Linzi Ladlow, Laura Way and Anna Tarrant
Covid-19 has exposed and heightened deep inequalities in our society. Social class, gender, ethnicity and age shape the ways people are experiencing the crisis. Here we consider these intersections, with a spotlight on young fathers and their families. Young fathers (aged 25 and under) come from diverse backgrounds and communities; however, there are disproportionately higher numbers of young fathers from deprived areas (Office for National Statistics, 2018). They are also more likely than older fathers to live apart from their children (Poole et al. 2014). Because of the lockdown, some non-resident fathers have had limited or no contact with their children. As part of a wider reflection on the impacts of the pandemic on family life, it is these young men and their families that we consider here. We make the case that support services specifically for young fathers are vital, especially during these unprecedented times.
Families and inequalities during Covid-19
A key concern throughout the crisis is how families are coping (Patrick et al. 2020). Home schooling worries have given way to whether or not it is safe to send children back to school. While children appear to be less affected by the virus, there are serious concerns about how they are coping emotionally and what their home lives are like. The government have cited concerns about vulnerable children as a reason to open schools despite concerns from parents, teachers, and unions.
Yet while everyone is focussing on reducing the spread of the virus, the control measures are already having profound and long-lasting effects on families. Recent welfare reforms are increasing the hardships of families receiving benefits and children from families living in poverty are more likely to be removed into care. This is exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis as support services are constrained in how they operate. The pandemic is also impacting on antenatal and birth experiences. Fathers are no longer able to attend antenatal appointments and new hospital rules such as ‘no partners until delivery’ raises questions concerning public services’ engagement and support for fathers.
The recent confinement to our homes has also exposed deep inequalities relating to our different and diverse housing conditions. A family living in a large house will be experiencing lockdown in a vastly different way to a family in a flat without access to outside space. Separated parents have also had to make decisions about how to share care of their children. The UK’s Covid-19 lockdown conditions stipulate that children can move between both parents’ homes, however, in practice this is not always possible or desirable. Some fathers are therefore reporting limited or no contact with their children.
In comparison to older fathers, young fathers are more likely to be in casual relationships with the mothers of their children and consequently more likely to be single or non-resident fathers (Poole et al. 2013). Amongst separated parents, mothers are largely the primary carers. Father involvement is therefore often heavily reliant on maintaining positive relationships with the mothers of their children, and in some cases maternal grandmothers. For non-resident fathers, contact and continued involvement in their children’s lives is an on-going negotiation mediated by their own time and place constraints, such as work commitments, how far away they live from their children, and the character of their relationships with the mothers of their children.
Young fathers and support needs
Young parents are disproportionately from deprived areas and young fathers are more likely to experience a range of adversities linked to poverty. This includes, limited ‘success’ in education, training and employment, difficult family backgrounds, unstable housing and home life, periods in care and experiences of offending and domestic violence. Having a child can be a reason to curb risk-taking behaviour and work towards creating a stable lifestyle via a focus on their fatherhood identity. This is not a straightforward process and often requires significant support from professional services (Tarrant and Neale, 2017a, b).
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, some young fathers were navigating fatherhood through a range of difficulties linked to their limited resources and complex relationships. The pandemic has heightened many of these issues. One organisation concerned with the experiences of young people and families is Coram Family and Childcare, the UK’s first dedicated children‘s charity. With regards to young fathers, Megan Jarvie, Head of Coram Family and Childcare, observes: “Even before the pandemic, the young fathers we worked with faced an uphill battle to secure housing and work. They knew that being a good dad was about much more than providing money for children, but giving love and attention is more challenging without a home where you can safely play with your child. For young fathers that do not live with their children, social distancing measures will mean that maintaining contact is less possible. Resuming contact after lockdown could also be more difficult. Young fathers are more likely to be the low paid workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown and likely recession, making it harder to pay the rent. It is important that the needs of this already excluded group are not forgotten.”
Support services for marginalised groups like young fathers are more vital than ever. However, social distancing rules mean that they cannot operate in the same way as before. Organisations like our partners Coram Family and Childcare and North East Young Dads and Lads (NEYDL) are currently developing new and innovative ways of working. Coram, for example, is considering how to continue with programmes to support young parents and families through remote, online methods. In response to concerns about digital exclusion, NEYDL are engaging in outreach work to provide technology to the most marginalised young fathers. We are also hearing that the shift to technology-based support is presenting an opportunity to extend support to young people who otherwise find services challenging to access.
Before the lockdown, the Following Young Fathers Further (FYFF) study was working with a number of national organisations to examine how we better support young fathers. The research builds on a baseline study that began in 2012 to contribute an extended evidence base about the experiences and support needs of young fathers. FYFF is working with Coram in modelling innovative models of support that aim to support young fathers to remain involved in the lives of their children where appropriate. With the right kinds of structured support in place, we can enable young fathers to be active in their children’s lives.
As discussed earlier, young fathers often come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are dealing with a whole host of resource issues as they enter parenthood, as well as the stigma of being young as a parent. Support services play a vital role in smoothing bumps in the road, allowing fathers to fulfil their expressed desire to ‘be there’ for their children. The need for this has become even greater now as the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on families become more apparent.
Linzi Ladlow and Laura Way are Research Fellows in Family Research at the University of Lincoln. Anna Tarrant is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Lincoln.