By Rachel Dorman, M.S. & Kacy Mixon, PhD, LMFT
In past posts we’ve touched on child outcomes of father involvement and provided resources surrounding the National Fatherhood Initiative. Today’s blog continues the conversation in part one of our military fatherhood blog series featuring a study examining thoughts, feelings and actions of military fathers. Willerton, Schwarz, Wadsworth, and Oglesby (2011) gathered information about military fathers’ involvement with their children . Participants in the study included 71 military fathers from 14 U.S. military installations who attended focus groups within six months after returning from deployment. They were asked questions about their 1) perception of their role as a father, 2) relationship with their children prior to deployment, 3) interactions and communications with their children while deployed, and 4) experiences upon reunification and reintegration into the family after deployment.
Researchers categorized their findings into three overlapping domains: thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In this post, we will focus on the findings within the cognitive domain, defined by the researches as the thoughts related to fatherhood. There were seven themes found to arise in this domain, four of which were not related to whether the father was deployed or not. The seven cognitive domains of fatherhood involvement themes were: Responsibility, Evaluation of Parenting, Developmental Awareness, Psychological Presence, Planning, Monitoring and Control, and Reintegration. Below we highlight not only how the researchers conceptualized these domains but also the associated findings.
Cognitive (Thoughts) Domains of Fatherhood
This theme encompassed the thought process of the father related to providing financial security, being a mentor, providing unconditional love and acceptance, providing a foundation of values, and being a consistent friend to their child. Fathers reported awareness of their mortality when deployed, which led some to convey their parenting philosophies in writing and thoughts to their children.
This theme explored how fathers evaluated their parenting. This was done through self-reflection on their role as a parent, how their military career impacted family life, and their desire to imitate or reject their own father’s parenting styles. The study reported that fathers felt guilt for being absent from their children’s lives during deployment, which may have resulted in them feeling conflicted about disciplining their children. Some fathers reported avoiding disciplining their children while away or taking a secondary parenting role. After returning, fathers reported feeling reluctant to discipline their children after being physically absent for so long.
In this theme, fathers reported their understanding oft heir children’s developmental challenges. Fathers showed mixed emotions about the possibility of deploying during a children’s infancy, and the children’s inability to understand their absence. Fathers of teenagers recognized their children’s desire for autonomy, but stressed the need to continue to be involved in the teenager’s life.
This theme was described as the continuous presence of the child in the fathers thoughts. When fathers were not physically with their child, they reported thinking about their child. Fathers reported expressing these thoughts to their child to reassure the child that they had presence in the father’s mind, even though they were not physically together. The study found that, to these participants, good fathering meant ‘being there’ for the child but being a military father sometimes conflicted with this because of the physical separation often required in their military career.
This theme was defined as the forethought fathers put into their parent-child relationship in order for the relationship to be sustained and grow. One example mentioned in the study was fathers who preplanned care packages or gifts for their children, or who planned to preserve and celebrate milestones, such as birthdays, even when they were not physically present. The researchers found the planning theme to demonstrate a father’s strong desire to be a part of their child’s life despite their physical absence.
This theme described a father’s efforts to monitor and maintain supervision over their children despite being absent. The study revealed fathers showed concern about discipline and potential misbehavior of children. Fathers expressed having difficulty monitoring their children from far away.
This theme was defined as the process of rejoining the family and assuming a paternal role after being absent. The study reported that the readjustment phase differed in length for fathers. Fathers with younger children showed concern as to whether their children would be able to recognize them. The fathers in the study emphasized the need for children to be allowed to warm up and re-establish emotional connection, Fathers were aware of the possibility that some children may be resentful of their absence.
Professionals can use this study’s findings to gain insights into unique barriers that fathers in the military may experience. To learn more about military fatherhood keep an eye out for our next blog, Military Father Involvement: Part 2, where we continue to relay findings from Willerton, Schwarz, Wadsworth, and Oglesby’s (2011) study by focusing on the emotional and behavior domains. Also, mark your calendars for May 29, 2014 from 11am-1pm for our MFLN Family Development webinar focusing on Fathers, Work, and Family Life.
This post was written by Rachel Dorman, M.S. and Kacy Mixon, PhD, LMFT. Both are on the Family Development team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network here and on Facebook.