Exploring non-resident fatherhood and child well-being in the early years using the Growing Up in Scotland study
Rogers, Sarah Lynne
Levels of non-resident parenthood in Scotland are substantial. The 2011 Scottish Census indicated 28 per cent of all families with dependent children to be lone parent households. Whilst non-resident parenthood is not synonymous with non-resident fatherhood, 92 per cent of such households were headed by the mother (ONS, 2014). Child well-being in non-resident father households is an issue of concern amongst policy makers and practitioners and both law and policy appear to operate on the principle that the maintenance of non-resident father-child relationships is generally conducive to child well-being. Whilst there is evidence to suggest the well-being of children in non-resident father households is typically poorer than their contemporaries in two natural parent households (Amato and Keith, 1991; Amato, 2005), and indeed evidence to suggest non-resident father involvement may benefit child well-being (Amato and Gilbreth, 1999; Adamsons and Johnson, 2013), the existing research has a number of limitations. Firstly, studies have typically adopted narrow conceptualisations of child well-being. Secondly, few studies have sought to disaggregate the total effects of non-resident fatherhood to consider both those transmitted directly and indirectly via mediating variables. Finally, increasing numbers of non-marital births coupled with evidence suggesting cohabiting relationships to be at an increased risk of breakdown in children’s early years compared to marriages (Greaves and Goodman, 2010), has culminated in increasing levels of early years non-resident fatherhood, an issue which has received less attention in the literature. Using data from the Growing Up in Scotland study this research explores associations between non-resident fatherhood and child well-being and the potential pathways through which such associations may operate. The research conceptualises child well-being as a multi-dimensional construct comprising four key domains: social, emotional and behavioural development, cognitive development, general health and material resources and uses structural equation modelling to consider the extent to which firstly, living in a non-resident father household, and secondly, non-resident father involvement is associated with child well-being directly, or indirectly, via household income, maternal mental health and parenting behaviours. The results show that, relative to two natural parent households, child well-being across each of the four domains is poorer in non-resident father households headed by a lone mother but not in those where the mother has re-partnered. Only one statistically significant direct association was found in the domain of material resources with the results suggesting much of the negative association to be transmitted indirectly via household income and maternal mental health. For those children who were reported as having some form of contact with their father, the results indicate paternal involvement to be indirectly associated with fewer social, emotional and behavioural difficulties via maternal mental health. Finally, consideration of the circumstances and characteristics associated with the maintenance of contact and levels of paternal involvement revealed maternal relationship status to be an important correlate of both contact and involvement whilst parental relationship history and circumstances surrounding the pregnancy were additionally found to be important correlates of contact. This thesis argues that simple dichotomies of father presence / absence can serve to mask the complex network of relationships underlying associations between non-resident fatherhood and child well-being. It also argues that child well-being in non-resident father households would benefit from policies which seek to alleviate financial hardship and support maternal mental health. It suggests that the maintenance of non-resident father-child relationships is potentially beneficial for child well-being and argues that promotion and support of contact and involvement in children’s early years likely requires a targeted approach. It further argues that the role of the non-resident father should be construed broadly to include consideration of support for the wider household in which the child lives.