Distinguished Professor of Psychology David Moore on unwed parents and the myth of deadbeat dads

When David Moore was a grad student at the University of Utah, his advisor, Paul Florsheim, invited Moore to help him develop an ambitious study of 1,000 young unwed parents. The researchers were especially interested in young fathers: “We explored what kind of fathers they hoped to be, what they were concerned about, what they were excited about,” says Moore, 49, a father of two who has taught at Puget Sound since 2002. They’ve turned their research into a book, Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Q: Tell us about the title Lost and Found
A: We discovered lots of fathers who were “found” during the transition to parenthood. Many of them described fatherhood as a transformative experience. Twenty percent of the fathers who had significant risk factors going into parenthood—substance abuse, criminal history, unemployment—were doing really well two years after the birth of their child. They’d made a huge turnaround. So we were particularly eager to tell those stories, as well as stories about the fathers who got “lost” along the way. 

Q: Were there stereotypes about unwed fathers that were not borne out by your research? 
A: When people think about adolescent fathers, so many think of a “deadbeat dad.” The conventional idea is that young fathers don’t care, that they’re just giving in to their hormones, and the mother is going to be left alone to care for the baby. But even among the fathers who struggled to stay engaged, nearly all wanted to be good fathers. 

Q: Still, the number of kids growing up without a father in their home is pretty striking. How is that different from a few generations ago? 
A: In 1960, about 5% of children were born to unwed parents. But if you look at parents today under age 25, it’s actually 70%. 

Q: Why should we care whether young unwed fathers are involved with their kids? 
A: The financial cost of young parenthood is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Young parents are much less likely to get the kind of jobs they might otherwise if their educational and occupational trajectories weren’t waylaid. Then there’s the cost to children themselves. Research suggests children with two involved parents do significantly better in terms of education and employment, as well as social, emotional, and psychological outcomes. 

Q: How essential are fathers, specifically? 
A: On an individual level, it’s probably more accurate to say that fathers are important as opposed to essential. We can point to plenty of people with single mothers who turn out very well, including Barack Obama, although it’s worth noting that he said he had to write a book to work through the issues related to having an absent father. Many people who experience father absence describe it as having long-term negative impacts. On a larger scale, father engagement is critical for stabilizing families. When fathers are absent or not involved, families tend to be much more fragile, and that has a profound adverse impact on communities, as well. So fathers are, indeed, essential, and doing what we can to encourage their engagement is a worthwhile investment. 

Q: Is there one factor that most determines how involved a young father will be? 
A: The strongest predictor we found was a quality relationship with the mother. The “co-parenting relationship” is different from any romantic relationship that they might have had or still have. Co-parenting means they’re working collaboratively for the benefit of the child. 

Q: Why is it important for young fathers to do things like shop for baby clothes and attend prenatal classes? 
A: The prenatal period is an important window for getting the father engaged. Fathers are more open to being involved when they’re seen as valued and their input is seen as important. So we advocate for father-inclusive prenatal care. 

Q: Does biology play a role in any of this? 
A: Evolutionary biology helps explain why parenthood even happens. Younger people are great for perpetuating the species—surging hormones, peak fertility, the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed so they’re less likely to think about consequences. And there are different physiological aspects that seem to play a role. One of the mechanisms that seems to help is the role that testosterone and oxytocin play during the transition to parenthood. 

Q: Oxytocin is the so-called “cuddle” hormone, right? 
A: If a father is engaged and interacting with his child in a positive way, there’s a drop in testosterone and an increase in oxytocin. In turn, these changes are important in motivating the father to be involved. And being involved can support the biological mechanisms that keep this process going, activating the reward systems in our brains with dopamine. 

Q: What do you mean when you describe a “good enough” father? 
A: The problem with describing fatherhood as good or bad is that many fathers operate somewhere in the middle. So we advocate “good-enough” fathering, which is based on work by D.W. Winnicott, who talked about “good-enough” mothering in the 1940s. It moves us away from the idea of a perfect father and helps us recognize that there are different ways for fathers to be involved. What we had in mind with the “good-enough” father is one who has high standards for himself, but ones that are attainable. 


By Martin J. Smith
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 6, 2021