The Emerging Science of Unexpected Fatherhood

For men who aren't mentally prepared for fatherhood, there's gotta be a better way.

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Few fathers-to-be blindsided by pregnancy become engaged dads. While the data on fathers of children from unplanned pregnancies is limited, a modest but growing body of research suggests that men who do not expect to become fathers are ultimately less likely to live with their kids, be a presence in their lives, or feel positively about their roles as caretakers. Men dragged into fatherhood treat fatherhood like a drag and, in so doing, seem to trigger developmental, emotional, and social problems in their children. It’s an ugly truth that should be understood in terms of statistical averages rather than individual experience.

“Research to date has focused primarily on the consequences of mothers’ intentions overlooking the experiences of fathers,” authors of 2016 study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, wrote, noting that another 2014 nationally representative study found that nearly a third of births over the past five years were unintended. “Little is known about how men’s childbearing intentions influence involvement with their child.”

According to the reports of mothers in the 2014 study, as well as past research, the number of unintended pregnancies in the U.S. may be even higher than a third, with some estimates claiming that they account for nearly half of pregnancies overall. Given the much larger body of research showing how involved dads help kids grow into less promiscuous, pro-social individuals with higher IQ’s and earning potential, the studies drive home that preparation is the whole game. 

The data also makes a strong case for more research. There are lots of unknowns.

Researchers have rarely focused on unengaged fathers, presumably in part because they’re less eager to participate in studies. Specifically, scientists struggled to identify unengaged fathers whose children were the result of unplanned pregnancies. The reason for this? Early studies suggested that men in that specific position might give inaccurate or false reports about their parenting experiences. However, the National Survey of Family Growth and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Birth Cohort grew concerned of these gaps in information and began to track the intentions of new fathers in the early 2000s. In the studies that came out of that effort, pregnancies are characterized as either intended (wanted at conception), mistimed (unwanted at conception but wanted someday), or unwanted indefinitely, though some studies groups mistimed and unwanted pregnancies together.

Since then, these datasets on the initial feeling of fathers have been mined by a number of research teams. One study that looked at over 5,000 families with children under 2-years-old found that kids displayed lower levels of attachment security and mental proficiency when dads defined pregnancies as either mistimed or unwanted regardless of whether or not they lived with their children. Another study of 1,278 families with toddlers in the same age range demonstrated that mistimed and unwanted pregnancies were associated with higher levels of paternal depression and co-parenting conflict, with lower levels of relationship happiness co-parenting support.

Most recently, researchers analyzed NSFG data on 2,272 resident and 492 nonresident fathers obtained between 2006 and 2010, limiting the sample to men who had kids five and under at the time of the surveys. The study found significant differences between resident and nonresident fathers, with nonresident dads being more strongly correlated with mistimed and unwanted pregnancies. But regardless of whether they lived with kids, men who became fathers accidentally participated less in parenting responsibilities including play and thought less of themselves as parents. The findings did not determine whether men felt bad about themselves as fathers for failing to participate or failed to participate because they felt bad, but the existence of a vicious cycle seems likely.

It’s important to note that many of the mistimed and unwanted pregnancies reported across samples involved unmarried, teenage fathers with lower education levels and socioeconomic status. It is likely, therefore, that the results were colored by circumstance. The point of current and future findings would be to determine to what degree that is true and to what degree the pattern of disengagement can be addressed. The truth, after all, is that a significant number of fathers step into the role of dad before they’re ready. Without knowing more about that experience, there’s little we can do to help those men cope.

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