POOR urban fathers, often perceived as "deadbeat dads", are seeking a loving bond with their child.
United States expert in family studies Kathryn Edin visited the University of Queensland's Institute for Social Science Research and the School of Social Science to present a seminar last Friday.
The focus was on the changing nature of fatherhood, based on an eight-year ethnographic study of 110 low-income unmarried fathers in Camden and Philadelphia in the United States and published in the book Doing the Best I Can.
Prof Edin says the revelations on how poor urban men view their roles as fathers turn the notion of fatherhood on its head, and could have a major impact on policy.
The study revealed a radical redefinition of family life where the father-child bond is central and the parental tie is peripheral.
"It gives a new understanding of a group of men often dismissed as 'deadbeat dads'," Prof Edin said.
"Although not breadwinners with the shrunken labour market for unskilled and semi-skilled males, these men do aspire to be their child's best friend."
The expectations of traditional parenting were in stark contrast to the realities, she said.
"It is a harsh neighbourhood context, nearly devoid of conventional opportunities with the pervasiveness of death, incarceration or addiction," she said.
"It is the contrast between these deviant, even life-threatening, pursuits and the unsullied, simple acts of parenting a child that allows young men to perceive fatherhood as heroic.
"These men reject the old package deal of family life where the couple relationship was central, binding men to their children, in favour of the new deal where the father-child bond is central and mother is on the periphery."
Fathers in the study felt that spending quality time with their child and boosting the child's self-esteem were important to withstand possible separation, should incarceration, substance abuse, or other barriers keep men from their children for a time.
"These men retreated from traditional aspects of the father role, but they have embraced fatherhood's softer side, imparting love and maintaining a clear channel of communication," she said.
Prof Edin said some men lacked the necessary commitment, but most faltered due to a deficit of psychological resources.
Prof Edin was invited to Australia by Prof Janeen Baxter at The School of Social Science and the Institute for Social Science Research at UQ.
Professor Edin is a sociologist in Public Policy and Management at the Malcolm Wiener Centre for Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School in the United States.
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