Young Black fathers and maternity services
20 January 2006
A new study of young Black fathers highlights the need for maternity services to change established ways of thinking about this marginalised group.
Some research suggests that young fathers, like young mothers, are likely to come from backgrounds of social disadvantage. Young parenthood is also popularly linked with increased risks of relationship breakdown and social exclusion with the attendant poor outcomes for children. However, other research suggests that stable, intimate partnerships can also effect a transition out of social exclusion for young people and the involvement of a committed and well informed father is likely to improve outcomes for children on a variety of measures.
As teenage parenthood has tended to be equated with single motherhood, government policy initiatives have largely focussed their effort on young mothers. However, as our study illustrates, services should also strive to include fathers in the entire parenting process which begins at the point at which the pregnancy is confirmed and continues after the baby is born.
Pregnancy is a time of optimism when new prospective parents are particularly motivated and able to make use of help
Pregnancy is a window of opportunity, a rare time when there is a shared assumption of contact between mainstream professional services in the NHS and young prospective parents. There is also some evidence that pregnancy is a time of optimism when new prospective parents are particularly motivated and able to make use of help . Services that support young parents at this time are therefore crucial in both recognising and reinforcing the development of a ‘parental identity’ and in confirming the young man and woman’s status as the parental couple with a shared responsibility for and investment in their child’s future well-being.
Antenatal services are crucial in facilitating young parents’ informed and effective participation in the tasks of parenthood. However, evidence suggests that participation in mainstream maternity services is counter-cultural for many men and they are liable to feel awkward, ill at ease or excluded in feminised antenatal clinic settings.
Research on use of mainstream services by Black service users suggests that there may be specific issues in the way that services are provided that create barriers to inclusion for non-white groups. Very little is known about young Black fathers and the gap tends to be filled with speculation and fantasy often based on unconscious prejudice about whether these young men will ‘stay the course’ or see themselves as a necessary part of the parenting equation.
Our study aimed to provide a clearer picture as the basis for developing services for young men during the important transition to fatherhood
No previous research has focused on those young Black men who have chosen to participate in mainstream maternity services and so little was known about their experiences and views. Our study aimed to provide a clearer picture as the basis for developing services for young men during the important transition to fatherhood.
We interviewed a sample of young prospective black fathers, aged 17 to 25 years, about their current circumstances, their relationships, the conception and their experiences of antenatal care and other support in pregnancy. The data suggest that, contrary to popular precepts, these young men were a settled group in generally stable relationships who, despite the fact that the pregnancy was unexpected, were committed to involvement in fatherhood and the future care of their child.
While the study’s sample was small, and the research cannot tell us how typical these men were of young prospective Black fathers in general, it goes some way towards challenging some of the more stereotypical views of teenage prospective fathers and their girlfriends as wanting to avoid commitment and responsibility which have become familiar in the press and in policy statements.
The men’s experiences of antenatal care at the hospital tended to reinforce a feeling of being marginal to the pregnancy
The majority of pregnancies studied were unexpected, meaning that the prospective parents were having to make the developmental, emotional and material transition to parenthood in a very short time period. The data suggest that while the men were beginning to want to engage with the practical issues raised by the transition many were having some difficulty with internalising the new identity of ‘father’. They described a general feeling of being poorly informed about the pregnancy and under-prepared for the birth.
The men’s experiences of antenatal care at the hospital, together with the high degree of involvement of mother’s family and friends, tended to reinforce a feeling of being marginal to the pregnancy. The central focus on the young mother by services in the antenatal period did little to reinforce and support men’s emerging identity as fathers.
While none of the men in this study mentioned their ethnicity as a barrier to services it is important not to assume that being Black, together with being young, male and (on the whole) poor was not important: a quadruple indemnity. There are few places where young, unemployed Black men feel welcomed. As potential fathers they are unlikely to be viewed by many as providers or producers. If, as is highly likely, these young men have met with racism or other discrimination, at any stage in their lives, feelings of exclusion in any setting are likely to be amplified.
Established ways of thinking and working with this marginalised group in antenatal services must be challenged
Young people who have already been stigmatised are likely to be very sensitive to subtle slights including such things as negative body language and lack of eye contact. Antenatal clinics are feminised, medicalised, environments and yet it is in this setting that impending parenthood is confirmed and legitimised. It is often the 20-week ultrasound scan that has a powerful impact on making the pregnancy and the impending fatherhood real. It is clear from the interviews with the young men in this study that it does not take much for them to feel that they are not part of the equation.
Our study concludes that established ways of thinking and working with this marginalised group in antenatal services must be challenged in order to promote the development of inclusive services, responsive to the needs of both young men and women at a crucial time in the formation of new families.
A welcoming reception, and inclusive father-friendly practice in specialist clinics can be very important in establishing inclusion and helping to prepare young men for active and well informed fatherhood as part of the parenting couple.
Leaders within the NHS should operate systemically to educate their teams about the value of engaged fatherhood
It is important to remember that young men who attend antenatal clinics are likely to be making an implicit statement about a desire for inclusion in the pregnancy and a willingness to go down the road of active and involved fatherhood. How they are received in the clinic is likely to have a much bigger impact on their view of themselves as actively involved fathers than may be immediately obvious.
Young Black men’s expectations may be so reduced because of past experiences in the educational and employment systems that they may not expect to be involved or do not know what they need to know. It is important for leaders within the NHS to operate systemically to educate their teams about the value of engaged fatherhood. Father friendly (and male sensitive) attitudes must pervade the whole system, from cleaners to consultants.