Fatherhood can have transforming effect on men's lives

April 20, 2000

Despite the enormous social changes affecting family and parenting over the past three decades, fatherhood still offers powerful incentives and important social benefits for many men, a Penn State study says.

"Our research reveals clear and compelling differences between fathers and non-fathers in their social and familial connections and their work lives," says Dr. David J. Eggebeen, associate professor of human development and family studies.

Men who live with their biological children are more involved in community and service organizations and more connected to their own siblings, adult children and aging parents through phone calls and visits than other types of fathers and non-fathers. Moreover, they take the good provider role seriously and invest more hours per week in work and career than non-fathers and fathers of adult children, according to Eggebeen.

"Once men no longer live with their children, the transforming power of fatherhood diminishes considerably, even for biological fathers," he adds. "Biological fathers who live apart from their children as a result of divorce, separation, remarriage or simply because their children move away stay closer to siblings and parents than non-fathers but in other respects lead the lifestyles of non-fathers -- their recreational activities are more self-focused and they are more inclined to immerse themselves in their jobs. These differences hold true regardless of the father's marital status, socioeconomic factors, race or age."

Eggebeen is lead author of the paper, "Does Fatherhood Matter to Men?," presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Los Angeles. His co-author is Chris W. Knoester, graduate student in the department of sociology. The researchers used data from the National Survey of Families and Households, drawing a sample of 5,226 men aged 19 to 65. This survey gleaned extensive data regarding personal, family and socioeconomic histories, as well as kinship and social networks.

American fatherhood is undergoing changes that are both rapid and contradictory, almost paradoxical. At the same time that a "new fatherhood" is emerging and an appreciation is growing for the father's role in children's lives, fewer men are experiencing fatherhood, at least in the traditional sense, says Eggebeen, a research associate with Penn State's Population Research Institute, and a faculty member in the College of Health and Human Development.

"Recent demographic analyses show that 6 out of 10 adult males were living with children in the mid-1960s, but that this was the case with only 45 percent of men by the late 1990s," he notes. "Women's experience with parenthood has also declined in the last few decades, but men's retreat from parenthood has been more pervasive.

"Nevertheless, for men who do embark on fatherhood, the impact on their lives is all-encompassing. For instance, those men who live with their biological or adopted children are significantly more likely to belong to service clubs and school-related organizations. Children are the mechanism that lead men who are fathers to become a cub scout leader, scout master, community league basketball coach, little league coach and school board member," Eggebeen says.

As parenting becomes paramount, fathers will tend to be less involved in organizations that focus only on personal recreation, leisure pursuits or self improvement. They will also be less inclined to visit friends or co-workers, go to a bar or play on sports teams.

"Furthermore, the place of religious practices and priorities in one's life may get reevaluated as children arrive and parents are confronted with the tasks of teaching values to children," Eggebeen notes. "With the exception of men who are fathers of adult children, we found that non-resident fathers, stepfathers and men who are not fathers attend church significantly less than men who live in the same household with their children.

"One factor not significantly affected by fatherhood is physical and psychological health," he says. "Married men without children are no more likely than married men with children to report depression or problems with drinking or drug use. Neither do they express less satisfaction with life or give a poorer rating of their overall physical health."
This research was partially supported by core funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

EDITORS: Dr. Eggebeen is at 814-865-2655 and e5x@psu.edu by email; Mr. Knoester is at 814-865-0172 and knoester@pop.psu.edu by email.

Penn State

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