Keeping Contact with Children: Assessing the Father/Child Post-separation Relationship from the Male Perspective


Over the last thirty years, changes in adult conjugal behaviour have profoundly affected the relationship between fathers and their children. Marital breakdown escalated following the introduction of the 1968 Divorce Act and the institution of marriage lost ground to cohabition at first as the entry into conjugal life, and more recently as the context for starting a family; this has led to a noticeable increase in the proportion of children living through parental separation, and at an increasingly early age. Almost a quarter of Canadian children born at the end of the 1980s had already experienced life with a single parent by the age of six; among children born at the beginning of the 1970s, this same proportion was not reached until the age of fifteen (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999).

After their parents separate, the vast majority of children continue living with their mother. Daily contact with their father can, therefore, no longer be taken for granted and, from that point on, the quality and frequency of the relationship between fathers and children are determined by their parents often-conflicting expectations. The small amount of research carried out in the U.S.A. or Europe on the impact of father/child contact, or the lack thereof, on child development has been inconclusive (for a review, see Seltzer, 1994). Research does concur, however, on the positive relationship between maintaining contact and regular payment of child support, which might lead one to suppose that regular contact could reduce the risk of poverty to which children of separated parents are exposed (Jacobsen and Edmondson, 1993; McLanahan et al., 1994; Seltzer, 1991). These results underline the importance of undertaking research from the male perspective, rather than adopting the usual practice of basing analyses on information from mothers, if we are to reach a better understanding of the factors influencing whether or not fathers maintain contact with their children (for the case in favour of such an approach, see Goldscheider and Kaufman, 1996). This is the objective of the present study, based on data from the 1995 General Social Survey on the Family (GSS).

More precisely, the purpose of this research is to describe the characteristics, values and attitudes of separated fathers and identify the factors and circumstances that influence the probability that they maintain contact with their children after union breakdown. The analysis is carried out in three steps. In the first, we present a profile of fathers according to the frequency of contact they have with their children. To be more specific, we attempt to determine whether the amount of contact varies according to demographic (child's age at parents' separation, time elapsed since separation) or socio-economic (education, income) characteristics of fathers and according to their perception of certain aspects of conjugal and parental life. This analysis is based entirely on data gathered directly from fathers.

The second step contrasts statements made by separated mothers and fathers about their expectations with regard to their children's care (custody arrangements, frequency of contact, child support) and their level of satisfaction with current arrangements. In other words, we attempt to verify if the degree of satisfaction reported for any given level of father/child contact varies with the sex of the parent interviewed. It must be noted here that the mothers and fathers contacted at the 1995 GSS do not give information on the same children. This assessment is thus primarily an exploratory one, and all the more so because, as will be discussed later, the sample of fathers replying to certain questions is relatively small.

The third and final section presents the findings of a multivariate analysis, performed to evaluate the net effect of factors influencing the frequency of father/child contact.

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