the lives and contexts within which they live.
Quality of life
Quality of life is important to consider. Although the term can often sound like a typical categorisation for statistical purposes, it is important to remember that it does actually mean the literal quality of a person’s life. How happy are they? How is their well-being? How poor are they? Are they getting any enjoyment from life? In terms of quality of life then, Kong & Kim (2015) show that single-father have a poorer quality of life in comparison to married fathers.
As an extension of quality of life, health plays a central role. In terms of mental health, there are various factors which contribute to having poorer mental health for single-fathers. They have been shown to experience more stress in comparison to married fathers (Kong & Kim, 2015; Meadows, 2009). These higher stress levels not only affect quality of life but affect their ability to adjust to their role (see below for adjustment) (Saputra & Krisnatuti, 2022). Similarly, single fathers were shown to have higher proportions of psychological distress in comparison to fathers with a partner (Dhungel et al., 2021). A range of correlates to mental health were found by Kong & Kim (2015) including:
- Being a non-homeowner
- Employed in manual labour
- Having two or more children
- Having the youngest child in elementary or primary school
Moving from mental health to general overall health, the self-perceptions of single-fathers’ own health tend to show that they see themselves to be in poorer health overall. However, the actualities of poorer health stem from socioeconomic disadvantages faced by single-fathers rather than single-fatherhood itself (Janzen et al., 2006). Further, the mortality rate for single-fathers was three times higher than that of single-mothers and partnered fathers and this was in tandem with a significantly higher risk factor of death (Chiu et al., 2018). Contributors to this may include smoking, stress, alcohol and drug consumption.
In terms of consumption, the purchasing habits of single-fathers show some differences. Single-fathers have been shown to have greater expenditure on food outside the home, alcohol, and tobacco products whilst spending less on toys, children’s education, and publications (Ziol-Guest, 2009). The greater expenditure on alcohol and tobacco could be reflective of the stressors experienced by single-fathers whilst the greater expenditure on food outside of the home could be down to either time constraints or traditional gendered expectations of who is supposed to cook. Reflecting back to Mendes (1976), it was argued even then that men should be taught the logistics of homemaking. Given the period of decline in home economics in school, it may be possible that everybody now lacks any form of meaningful home economics education, particularly in the UK.
Having healthy and rewarding relationships is also important for the single-father experience. Given that children are more likely to live with their father if the mother has problem behaviours (Goldscheider et al., 2015), there can be major difficulties in maintaining positive relationships. Positively, single-fathers spend more time with children than married fathers (Hook & Chalasani, 2008), perhaps because there is not another care provider in the home or perhaps it is due to the fact that single-fathers are more likely to be unemployed and therefore have more available time to spend with their children. Dufur et al.’s research (2010) found that single-fathers tended to be less affectionate, stricter on daily routines such as bedtime, TV, and foods, but also less abrasive in their discipline techniques.
Details on the educational attainment or achievements of single-fathers are hard to come by as many studies tend to focus on the effect that being a single-parent has on outcomes for children. For example, single-fatherhood has been shown to have negative effects on educational outcomes for children which is attributable to lower parental involvement (Cheung & Park, 2016). Where there was some research, it tended to be conflicting. Dhungel et al. (2021) showed that a large percentage of single fathers had a lower educational level. This conflicts with Chang & Deinard (1982) who argued that single-fathers are often highly educated. The question here revolves around whether there is actual conflict in the research, or has something changed between Chang & Deinard’s research in 1982 and Dhungel et al.’s in 2021?
In terms of work, self-employed single-fathers or those who are directors show significantly reduced psychological distress than single-fathers maintaining regular jobs (Dhungel et al., 2021). This is likely due to being more in control of work patterns and thus being able to forge more flexible pathways. Meanwhile, single-fathers are less likely to be employed than fathers in a couple (Horemans & Marx, 2018: 200) and jobs centred on manual labour were associated with poorer mental health (Kong & Kim, 2015). Paternal invisibility at work is considered by Burnett et al. (2013: 641) who show that single-fathers who lack recognition of their caring roles are essentially ‘ghosts in the organisational machine’ leaving them being treated as some kind of abnormality in the face of normative expectations of what a parent is.
Adjustment refers to how men change and adapt to the role of parent over time, in this case, it refers to their adapting to single-parenthood. There is often some struggle which occurs in this role adjustment, although it is arguably to be reasonably expected. The idea of adjustment difficulties can give the false idea that there is some kind of easy parenting which itself can permeate toxic ideas. Historical research argued that adjustment to single-fatherhood could be improved through gaining better education, growing their experience with children, actively disciplining their children, and nurturing interaction (Smith & Smith, 1981).
Some men find difficulties not only in adjustment to the new role of single-father, but issues around acceptance and confusion about the role (e.g., Coles, 2002, 2009; Dufer et al 2010; Hamer and Marchioro 2002). Changes to routines, increased requirements for patience, and matters of discipline were particular areas of contention. Stress levels can also be related to the ability of single-fathers to adjust to their role. Saputra & Krisnatuti (2022) found that the lower the stress level of the single-father, the better they can adjust to their role and subsequently the higher their quality of life.
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