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Positive coparenting leads to more father involvement and more father involvement leads to positive coparenting. It is chicken-and-egg.
We know from both research and real–life experience that there is a link between the father-mother relationship and how involved the father is in caring for his child. When couples coparent well – working as a team with good communication and valuing and respecting each other’s role – fathers tend to be more involved in caring for their children. Though it’s challenging, positive coparenting can continue even after a romantic relationship has ended or if the parents live apart.
Parenting is part of a family system. Every relationship influences every other relationship. For example, the quality of a couple’s relationship influences fathering over time.
Because these things tend to go together, researchers have asked the chicken-and-egg question: what comes first? Does positive coparenting lead to more father involvement or does more father involvement lead to positive coparenting?
In recent research from the USA, mothers and fathers in 3,464 couples were asked at three different times to assess the quality of coparenting and the extent of father involvement – when the child was one, three, and five. The researchers then applied a sophisticated statistical analysis to find links.
They found that both coparenting and father involvement at one point in a child’s life predict more of each other at a later time point, with some interesting details.
Better coparenting predicts more father involvement later
If either the mother or father reported better coparenting at one time point, then both parents reported more father involvement at the next time point. However, the link between a mother’s report of coparenting and a father’s later report of involvement, and vice versa, was only found for resident couples. The researchers speculate that perhaps non-residence is a barrier between effective coparenting and later father involvement in care.
More father involvement predicts better coparenting later
If either the mother or father reported more father involvement at one point, then both parents reported more positive coparenting at the next point. There was one exception: When fathers reported they were more involved when the child was one year old, mothers were on average less likely to report positive coparenting two years later. One possible explanation for this is that fathers are overestimating the level of their involvement, and this lack of agreement between the parents may later lead to a less favourable assessment of coparenting on the mother’s part.
This research builds on earlier evidence of influences in both directions. Studies have shown that when mothers do not support coparenting, fathers engage less with their infants. Positive coparenting is also a robust predictor of nonresident fathers’ future involvement. Similarly, there is evidence that when fathers are more involved in caring, their relationship with the child’s mother is better.
The new research from the USA involved, 3,464 couples; 42% of the fathers were black, 28% were white and 25% were Hispanic. The study focused primarily on unmarried couples in large American cities. Between the first measurement (child one year old) and third measurement (age five), the quality of couple relationships declined overall. The proportion of coresident couples dropped from 65% to 50%, and the proportion of parents in a romantic relationship dropped from 40% to 18%. Also over this period, the level of father involvement dropped off, according to both mothers and fathers.
Coparenting was measured by asking each parent questions like “does the mother/father support the way you want to raise your child?”, “does the mother/father talk with you about problems with raising your child?” and “does the mother/father respect your rules for the child?”. Father involvement was measured by asking about activities like reading/telling stories, playing inside the house and singing with the child.
Fagan J & Palkovitz R (2019), Coparenting and father engagement among low-income parents: actor-partner interdependence model, Journal of Family Psychology