Responsible co-parenting—a process in which fathers and mothers work together effectively in their role as parents regardless of the nature of their personal relationship—is integral to the well-being of children. When parents collaborate, support each other, and share goals and beliefs about their children, fathers are more involved in their children’s lives. But a new qualitative study by Mathematica Policy Research reveals that about 7 in 10 fathers who participated in in-depth interviews for the Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation are in co-parenting relationships that are marked by either frequent conflict or little to no communication between the parents. This finding, along with others from the qualitative component of the PACT evaluation, helps us understand the complex challenges fathers face in attempting to co-parent their children.
As part of the PACT evaluation, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE), Mathematica researchers conducted three rounds of in-depth interviews with men who had low incomes and voluntarily participated in one of four Responsible Fatherhood programs supported by HHS. The first round of in-depth interviews included 87 fathers, most of whom were African American and did not live with their children. Those interviews focused on the men’s childhoods, views on fathering, relationships with their children and the mothers of their children, and experiences with employment, child support, and fatherhood programs. A second round of in-depth interviews was conducted about one year later with 59 of these fathers, and it provides more detail and insights into the nature of fathers’ co-parenting relationships, the tenor of these relationships, and their efforts to co-parent. These interviews offer valuable information for Responsible Fatherhood programs that are designed to improve fathers’ parenting and relationship skills.
About one-third of the fathers in the second round of interviews had conflicted co-parenting relationships that were marked by verbal disagreements and diverging views between parents on a variety of issues. Another 40 percent of the fathers had disengaged co-parenting relationships with their children’s mothers; that is, relationships marked by conflict and limited cooperation, often because there was little or no communication between the parents. Only about one-third of the fathers had a cooperative co-parenting relationship with at least one of their children’s mothers. In these cooperative relationships, the two parents communicated with each other about parenting issues, emphasized the importance of reaching agreement, and were more likely to agree on their approach to parenting.
Most of the fathers who were in the first round of interviews reported conflicted or disengaged co-parenting relationships. In the second round of interviews, which took place with a subset of fathers in the first round, researchers asked whether any changes had taken place in these relationships. About one-quarter of the fathers offered examples of progress in their co-parenting relationships in the year between interviews—including more communication, fewer arguments, and more contact with their children. Some fathers thought the Responsible Fatherhood programs had helped them navigate their co-parenting relationships by teaching them communication and relationship skills; others said their relationship with their children’s mothers improved after they initiated—or told the mother they planned to initiate—legal action to gain shared custody or visitation rights.
Some of the valuable insights from the PACT study include:
- The prevalence of conflicted and disengaged co-parenting relationships confirms the importance of offering services to help fathers navigate and potentially improve their relationships with their children’s mothers.
- If Responsible Fatherhood programs do not already offer mediation as part of their services, they may want to consider doing so, because mediation could help fathers co-parent more effectively with their children's mothers. Programs may also consider intensifying their efforts to include mothers in their program activities.
- Responsible Fatherhood programs could add or expand services to help fathers gain formal shared custody or parenting time agreements, perhaps by securing alternative funding sources for legal help or establishing partnerships with agencies that are willing to provide pro bono legal services.
Results from the PACT evaluation are contributing to the evidence base for policies and programs that support families—by expanding what we know about people who voluntarily enroll in healthy relationship or responsible fatherhood programs, revealing how those programs are designed and operated, and describing how the programs affect participating families.
Read the brief, “Fathers’ Views of Co-Parenting Relationships: Findings from the PACT Evaluation.” Learn more about the PACT evaluation and other Mathematica research on projects to support and strengthen families.