University of Southern California Dissertations and Theses
An ethnographic study of men fathering children with disabilities
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An ethnographic study of men fathering children with disabilities
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An Ethnographic Study of Men Fathering Children With Disabilities
A Dissertation Presented to the
FACULTY OF THE USC GRADUATE SCHOOL
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
This study would not have been possible without the openness and frankness of the five
fathers that I interviewed and observed for over a year. Not only was the time I spent with them
invaluable to this research, they also made me a better researcher, a better person, and a better
I would like to thank my dissertation committee chair, Dr. Mary Lawlor, for inspiring me
to form my interest in fatherhood into a research passion. Dr. Lawlor’s mentorship and guidance
have been instrumental in my personal transformation from an occupational therapist to an
occupational scientist. Working with Dr. Lawlor, Dr. Mattingly, and the rest of the Boundary
Crossings team has provided invaluable experience. I would like to thank all of the researchers,
research assistants, and other members of the Boundary Crossings project both past and present
that have been instrumental in the formulation of ideas as well as valuable social supports.
This is a great opportunity to express my respect for my wonderfully supportive
dissertation committee members: Dr. Cheryl Mattingly, Dr. Anne Neville-Jan, Dr. Lanita Jacobs,
and Dr. William Morgan. I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to have learned from each of
these scholars whom I respect and admire.
This research is supported by the AOTF dissertation research grant. Their financial
support allowed for the purchase of equipment and transcription of interviews. I would also like
to thank the USC Division of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science for financial
support that made this process possible.
I would like to thank all of the people that have travelled this journey with me.
Particularly, the Andersen family for their support including that time they loaned me their car
on a moments notice. I would like to thank my parents for their constant support. My mother’s
perseverance has always been my inspiration. I am thankful for my son Thomas for reminding
me that “wrestle time” is an important aspect of occupational balance. And most importantly, I
would like to thank my wife Suzanne for her endless confidence and support. I am thankful that
she defined watching TV while I worked on the computer as “spending time together.”
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements ............................................................................................................. ii
Abstract ............................................................................................................................ viii
Chapter 1: Introduction ...................................................................................................... 1
Two Personal Observations on Fatherhood .................................................................... 1
Significant moments of fatherhood ............................................................................. 1
Families of children with disabilities .......................................................................... 4
Relevance of Fathering to Occupational Science ........................................................... 5
Research Questions ......................................................................................................... 9
Chapter 2: Literature Review ........................................................................................... 11
Fathering Occupations .................................................................................................. 11
Identifying fathering occupations ............................................................................. 13
Fathering as caring for children ................................................................................ 14
Breadwinning ........................................................................................................ 15
Constructs of Fatherhood .............................................................................................. 15
Fathers of children with disabilities .......................................................................... 16
Masculinity and father involvement ......................................................................... 19
Generativity ................................................................................................................... 21
Experience and Occupations ......................................................................................... 22
Narrative ................................................................................................................... 25
Narrative and culture ................................................................................................. 28
Intersubjective aspects of occupations ...................................................................... 30
Discussion ..................................................................................................................... 31
Chapter 3: Methods .......................................................................................................... 33
Key Assumptions .......................................................................................................... 33
Narrative Phenomenology ............................................................................................ 34
Participants .................................................................................................................... 36
Inclusion Criteria. ..................................................................................................... 38
Criteria for exclusion: ............................................................................................... 38
Recruitment ............................................................................................................... 39
Informed consent and institutional review ................................................................ 39
Description of participants ........................................................................................ 39
Aristotle: A man who enjoys being a father ......................................................... 40
Brian: A workaholic who strives to spend more time with his children ............... 42
Edward: A father struggling with alcoholism ....................................................... 44
Jimmy: A father and a coach ................................................................................ 46
Tom: The adventurer ............................................................................................. 47
Data Collection ............................................................................................................. 49
Data management ...................................................................................................... 54
Data Analysis ................................................................................................................ 54
Triangulation ............................................................................................................. 57
Reflexivity ..................................................................................................................... 58
Researcher Stance ......................................................................................................... 58
Past Experience ............................................................................................................. 59
Limitations of The Study .............................................................................................. 60
Significant Findings ...................................................................................................... 61
Chapter 4: The Construction of Disability Narratives Over Time ................................... 64
Jimmy’s Story: “We accepted it and we deal with it.” ................................................ 65
Wanting her to be happy ........................................................................................... 67
Aristotle’s Story: Explorations of Medication .............................................................. 69
Tom’s Story: Devastation and Hope ............................................................................. 72
Narrative moments of hope: A small grain of rice on a white carpet ....................... 73
Improvment of behavior over time ........................................................................... 76
Brian’s Story: “I Came to Terms” ................................................................................ 77
Comfort through activity ........................................................................................... 80
Edward’s Story: “He’s My Wounded Bird” ................................................................ 82
Discussion ..................................................................................................................... 88
Hope .......................................................................................................................... 88
Uncertainty ................................................................................................................ 91
Personal transformations ........................................................................................... 92
Underground explanations of disabilities ................................................................. 92
Acceptance and denial .............................................................................................. 93
Chapter 5: Processes and Transitions in the Enactment of Fatherhood ........................... 96
Transitions in the Enactment of Protector .................................................................... 97
The Evolution of Responsibilities ............................................................................... 100
Differentiation of responsibilities ........................................................................... 103
Learning to be a father ............................................................................................ 105
The learning process ............................................................................................... 107
The Influence of Perspectives of Fathering Before Fatherhood ................................. 109
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 112
Chapter 6: The Influence of Redemptive Narratives on Fathering ................................ 114
Personal Redemption .................................................................................................. 114
Redemption: Reworking Family Narratives ............................................................... 117
Redemptive Narratives as Part of Lives that Include Multiple Plotlines .................... 120
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 123
Chapter 7: Contexts of Fathering: Constraints and Affordances ................................... 125
Doing Gender .............................................................................................................. 126
Representations of fathers in the media .................................................................. 128
Social Contexts ........................................................................................................... 131
Descriptions of Religion and Spirituality ................................................................... 133
Limitations on religious involvement ..................................................................... 135
Fathering and Health ................................................................................................... 136
Fathering and Government Institutions ...................................................................... 138
Money Makes a Difference ......................................................................................... 139
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 142
Chapter 8: Descriptions of The Experience of Fathering Occupations ......................... 144
The Importance of Play ............................................................................................... 145
Moments of Accomplishments ................................................................................... 148
Occupations as Connections To Family and Community ........................................... 149
The Difficulties of Managing Disabilities .................................................................. 154
The Significance of Place ........................................................................................... 155
The Co-creation of Occupations ................................................................................. 157
The unseen work of occupations ............................................................................. 158
Evolving occupations .............................................................................................. 161
Co-constructions of togetherness ............................................................................ 166
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 168
Chapter 9: A Discovered Place Of Fathering Occupations: The Car ............................ 169
The Automobile Is Ordinary ....................................................................................... 169
Driving as Enactment of The “Good Father” ............................................................. 171
A Unique Opportunity to Communicate ..................................................................... 172
The Significance of The Vehicle ................................................................................ 174
Electronics in the Car .................................................................................................. 176
The Car as a Place for Connecting .............................................................................. 178
Expanding the Circumference of the Scene: The Example of Rabid Robot Rabbits . 179
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 182
Chapter 10: Mealtime as An Example of The Togetherness of Fathering Occupations 185
The Intensity of Feeding ............................................................................................. 186
Lack of Outside Help .................................................................................................. 188
Intersubjectivity .......................................................................................................... 189
Missed opportunities ............................................................................................... 190
The clicking sound .................................................................................................. 192
Giving Teresa a voice ............................................................................................. 193
Playfulness .................................................................................................................. 195
Actors Not Present ...................................................................................................... 196
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 198
Chapter 11: Reflections On The Interview Process ....................................................... 200
“Some White Guy is Here to See You”: The Awkwardness of Research .................. 201
Decisions Along the Way ........................................................................................... 203
What to do about family ......................................................................................... 203
Setting the scene ..................................................................................................... 205
Collective narratives ............................................................................................... 207
Commonalities ............................................................................................................ 208
Themes that resonated in my life ............................................................................ 209
Fathers’ Reflections on The Interview Process .......................................................... 210
“You’ve had to pry for some things” ...................................................................... 213
Discussion ................................................................................................................... 216
Chapter 12: Implications ................................................................................................ 218
Contributions to Fathering Research .......................................................................... 218
Narrative phenomenology in the study of fatherhood ............................................ 218
Generativity ............................................................................................................. 219
Fathers of children with disabilities ........................................................................ 221
Cultural tools and mediated action ......................................................................... 222
Reconceptualizing Occupations .................................................................................. 223
Enfolded occupations .............................................................................................. 223
The limitations of the term co ................................................................................. 224
Family occupations ................................................................................................. 225
Implications for Occupational Therapy Practice and Family Centered Care ............. 226
Implications for Future Research ................................................................................ 229
Appendix: Sample Questions ......................................................................................... 231
References ....................................................................................................................... 232
The aim of this research is to examine the experiences of fathers of children with disabilities as
they engage in fathering occupations. Current research on fathers of children with disabilities
focuses on stress, lacking an examination of what fathers are doing with their children and why
they are doing it. This ethnographic study employs narrative phenomenology as both a
theoretical lens and a research methodology, employing interviews and observations of five
fathers who have a child with a disability. Major themes that emerged in father’s stories
included descriptions of: (a) the construction of disability narratives, (b) transitions that influence
the enactment of fatherhood, (c) the power of redemptive narratives, (d) and the experience of
fathering occupations. Fathers’ communication with their children in the car is used to explore
places of fathering occupations. Men’s investments in fathering occupations are explored
through examination of a father feeding his daughter with a disability. Discussion includes
implications for fathering research, the study of occupations, and family centered care.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Modern conceptualizations of fatherhood are complex and unstable. Traditional ideals of
father as protector and breadwinner have given way to a modern conceptualization of the
involved father (Coltrane, 1996; Gerson, 1993; Lamb, 2000). Though the scholarly study of
fatherhood has received more attention in recent years, limitations remain, particularly in
examination of the everyday occupations of fathering. In my own research I examine fathering
occupations as enacted by fathers of children with special needs.
The birth of a child is described as a significant transitional state that is intensified by
having a child with a disability (Esdaile & Greenwood, 2003; Hornby, 1992; Pelchat, Lefebvre,
& Levert, 2007). At the same time, families have an important influence on the disability or
illness experience of the child (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009). My interest in fathers of children
with disabilities includes both descriptions of experience and how social perceptions shape
involvement in fathering occupations. I describe two observations below that have converged in
a manner that has heightened my own interest in studying fatherhood.
Two Personal Observations on Fatherhood
My personal interests in fatherhood come from two important personal observations: the
importance of defining moments of fatherhood and the impact having a family member with a
disability has had on my family. My research is in part driven by the further exploration of the
meaning of these observations.
Significant moments of fatherhood. The first observation that guides my research of
fatherhood is the importance of life changing moments in men’s lives. Mattingly (1998)
describes two ways the narrative structure of action can change lives. First, actions occurring in
narrative time between the remembered past and anticipated future create desire and possibilities
that are acted upon. Second, narrative action bridges the gap between where individuals are and
where they want to be. Actions create places of becoming where individuals form commitments
and attempt to fulfill those commitments. Similarly, Stern (2004) borrows the Greek term kairos
to identify the passing moments where something happens. These are moments that enter
consciousness in a way that action must be taken and dramatic change occurs.
The moment I define as becoming a father occurred when I was alone with my son at
2:00 AM in a room the size of a closet in an Arizona hospital. It was the second night after
Thomas was born. After working on details all day, we were heading back to the hotel before
picking up our child in the morning. However, one thing sat uneasily with me, Thomas was not
eating. The doctors and nurses were worried that if he did not eat we would have to stay another
day in the hospital. Though Suzanne and I talked about it, we did not come up with a suitable
solution. Finally, I called a colleague with experience in the area of feeding. After a short
conversation, I realized that what was bugging me was that I felt Suzanne and I needed to be
there for Thomas that night. The little guy needed every advantage he could get, and having one
person there consistently to feed him was one of those advantages. So we headed back to the
hospital to spend the night.
The plan was that since Suzanne had fed Thomas all day, she would be there to feed him
that night. As soon as we got back Suzanne and a nurse fed him in what was considered a
nursery while I sat in the waiting room. As a potentially adoptive father, I was not given a
wristband that allowed me entrance to the nursery. With Suzanne and the nurse working
together, the baby drank 5 milliliters; better than before, but not nearly enough.
At about 11:00 Suzanne and I were attending to the baby in the little closet sized room
called the bonding room. Suzanne was tired so she went to sleep in a visitor’s room the hospital
had provided us. I agreed I would wake her up for the next feeding in about an hour. But
instead, an hour later I found myself gently rocking the baby, holding the bottle as he sucked out
of it. As the pace of his suck slowed, I found myself repositioning the bottle and supporting his
chin, skills I thought I had totally forgotten. Maybe like riding a bike, holding Thomas in my
arms brought back simple tricks I had learned working as a young therapist on the Navajo
reservation. Feeding Thomas was not much different from feeding the five-year-old Navajo
children I had worked with.
By the time he was done he had consumed 20 milliliters. The attending nurse informed
me that if he had one more feeding like this he would be going home the next day. I was
exhilarated and though I was exhausted I decided to hold him until his next feeding. So we sat
and rocked for another two hours. I sang softly to him. The songs I sang were religious hymns I
had not sung since I was a child in Sunday school. Though I had not thought about them since
then, suddenly they were important; I could feel that behind them there was a heritage I wanted
to pass on.
Before the next feeding I rubbed his face and arms to wake him up. He stared at my face
the whole time I fed him. By the time he was done, he had taken in 30 milliliters, and the next
morning he was able to go home. But, something more important happened in that room that
night. This late night experience had taken on narrative significance in that it drew on the past
while at the same time projected future responsibility. That was the night that I became a father.
As an adoptive father this defining moment of becoming a father was important. But,
this experience not only defined when I became a father, but also the kind of father I am and will
continue to be. Before this late night feeding, I was willing to let the hospital wrist band that
prevented me from being in the nursery define me. I was willing to let my wife do the gendered
responsibility of feeding the baby. However, in that moment, drawing on past experience I
realized that our parenting was one of shared responsibility. It was important to me that I
participate in the caring responsibilities often gendered as “women’s work.”
In conducting this research I realize that not all conceptualizations of fatherhood will be
the same. Through the process of reflexivity, or thoughtful self-awareness (Finlay, 2002), I have
come to realize that my conceptualization of fatherhood is deeply influenced by culture and past
history. I also realize that there will be many more new and personal experiences that define
fatherhood for me. What I hope to discover foremost with this research is the experiences in life
that define fatherhood for these men.
The use of narrative phenomenology (Mattingly, 2010b) in this proposal is uniquely
designed to extract the experiences of fatherhood and will be further described in chapter 3. In
order to elicit rich experiences I conducted interviews and observed fathers and their families as
they participated in fathering occupations. In this ethnographic approach I will also draw on
methods of reflexivity to examine how my own experience as a father has influenced my
research and data.
Families of children with disabilities. A second observation that influences my interest
in families that have children with disabilities relates to my own family. In 1958, my uncle was
born with cerebral palsy. My uncle and I have always been very close and we share a common
interest in music. When I was in elementary school we shared a favorite music video program
that we watched together often and in college we went to concerts together. When I was
deciding on a career, I looked to my uncle, then a therapist, for advice. He recommended
occupational therapy, which led to my own work as an occupational therapist and the current
work I am doing. My uncle eventually went on to get a PhD and we continue to share mutual
interests around academia.
Though it is difficult to fully understand the positive and negative influences of disability
on family members, some influences can be identified. For example, my mother attended
therapy sessions with my uncle Rob that prompted her work with individuals with disabilities in
the capacity as a special education teacher. The example she set as a special education teacher
sparked my own interest in working with special needs populations. My uncle’s disability
introduced my family to issues and concerns of special needs.
In pointing out the positive, I do not want to discount the difficulty or stress that may
occur due to the disability. Researchers have effectively described the positive as occurring
alongside negative and stressful experiences for parents with children with disabilities (Hastings
& Taunt, 2002; Kearney & Griffin, 2001). Studying the experience of fathers of children with
disabilities is important in that it includes an examination of a combination of joys and hardships.
Relevance of Fathering to Occupational Science
Occupation is defined as “chunks of culturally and personally meaningful activity in
which humans engage that can be named in the lexicon of our culture” (Clark et al., 1991, p.
301). Occupational science is an academic discipline with the purpose of generating “knowledge
about the form, the function, and the meaning of human occupation” (Zemke & Clark, 1996c, p.
vii). In order to explain the relationship of my research with occupational therapy and
occupational science, I will start with a few key terms.
Occupational therapy is the therapeutic treatment aimed at promoting health and well
being through purposeful and meaningful activity. The leaders of the field of occupational
therapy recognized that it could not stand alone without a foundation based on unique research
(Molke, Laliberte-Rudman, & Polatajko, 2004). Because of the recognized need of a research
foundation for occupational therapy, Yerxa (1991) and colleagues conceived of occupational
science. Yerxa intended occupational science to be a basic science without concern for
occupational therapy (Molke et al., 2004). As a basic science occupational science would be
concerned with the universal issues of occupation. The concept of basic science is in contrast to
an applied science concerned with the methods and treatments of occupational therapy (Zemke
& Clark, 1996c). However, at inception occupational science began more as an applied science
than a basic science (Molke et al., 2004).
Occupational science is currently described as both basic, a science devoted to the study
of occupation, and applied, in the service of occupational therapy (Clark & Lawlor, 2009; Molke
et al., 2004). However, this differentiation between basic and applied science can also be seen as
oversimplified in light of the multiple methods used in current occupational science research. It
has been theorized that it is more effective to conceptualize occupational science as translational
research (Clark & Lawlor, 2009) aimed at applying theory to practice (Brekke, Eli, & Palinkas,
2007; Estabrooks & Glasgow, 2006). Translational research has been described as “the uptake,
implementation, and sustainability of research findings within standard care” (Estabrooks &
Glasgow, 2006, p. S47). As translational research, occupational science combines the study of
occupation with the practice of occupational therapy. In this section I will consider how my own
study of fathers is relevant to the study of occupations and the practice of occupational therapy.
Placing fatherhood research within translational research starts with understanding
fatherhood as an occupation. Fatherhood can be broken down in terms of the previously given
definition of occupations as personally and culturally meaningful. Men have described the
personal meanings of fatherhood as watching children grow, extending the family line, having
fun, growing personally, giving meaning to life, and enhancing marriage (Palkovitz, 2002).
Though fatherhood has remained culturally significant, the meaning has shifted over
time. Researchers have described the shift in societal conceptualizations of fatherhood from the
breadwinner of industrialization, to the sex role model of the 1940s, and finally to the nurturing
father of today (Coltrane, 1996; Gerson, 1993; Lamb, 2000). Motivation, skills, social support,
institutional practices and cultural ecology have all been described as powerful determinates of
father involvement (Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004). In this study I have examined the quality
of father involvement while at the same time exploring cultural meanings of fatherhood for the
fathers in the study through narrative interviews with the fathers themselves.
Having begun with the personal and cultural meaning of fatherhood, the next step in
translational science is to apply this research to practice through family centered care, a
movement aimed at addressing the needs of the family (Hinojosa, Sproat, Mankhetwit, &
Anderson, 2002). As Lawlor and Mattingly (2009) point out, family centered care is important
for two reasons. First, family members play instrumental roles in caregiving. Second, the
experience of disability is highly dependent on relationships that individuals have with the
significant people in their social worlds.
Within occupational science, research on family centered care has primarily focused on
mothers (Cohn, 2001; Hinojosa et al., 2002; Pierce & Frank, 1992; Price & Miner, 2009). Pierce
and Frank (1992) use a case study of a mother of a child with a disability to examine mother
work. They conclude that their critique “alerts occupational therapists to the importance of
emphasizing to caregivers the flexibility of conceptualizations of motherhood, despite what our
personal or professional beliefs regarding motherhood may be” (Pierce & Frank, 1992, p. 978).
Examples of modern conceptualization of fatherhood include the new, involved father (Finn &
Henwood, 2009; Lamb, 2000; Williams, 2008), as well as other men from family and
communities that fulfill fathering responsibilities known as social fathers (Bzostek, 2008; Mott,
1990). In addition, researchers have challenged description of non-resident fathers as deadbeat
dads that do not provide for their children (Roy & Dyson, 2010). Considering the changing
modern conceptualizations of fatherhood, Pierce and Frank’s emphasis on allowances for
variability in the conceptualization of motherhood also must be applied to fatherhood in order to
capture the heterogeneity in the enactment of fatherhood that exists.
DeGrace (2003) argues that occupational therapy can become family centered by
addressing the meaningful occupations of the family unit and encourages intervention directed at
how families meaningfully participate in daily activities. A family centered treatment focus as
envisioned by DeGrace would influence how families live and meaningfully occupy their time.
However, as Lawlor and Mattingly (2009) point out, families often have multiple trajectories and
plotlines. It follows that family centered care cannot happen without addressing the multiple
perspectives within a family, including fathers. Though past research has accurately portrayed
the importance of family care, through this research I hope to emphasize the value of fatherhood
within the family and ultimately expand our notion of family centered care.
In my own research I emphasize the value of fatherhood within the family in order to
expand the notion of family centered care. This starts with examining fathering occupations, a
beginning that gives insight into the meaning of fatherhood for the men themselves. Close
examination of experience is important in understanding how therapists and other professionals
can best support fathers. Focusing on fathers of children with disabilities within this study
allows for the potential to inform family centered care.
The emphasis of researchers on mothers over fathers is reflected in practice, as
practitioners report working primarily with mothers (Hinojosa et al., 2002). Frequently
therapists working with families only get to know one caregiver perspective, usually that of the
mother. Focus on one caregiver neglects the multiple perspectives surrounding the meaning of
disability, intervention priorities, and the nature of the problem (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009). It
is important that therapists and professionals recognize that fathers also need support and
consider how they can support fathers. The examination of fathering narratives provides
understanding of the experience of fathering that has not previously been explored. This in turn
can be used to support fathers. Armed with increased understanding of fathering, therapists and
professionals will be better able to support fathers within family centered care.
Fatherhood literature related to service providers such as psychologists, educators and
health care professionals have examined how to include fathers in services for children. In
healthcare and education, studies of fathers’ involvement often focus on limitations (Curtis &
Singh, 1996; May, 1991; Turbiville, Turnbull, & Turnbull, 1995). By examining the importance
of fathering occupations to men, the influences that encourage interactions with children will be
examined while at the same time not ignoring limitations to the enactment of fathering.
The intent of this study is to examine the experiences of fathers engaged in fathering
occupations, which I conceptualize as the enactment of fatherhood. I have identified six
research questions that have guided my study.
1) How do fathers represent the experience of participation in fathering
2) What occupations do the fathers in this study participate in with their children
with disabilities and why are they participating in them?
3) How do social constructs such as having a child with a disability and “doing
masculinity” interrelate with the experience of participation in fathering
occupations in influencing the enactment of fathering?
4) How do fathers convey the narrative moments of significant experience that
contribute to their enactment of fatherhood?
5) How can the use of narrative phenomenology contribute to the understanding
of the experience of and participation in fathering occupations?
Chapter 2: Literature Review
The focus of my research is the examination of fathering occupations as experienced by
fathers of special needs children. This chapter will start by identifying fathering occupations,
using the study of mothering occupations within occupational science as a starting point to study
fathers. Second, I will examine fathering in the presence of social influences such as having a
child with a disability and the social construction of gender. Third, I will examine fathering as
occurring in communities of practice including creations of identity within these communities.
Fourth, I will use experience to conceptualize the meaning of fatherhood and the motivation that
leads men to be fathers. Finally, I will discuss how experiences can be structured by narrative.
Within the field of occupational science, mothering occupations have received frequent
attention while fathering occupations have gone relatively unnoticed. Mothering occupations
have been viewed as lifetime occupations (Francis-Connolly, 1998) and as occupations in
relation, marked by two people engaged in a task (Olson & Esdaile, 2000). More often
motherhood has been viewed as a cluster of occupations termed mothering occupations and has
often focused on co-occupations between mothers and children (Dunlea, 1996; Fraits-Hunt &
Zemke, 1996; Humphry & Corcoran, 2004; Olson & Esdaile, 2000; Price & Stephenson, 2009).
For the purpose of my study I will define fathering as an occupation but will primarily address
fatherhood as a process of enactment that encompasses multiple occupations.
Mothering occupations have been examined primarily by studying mothers of children
with disabilities. For mothers of infants with disabilities occupations were identified as play
(Dunlea, 1996; Fraits-Hunt & Zemke, 1996), and caring for children including comforting,
feeding, and nurturing (Olson & Esdaile, 2000; Pierce & Frank, 1992; Price & Miner, 2009).
Complex advocacy and negotiation of the healthcare system have been identified as important
mothering work done for children with disabilities of all ages (Lawlor, 2004; Olson & Esdaile,
2000; Pierce & Frank, 1992; Price & Stephenson, 2009). The primary occupations of mothers of
typical developing preschool children are nurturing, teaching and daily care. Mothering
occupations for young adults include nurturing in the form of emotional support and advice
(Francis-Connolly, 2000). Comparable descriptions of fathering occupations do not exist.
The depiction of enfolded occupations by Bateson (1996) and Primeau (1998) has
emerged in occupational science as a rare comparison between mothering occupations and
fathering occupations. Enfolded occupations include moving back and forth between two
activities as well as participating in one occupation embedded in another. Bateson argued that
women participate in the enfolded activities of house care and play while men often do not
participate in the two activities at the same time. Similarly, Primeau found that fathers tend to
segregate play with children from household work while mothers often weave the two into
enfolded activities. It is possible that they did not find men participating in enfolded occupations
because they did not look at the right occupations. For instance, a pilot study for this paper
revealed reading to be an enfolded occupation between a father and a son with Down’s
syndrome. The father talked about his personal reading becoming a caring and playful activity
as he read out loud to his son. The two occupations enfolded together are reading and caring for
The influence of this paper on my proposed research will be further addressed in Chapter 3.
Identifying fathering occupations. What are the occupations that make up fatherhood?
In a rare look at fathering occupations, Segal (2005) noted changes in the “occupational roles”
of a father that became a primary caregiver to his sons after a work related accident. The father
in Segal’s study went from breadwinner to “house-husband” and from primarily playing with his
children to being responsible for caregiving. The fathering occupations identified by Segal are
working as a breadwinner, household chores, playing with children, and caregiving. This study
is useful in that it presents a rare identification of fathering occupations.
Past research in the area of family studies has focused on the nurturing style of mothers
as opposed to what has been described as the play-based style of fathers (Paquette, 2004;
Paquette, Carbonneau, Dubeau, Bigras, & Tremblay, 2003). These studies would make it seem
that play is a primary fathering occupation. However, this view has been challenged recently for
oversimplifying parenting and ignoring the similarities between fathers and mothers. It is
believed that fathers’ interactions with children are similar to mothers’ interactions including
altering speech patterns for infants, responding to cries of infants, encouraging exploration in
play, and adjusting behaviors to encourage infant development (Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004).
In a study of children with motor delays between 7 to 36 months, Chiarello, Huntington, and
Bundy (2006) found that mothers and fathers playing with their children displayed similarities in
interaction styles and caring for children, while children’s degrees of playfulness were equivalent
during father and mother play. Lamb and Lewis (2004) described similarities between mothers
Though mothering and fathering have often been defined as roles, I will specifically avoid the
term roles in this paper. The association with functional role theory has emphasized conformity
to a larger system that has been described as limiting the will of the individual (Biddle, 1986;
Jackson, 1998a, 1998b). The term occupational roles implies that action is static, whereas
examining fathering occupations puts emphasis on the enactment of fatherhood, or the process of
and fathers as increasing over time. Parents begin to resemble each other when they participate
in a mother, father and child triad. Lamb (2010) argues that examining the differences between
parenting styles of fathers and mothers leads to over stereotyping of fathers as play partners
despite the multifaceted and contextually dependent responsibilities they fulfill in children’s
lives. Examination of the various fathering occupations can add to the current research of what
men do with their children.
Fathering as caring for children. In this paper I deliberately use the term fathering in
describing men caring for children. Ruddick (1995) defines maternal practices as protecting,
nurturing, and training children. Following a social constructivist approach, Ruddick defines
maternal practices as gender neutral. Therefore, according to Ruddick, men protecting,
nurturing, and training children are mothering. Ruddick argues for this maternal language in
order to recognize the current and historical trend of women in childcare, allow individuals to
confront injustices associated with gendered practices, and to prompt men to recognize a
There have been several challenges to the idea that men mother. Unger (2010) argues
against using the phrase “mothering” to describe fathers in order to break stereotypes of mothers
as nurturers and fathers as secondary. In response to Ruddicks’s work, Doucet (2006a) titled her
book Do Men Mother? Doucet argues that the question itself is flawed because it implies that
men can be examined through a maternal lens.
Though I do not intend to diminish the role that mothers play in childcare, I also believe
that language is important. In a recent episode of the popular television show Modern Family,
Cameron, a gay stay at home father, is offended when he is recognized on Mothers Day. This
lighthearted episode illustrates a valid point. Recognizing Cameron as a mother is limiting the
way in which he can define and enact his masculinity. Fathers are not just the breadwinners, but
also the stay at home dads that care for their children every day. I use the term fathering in order
to recognize and encourage the various enactments of masculinities that occur within shifting
Breadwinning. Though breadwinning has not been associated with fathering
occupations within the occupational science literature, I propose that it should be. Gerson (1993)
classifies breadwinners as one of the groups of fathers that she has identified by interaction
types. According to Gerson’s research, primary breadwinners based their identities on abilities
to provide for their families resulting in more time spent at work and less time with their
children. In many cases, these men had not always planned on being breadwinning fathers but
felt that advancement in career opportunities often preceded their commitments to breadwinning.
Being a father also had a stabilizing effect including increased work ambition, commitment to
work and concern for job security. Being a breadwinner has been described as having a
significant meaning in men’s lives, perhaps it could be described as a fathering occupation even
though it does not involve direct interaction with children.
Constructs of Fatherhood
Andersen (2005) argues that socially constructed categories such as gender, race, class,
and even disability status structure identity and group experience along parallel lines. Therefore,
the combined effects of gender, race, and class should be included in the analysis of social
structures and power relations. McCall (2005) suggests the use of intracategorical complexity
in order to study intersectionality without essentializing categories. This approach uses
traditional categories to identify intersections of unstudied groups while at the same time
examining diversity and differences that exist within the groups. McCall describes authors
working in this vein, including anthropologists conducting ethnographies, as focused on
particular social groups where identities cross traditional boundaries “in order to reveal the
complexity of lived experience within such groups” (McCall, 2005, p. 1774). In my study, social
constructs such as disability and gender are used in order to identify their intersections within a
group that has previously received little attention. However, I will be equally interested in the
diversity and differences within these groups and the intracategorical complexity that these
differences reflect (McCall, 2005). The two areas of social construction that I address are
disability and masculinity.
Fathers of children with disabilities. MacDonald and Hasting (2010) identify four
primary areas of focus for researchers interested in fathers of children with disabilities since
2000. First, the majority of research has focused on stress and depression. Second, related to
stress and depression, studies have focused on factors that explain gender specific experiences of
stress. Third, researchers have focused on the impact of socioeconomic circumstances on father
adjustment identifying disability as one of many risk factors that predicts poorer parent well-
being. Finally, researchers have studied how fathers function within a partnership with spouses.
MacDonald and Hastings conclude that fathers have been portrayed as disengaged figures that
exist on the periphery. By focusing on the negative aspects of stress and poor well-being,
researchers are creating a negative construction of being a father of a special needs child.
One common conclusion related to parents with disabilities is that having a child with a
disability leads to increased divorce (Hartley et al., 2010; Wymbs et al., 2008). The number that
frequently surfaces on television, in books and on the Internet is that 80% of parents of children
with autism get divorced (Freedman, Kalb, Zablotsky, & Stuart, 2011; Hartley et al., 2010;
Peete, 2010). However, there is no known basis or original source for this commonly recited
number. This common belief that parents of children with disabilities have increased divorce
rates has continued despite studies that have existed for 15 years arguing that divorce rates for
families with disabilities are comparable to national divorce rates (Hornby, 1995). Further,
recent national studies have found a lower divorce rate than the general population for parents
with Down Syndrome (Urbano & Hodapp, 2007) as well as parents of children with autism
spectrum disorder (Freedman et al.). One possible explanation of continued prevalence of the
80% statistic and other beliefs in increased divorce rates for parents of a child with disability is
the longstanding assumptions that the disability experience can only be negative for families and
individuals (Risdal & Singer, 2004). Focusing on high rates of divorce can make parents feel like
their marriage has been given a death sentence at the time of their diagnosis (Freedman et al.,
2011). At other times, parents that stay together are viewed as heroic, overcoming great odds.
Both of these examples illustrate how the continued insistence on high divorce rates reflects an
unhealthy trend to view disabilities only through a negative lens.
Within occupation science, Neville-Jan (2005) argues against only focusing on the
negative aspects of disability. In autoethnographies of her own experience, Neville-Jan (2004,
2005) contradicts the notion of disability as solely negative and demonstrates that people with
spina bifida can live full lives equal to any other citizen. Lawlor and Mattingly (1998, 2009)
challenge previous assertions that illness and disabilities can generate only negative experiences
by describing the richness and variability of meanings that occur within families. Through the
examination of experience, my own research provides a lens that allows for analysis that
includes both the positive and the negative aspects of fathering a special needs child.
A second focus within the literature is how to include fathers in services for children.
Though fathers have positive influences on children’s behavior when they are included in mental
health treatment, they are included in interventions less often than women (Phares, Rojas,
Thurston, & Hankinson, 2010). Studies of fathers’ involvement in healthcare often focus on
limitations (Curtis & Singh, 1996; May, 1991; Turbiville et al., 1995). One study of involvement
in children’s doctor visits looked at both barriers and motivators to participation. While work
was reported as a barrier by 47% of the men in the study, 100% reported personal factors, and
79% reported family as motivators for attending doctors visits (Moore & Kotelchuck, 2004).
In a study by Carpenter and Towers (2008) consisting of interviews of fathers of children
with disabilities in England, fathers expressed commitment to their children manifested in
finding resources, advocating for children, and involvement in the development of their children.
A separate group of men in the same study described earning wages as the primary way they
supported their children. Men in low skill and low paying jobs expressed more of an inability to
be involved. Both groups demonstrated a desire to have their contributions recognized and to be
seen as equal partners in childcare. The inability expressed by men in low paying jobs and the
differentiation between breadwinner and involved fathers are examples of how context
influences the enactment of fathering. Fathers in the study by Carpenter and Towers indicated
stronger commitments to their children because of the child’s disabilities. Increased
commitment towards children is one of the few recognized positive influences having a child
with a disability has on men.
The conceptualization of disability in this project in part draws on the discipline of
disability studies that has challenged biomedical views of disabilities. Disability rights activists
have argued that disabilities are socially constructed; if a culture treats a person as having a
disability, they have one (Charlton, 1998). Social relations approaches have been used to
challenge societal views that classify people into fixed inherent categories (Minow, 1991).
Bogdan and Taylor (1989) demonstrate how families fight inherent fixed categories for their
children with severe disabilities by constructing their children as individuals with personality
traits, likes and dislikes, and feelings that they express.
Williams (2001) points out that disability studies have echoed race studies in addressing
the conditions of oppression. Theorizing disabilities in terms of social oppression is limited in
that disabilities often emerge slowly over time, being able-bodied is a temporary state, and pain
and discomfort are often a part of disabilities. Williams argues that disability narratives are an
important aspect of the exploration of disability because narratives move between the subjective
experience of disability and the lived world.
Personal illness narratives have been employed to examine the experience of disability
(Frank, 2000; Gotham & Staples, 1996; Kleinman, 1988; Lindseth & Norberg, 2004; Stoller,
2004). The illness narrative genre has emerged within popular press, including descriptions of
fatherhood (Hornby, 1992). Mattingly and Lawlor (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009; Mattingly &
Lawlor, 2000) expand the illness narrative genre to families that experience illness through
caring for a child with a disability and the child’s participation in the family.
Ferguson (2001) locates disability on a map of family relationships. Family routines, a
context to disability, are important in understanding family perspectives. The activities
themselves are not as important as how activities are constructed and represented. Therefore
there is a need for family narratives that capture a range of details of family history and daily
life. My own research attempts to analyze the fathering experience, a perspective that has
emerged within popular culture but has received little attention by scholars.
Masculinity and father involvement. In conceptualizing gender in relation to
occupation, I draw on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) concept of doing gender. They describe
doing gender as participation in constant routine, recurring accomplishments that determine
competence as members of society for both men and women. In this view, gender is “the
activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities
appropriate for one's sex category” (West & Zimmerman, 1987, p. 127). Applying the concept
of doing gender, Pyke and Johnson (2003) describe how cultural images and ideologies shape the
experiences of Asian American women. They found the women of their study negotiating
assertive and career oriented gender performances of popular American culture with traditional
subordinate Asian gender displays. Messner (2000) demonstrates how gender is performed
between four and five year old boys’ and girls’ soccer teams as the boys’ team invades the space
of the girls’ team called the “Barbie Girls.” Through structural analysis of the youth soccer
organization he identifies a gender regime that includes an unequal division of power and labor
amongst adults and sex segregation of teams. Analysis of the prevalent culture of the soccer
organization reveals powerful gendered symbols such as team names, banners and team colors
that serve to construct gendered boundaries.
Masculinity refers to socially constructed and actively practiced patterns of gender
characteristics that are expected of the male sex (Lamelle, 2010), and can act as constraints or
affordances to paternal involvement. In the 1970s the Swedish government enacted a policy
designed to discourage the belief that traditional masculinities and involved fathering are
incompatible (Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004). In America, perceptions of masculinity that
define the fathers’ role as being autonomous, emotionally controlled, and competent have been
shown to negatively influence involvement of fathers with their child’s Head Start program
(Roggman, Boyce, Cook, & Cook, 2002). Perceptions of masculinity that limit father
involvement can be dangerous because children benefit from the presence of a loving father
Researchers have described a clash between masculinity and the ability to take a loving,
caring posture (Bulanda, 2004; Rohner, 2001; Sargent, 2001). Males working in helping
professions such as nurses, elementary teachers and therapists often find themselves under
scrutiny not encountered by women. Sargent’s (2001) study of male elementary school teachers
demonstrates the clash between ideals of masculinity and the ability to take a caring posture.
The males in his study faced scrutiny for touching children and spending time alone with
children while these same actions were unquestioned for female teachers. Though Sargent
describes a clash between masculinity and teachers, similar descriptions for fathers have not be
explored. What is currently lacking in conceptualizations of masculinity is an analysis of the
relationship between masculinity and fatherhood as experienced by men.
Erikson defines generativity as the concern of “establishing and guiding the next
generation” (Erikson, 1994, p. 138). Generativity has been important within fatherhood research
as it provides a break from role theory, a framework that recognizes inadequacies when men do
not fulfill idealistic social roles while missing the important work that men do for the next
generation. (Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997). Spirituality has been postulated to increase
generativity resulting in strengthened commitments for fathers of various faiths towards their
children with disabilities (Dollahite, 2003). Brotherson and Dollahite (1997) describe fathers of
special needs children as requiring generative ingenuity, or creativity in exercising love by
responding to the needs and desires of a child. Examples of generative ingenuity range from
changing bedpans to rearranging work schedules to care for a sick child.
McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) expand Erickson’s theory of generativity to include
inner desire and cultural demands, rejecting generativity as a clearly demarcated stage of the
lifespan. Generativity is prompted by developmental expectations encoded in cultural demand,
including opportunities, resources, and constraints within society that shape and motivate
generative inclinations. Inner desires that contribute to generativity include agency and
communion. Agency is the desire to develop, expand, and assert oneself in an independent way.
Communion is the need to relate with others and be at one with others.
Cultural demands and inner desires combine to create concern for the next generation that
is outwardly expressed (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992). In a conceptualization of narrative
very similar to how I use narrative, McAdams and de St. Aubin describe action as both
influencing and being influenced by narrative. Construction and reconstruction of personal
stories integrates the past, present, and future. Generativity scripts, which often change over the
life course, are inner narratives that fit generativity into personal histories, the social world, and
sometimes even the history of society.
McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) define identity as the construction of a personal myth
that provides life with purpose, meaning, and unity. Generativity scripts give guidance to these
personal life stories. One way my own conceptualization of narrative differs from McAdams
and de St. Aubin is that I do not conceptualize individuals as having one life story, but as acting
out multiple narrative plots simultaneously.
Experience and Occupations
Defining and addressing the meaning of experience, or moments when something
happens, offers a valuable way to examine fathering occupations. Mattingly (2000) draws on
Gadamer to explain that at these moments one is having “an experience,” a memorable event that
is fixed in time, worth remembering and talking about later. Having “an experience” can be
contrasted with mere experience, or common activity not worth talking about. Actors act out
dramas that turn actions into experiences that are worth telling stories about. In other words,
these are moments when something happens.
Throop (2009) draws on Dilthey to further delineate a continuum of experience: (1) The
simple having of an experience requires the least attention. (2) The pre-reflection mode consists
of feelings for the self and includes associations, comparisons, reproductions and gradations. (3)
Stabilizing attention includes an isolation and stabilization of specific elements of experience.
This variety of experience is the ability to focus attention on the context of consciousness
without changing or creating interpretation of experience. (4) During inner observation, or
introspection, isolated features of experience are fixed with deliberate attention. (5) Memory
within experience can also have levels of reflection: retrospective attention creates meaningful
coherence of experiences; methodological self-reflection is awareness of experience in light of
memories; and anthropological reflection is awareness of others in cultural and historical
context. Reflections that occur at the level of memory within experience during fathering
occupations allows men to make sense of experiences, relate experiences to past memories, and
be aware of the cultural and historical contexts that influence the enactment of fathering.
Though it is not obvious where occupations start and stop on Throop’s (2009) continuum
of experience, previous definitions of occupation indicate that the first level is not occupation
and the final level is occupation. Gray (1998) defined occupation as purposeful, meaningful,
complete activity in context. Though occupation is meaningful activity, she suggested that
repetitive activity was not occupation, but could be used to learn underlying components of
Examining significant experience is valuable in addressing what has been described as
the transformative power of occupations (Townsend, 1997; Trombly, 1995; Versluys, 1980;
Wilcock, 1999). In 1922, Meyer, whose writings form the early roots of occupational therapy,
referred to “the growing conviction that personality is fundamentally determined by performance
rather than by mere good-will and good intention” (Meyer, 1977, p. 641). Picking up on the
transformative power of occupation, Riley (1962) wrote that through occupations man can
“creatively deploy his thinking, feelings and purposes to make himself at home in the world and
make the world his home” (Reilly, 1962, p. 2). Significant experiences become vehicles for
understanding how occupations can transform lives.
The transformative power of experience is demonstrated through the examination of
improvisation that occurs within figured worlds, or collectively realized “as if” realms, (Holland,
Skinner, Lachicotte, & Cain, 1998). Within the occupational science literature, figured worlds
have been used to describe the cultural context of occupations (Asaba, 2008; Lawlor, 2003; Park,
2008). Figured worlds simultaneously grant shape to and take shape within activities, artifacts,
performances, and discourses. Transformative change occurs within figured worlds through
improvisation when an individual encounters a situation that is outside the realm of available
cultural resources. Improvisation of actors leads to constant change in the material and
conceptual aspects of figured worlds. For individuals, improvisations provide resources that can
be used as heuristics in future encounters (Holland et al., 1998). The application of
improvisation to occupations creates a conceptualization of how experience can change both
cultural artifacts and personal identity. As individuals participate in occupations that challenge
current cultural resources they are forced to improvise, leading to increased resources and
changes in figured worlds.
Though I have focused on the transformative power of significant experience, I also
include important everyday experiences. In describing human survival in a world of moral
uncertainty, Kleinman (2006) describes a certain amount of blindness that we need to make it
through our days. In other words, it is too overwhelming for every moment to be an experience
worth talking about. Similarly, not every activity can be an occupation worth talking about.
Some experiences must be what Gray (1998) calls repetitive activities to learn skills, to
participate in occupations or simply accomplish the mundane day-to-day tasks. However, it is
also important to look at the repetitive activities that serve as precursors for occupations.
When talking about significant experiences, the image of a flipping calendar from the
classic movie Citizen Kane comes to mind. In the movie, the time between scenes is represented
by a calendar that fans across the screen as a marker of time. During this time, the audience can
assume that nothing important to the story has occurred. However, in real life, something does
occur. In depicting the aftermath of the Partition, a violent destructive period of time in India’s
history, Das (2007) describes how women redefine themselves through the work of quilting,
stitching and repairing everyday relationships. For these women living in the aftermath of
violence, what otherwise might be seen as common work activities become meaningful. In
searching for significant experiences, I also hope to identify the everyday work that occurs
between, because of, and despite of significant moments.
Narrative. Mattingly (2000) describes some experiences as being “lit up with those
qualities we take to belong to finely wrought narrative” (Mattingly, 2000, p. 189). Stated most
simply, narratives are stories (Riessman, 2008). However, the recent “narrative turn” in the
social sciences has provided the term with greater meaning (Bruner, 1990; Mattingly, 1998;
Drawing on Aristotle, Ricoeur (1984) postulates narrative as structuring experience. He
defines Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, or emplotment, the organization of events into a plot, as
having three senses. Mimesis 1 is a temporal, symbolic, and structural pre-understanding of the
world. This sense of mimesis is pre-existing, based on past experience. Mimesis 2 is the
gathering of elements, pulling parts together in an “as if” manner that mediates between pre and
post understanding (Ricœur, 1984). Mimesis 2 contains a provisional quality that allows
individuals to test understandings of experience while still allowing the ability to reject them
(Alsaker, 2009). Mimesis 3 is the telling of the story and the interpretation of the story by the
listener. The listener brings a cultural background with them that is used to interpret and
understand the story (Ricœur, 1984). An understandable story is told with a beginning, a middle,
and an end (Alsaker, 2009). Identity is changed as people make ethical decisions (Ricœur,
1984). I have included this very brief explanation of Ricoeur's complicated mimesis because it
has been used as a break from the traditional way of looking at narrative as a speech
act. Departing from narrative as text, the exploration of “as if” possibilities has been taken up
and explained as occurring in actions, an argument made particularly relevant when studying the
experience of occupation (Josephsson, Asaba, Jonsson, & Alsaker, 2006; Lawlor, 2003;
Mattingly, 1998). Through emplotment, individuals can construct narratives and explore future
possibilities as they participate in occupations. Ricoeur’s mimesis informs my study of
fatherhood in that I analyze how experiences both described during interviews and observed first
hand by the researcher are emplotted.
Whereas narrative theory has traditionally been used in relation to texts, Mattingly (1998)
applies narrative theory to lived action by employing narrative time in observing the ways that
actions take on narrative meaning. First, Mattingly emphasizes how narrative locates experience
in the three-fold presence of time, between the remembered past and the anticipated future. Both
past experiences and future possibilities give meaning to present action. Mattingly illustrates this
point through the description of a checkers game between a therapist and Matt and John, two
patients on a spinal cord injury unit. Preparation for the checkers game is a place where they are
able to reflect on past experiences and face difficult future possibilities. As the participants in
this therapy session prepare for the checkers game they make forays into the past by referencing
earlier events including an awkward visit when Matt’s mother bumped the joystick of his
wheelchair. Together they explore the future through conversation that connects their
preparation to John’s upcoming day pass. Applying the three-fold presence of time to
occupations, actions become reflections of the past that project towards the future.
Second, narratives bridge the gap between where the individual is and where they want to
be. In between the gap is desire to achieve the envisioned end. Actions are a place of becoming
as they take on meanings of hope within the individual’s life story (Mattingly, 1998).
Occupations similarly take on narrative meaning as individuals work towards desired ends.
Heuchemer and Josephsson (2006) provide an example of the narrative structure of
actions by describing homelessness as a “lived plot.” First, they demonstrated the three-fold
presence of time. At times of homelessness and addiction, future possibilities were dominated
by the immediate need for drugs and shelter that led to dramatic highly intensive experiences.
However, the transition from homelessness created lived plots with future possibilities and
reflections on the past that were enacted in the present. Second, desire was created when the
women experienced gaps between where they were and where they wanted to be. For instance,
one woman recognized that she wanted to regain custody of her children. This desire led directly
A study of five individuals with chronic arthritis by Alsaker and Josephsson (2003)
further demonstrates how occupations performed in the present can take on past meaning and
future possibilities. One woman connected the occupation of serving lunch with the past by
telling stories. She had learned to make fishcakes out of fresh fish from her mother and still
made them for her children despite considerable effort. For the arthritis patients in their study,
future potentials were often connected to frustration and despair. For a man in their study, the
inability to perform occupations that required the use of his hands caused him to reflect
negatively on the future probability of being forced to sell his motorcycles.
Narrative and culture. Wertsch (1998) conceptualizes narrative as cultural context for
action by combining the dramatism of literary theorist Burke with Russian psychologists
Vgotsky and Bakhtin. Mediated action is the process whereby cultural tools, social resources
that allow individuals to interpret and act on the environment, create affordances and impose
constraints on the action of the individual. Novel cultural tools have the ability to transform
action when appropriated while agents also have the ability to resist new tools. Wertsch uses
pole-vaulting as an example of the tension between agent and cultural tools. The sport of pole
vaulting was transformed as the material used for poles was switched from inflexible wood to
bamboo to fiberglass. The stronger more flexible fiberglass poles were capable of bending up to
90 degrees during takeoff, allowing athletes to launch themselves over bars up to 20 feet high.
However, this transformation of cultural tools was not met with universal acceptance. Some
argued that new materials transformed the sport beyond recognition, relying merely on the pole
and not the athlete. In other words, they argued that the transformation of cultural tools, (the
pole) transformed the mediated action (the sport).
Wertsch (1998) defines narrative as a cultural tool. Drawing on his own research,
Wertsch found that college students invariably inserted the theme of a quest for freedom when
describing the story of our founding fathers. The theme of a quest for freedom is a cultural tool
that can influence not only narratives told, but also individual interactions with the world. In
applying Wertsch to my own work, I consider occupations such as fathering as mediated actions
that are transformed by the cultural tools including narrative. I will attempt to identify the
cultural tools that create affordances and constraints that influence the actions of fatherhood.
Similar to Wertsch’s use of cultural tools, Mattingly (2006b) described icons such as
Pocahontas as cultural resources that therapists, children and parents use to create shared
narratives. They become interwoven into stories that are acted out within the therapy clinic. One
therapist used Spiderman as a tool that allowed her to connect with a sensory defensive child.
The enacted Spiderman stories allowed the child to explore activities that he would not otherwise
have participated in. Mattingly notes that consumers of stories from popular culture often poach
from these stories, adapting them to their own means and purposes. One difference between the
use of narrative between Mattingly and Wertsch is the emphasis Mattingly places on the
enactment of stories. Mattingly places importance on the emplotment of narratives in a way that
they actually become the mediated action that is enacted by agents.
Autobiographies about disability experiences are a popular literary form that connects
narrative to disability. Hornby (1992) reviewed eight books written by fathers about their
experiences having a child with a disability.
Commonalities between the reviewed texts include
a highly intense initial reaction to diagnosis; a process of adaptation to the disability including
This study included the still popular books by Josh Greenfield, A child called Noah (1972) and
A place for Noah (1978).
coming to terms; negative feelings towards professionals and other members of the public;
descriptions of the stress of caring for a child with a disability and the negative effect on
marriages; concern about finding suitable care for their child; high intensity of both positive and
negative feelings towards the child; and acknowledgement of personal growth. Hornby
concludes that “without exception the accounts are poignant and, although there are positive
features, focus mostly on the negative aspects of the situation” (Hornby, 1992, p. 373).
In my own review of narratives written by fathers of children with disabilities I found
fathers described personal growth, the meaningfulness of everyday childcare tasks, the
importance of education, and methods developed for the distribution of responsibilities between
spouses (Bonsall, 2013). This genre is an example of personal narratives that reflect cultural
narratives of fathering a child with a disability.
Intersubjective aspects of occupations. Stern (2004), a psychotherapist, places the
transformative power of experience in intersubjective moments. Dramatic changes occur
through moments of meeting where something happens and is shared to alter implicitly felt
intersubjectivity. Moments of meeting are shared emotionally, physically, and implicitly in a
way that forces moments into awareness. Ultimately, action must be taken. Moments of
meeting are significant experiences on an intersubjective level.
Lawlor (2003, 2009, 2012) demonstrates the power of shared moments by examining
children as occupied beings concluding that action between adults and children is co-constructed,
giving the example of a spontaneous imaginary birthday party in a hospital hallway. In this
story, a mother and her daughters start with the idea of a birthday party and build on this co-
narration by adding an imaginary birthday cake and diapers that serve as presents. They take
turns adding details to the narration, elaborating the plot, and acting out their creation. This
observed encounter between mother and daughter is an example of the intertwined nature and
interrelatedness of action. Particularly important in this scene is that engagement between
mother and daughter is both driving learning and creating opportunities for meaning to be
The intersubjective aspects of occupations resemble, yet go beyond, co-occupations, a
concept original to occupational science. Co-occupations were first identified as occupations
where both mothers and children are seen as actors. This was opposed to previous views of
mothering care that considered mothers as active participants while children were passive
recipients (Zemke & Clark, 1996a). One often repeated definition of co-occupations views them
as not necessarily occurring within shared time, space, intent, or meaning (Pierce, 2000, 2009).
Particularly limiting in this definition is the lack of shared meaning within occupations.
However, another definition describes co-occupations as produced and embedded in shared
meaning (Pickens & Pizur-Barnekow, 2009). In my own research I am interested in co-
occupations as not only produced and imbedded in shared meaning, but also as creating shared
meaning between parents and children. Instead of looking at co-occupations as limited in shared
meaning, my own interests lie in studying two people working together to construct engagement.
As shown in this review, studies of fathers of children with disabilities have often
focused on the stress and other negative aspects of fathering. However, I propose looking at
what has previously been viewed as a grim intersection between fatherhood and children’s
disability in order to examine the experiences of men currently enacting fatherhood. Within this
intersection I will examine fathering occupations, giving special attention to the constraints and
affordances that limit or encourage participation. This is important research in understanding
what fathers do with their children and why it is meaningful.
Within this chapter I have explored ways to look at the meanings behind the experience
of fathering occupations. The meaningfulness of experiences can be produced on personal
subjective levels, intersubjective levels, or on larger cultural levels. Mattingly (2010b) proposes
the use of narrative phenomenology as a methodology that employs narrative in understanding
experience on all three of these levels of context. Chapter 3 will delve into narrative
phenomenology and how it applies to my own research exploring the paternal experiences that
binds men to fathering occupations.
Chapter 3: Methods
The goal of my research is to examine the experience of participation in fathering
occupations. Five key assumptions have guided my research methodology:
1) Fathering occupations are meaningful activities that constitute the enactment of
fatherhood and are influenced by personal, interpersonal, and structural conditions.
a. Significant experiences can be examined for transformative power through
moments of improvisation (Holland et al., 1998).
b. Intersubjective connections between fathers and children are transformative
through the power of shared moments (Lawlor, 2003; Stern, 2004).
c. The enactment of fatherhood is made culturally meaningful through narrative
(Garro, 2000; Mattingly, 2006b; Wertsch, 1998).
2) Social constructs such as having a child with a disability influence the enactment of
3) The narrative structure of action and experience is an important source of motivation
and desire (Mattingly, 1998).
a. Narrative locates the present experience in three fold presence of time
reflecting the past and anticipating the future giving meaning to present action
b. Narratives bridge the gap between the present and future possibilities creating
desire to achieve an envisioned end (Mattingly, 1998).
4) Narrative phenomenology allows for analysis of experiences on the levels of
personal, interpersonal, and structural conditions (Mattingly, 2010b).
In order to examine experiences and the enactment of fatherhood, I will employ what
Mattingly (2010b) calls narrative phenomenology, a type of ethnographic research based on
narrative that allows examination of both near level experiences along with cultural, social and
historical context. Narrative phenomenology provides a “vantage point from which to see how
the past and present are saturated by dreams-and nightmares-of the future” (Mattingly, 2010b, p.
217). Lawlor and Mattingly have used narrative phenomenology in a collaborative
interdisciplinary study of families and children living with disability and illness that has spanned
more than 14 years (Lawlor, 2004; Lawlor & Mattingly, 1998, 2009; Mattingly & Lawlor, 2000).
I will draw on, and adapt, their theory and methodology in my own research of fathers of
children with disabilities.
Employing Mattingly’s (2010b) narrative phenomenology, I examine “near” and “far”
levels of experience by situating personal and local dramas within larger frames of actions.
However, my research will not have the scope or breadth of Mattingly’s research. Mattingly and
Lawlor’s study of families was remarkable in that the scope of personal and local dramas
included levels of individuals, families, and encounters within border zones of the health care
system (Lawlor, 2004; Lawlor & Mattingly, 1998, 2009; Mattingly & Lawlor, 2000). In my own
research, personal and local dramas included fathers, families, and the people associated with the
places where meaningful occupations occur. These local dramas are situated within the social
constructs of disability within families and the shifting meaning of fatherhood.
In explaining the theory behind narrative phenomenology it is useful to start by breaking
apart the term.
The term phenomenology is related to the rigorous and detailed methodology
concerned with the exploration of the contents and structures of consciousness. Phenomenology
presents the researcher with the ability to ground the transmission of cultural forms in an
understanding of the complexities of consciousness (Throop, 2002). Throop (2003) argues that
phenomenology of consciousness offers a window into experience, a central focus of my own
study of fatherhood.
By narrative I do not limit myself merely to the telling of stories, but also refer to the way
that narratives are enacted and structure experience (Mattingly, 1998). Experiences take on
narrative meaning in two ways. First, the three-fold presence of time places the present between
the remembered past and anticipated future. Second, actions become a place of becoming as
they take on meanings of hope within the individual’s life story. In this place of becoming,
narrative bridges the gap between where persons are and where they want to be (Mattingly,
Narratives have the ability to connect small-scale dramas, such as social interaction and
personal experiences, to large-scale social histories (Mattingly, 2010b). For instance, Das (2007)
relates local violence against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in the A4 block of
Delhi with the historical contexts of caste and class conflict. Das found that violence was
motivated by the daily disparities that existed between the Sikhs of the A4 block whose
increased social and economic status had received negative attention from the poorer Hindus of
This section starts with an overview of narrative phenomenology while the data analysis section
will address the fine detailed aspects of narrative. However, it should be noted that narrative
phenomenology has been instrumental in all phases of this study including study design, data
collection phase, data analyses, and write up.
the A2 block that were identified as the primary perpetrators. On a local level, the question of
what is at stake for individuals and families is central to narrative phenomenology. Larger
social histories are seen as important social resources that influence local and personal narratives
Narrative phenomenology offers possibilities for studying both fathers and occupations.
Previous studies of fatherhood have primarily focused on the amount of time fathers have spent
with their children (Coley, 2001; Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004; Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004).
Lost in quantitative studies of time is the quality of participation between fathers and children.
For instance, an hour spent with a child is still an hour whether they are playing catch, watching
television or spending the hour fighting. I propose not to look at the amount of time spent with
children, but to examine fathering occupations and the meaning behind those occupations. A
combination of observations and interviews allow for insight into experience and personal
understanding of the meaning of those experiences. Data collection methods will be further
described in the on page 52.
Qualitative research of fathers holds an additional advantage from the perspective of
occupational science as a translational science. Once insights are gained into the enactment of
fatherhood, these insights can then be used to guide occupational therapists and other health
professionals in how to best support fathers.
The participants for this study are five fathers of children with disabilities. A sample size
of five was chosen in order to enable “thick” descriptions of fathers’ experiences both in
narratives and participant observations. In deciding between depth and breadth in my sample I
chose an ethnographic design, focusing on stories with enough depth to allow for sufficient
Recruitment for this study has included fathers of children with disabilities between
seven and twelve years old in order to include the developmental shift that occurs between the
ages of five to seven years (Janowsky & Carper, 1996; Sameroff & Haith, 1996; White, 1996).
Particularly important for my study of fatherhood is social transitions that happen between the
ages of five to seven. Weisner (1996) has described understanding of cultural meanings and
social rules gained during the five to seven developmental shift as taking different forms across
cultures. Within Western culture the shift is intensified due to the transition to school.
Samerhoff and Haith (1996) describe schooling as a social activity that determines how children
evaluate themselves as learners in society. Unfortunately, many children are not able to meet the
high standards of the competitive classroom, producing negative results. Seligman and Darling
(2007) describe this stage as a time when families enter the public sphere for the first time, often
prompting parents to reevaluate educational and vocational goals for children with disabilities.
In my own study of fatherhood, I will look at fathers whose children have already entered the
public sphere in order to examine fathers’ experiences and narratives from within this transition.
Children were identified as having a disability that limits participation in community
settings as described by fathers. This criterion is non-categorical and does not take into account
the severity of impairment but will look at typicality and variation that occur in the experiences
of participation in fathering occupations. I am not concerned with diagnostic categories that
differentiate, but similarities in the disability experiences that transcend categories (Lawlor,
2004; Lawlor & Mattingly, 1998). Focusing on disabilities that limit community participation
correlates with the developmental shift that occurs between the ages of five to seven, when
families enter the public sphere for the first time. I am interested in the social aspects of
fathering and how being in the community influences fathering.
Fathers for the purpose of this study are identified as men that engage with their children
in community settings. The definition of fathers has been deliberately left broad to allow for the
diverse contributions and definitions of fathers. The men were allowed to identify themselves as
fathers in order to capture the variations amongst men that define themselves as fathers.
Eligibility for fathers also included having a child with a disability. In spite of the broad
definition of fatherhood that I started with, four of the fathers were married living in the home
and the fifth was married with his wife not living in the home when I first met him.
• Fathers that engage with their children in community settings.
• Children with a disability must be between the ages of seven and twelve years old.
• Children have been identified as having a disability that limits participation in community
as identified by father.
• Families that live within 60 miles of researcher.
• Families that are native English speakers.
Criteria for exclusion:
• Individuals that do not identify themselves as fathers.
• Children are younger than seven or older than twelve.
• Children that have not been identified as having a disability or have a disability that does
not limit participation in the community as identified by fathers.
• Families that live over 60 miles from researcher.
• Families that are not native English speakers.
Recruitment. Participants were recruited through word of mouth and flyers. Word of
mouth included connections through family, friends, and professional contacts. Recruitment
flyers with a brief description of the study were given to participants either through contacts or
email. Once contact was made, I met with the participants in their homes (a place of their
choosing) in order to determine if they met criteria. All five men I met with signed up and
participated in the study for the duration of the study.
Informed consent and institutional review. I received approval from the Institutional
Review Board (IRB) of the University of Southern California. Participants that met criteria were
given an informed consent approved by the IRB that they read and signed. Informed consent
was verbally explained to participants by the researcher. Data collected for the study has been
secured and kept private. Pseudonyms have been used to protect identity.
Description of participants. Five fathers participated in this study. Wide ranges of
children’s disability diagnosis were represented. Diagnoses included attention deficit,
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, Lowe Syndrome, and two children diagnosed on
the autistic spectrum. Lowe Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that affects males but is carried
by the mother. There was also a wide variation in severity of disability. Teresa, Aristotle’s
daughter with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is fed all of her meals. Brian’s son,
diagnosed with autism, has limited communication skills and additional health concerns,
primarily due to having had rickets.
Four of the fathers, Aristotle, Brian, Edward, and Tom, are in their late 30s to mid 40s.
Edward, the oldest father in the study, is 66. Edward has an older son in his 30s that has a family
of his own. Tom also has a child from a previous relationship that he does not have contact with.
Table one provides a brief summary of demographic information on the five fathers.
Tom Married Full Time 2 White Lowe Syndrome 11
There were several changes in family dynamics that occurred over the one year of the
study. Edward’s wife passed away during the course of the study. They had been separated and
she was not living in their home at the time of her death. Edward was the primary caregiver and
the children lived with him full time even before she passed away. Brian’s 6
child was born
about 10 months into the study. Tom’s son started at a new school. Though Jimmy was
unemployed for most of the study, he was able to find employment for about two months. And
of course, all of the children were one year older by the time the study ended.
Below I provide brief profiles of the five fathers. These profiles serve as an initial
introduction to fathers whose narratives will be further explored throughout the study.
Aristotle: A man who enjoys being a father. Aristotle enjoys being a father and it
shows. When describing fatherhood Aristotle primarily talks about the fun.
It is fun from the get go and it doesn't stop. I don't know what it is going to be like later
on but I am pretty sure it is going to be fun all the way. (He points to his son Leo sitting
in the room). Especially with this little guy.
Aristotle has two sons, Dante and Leo. They live in a one-story home in a largely
Hispanic neighborhood. Both Aristotle and his wife Elizabeth work. Elizabeth works as a nurse
while Aristotle does videos for a sports company. Aristotle has a high school education and
some college. He learned most of the skills he used for his job through doing.
Leo, Aristotle’s younger son, has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder (ADHD) that is currently being treated with medication. Before being diagnosed and
properly medicated, Leo often had behavioral outbursts that Aristotle refers to as “demon mode.”
However, these outbursts have decreased to the point where Leo did not have one during the
one-year span that I knew Aristotle. Leo currently does well in school. Aristotle does describe
Leo as still having difficulty making friends and the kids he does connect with are often “the bad
Aristotle comes from a single mother household. He emigrated from Mexico with his
mother when he was very young. Though his mother did briefly remarry, Aristotle never really
connected with his stepfather. An uncle did fulfill a disciplinary father figure role in his life.
His own disappointment with his father and other father figures in his life greatly influences
Aristotle’s views on fatherhood. In one particularly poignant story, Aristotle tells about how his
stepfather had promised to take him to the snow but never did. Years later, Aristotle endured a
late start, a broken down car, and extreme traffic in order to give his two sons two hours to play
in the snow.
In some ways, Aristotle’s views on fatherhood live between two different worlds.
Aristotle has been surfing since he was young and continues to work in the countercultural world
of surfing. On the other hand, Aristotle is a family man, a practicing Pentecostal, a conservative
But yeah, the dad dilemma -- the whole, like, you know, you want to raise your kid right
and whatever, and you want to spend time with the kid, but you also don’t want to be the
dork. You know what I mean?
Aristotle keeps his two sons active. He drives them and attends practice for soccer,
basketball, football, and karate. These are all team sports that Aristotle wanted to play when he
was younger but was never able to be involved in. Aristotle is a big Lakers’ fan. Being part of a
team and having a team to root for is very important for him. In addition, Aristotle keeps the
boys in skating, music, theatre, and other community events. Aristotle has taught Leo some art
techniques, both drawing on the computer and by hand.
When they are together, Aristotle and his two sons can be very creative. They have a
series of “knock-knock” jokes that they have developed primarily based on potty humor. While
driving in the car or sitting together at home they have developed ideas for toys, video games,
and movies. Their creative process is a wild blast of excitement that starts with an idea that they
each add to as they go. It is obvious from the way they talk about it that they all enjoy creating
Brian: A workaholic who strives to spend more time with his children. Brian is an
extremely busy father of six. His youngest son was born about 9 months into the study. Brian is
a friendly man who loves to joke and play with his children. In public he has a very boisterous
personality and people respond well to his friendliness. The two things that stand out most in his
life are his family and his job.
Adam, Brian’s oldest son, is diagnosed with autism and has limited communication. He
has frequent serious health problems including blindness, rickets, and kidney and liver problems.
It has taken Brian a while to learn to deal with Adam’s autism. Brian’s wife Joanna says that he
was in denial the first five years. It has only been in the last couple of years that Brian has felt
comfortable dealing with Adam’s behavioral problems in public. Brian describes Adam’s
disability as having changed his while worldview.
My wife is more conservative. My in-laws are all conservative, and all my brothers and
sisters are more conservative. It is Adam that changed me politically. It was, you know,
look, you know there are people that need more service, and does government have a
role? So that just affected me. And that changed my outlook.
Because of Adam’s health problems, Brian estimates that he spends more time with
Adam than all of his other children combined. He tries to compensate for this uneven amount of
attention by doing things with his other children that they want to do, and at other times by
buying them presents. Another younger son also receives special education services but does not
require the level of assistance that Adam requires.
Brian describes himself as a workaholic whose primary fathering responsibility is
providing for his children. He also describes his father as a workaholic who worked constantly
to provide for his family. Both he and his wife Joanna come from two parent families with a stay
at home mother. Joanna stays home fulltime with the kids.
Despite his busy work schedule, he is also very proud of his relationship and the time he
spends with his children. He talks with pride about the many activities he does with his
children. In one interview, after I had not been able to get a hold of Brian for two months
because of a busy tax season, he lamented that he needed to be a better father and needed to
spend more time with his kids. It is interesting to note that though Brian is the sole breadwinner
in the family, he does also change diapers, something his father never did.
Brian’s hard work has paid off; his family lives in one of the few two story houses in a
middle class neighborhood. Brian has his own room complete with a large flat screen TV, an
extensive DVD collection, and a Mac computer. The family van was purchased with three rows
of back seats so Brian could have a seat of his own. Their family has the money to buy the extra
help for Brian such as therapies and paid assistants. Brian also explains that having money
makes a huge difference in his relationship with Joanna.
Early on Joanna and I used to fight because money was tight and we had to do something.
The last few years I have made a lot more money so I don't, you know, the therapy bill is
a thousand bucks a month. It just is. There is money there for all of that stuff. I don't
This quote and others point to the importance that having sufficient money has had in
raising Adam. When they decided that taking Adam to Disneyland on a regular basis was taking
Brian away from the other children too much, they were able to hire one of his classrooms aides
to take Adam on the weekly outing.
Brian’s time spent with Adam is largely dictated by Adam’s wants and needs. One
weekend Adam said he wanted to go visit his Brian’s mother, so they got in the car and made the
two-hour trip to her house the next day. Frequent activities that they participate in together
include going to Disneyland, going swimming at the YMCA, and going to the movies. Brian
also participates in daily childcare such as giving his son Adam a bath and doing the early
morning feedings for the baby. He also drives Adam to school once a week. For Brian, the
activities that he does with his children and his childcare responsibilities often change as dictated
by circumstances. For instance, within the year of the study he stopped going to Disneyland,
started going to the movies, and started driving Adam to school every Friday.
Edward: A father struggling with alcoholism. Edward was a single father when he
raised his oldest son, now in his 30s. His two younger sons from his second wife are 16 and 12
and both live with him. They live in a small two-bedroom apartment in a rough, mostly
Hispanic, neighborhood. Edward is retired and lives off his social security and the small amount
of money he makes from a business recycling ink cartridges. He does not drive due to losing his
license after having a seizure while driving. Around the same time he experienced the seizure,
Edward also suffered a stroke that he blames for severally affecting his memory and his physical
Alcoholism has been a pervasive devastating theme throughout Edward’s life. Edward
describes being an alcoholic while raising his oldest son, Edward Junior. A pivotal moment in
his life was the day he identified himself as an alcoholic at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting
after Edward Junior was arrested for drunk driving. Since that day, over 20 years ago, he has not
taken a drink, and has struggled to make right all of the wrongs he has committed. Edward
often talks about making amends, a term from Alcoholics Anonymous he has incorporated into
his life. He described his conversation to make amends with Edward Junior.
Those kids will never see me drunk and will never have to be treated the way I treated
you. And that's my amends to you. It is a living amends I will make everyday because of
what I did to you as you were growing up.
This powerful statement displays that for Edward, being sober and taking care of his sons
is a form of redemption. It is a chance to redeem the past mistakes he has made with his older
During the course of the study, Edward’s second wife died of what he described as
complications related to her alcoholism. Several years earlier Edward forced her to decide
between drinking alcohol and being with her family. She picked drinking. However, he
frequently let her stay with the family for her own safety and because he greatly valued her
involvement as a mother figure for his sons. Still being married to Janet, Edward was ultimately
responsible for coordinating the family decision to take her off life support. Edward reports that
his sons were prepared for the death of their mother, but during the time that she was in the
hospital they got into more trouble than usual because he was not able to monitor them.
Dillon, the youngest son, has been diagnosed with what Edward has described as “autistic
tendencies” and “the lowest level of autism.” Edward disputes the diagnosis of autism for
Dillon. Dillon is in a special education classroom. He has a difficult time making friends and
spends most of his time playing video games at the house of an 18-year-old friend. This is an
area of great stress and concern for Edward as Dillon will ditch school to hang out at this friend’s
house and sometimes will not come home until late at night. Edward also believes that Dillon
has what he calls “alcoholic tendencies” due to his poor impulse control and constant need for
more. Dillon has started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with Edward.
Edward generally let’s his teenagers make their own decisions though he does
occasionally give them advice. He does not want to force his kids to do anything. This
philosophy about parenting is supported by his experience in Alcoholics Anonymous.
I learned, and this is another thing I learned from AA. When I get in there and try to fix
it and get it going my way, it just don't work. When I let it happen but sit back and give
advice, you know, "Watch out for that stop sign." You know, like that, it works a lot
better. When I get in there and try to manage and control things it does not work.
According to Edward, he does not spend much time with his sons anymore. They both
have their friends and their activities and are not home very often. When he could drive, he took
them to games and practices for baseball and other sports, but he no longer drives and neither of
them are interested in playing sports anymore. The one activity that I observed between Edward
and Dillon is an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting at Dillon’s school.
Jimmy: A father and a coach. Jimmy’s caring involvement with his children is a strong
contrast to his rough childhood.
I grew up on the other side of this neighborhood which is more gang orientated, a lot of
drugs. I had relatives that lived there with me. I had an uncle that was a heroin addict
and another uncle that used to deal drugs so I was exposed to that element at 8 years old.
It was just a bad deal. Luckily I made the decision to where I seen it and I didn't want no
part of it. That stuff disgusted me. I was like always, you know, they are all Cholos and
gangs and I was all surfer dude. You know, I had my hair long. Just anything to
antagonize them and aggravate all of them and all that. And you know, I just went and
did my own thing, you know. I didn't have a father so I grew up with my mother and she
was always working so I pretty much did everything on my own. I had nobody to watch
me and stuff. So I was free.
Shortly after they got married, Jimmy and his wife Maya moved to Mammoth. There he
worked odd jobs while traveling, hiking, camping and fishing. They lived a carefree life. He
had never really thought about fatherhood until Maya told him she was pregnant.
After his first daughter was born, Jimmy’s family moved back to Los Angeles where he
had steadier work available. After their second child, Jimmy and Maya still both worked. Their
next two children were twins, and Teresa was born with cerebral palsy severally limiting her
communication motor skills. When the twins were born Maya quit her job to stay at home with
them. Jimmy worked full time until a few months before he joined the study, when he was fired
from his job for missed time at work. His work absences were a combination of attending
doctors’ appointments for Teresa and missed time due the death of a close family member and
mentor. During the study he made money through a variety of jobs and ventures.
Jimmy has several valued occupations that he participates in with his children. He
coaches his son’s baseball team, Teresa’s t-ball team, and he and his wife get paid to coach their
daughter’s high school softball team. Saturday’s and weeknights at the park are a big part of
their family. When one of the family members plays, everyone often attends. Teresa plays on a
softball team with two of the neighbor boys. Jimmy helps her hit the ball off the tee and pushes
her around the bases. At these games, their oldest daughter often serves as a base coach.
One of Jimmy’s primary responsibilities is feeding Teresa, something that takes about an
hour for each feeding. Teresa’s food is pureed and often comes out of her mouth due to a tongue
thrust. Because of her low weight, the doctors want to put her on a feeding tube, something that
Jimmy and Maya have revisited. Getting Teresa enough food is very important to keep weight up
and avoid the feeding tube.
Tom: The adventurer. Talking with Tom one gets the distinct feeling that being a good
father is not always easy. Tom is not afraid to talk about the financial strain and the difficulties
of dealing with Greg’s behavior and disability.
Tom is the sole breadwinner in their family; they decided that his wife Sarah would stay
home with the children when their first son Greg was born. They live in a small two-bedroom
apartment with their two sons. Tom describes himself as broke. When Greg was born Tom
sacrificed some of his possessions including his race car, his trucks, and his entertainment center.
When Greg was little, they filed for bankruptcy because of all the bills. Though they are more
stable monetarily, money and bills remain a stress in their life that causes arguments. During one
interview he described his struggles with money.
Well, when you’re younger, you have all these things you want to do. You want to buy a
house someday. Now, all of a sudden, instead of paying $1,000 a month extra on your
house, or to save for a down payment on a house, now that money is going to medicine.
That money is going to some doctor, somewhere. Yeah, my life is not over, but it’s
completely different than what I thought it was going to be. Is that good or bad? I guess
that just depends on your perspective on what’s ultimately important in life.
It is important for Tom to be involved in his two young sons’ lives. Tom has a son that
lives in another state that he has had very infrequent contact with throughout his life. Tom speaks
about his own father with admiration in terms of work ethic and generosity. However, Tom’s
father was ill during most of Tom’s childhood and they seldom did things together.
Well, I try to always find out what they’re thinking. How was your day? Well, how was
school? I always ask them that, because I don’t remember my dad ever asking me that,
not one time. I’m sure he did, but I just don’t remember it. And, I think it’s important to
know what your kids are doing and you can kind of gauge how they’re doing by their
reaction. And, if we’re all of a sudden talking about it all the time and then one day they
don’t want to talk about it, well, something’s going on. What’s going on? So, I want them
to know that I’m proud of them, I want to be part of their lives, I don’t want them to think
that I don’t care; I do. That’s why I do that.
His oldest son Greg was diagnosed with Lowe’s syndrome shortly after he was born.
This is a rare genetic disorder that is transmitted through the mother’s side. Sarah’s brother also
has the same syndrome. Tom sometimes feels resentment to his wife knowing that she was the
carrier of their child’s disability, but more often he feels resentment towards the doctors that told
him earlier that she was not a carrier of the gene.
In the last year, they have seen a significant improvement in Greg’s behavior. Early in
the interviews, Tom described difficulty with getting Greg to brush his teeth and Greg’s behavior
in public. Tom often resorted to singing songs or doing wacky stuff when these problems
occurred. In the course of the interviews, Tom saw a significant change in Greg’s behavior that
he attributed partly to school and partly because Greg was getting older.
Tom enjoys going with his children on community outings that he often calls
“adventuring.” Tom has always enjoyed being active and has taken Greg everywhere since he
was a baby. Some of their favorite places include anywhere with trains, Downtown Disney,
watching planes at the airport, and just going out to get food. Tom is an avid bike rider; he often
rides his bike to work and takes longer rides on the weekends. He often takes his sons on bike
rides around the parks that are near his house.
For each participant, there are two modes of data collection for this study. Both
interviews and observations were focused on gathering data around meaningful experiences of
fathering. Narrative based interviews consisted of between 8 and 10 interviews. All interviews
were recorded via digital recorder and fieldnotes were taken for each interview. Interviews
focused on obtaining narratives that defined the enactment of fatherhood, recognizing the
occupations that fathers participate in with their children, and rich descriptions of perceptions of
having a child with a disability. In addition to collecting data, interviews were an opportunity for
participants and researcher to become familiar with each other (O'Reilly, 2005).
Interviews typically lasted about one hour but some ran as long as two hours. All
interviews were recorded via digital tape recorder except for the first interview with Jimmy that
was not recorded due to an error on my part. After each interview, I wrote a fieldnote recording
significant impressions, experiences, and descriptions. Questions were open-ended intending to
obtain descriptions of the experiences of fathering occupations. An interview guide designed to
elicit narrative questions is included in the Appendix. This interview guide was piloted before
the interviews on a sample of fathers.
Mothers and other family members were included in interviews with fathers. The
decision was made not to interview family members individually in order to maintain the focus
on fathers within this study. Though family members or members of the community can provide
valuable insight, they can also create difficulties. One concern is possible perceived breaches in
confidentiality or trust that may occur between the fathers and researchers when other family
members are included. Interviews with young children also create difficulties in communication
and vulnerability. After evaluating the pros and cons I decided not to do individual interviews
with family members other than fathers.
Though I did not interview family members other than fathers individually, family
members signed IRB approved informed consents and were included in interviews. Participation
of family members in interviews was an adaptation made to the research design submitted for
approval to IRB several months into the study. Family members such as spouses and children
wanted to participate in the interviews when they saw what was going on. I adjusted the study
design to include family members after recognizing the important perspectives they offered. At
times, interviews that included family members resembled more of an observation than an
interview because of all of the action that was occurring. These interviews provided multiple
perspectives on fathering and on particular experiences.
The second mode of data collection was observations. The researcher observed,
videotaped, and took fieldnotes of fathers participating with their children in activities identified
as important and meaningful during interviews. Observations proved particularly important in
that it allowed the researcher to examine influences on occupations that the research participants
were not be able to describe. For instance, while observing Brian on an outing to the movies
with Adam, I took note of the constant vigilance he kept over his son.
Direct observations allowed for analysis of the narrative structure of actions as they
occurred. Being within the physical space of activity allowed for examination of the personal,
interpersonal, and structural conditions that drive the actions of fathering occupations. For
instance, examining Teresa’s softball game allowed for observations of the interaction between
Jimmy and Teresa as well as their interactions in the community.
Observations of fathers and children occurred in the settings where fathering occupations
took place. I did at least four observations with all of the fathers except for Edward. The only
observation I did with Edward was at his son’s IEP. We were unable to identify other
appropriate observations due to his son being older and often out of the house with friends.
Edward is also limited in participating with his sons because of his poor health. I decided against
attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings due to confidentiality issues for other participants at
the meeting. See Table 2 for a complete list of observations.
Video data was taken during observations where a camera would not interrupt activity.
Although there is a danger that video can produce exaggerated performance, I chose to include
them in order to capture gestures, gazes, and other enacted and embodied displays that cannot be
captured in audio (Riessman, 1993, 2008). Videos also gave me an opportunity to review visual
data multiple times and make fine-grained analysis of social interaction. The analysis of Jimmy
feeding his daughter in Chapter 10 was permitted by the collection of video data. Though I
attempted to do video observations with all of the fathers, it did not work out for Tom. After
discussing several possibilities, we decided that videos would not work because Greg would be
too distracted. In general it was difficult to video observations because of the mobile nature of
community outings. Observations were primarily recorded through fieldnotes.
Observations primarily focused on everyday meaningful activities. Unusual events such
as the meeting with school officials that I attended with Edward were the exception. Fathers
generally wanted me to observe the fun times they had together. This included baseball games
and community outings. Though these are important outings, I also valued including everyday
events. I think sometimes these activities seemed too mundane to the fathers, or they wanted to
portray what they did with their children as more interesting than childcare activities. Whatever
the reasons, I had to get in observations of the every day activities when I could. In the end, all
of the activities that I observed were agreed upon the fathers and myself. Because the fathers
were more interested in the fun things they did with their children, my attention was drawn to the
fun activities more than they otherwise would have.
Observations started after I had done four to six interviews. The initial shift from
interviews to observations was difficult in several cases. Fathers seemed to have gotten
comfortable with interviews and observations represented a change in setting and schedule. For
one father it took several months to set up an observation after consistently doing interviews for
four months. However, once observations were established, they became easier to set up than
interviews. Fathers became very comfortable with me accompanying them on outings and even
seemed to enjoy having another adult along. At that point the line between interviews and
observations became blurred. Fathers wanted to continue talking while on observations whether
in the car or on the sidelines of a football game. In these instances I turned the tape recorders on,
getting good data around the activities we were engaged in.
Interviews and observations informed each other. The settings for observations were
chosen based on descriptions of meaningful activities as identified by the fathers during
interviews previous observations. For instance, I suggested observing Jimmy feeding his
daughter after he described it as one of his primary responsibilities. The fathers insisted upon
some of the fun observations such as Teresa’s t-ball game. Observations also informed
interviews in that important aspects of fathering that stood out during observations were brought
up in interviews. An example of this was fathers talking to their children in the car; an aspect of
fathering that emerged during an observation that was revealed to be important when I brought it
up in interviews.
In the original design of the study I had envisioned holding three collective narratives, or
group meetings designed to elicit discussion within the group of what is important to its
members (Mattingly, 2010b; Mattingly, Lawlor, & Jacobs-Huey, 2002). However, collective
narratives were eliminated as part of the research due to the distance that the fathers lived from
each other and scheduling difficulties encountered during interviews. Since collective narratives
were included in the informed consent, the decision to cancel collective narratives was discussed
with my dissertation advisor and the fathers. Though one father did say he thought it would have
been cool if we got together and had beer and pizza, there were no objections to cancelling
Table 2 Observations
Aristotle Brian Edward Jimmy Tom
Dillon’s IEP Feeding
Greg and Chad
Aristotle’s Work Bookstore
Riding the Train
with Greg and
Visit to Tom’s
with Greg and
Trip to Get
Shaved Ice With
Greg and Chad
Data management. All audio and video data was transferred to a secured laptop and
stored using a password. During the first three months the researcher transcribed audio and
video. After receiving a small grant from American Occupational Therapy Foundation, I was
able to pay for transcription through a transcription service. All transcripts were checked for
quality and use of pseudonyms after they were transcribed by the transcription service.
Pseudonyms were used for all transcripts. Documents related to the study such as consent forms
have been stored in a locked file.
Data analysis was based on narrative phenomenology, combining hermeneutics and
literary theory (Mattingly, 1998, 2010b). Hermeneutics, a tradition based on the interpretation of
texts originating in protestant theology, has become a powerful tradition in philosophy and
human studies (Lindseth & Norberg, 2004; Mattingly, 2010b). Rorty (1979) conceptualizes
hermeneutics as a struggle against epistemology, or the belief that there is an existing rational
common ground that needs to be found for any given conflict. In my own research I employ
hermeneutics in the interpretation of both interviews and observations (Mattingly, 1998).
Mattingly (1998) gives three justifications for the use of literary theory to analyze the
everyday narratives of ordinary people. First, narratives act as a way of getting at what really
matters. Second, echoing Aristotles (1996) examination of poetry, narrative is an imitation of
real life. Most important for Mattingly is the dramatization of the gap between expectations and
future events. Finally, narrative provides language for understanding and making sense of
human experience (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009; Mattingly, 1998).
The use of literary theory to examine narrative dates back to Aristotle’s (1996)
examination of poetry for the components of plot including completeness, reversals and
recognition, character, suffering, and completeness. Whereas Aristotle and others have used
literary analysis to analyze texts, in my proposed research I will also use narrative time to
examine the nature of experience . The features of narrative time as described by Mattingly
(1998) are: time is configured; action and motive structure action; time is organized in the gap
between the present and the future; things change over time; narratives have conflicts, obstacles,
enemies, and risks; and narrative endings are uncertain. Examination of narratives included a
combination of thematic analysis (Riessman, 2008) and an adoption of narrative analysis
techniques used in my work with Dr. Mattinlgy and Dr. Lawlor including chaptering and data
I have employed what O’Reilly (2005) calls an iterative-inductive research. An inductive
approach begins with an open mind and theory is seen as being derived purely from the data.
Using the iterative-inductive approach researchers recognize the existence of preconceptions and
conduct research in a manner that is informed yet at the same time open to surprises. The
iterative aspect of research indicates that theory is represented during both planning and analysis
stages of ethnographic study and writing (Willis & Trondman, 2002).
Analysis of the data began during interviews. Detailed fieldnotes were part of this initial
analysis. Some themes, such as talking in the car had already begun to form during the initial
analysis. Second, after audio and video was transcribed, transcripts were analyzed to identify
topics within texts. Topics were summarized and placed into a spreadsheet in chronological
order for each interview. This was an initial step in organizing the data in order to be able to
identify stories and themes. Each interview typically yielded around 20 summaries in this initial
stage. The following is a typical summary.
One time when he could not sit in a certain spot Brian had to pick Adam up and carry
him off the ride. The Disneyland community is pretty understanding. Brian is very
friendly, always tells people happy birthday. They remember him. Brian does not need
to think when he is there. They only have to wait 7 or 8 minutes for Space Mountain.
In this stage, I also used chaptering, a form of narrative analysis employed by Mattingly
and Lawlor, in order to identify stories. Chaptering consists of reading the transcript with an eye
for stories, then creating titles for each story. Chapters were then summarized.
Third, summaries of topics identified in the second stage were indexed into catagories
using a spreadsheet. Catagories were primarily concrete clusters such as “sports”, “money”, and
“work”. However, some more thematic catagories such as “fathering responsibilities” and
“public behavior” also emerged. Fourth, catagories were analyzed more deeply with special
attention being paid to narratives, looking for major themes both within and across cases. For
instance, within the catagories of sports, descriptions of factors that influence fathering,
disability narratives, and being together emerged. These themes were organized into tables for
Fifth, identified themes were then analyzed again for significant narratives. Collections
for each narratives were copied from original transcripts and placed into a document.
Collections were then highlighted and color coded for themes and stories were analyzed using
The sixth and final stage of analysis was the writing process itself. Throughout the
process of analysis themes were adjusted as insight emerged and this included the writing
process. One particularly difficult to write chapter on the “Joys and Difficulty of Father” was
split into the chapters “The Why of Fathering” and “The Fathering Process.” The continuity of
the seperated themes made both chapters easier to write.
Triangulation. A process of triangulation has been used in order to strengthen the data
analysis process. Triangulation has been described as a mode of inquiry, a way of self-
consciously gathering data by “seeing or hearing multiple instances of it from different methods,
and by squaring the finding with others with which it should coincide” (Huberman & Miles,
1994, p. 438). Multiple data sources were collected in order to give multiple perspectives
(Janesick, 1998). In order to achieve data triangulation I use personal and family interviews,
videos, and fieldnotes taken from first hand observations. Evaluation of data by multiple
researchers is another form of data triangulation used to support and refine findings when
necessary (Janesick, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994). This second form of triangulation was
accomplished through meetings of small groups of researchers experienced in narrative data
analysis willing to analyze and comment on collected data. All collected documents from the
study such as consent forms have been stored in a locked file.
Research exists within the context of subjective and intersubjective elements that act
upon the researcher’s perspective. Finlay (2002) describes reflexivity, or thoughtful self-
awareness, as a tool to analyze the influence of subjective and intersubjective elements. Levels
of reflexivity range from acknowledging the existence of researcher bias to embracing
subjectivity by engaging in self-aware analysis in order to examine researcher insight.
Behar (1997) describes the vulnerable observer as exposing the self in ways that take the
reader in places they otherwise could not go. Writing vulnerably takes skill, nuance, and the
willingness to follow through on complicated ideas. For example, Jacobs-Huey (2006) analyzed
her own public embarrassment after using the improper term “wash-and-set” to describe a
shampoo. Through reflexivity Jacobs-Huey was able to identify the process of language
socialization that she was experiencing as an observer.
Reflexivity occurs throughout the research process from the research-planning phase to
data analysis. Within this study the process of reflexivity started with formulations of what
questions to ask and how to ask them. In the first chapter of this proposal I presented my
reflexivity through illustrating some of the observations that have prompted me to perform my
own research on fathers. Chapter 11 provides reflections on the research process including the
areas of data collection, data analysis, and write up.
The native observer has become increasingly important in ethnographic research. The
ethnographic researcher as an outsider has been critiqued as missing the subtleties of cultures
raising the question of who is qualified to speak for whom (Behar, 1997). Davies (1999) argues
that the heterogeneity of society, the multiplicity of social boundaries, and variety of ways that
individuals define themselves as belonging or not belonging to social categories makes it
difficult to define who is at home as a native ethnographer.
There are several factors that I believe have allowed me access to this community. First,
I am myself the father of a young child. Several fathers in the interviews actually gave me
advice about fathering such as “always buy the warranty.” Second, as O’Reilly (2005) points
out, people are usually willing to participate in research if researchers can explain valid reasons
of why they are doing the research. In addition, most people not only do not mind researchers
hanging out and asking questions, but also are even appreciative of being able to tell their stories.
Several of the fathers that I studied said they enjoyed doing the interviews. Two of the fathers
seemed impressed after I attended their child’s sporting events.
As part of my recent coursework and as a research assistant I gained the skills and
experience necessary to prepare myself for this larger research project. I conducted two studies
that have incorporated narrative interviews. The first study examined the use of play by
occupational therapists in the public school system. In this original study I performed interviews
with five school-based occupational therapists asking open-ended questions attempting to elicit
stories of how they used play in their therapy practices. The interviews were coded thematically
and analyzed using narrative techniques. I presented my original research at the American
Occupational Therapy Association annual convention in 2010.
A paper titled The Importance Of Reading For A Father And His Son With Down
Syndrome, serves as a pilot study for this paper. In this study I interviewed a father about his
interactions with his son was has Down syndrome. During the interview I found that the father
and his son enjoyed reading together. Inspired by this co-created occupation I took time to read
a book with the child. Here I present a passage describing this experience, recreated from
fieldnotes. Pseudonyms are used in this excerpt.
The day that I read the book with Ryan could best be described as a lazy Saturday
afternoon. Dillon, a brother, was reading on a chair and Adrian, Ryan’s sister, was in the
kitchen reading at the table. Seeing me enter the room, Ryan opened his book and
motioned for me to sit down. At first Ryan opened the book to a page near the back.
When Ryan had gone through three or four pages the book was finished. He then started
again at the beginning. I said I had to go. Ryan tapped my mouth with the back of his
hand and proclaimed clearly “no.” We then proceeded to go through the book from the
beginning. Though immersed in their books, Dillon and Adrian were attentive enough to
clarify Ryan’s speech. When the book was finished I again told Ryan I was leaving. He
said “OK.” Adrian told him to say good-bye and Ryan responded by waving.
Combining my experience reading with Ryan with the description his father gave of their
experiences together became my model for this study. On a larger scale, in the current study I
have interviewed fathers about fathering occupations then take the time to observe participation
in these occupations.
In addition to these two original research studies I have published an article titled An
examination of the pairing between narrative and occupational science (Bonsall, 2012). This
article based on my review of occupational therapy and occupational science journals includes
descriptions of narrative in everyday life, in occupational therapy practice and as a research
methodology. The knowledge I gained from this project has provided me with valuable insight
into the theoretical roots of narrative and the use of narrative in research.
Limitations of The Study
Since I did not specifically sample for family makeup, gender of the child, and disability
of the child, these factors do not reflect national trends. Family structures such as stepfathers,
non-resident fathers, and men that fulfill fathering roles such as uncles and grandfathers were not
included. The five to twelve age ranges does not allow for experiences of fathers with teens,
adult children, or infants.
Though mothers and children were included in the interviews, their participation in the
interviews was limited and they were not interviewed individually. The experience of mothers
and children is limited within this study. Though I offered an open invitation for mothers to
participate, none of the mothers participated in the interviews for more than 30 minutes total
across the data collection period. Their viewpoints as collected are included when appropriate,
but they are also limited. In addition, most of the children were unable to verbally to
communicate their perceptions of experience.
There were limitations on the observations. Fathers were resistant at times to allowing
me to observe very personal aspects of their lives. However, I do feel that the observations
decided upon gave a broad range of activities and included both everyday childcare along with
fun outings. Though my observations definitely leaned in the directions of fun, both were
represented. The data collection period, lasting between 12 and 15 months, allowed for little
room to observe changes as they occur. This is an important limitation since I emphasized direct
The primary themes that emerged within the data are presented as chapters. However,
there are also significant findings that run throughout the chapters. An outline of the significant
findings that emerged within the data is provided in this section. Since the findings presented in
this section run throughout the study, examples do not appear in the order of the chapters.
One of the primary implications of this study is the significance of fathering in men’s
lives. For all five of these men, being a father has taken on great meaning, it is something that
they do and value. Their identities have been changed through the experiences of being a father.
For instance, in Chapter 12 the theory of generativity is used to demonstrate the importance of
the enactment of fatherhood on the development of men.
Narrative experience is an influential factor in how individuals view themselves and
others. Narratives that powerfully influence fathering often emerge long before their children
are born, as demonstrated in the redemptive narratives that are presented in Chapter 6. Not only
did narrative moments influence fathering, they were also substantial factors in change over
time. This is significant in that past studies have often talked about fatherhood as something that
happens at the birth of a child and have neglected the dynamic nature of fatherhood.
Disabilities have been described as being socially constructed, however, in Chapter 4
disabilities are also displayed as narratively constructed. Particularly for Tom, his son finding a
grain of rice on a white carpet emerges as a significant moment that defines his perception of his
son’s disability. Just as the enactment of fathering changes over time, fathers’ views of their
child’s disability also change over time.
Throughout this research, the good and the bad are intertwined. It is my hope that
within my presentation of the data I am able to display both the struggles and the joys of
fatherhood. Though the constraints and affordances of fathering are highlighted in Chapter 7, the
good and the bad of fatherhood occur throughout. Throughout the course of the interviews,
fathers often described the positive aspects of their experiences but also included the darker side.
The difficulties of fathering include Edward talking about the influence of his alcoholism on his
children, Brian questioning his son’s quality of life, and Tom’s example of a time when he did
not do the right thing in disciplining his children. Though I have developed a deep respect for all
of these fathers, I have also strived to present the difficult or challenging aspects of their stories.
The similarities in experiences were striking for these men that represent considerably
different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Jimmy and Aristotle grew up without fathers
in the home. Brian and Tom talk about their fathers with great respect. Edward grew up with a
father whom he did not speak highly of. However, all five of these men displayed narratives of
redemption that included a desire to improve upon the ways that their fathers raised them.
Narratives of dealing with their children’s disabilities and the importance of talking while
traveling in cars also stand out as a similarity in their experiences.
This study represents a unique way to examine fathers. Interviews and observations
provide a lens for looking at the experience and meaning of fatherhood. This unique research
also resulted in logistical challenges. Some of the challenges that I faced and the decision
processes in overcoming these challenges are presented in Chapter 11.
Chapter 4: The Construction of Disability Narratives Over Time
The event-centered nature of narratives allows individuals to make sense of illness and
disability and convey their experiences to others (Finlay, 2004; Hughes, 2002; Mattingly, 1998).
Within social sciences, the analysis of illness narratives has evolved into an important
examination of the experience of illness and disability (Bonsall, 2012; Charon, 2006; Frank,
1996; Kleinman, 1988; Lindseth & Norberg, 2004; Sandelowski, 1991; Stoller, 2004). The
illness narrative genre has been expanded to include stories told by parents because children
participate in families and families care for children (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009; Mattingly &
Lawlor and Mattingly (2009) argue that multiple changing perspectives on illness and
disability exist within families. Divergent perspectives develop around priorities for
intervention, the nature of the problem, and the meanings of illness and disability in daily lives.
The fathers’ perspective is just one perspective on disability that exists within the family, but a
perspective that is often missed. A recent trend in popular culture has seen an increase in books
written by fathers describing their experience raising a child with a disability. For instance,
Rodney Peete, a football player whose son has autism, and Dick Hoyt, who competes in
triathlons while pushing his son in a wheelchair, have both published books about their
experiences of having a child with a disability (Hoyt & Yaeger, 2010; Peete, 2010). For both of
these authors it was important to present their perspective, a father’s perspective, on having a
child with a disability (Bonsall, 2013). In this chapter I present the disability narratives of all
five fathers in this study separately in order to capture the flow of their stories. Analysis of the
interrelatedness of their stories is presented in the discussion.
Jimmy’s Story: “We accepted it and we deal with it.”
Jimmy and Maya already had three children when the doctors told her she was pregnant
with twins. Maya received regular prenatal care but started to fear that one of the twins was not
moving in the womb at around 36 weeks. During an interview Jimmy talked about the next
The very last time that we went to go see them, that is when ah, she kept saying a couple
of days before that. "You know what, I don't feel the other one moving so much as the
other one.” And then they were trying to find Teresa and they couldn't find, they couldn't
get her to move and they actually had to shock the stomach a couple of times to move.
Luckily that was at 36 weeks. And so we went to the doctor after that and they go,
"Well, you are at 36 weeks, when do you want to have them?" And she, because she was
miserable, her hips were killing her and everything, she wanted them out. She goes, " I
want them out now. Let's do it now."
A few days later the twins were delivered by Cesarean section. Not being able to find one
of the fetuses has become part of Jimmy’s disability narrative and represents his first recognition
that something could have been wrong with one of the twins. It seems unlikely that this incident
would have taken on the same significance if it weren’t for Teresa’s diagnosis. The narrative of
Teresa’s birth is next taken up in the delivery room.
He showed me the umbilical chord; that it was in that true knot. And he goes, "Good
thing, if you would have waited one more day this baby wouldn't have made it.” And she
came out crying and everything and Justin was the one that they were actually worried
Though he does not know the true origin of her disability, Jimmy later told me that he
feels the knot in the umbilical chord is the cause of Teresa’s disability. When the twins were
born, the doctors were first worried about Justin who was not crying and not Teresa who was
crying. However, their concerns shifted to Teresa a few months later.
And then they came home and at around two months we started noticing a difference that
Justin was just pulling, doing things and she wasn't. She was like the perfect baby.
Perfect sleep. Wouldn't wake up at night. And then as they got older we started noticing
that she was behind and we kept telling our pediatrician, "Hey man, something is wrong
here." And he is all, "Oh no, that is par for the course for twins. One of them is always a
little behind, there is always a lazy one." So we were like "OK."
Though Teresa was not yet eight months old at the time, they have already shifted from
thinking about Teresa as the perfect baby to worrying about her. The doctor alleviated their
initial worries. However, their concerns become more pressing at an unlikely time: during a
boxing match at a friend’s house.
One night we were at a friend’s house, watching a fight, boxing match, big boxing match.
Everybody was drinking and Teresa was crashed out in the other room and a guy got
knocked out and everybody is all "Yeah!!" Yelling and everything and Maya's sister is
going, "You know what? Something is wrong because with all that noise that baby
should have woke up and she didn't wake up." So we were kind of thinking it was
hearing or something. So finally at eight months the doctor finally gave us a diagnosis,
which was cerebral palsy hypotonia.
Teresa’s lack of response to the noise during the boxing match became a breach that they
could not ignore. This time the doctor gave Teresa a diagnosis. Having a diagnosis, the first
initial uncertainty and fear that Jimmy and Maya had felt was quickly replaced by resolve.
Jimmy gives this explanation of how they came to understanding having a child with a disability.
And we are like "Ahh, man, that is not good." And we are going; because the first thing
you got to do is, you got to accept it. Because we know how it was, we were like that.
But then, real quick we made up our minds. Either we are going to sit there and say,
"Why me? Why us? God?" You know, I mean you go through that. You get mad, you
blame God, you are mad at the world. "Why did you do this to us?" But like everybody
always tells us, you are chosen. They give special children to special people. Sometimes
you are like "Yeah right, bullshit. Whatever." But it is true, pretty much. And you got to
either; you are going to accept it, which is what we did. And figure out how to make her
life the best we can or you, it's just going to be doomed. And even like most of the
doctors, Teresa's doctors have told us that like 80% of marriages fail when they have
special needs children. They are saying, "you guys are a rarity, you hardly see parents
that are still together.
There was a pivotal moment when Jimmy and Maya realized that they were either going
to pity their situation, be angry, or accept their daughter’s disability. In later interviews Jimmy
says that though he is not certain, he thinks that exact moment they made the decision occurred
at a doctor’s appointment. Regardless of where it occurred, there was a definite moment where
he sat with Maya and they discussed their situation. This moment of decision is reflected in the
way that Jimmy acts with his daughter today. They work to keep her involved in their family
and the community through playing t-ball, taking her to parties, and the amount of time that
Jimmy spends with his daughter. The question, “What is Teresa going to be doing?” is always in
For the most part, Jimmy believes that a cosmic power exists that paired Teresa with their
family. He refers to a force that paired Teresa with their family as “they.” Jimmy does not claim
to belong to any organized religion though he occasionally attends the Catholic Church with his
wife and values spiritually. It is uncertain when Jimmy refers to “they” if he is referring to a
Catholic conceptualization of God or some other sort of cosmic power. While he says for the
most part he believes they were chosen, there are also times when he just thinks, “Yeah right,
bullshit. Whatever." This simple line reflects the times when life becomes difficult and Jimmy
has doubts in his ability to accept his situation. Though Jimmy is guided by the decision to do
everything he can for Teresa, there are still times when he wavers.
Wanting her to be happy. Jimmy expressed concern for his daughter’s future. During
an interview I asked what he thought would be different about having a daughter with a disability
as opposed to a son. In this quote, Lori is a trusted advisor that has worked with Teresa in the
Well, especially, like, with Teresa’s disability -- because, you know, it’s doubtful that
she’s going to walk and all that -- I mean, you know, my wife and I have already went
ahead, and we’ve actually discussed it with Lori, too, about, you know, maybe when
she’s older, having a hysterectomy. Because in my wife’s side of the family, they all
have big boobs, and then, you know, the period and all that to deal with. So, I mean,
we’ve already got that stuff on the agenda. You know, we just want to make it as
comfortable for her as we possibly can.
This is a very complex issue for Jimmy. Immediately after talking about the reality that
Teresa most likely will never walk and the possibility of her having a hysterectomy, Jimmy
talked about the improvements she has made in the last six months. There is a large gulf
between hope that she will improve and the reality that a surgery will make her more
The idea of giving a hysterectomy to a female with a severe disability is controversial in
the medical community (Diekema & Fost, 2010; Gunther & Diekema, 2006). For Jimmy, it is
apparent that this is a decision that weighs heavily on him. During our last interview I asked
Jimmy what he saw for Teresa’s future. He said, “One thing my wife is talking about, maybe, is
giving her a hysterectomy.” This was the second time he brought it up, but this time he placed
the responsibility on Maya. When I asked if Jimmy had talked to doctors about the possibility of
a hysterectomy, he then turned the question on me, asking me what I thought. Not having
studied the options, I was unable to give Jimmy an accurate answer. Even now, after having
studied the issue, I could still not give him an answer. He asked me several times for my
opinion. When I told him I did not know enough about it he requested a “yes” or “no.” I did not
know what to make of this at the time. I laughed uncomfortably as I claimed my lack of
knowledge. Later, reading the transcript and listening to the audio I was still not sure if Jimmy
was truly requesting my opinion or if he was defending himself from possible criticism. This
conversation gave me the feeling that this pending decision looms in his mind.
At the same time that Jimmy accepted his daughter’s disability, he also maintained hope
that some day she would walk. The following quote stands in stark contrast to Jimmy talking
about Teresa getting a hysterectomy.
She’s, you know, she’s growing, but she’s still strong. Hopefully, her body wakes up,
cause they say one day her body could just wake up. Get back on her own feet. So, I
don’t know. I pray there’s a day where I get to see her walk. That would be like me
winning the lotto. It would be awesome. Some people would say, if I had one wish. Like
me, it would be to see her walk.
Though Teresa is eight years old, she is still making improvement. Jimmy has told me
that in the last six months, Teresa has started to purposefully reach for items. However, Jimmy’s
contemplation of Teresa having a hysterectomy is in contrast to Jimmy’s belief and wish for her
improvement. If her body were able to wake up so that she could walk, it doesn’t seem likely
that would go through with the hysterectomy. These appear to be two very different trajectories
for her future.
Aristotle’s Story: Explorations of Medication
During an interview Aristotle described his son Leo’s defiance and difficulty in taking
responsibility as his son’s primary disability. He then asked if he could tell a story to explain.
Of course, being interested in narratives, I encouraged him. He proceeded to tell a story about a
time when they were at a public pool when Leo was two. Leo started pointing at something that
he wanted. Aristotle could not figure out what Leo was pointing at and Leo started to cry. In
frustration, Aristotle placed Leo at the edge of the pool. Leo sat at the edge of the pool kicking
his feet for a few minutes and then got up and walked over to a man on the other side of the pool.
He stood in front of the man until the man looked up and then Leo walked back to the pool. This
curious behavior was repeated four times until Aristotle stopped him.
He was just like a robot and he just came around and did it again and at the last one and I
just kind of stopped him. I ran over to where he was walking over to the man again and I
picked him up and I was like, "Hey." And he started kicking. It was just like, I picked
him up and he was just like "Ahhh." Like I got him out of his little funk. I got him out
of his little groove and he wanted to still continue doing that. I don't know how long he
would have continued doing that. He did it like four times and I was like, I don't know,
and it was starting to annoy the guy too. And at the same time I am just worried for the
kid. It is just like, "no, this is weird." He was just exhibiting too much crazy behavior.
On one hand, Aristotle is uncomfortable with Leo’s behavior. He did not want to disturb
the stranger. On the other hand, this incident also marks the moment when Aristotle started to
worry that there was something wrong with Leo, as he says, “I am just worried for the kid.” This
incident is part of a larger difficulty that Leo later displayed. Though Leo started to talk around
the age of one and a half, he stopped talking until he was almost three. Aristotle claimed there
was nothing he could do about Leo’s defiance since discipline did not work.
Shortly after that incident Aristotle took his son to the doctor who referred them to other
professionals. Leo did not receive a diagnosis at the time; in fact, it wasn’t until Leo started to
struggle in school that he got extra help. They again took him to the doctor and this time he was
diagnosed with ADHD and given medication. The delay in diagnosis and receiving medication
is interesting when considering that Leo is Hispanic. Studies have shown that Hispanic children
are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or given medication to treat ADHD (Bailey, 2005;
Rothe, 2005; Stevens, Harman, & Kelleher, 2005). It is obviously unclear if ethnicity played a
role in the timing of Leo’s diagnosis.
Over the last year, Aristotle has seen changes in his son Leo’s behavior. For the last
three years Leo has been on medication for ADHD. He first started taking medication when he
was having difficulty paying attention and listening to his teacher at school. The medication
made a big difference. On days that Aristotle forgot to give Leo his medication the teacher
would call him because they could tell the difference.
Though Leo has been on medication over the last three and a half years, he has continued
to show improvements over the last year. During our first interview Aristotle recounted an
incident a few months earlier when Leo was in what Aristotle calls “demon mode.” Aristotle
had to hold Leo so that he would not physically hurt himself and others. Leo’s incidents of
“demon mode” have decreased to zero over the last year.
I saw a first hand demonstration of Leo’s improvement in behavior when I observed a
football practice. While practicing his position as a nose tackle, the coaches were doing a drill to
teach Leo not to jump offside. Leo was not doing well. He kept having to do push ups and was
getting yelled at. Aristotle said that this was good for Leo because a year ago he would just give
up and stop paying attention. He was surprised that Leo was lasting so long. About five minutes
later, Leo lost interest. He started looking around and stopped trying. A few minutes after that
the coaches sent him to the sidelines. Leo took his helmet off and started disassembling it.
Pretty soon he was rolling on the ground. Though Leo lasted much longer than he would have
the previous year, he still had a point where he could no longer cope with the situation.
I asked Aristotle about the difference in Leo’s behavior over the last year. He credited
the change to several factors.
But this last year, definitely, has changed him. Not too sure - it could be everything. It
could be a combination of everything: football, I don't know, the pills. I don't know. Or
maybe he's just maturing and he's making an effort. But, but, yeah. The day that I forgot
to give him his pill was one of the very few days that we hadn't given him his pill, but he
behaved. Cause usually, it is bad.
Aristotle credits Leo’s improvement on a combination of football, medication and
maturation. Since the doctors supply medication and maturation is a matter of time, sports are
the one factor in Leo’s improvement that Aristotle can control. Giving his children the
opportunity to play sports and be involved in sports is important to Aristotle. He believes they
get discipline and teamwork out of playing sports. He describes the coaches as helping him
parent. It also takes considerable effort for Aristotle to leave work, pick the kids up at school,
feed them dinner, and get them to the practice on time. In this case, he in part credits playing
sports with Leo’s improvement.
Finally, Aristotle ends by talking about a more recent time when Leo forgot to take his
medication when he went to school. This time, instead of getting a call, Leo was able to function
throughout the day. It is Leo’s goal to be able to stop taking his medication. Being able to focus
at school without his medication represents an important event in Leo’s disability narrative.
Aristotle goes on to say that although Leo needs his medication for school, he is able to focus
and concentrate when he draws, something that Leo does well. These incidents combine to give
Aristotle hope for Leo’s future.
Tom’s Story: Devastation and Hope
Tom’s narrative of being a father of a child with a disability also began before the birth of
his child. His wife Sarah had a brother with a rare genetic disorder carried on the mother’s side.
Sarah was tested and determined not to be a carrier. However, the first sign of difficulty
occurred in the hospital and marks a moment of realization.
The day came we were at the hospital and my son was born and when he came out their
was not a lot of crying, you know, almost no crying actually and I could tell immediately,
maybe it is just father’s intuition, whatever, I don't know but I could tell immediately that
something wasn’t right.
In the hospital the doctors performed tests and determined that Greg had cataracts, a
marker of the syndrome he was later diagnosed with. Tom says with a knowing laugh that he
“knew at that moment that my life would be completely different.” Initially, Tom and his wife
educated the doctors on their son’s rare syndrome. Tom and Sarah had attended conferences on
the syndrome and Sarah had dealt with it her whole life. In spite of their knowledge, they were
not quite prepared for the experience. Not only were they not prepared for the everyday realities
of having a child with a disability, they were not prepared for the realities a disability would
mean in Greg’s life. Tom told me about a particular doctor’s appointment that left an
You go in for consultations for procedures and that is when they drop the ball on you,
bomb on you. They say "well..." Like my wife took Greg to get the cataracts removed so
his eyesight could develop normally. They did that at two weeks. They don't do both
eyes at the same time. They do one eye and then they do the other eye. So they took him
in for the consultation. And they so "OK, we want to, we are going to do the one eye and
umm we want to prepare you because he is going to get some of his sight back but he is
not going to get all of it back. One eye might be blind; the other eye might be blind.
Your son might be blind. If your son does see he might not see anything, any letters that
are under eight inches tall." My wife completely "OK, OK, OK." Got in the car, called
me and completely lost it. And I am at work 40 miles away and "It's going to be OK,
don't worry about it, we will figure it out as it goes." They never prepare you for that.
Though his wife is able to hold it together in the doctor’s office, her reaction after the
appointment, calling Tom, is indicative of their current relationship. In this story, Tom is at
work while Sarah is taking Greg to an appointment. Tom is the breadwinner while Sarah is
primarily responsible for childcare tasks. Though Tom is not present at the appointment, he is
the voice of encouragement afterwards. Tom goes on to explain the significance of this story.
And I mean it is really, it is like devastating news after devastating news because you
don't know if the kid is going to walk right, if he is going to be able to talk. I mean at that
young stage in the game for, for a handicapped child you don't know. You don't know
if... I mean it's still your kids a hundred percent, not just you know; your kid is a 1 on a
scale of 1 to 10. And best-case scenario he could be an 8 or 9 and you just don't know.
So you are going in blind basically and you are just hoping to God that everything you
are doing is going to be able to help him have the best quality of life possible.
One thing that stands out in this quote is that though Tom and Sarah were somewhat
prepared in they knew what to expect, they still struggled with the reality of having a child with a
disability. Tom describes various levels of severity. Since Sarah’s brother is severely impacted
by the syndrome, they hoped that Greg would be less severe. They are trying to predict if he will
be able to walk and talk. Every bit of negative news is another blow to that delicate hope.
This excerpt also displays the great amount of uncertainty that Tom and Sarah had in
these early stages. They did not know how severe Greg’s disability is going to be or even if he is
going to be able to see. However, they continued to do everything they could, not knowing but
hoping that their efforts would result in Greg having a better life. One thing that Tom did know
at this point was that Greg would have some sort of disability; the best-case scenario being an 8
Narrative moments of hope: “A small grain of rice on a white carpet.” At the end of
the interview when Tom talked about his wife calling him on the phone crying, I asked him if
there was anything he wanted to add. He paused for a second then proceeded to tell a powerful
story about when they realized everything was going to be OK.
Yeah, no. The only thing I could expound on really is the story about when they told us
Greg wasn't going to be able to see eight-inch letters, the size of a page basically. We, I
just told my wife, "Hey, it will be OK, we will figure it out." Seriously, not more than
two or three months later we are at home watching TV. The lights are down and Greg is
crawling around on the floor and all of the sudden he starts moving towards this little
object on the floor. "What are you doing dear?" "Check him out, where is he going?"
We watch him move over to a small grain of rice on a white carpet. I turned to my wife
and I said, "Sarah, everything is going to be just fine."
Tom’s experience is similar to other parents that have described having to overcome
negative perceptions of disabilities by professionals before they experience the positive aspects
of having a child with a disability (Stainton & Besser, 1998). This was a turbulent time when
doctors gave Tom’s family more worries than answers. Something as small as finding a small
grain of rice on a white carpet became an experience that assured Tom that everything would be
At the same time Tom was experiencing this moment of realization, he was also
reframing his goals.
My life as I knew it at that point was over, but that doesn't mean that the goals don't shift
around and that your perspective becomes more focused on what’s, like I said, really
important. Is it important that my kid’s the valedictorian, or the football star of the high
school? No. Who cares about that stuff? It doesn't matter. Is my kid happy? Yeah. Is he
trying his best? Yeah. Then I’m successful. My life is not over; it’s just been focused in a
different direction. So, now, instead of all the worldly goals that I have, now, it’s more
like I got switched into survival mode for a while until you get a routine and then now it’s
time to get different goals and go to a different -- on a different path.
Tom has changed his goals and also his values. He now defines success as a parent not
along lines of accomplishments, but if kids are happy and are trying their best. There seems to
be two transitions here. In the first transition, Tom went from superficial goals to survival mode.
It is uncertain from the quote if the second transition from survival mode to new goals on a
different path has happened yet. Hearing about Greg’s improvement in behavior and ability to
participate in public over the last year has given me the impression that they are currently
establishing that routine that marks a different path. For Tom, this moment marks a transition
within his enactment of fatherhood. Other transitions within fatherhood are highlighted in
In order to illustrate Tom’s current view of Greg, I continue from the excerpt describing
Greg finding a grain of rice on a white carpet left off.
The kid can read a book. He can read his alphabet. He loves school. So even though
they try and paint a bleak picture for you that doesn't mean that is the way it is going to
turn out. I mean that, once I saw that everything they told us or warned us about that was
going to happen with him didn't come to pass, it is what you make it. You do your best
to instruct your kid and teach them everything they need to know and the rest will fall
into place and that is the only thing I could expound on.
As Tom says, today Greg can read, he knows the alphabet, and he loves school. These
are all important aspects of life that at one time Tom worried Greg would not be able to
participate in. In Tom’s narrative Greg’s accomplishments closely follow the powerful moment
when they realized that Greg would be able to see and believed that he would be able to read.
However, there was also a lot of work between these two points in time where they struggled to
get Greg the appropriate services, even going bankrupt in the weight of all their bills.
There is also a certain amount of faith that Tom gained when he found his son was able to
see. Although the doctors only gave him questions, Tom was able to find hope in experience
with his son. For Tom, hope involves a vision of the future that provides a sense of direction and
guidance for steps to be taken in order to achieve future possibilities (King et al., 2006). In other
words, his hope translates into his fathering. He teaches his son with the belief that the rest will
fall into place. The information that the doctors provided prepared him for the worst, without
providing the same level of hope. Tom had to find hope within experience. If Tom continued to
have doubts about his ability to teach his son, and ultimately to be effective as a father, he might
not be willing to put as much effort as he currently does into fathering.
Improvements of behavior over time. Though it would be somewhat poetic to end
Tom’s story with finding a grain of rice, his story goes on. Tom and Sarah continue to deal with
the day-to-day realities of raising a child with a disability. However, over the year of this study a
significant improvement in Greg’s behavior occurred. At the beginning of the study, Greg often
had behavioral outbursts in public. Greg had just started at a new school and Tom believed that
this negatively impacted his behavior. During one family trip to the park they were forced to go
home because of Greg’s behavior. By the end of my data collection Tom felt much more
comfortable with Greg’s behavior in public and had started going on longer train trips that did
not have the convenience of an accessible car.
When I first started doing interviews, Tom described getting Greg to brush his teeth as a
struggle. The nighttime routine became one of Tom’s childcare tasks. Even though Tom used
goofiness and singing to get Greg though his bedtime routine, it was still a struggle. However, at
the end of the study, Tom talked about a significant change in Greg’s behavior. Though Greg
would still complain, the fights decreased and Tom no longer had to sing.
Tom gives credit for Greg’s change in behavior to his school environment and other
factors. When Tom was talking about this change, I asked him if Greg ever reverts back to old
behaviors and just does not want to brush his teeth.
Yeah, when he’s having a real bad day. Sometimes, we’ll just, rather than fight, we’ll
just let it go and then make sure we get it the next day. So, maybe it’s a combination of
both. If there’s a lot going on that day and we just forget or we’re just too lazy to do it,
which is bad. At the last check it was good; he didn’t have any cavities - that’s good.
As Tom describes, they rarely fight during teeth brushing anymore. There is also a
compromise here. Tom has learned that if Greg is having a bad day, he can just let Greg skip
brushing his teeth. When Tom says, “maybe it is a combination of both,” he is referring to both
Greg’s understanding of the schedule and Tom’s own ability to be flexible in the schedule. In
the case of brushing teeth, Tom and Greg have both reached a compromise that makes the tooth
brushing process easier. Greg’s general improvement in behavior has influenced their
relationship and even Tom’s enactment of fathering.
Brian’s Story: “I Came to Terms”
Over the course of time that I interviewed Brian, the story of his son’s disability
diagnosis was never quite told in its entirety. Analyzing other fathers’ narratives, I noticed that
he had never presented the same comprehensive disability story. This prompted me to piece his
story together bit by bit through the analysis of interviews. His story emerged as a valuable
contribution to the exploration of disability narratives in this paper.
Brian’s perspective of his son’s disability has evolved over the years. In talking about
Adam, Joanna says that it took Brian “two years to accept his diagnosis.” When asked further,
Joanna explained that though today Brian would talk to anybody about Adam’s disability, it took
time for him to feel comfortable even talking to her about it.
Brian initially related Adam’s troubles to his own childhood. When he was 15 months
old, Brian stopped speaking for a year. When his mother put him in preschool, he immediately
started to talk. Brian was convinced that Adam wanted to talk and that ability would just turn on.
When I asked him what changed, Brian said that the transformation occurred through time and
long talks with Joanna. In the following excerpt, Brian explains the moment his son was
We lived up in northern California at the time and they diagnosed him with um, gave him
the autism diagnosis at that point. That is when I relocated. I was living there and I
relocated with my firm from the bay area out to Ohio where I would be close to work and
then it was more difficult. I guess personally it was hard for me as a Dad, you know my
first-born son, you have all of these hopes and dreams for and in a sense they are just
dashed because your son is not going to have that typical experience. In time I have
come to terms with it but it took a long time.
When Adam was diagnosed, Brian realized that his experience as a father would not be
what he had thought it would be. Brian had always wanted a son that played football. As Brian
describes it, he had always thought that his son would be big enough to play lineman because of
the size of his parents. With Adam’s autism he has no interest in playing or even watching
football. Brian has realized that he will never be able to do some of the things he had always
envisioned doing with his children, especially sports. Because of this, Brian has changed the
way he enacts fatherhood. One of the major changes he has made was to find a job with less of a
commute after Adam was diagnosed with autism.
Brian says that it “took him a long time” to come to terms with his son’s disability, a
statement that assumes Brian has come to terms. There are limitations to Brian’s acceptance of
Adam’s diagnosis. Though Brian accepts Adam’s diagnosis, he is still reluctant to talk about his
younger son’s difficulties. During an interview, Joanna sternly reminded Brian that he has
another son with an IEP. It is uncertain if Brian has “come to terms” with his younger son’s
Brian still wants to believe that Adam will eventually start talking. He contrasts this with
his previous view of Adam’s disability that he describes as “complete denial.”
I was just in complete denial. I think I've, I still want to believe that something would
trigger and click and he would be able to be typical I guess is the term.
When I asked Brian what he meant by denial, he said that he didn’t want to believe Adam
would be different and that he just had delays similar to the delays Brian had growing up. He
has gone from believing that Adam had delays that would correct themselves to accepting a
diagnosis. However, in this excerpt he also admits that he still wants to believe that some day his
son will be “typical.” I would describe his desire to believe as more of a hope. Although Brian
knows that Adam has a disability, he still hopes that something will click just at it had for Brian
when he went to preschool.
As part of Brian’s acceptance, there is a clearly demarcated point where he responds with
action. When Adam was diagnosed, Brian relocated work. He realized that he needed to spend
more time with Adam and less time working. At the time Brian had been commuting two hours
each way to work. His demanding work schedule did not leave enough time to spend with his
family. In a separate interview, Brian expounds on telling his boss that he was leaving.
I mean I think my, I came to terms with Adam. I was devastated. I talked to my boss at
work, of the department I worked for, telling him that I wanted to look at doing
something different. And I had tears in my eyes. And that was hard, but now it is just
like, every now and then, you know, you are frustrated.
This was a very difficult moment for Brian, even a tearful moment. Brian has realized
that Adam does indeed have difficulties that need his attention. He is faced with a choice
between work hours and spending time with his family and chooses to spend time with his
family. Telling his boss that he was leaving was a difficult moment. Being at home with the
family as opposed to working long hours is a very different way of doing fatherhood for Brian.
He still needs to adjust and this is seen in his statement that “every now and then, you know, you
Brian describes himself as a workaholic, just like his father. Growing up, Brian’s father’s
responsibility was providing for his family. In fact, his father participated in very little childcare.
Until Adam was diagnosed with autism, Brian’s heavy work schedule and commute left little
time to spend with his family. However, after Adam was diagnosed, Brian changed the way he
did fathering, focusing more on time and caring for his children. This was a powerful choice
between career and children. He relocated and started a new job, as Joanna describes it, as “the
low man on the totem pole.” Though Brian currently continues to be the sole breadwinner in
their family and works long hours, he also spends more time with his children.
It is uncertain how much Brian would have worked without Adam having been
diagnosed. Perhaps he would have continued to work long hours and made the same huge
commute in order to provide for his family. It is also possible that eventually Brian’s priorities
would have changed with having children and Adam’s disability was a catalyst that quickened
the process that would have happened regardless.
Comfort through activity. For Brian, activities that he participates in with his son
constantly redefine his view of Adam. This is important for Brian who sometimes wonders
about the quality of life of his son.
There have been days where I have just like, you know, I have been just depressed and
not understood it and wondered about his quality of life. Is... I don't tell anyone this but
you are doing research. She knows [nodding at Joanna] but.... His quality of life is not
what I think it should be, especially after he lost his vision and he has gone through so
many medical issues. I am just like "what is his quality of life? Why is he still here?"
You know, literally wishing, and I feel horrible for it now that I look back, that he, you
know, would die, because he has so many issues. But at the same time it is not like he
comes out and he is mad. He is a happy kid for the most part.
Even talking about his son’s quality of life is very tough. Notice that Brian hesitates when
he says, “I have just like, you know, I have been just depressed.” This is a tough subject that
Brian qualifies saying he is only telling me this because I do research. Even now Brian says that
feels bad that he wondered about Adam’s quality of life. Adam’s issues have stabilized since
coming back from the hospital, but during his recent hospitalization the family wondered if he
would die. Adam’s happiness is an indication to Brian that his life is worth living.
After saying Adam is a happy kid for the most part, Brian then goes on to talk about a
time when Adam was frustrated at Disneyland and dropped his IPod in the river. In the telling,
Brian’s own frustration with the situation shows. However, a few minutes after Brian’s
questioning of his son’s quality of life his thinking swings in a different direction when he starts
to talk about what they do together.
But I think I have a bond and a closeness with Adam that I probably clearly don't have
with the other kids because for one he is the oldest. But I spend the most time with him.
And when he was sick in the hospital, I slept in the hospital with him almost every night.
And when he was getting better and he was in the house, he would come upstairs into the,
I guess the guest room but I call it the man cave. And I would be in there watching TV
and he would crawl into the bed while I would be watching TV and he would just come
up next to me and sleep. So there were months where six out of seven days he slept in
the bed next to me and there was something comforting about, for him having me next to
him and me having him... you know. She gets [nodding towards Joanna] mad because I
am hot or whatever, something about me making noise, I don't know. Like a horse. But
my snoring doesn't both Adam. It bothers every other child in my house and my spouse
but Adam is cool with it. But he has no problem.
This quote by Brian is made especially powerful when considering just a few minutes
before he was talking about his concerns for Adam’s quality of life. The questions that he has
about Adam’s quality of life and the guilt that he feels are assuaged in the everyday activities of
When talking about sleeping together, Brian starts with the times in the hospital when he
slept at Adam’s bedside. Sitting all night at his son’s bedside even though he often had to go to
work the next day is a very protective act of fathering. This protective act carried over when
they arrived home as Adam continued to sleep with Brian. This is seen when Brian says, “there
was something comforting about, for him having me next to him and me having him... you
know.” Adam is home from the hospital but continues to struggle with a visual impairment and
decreased physical health. Brian continues to comfort Adam just like he did in the hospital.
Brian explains that no one else in the family will sleep next to him. However, I think that
the comfort is more than just having someone else next to him, but in particular having Adam
next to him. It is comforting that Adam has survived. They have a unique and special way of
being together. In these moments of being together, Brian is constantly confirming that Adam
has things in his life that make it worth it to be alive.
Edward’s Story: “He’s My Wounded Bird”
Edward presents a complex narrative of Dillon’s diagnosis and disability. Dillon has
difficulty in school and making friends. Though he has made improvement in several subjects,
he continues to struggle in math. Even greater than his academic struggles is poor attendance
due to ditching school to hang out with friends. His one friend is an older male that has already
graduated from high school. Since Dillon was only 12 at the time and he was hanging out with a
male friend over 18, their relationship is troubling to Edward.
Dillon has been diagnosed with autism. Edward disputes this diagnosis, saying it was
unfairly bestowed upon Dillon based on an early evaluation. When Edward was unable to meet
with a psychologist, she met with his daughter-in-law instead. The psychologist and the
daughter-in-law agreed upon the diagnosis of autism and Edward fought to have the report
overturned. However, the therapist would not budge even when questioned by her supervisor.
Edward had no power to add to the report or influence the power it would hold over Dillon’s
future. According to Edward, this report continues to follow Dillon today.
That report keeps popping up. Like when we do our deals with the school, they go, what
about this autism, you know? And I go, he’s at -- the last therapist I talked to about it --
Dillon is at the absolute lowest stage of autism, you know. He has -- here’s his autistic
tendencies. This is the only one that he’s got left. He goes like that [Flicking both hands
and bobs his head], once in awhile, you know, and that’s it.
This story of Dillon’s disputed diagnosis strongly correlates with Edward’s view of
Dillon’s lack of autistic tendencies. According to Edward, the only way that one can really tell
that Dillon is autistic is through an occasional flapping of his hands when he is excited. Edward
still blames Dillon’s diagnosis on this early evaluation. This narrative serves as an explanation
of why a professional would give Dillon a diagnosis that does not fit. In this case, Edward’s
everyday reality is supported by his experience with an unwavering professional.
Even though Edward disputes Dillon’s diagnosis, he is still able to admit that something
is wrong. In the following excerpt, Edward describes Dillon as an “accepter.” Interestingly, he
also describes Dillon as “autistic,” a term that at other times he resists.
Marvin [Dillon’s brother] will be all right because he will have the desire to make money
and he will learn how to make money. Dillon will not necessarily have that. He is, umm,
ahh, this is the first autistic kid I have been around and they are not go-getters. They are
accepters. They go, “I can't do that.” And my sons have always been, "You don't tell me
I can't do that, I will show you I can do that." That is the kids I have, but not this one.
Not this one. He is just, "I can't do that and that is it." And, they accept that. That is
difficult for me to accept but I have to. Because that is kind of how it is.
Edward describes Dillon as the first autistic child he has known and describes autistic
children as accepters. This is in contrast to the statement that Dillon is at the lowest level of
autism, only manifested in the repetitive movements of his hands. Here Edward expands that in
addition to flapping of hands, Dillon also has no motivation and drive.
In the face of Dillon’s difficulties, Edward has come up with an alternative diagnosis of
alcoholism, a condition that has previously done great damage to their family. Edward proudly
proclaims that he has been sober for 23 years. But he will also talk about his troubled past when
he often did not fulfill his family responsibilities. He blames his wife’s death on her alcoholism.
In the midst of their battle with alcoholism, Edward describes Dillon as having alcoholic
Dillon has a lot of alcoholic tendencies. Marvin, not so much. Not so much. But it's
little things. It is like, you ask Dillon to go get you some soda, he fills the glass all the
way up to here. [Pointing to the rim of the glass]. That's alcohol, that's alcoholic.
Marvin will bring you one down around here and stuff [Pointing to just a half inch below
the top of the glass]. That's normal. Alcoholic is all the way to the top. One is never
Dillon’s difficulties are constructed in terms of alcoholism. Edward does not describe his
two older sons as having these tendencies, only Dillon. Since Edward is familiar with
alcoholism, a condition that runs in his family, it makes sense that he would define Dillon’s
difficulties in terms that he can understand. Whereas Edward has no past experience dealing
with autism, he has dealt with alcoholism several times.
What Edward defines as Dillon’s alcoholic tendencies is extremely troubling for Edward.
The following description of Edward’s alcoholism was given before Edward’s wife died of
complications related to alcoholism.
And I look at him, and I just go, oh God. It’s like you’re watching somebody drive
towards a cliff, you know, and you go, are they going to make it, you know? You know,
because I know there’s some people that go off that cliff and die. There are friends of
mine that do that -- that did that.
This statement paints a very bleak picture of Dillon’s future. While Edward maintains
this bleak picture, at the same time he encourages Dillon to participate in Alcoholics
Anonymous. Though Edward’s wife was on an inevitable path toward destruction, Edward and
his son were able to change their paths. Edward has hope that Dillon will be more like Edward
Junior and himself than his wife.
Edward and Dillon have talked about the influence of alcoholism. In a conversation just
after Dillon’s mother died, Dillon acknowledged that he might have alcoholic tendencies.
Edward responded, “Dillon, you are an alcoholic.” This is a powerful thing to tell a twelve year
old whose mother has recently died of conditions related to alcoholism. Edward now takes
Dillon to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at least once a week and Dillon took a one-day sober
chip the day after he drank with his friends. Edward has plans to get Dillon more involved in
Alcoholics Anonymous including taking him to the teen meetings.
At the same time, Edward rejects Dillon’s diagnosis and creates an alternative
explanation; he also embraces the services that a diagnosis allows Dillon to participate in. The
disability narrative that defines Edward’s desires for Dillon took a shift about six or seven years
ago. Edward encountered a woman from Alcoholics Anonymous that also had a child with a
disability. Similar to Edward’s view of Dillon, she described her son as an accepter who is not
aggressive. Edward could relate to this description so he valued her advice. This is a description
of her son in a general education classroom.
Her son got worse and got real bad. And just gave up on school, just quit school because
he didn’t think he could do it and all that. And I saw Dillon when he came home with
one A. You would have thought he had just been elected president. You know, he was
so excited about that. And, see that couldn't have happened in a regular ed. setting, he
would have never gotten the A. So without that encouragement I don't know that he is
going to go on.
Edward sees a definite benefit for having Dillon in special education and getting extra
help. Since Dillon does not have a lot of internal motivation, the opportunities for success
provide motivation. Edward goes on to say that staying in special education is Dillon’s only
hope for attending college. When I observed Edward at a meeting to create an education plan for
Dillon, Edward said he would need to see a lot of improvement before they talked about
mainstreaming Dillon into another classroom. After the meeting he described this as a point of
contention that the educators deliberately brought up at the end.
Education is especially important for Edward because he believes it provides hope for
Dillon’s future. Considering Dillon’s difficulties, his future is uncertain. In the following
excerpt, Edward is describing a conversation he had with his sister, a nurse that he relies on as a
We were talking about the subject of Dillon and stuff. I run, all of my medical stuff I run
past her. If she says so then I go with it. She was saying, "You have to accept the fact
that he might be 20 something years old and not be able to live on his own. You have to
be willing to accept that.” I said, "Why do you think I am working so hard?"
Edward goes on to say that he teaches them about money by giving them money and
having them buy items for themselves as opposed to him buying for them. He also teaches them
how to cook. Once his kids have learned these two things, Edward feels his job is done. Edward
accepts the possibility that Dillon may be living with him when he is 20, and is working to teach
Dillon basic life skills. In this case, definite actions are being performed in anticipation of the
future. However, money management and cooking are also the bare minimum that an individual
needs in order to survive in the world.
Edward’s narrative of Dillon causes him to treat Dillon differently. During an interview
Edward told me that he enjoyed all of his children. He went on to tell me why he enjoyed
Edward Junior and Marvin, but did not include Dillon. I was not sure if this was a conscious
omission or he just got distracted so I asked him why he enjoyed Dillon.
I enjoy his tenacity. He sticks with something. He starts something, he sticks with it.
And he has kind of an innocent -- and he’s my wounded bird, too. So, I feel I pay more
attention to him.
Edward enjoys Dillon’s tenacity, his ability to start something and stick with it. This also
reflects Edward’s earlier description of Dillon’s alcoholic tendencies. According to Edward,
Dillon can never just have one of anything: one is never enough. That tendency to do things all
they way is similar to his tendency to start something and carry it through until the end. It
possible that what Edward enjoys about Dillon is also the trait that makes him worry about
Even Edward’s declaration of why he enjoys Dillon comes with the dim description of
Dillon as a “wounded bird.” Wounded birds are animals that need help. Unlike other birds, they
cannot fly. At other times, Edward has admitted that he treats Dillon differently. For example,
after missing several days of school, Dillon lied to Edward.
He kept telling me, "Oh yeah, I went but they are not reporting it right and I talked to
them." And all this stuff. I don't know, Dillon owns me. With my other boys they tell
me stuff and I say, "No, that is BS. I am not going for that and blah, blah blah." But for
some reason with Dillon he gets me and I believe stuff that he tells me and I know it is
not true. But I want to believe him because he is special. I have got to work on that.
Edward admits that he is not as tough on Dillon because of his past. One of the reasons
why Edward had struggled to keep Dillon’s mother involved is that she had forced Edward to be
tougher on Dillon. As it is, Edward admits that he is gullible when it comes to Dillon. He falls
for Dillon’s explanation that the school is not reporting the absences right.
In another illustration of Dillon being deceitful, one day when he was grounded Dillon
snuck out of the house. Dillon had just gotten a load of laundry from the dryer located in their
apartment complex. He told Edward that he forgot something then left to get it and didn’t come
back until late that night. Edward goes on to explain that his other sons get upset when he lets
Dillon get away with too much.
So I have given him a lot more leeway than I have given my other sons. My other sons
are upset with me because they see it and they call me on it. They go, "You let him get
away with a lot of stuff that we could never get away with." And I go, "Well, you guys
have this." And that is not right. I should not treat him any different than my other sons.
Edward realizes that he should not treat Dillon any differently than his other children.
Not only does he realize he treats Dillon different; he also knows that it shouldn’t be that way.
His answer to his other son’s complaints is another rationalization, “well, you got this.” Edward
says that Dillon’s brothers have definitely gotten more from Edward in life. Being retired,
Edward does not have the money that he had when his oldest son was growing up. Dillon has
had a limited relationship with his mother, an alcoholic. Edward realizes he should not treat him
any differently than his other kids, but is not able to follow through.
Although I have presented these five stories separately as not to break up the flow of their
narratives, the data is interrelated. Similarities emerged within fathers’ complex and often
changing disability narratives. The themes that emerged across cases were hope, uncertainty,
underground explanations of disability, and acceptance and denial.
Hope. An important theme that existed across cases was hope. Multidisciplinary
researchers examining families that include a child with a disability have identified the
importance of hope. The presence of hope is related to positive life outcomes (Snyder, Rand,
King, Feldman, & Woodward, 2002). For parents of children with disabilities, hope has been
described as a factor in resilience. For fathers of children with disabilities, lower levels of hope
predicted depression and anxiety (Lloyd & Hastings, 2009).
For many of the fathers, hope was an emerging process. Tom’s journey of hope is
foreshadowed when Tom says to Sarah on the phone, "Hey, it will be OK, we will figure it out."
Even in this time of difficulty Tom demonstrated a belief that everything would be all right. The
incident of Greg finding a grain of rice on a white carpet is a conformation of his belief in an
optimistic future. It is helpful to look at the transformation of hope present in Tom’s description
of his experience in narrative terms. Mattingly (2006a) describes hope as a narrative quest in
that the capacity to hope depends on “a person's willingness to undergo a difficult journey, even
a personal transformation” (p. 24). Hope is a moral obligation necessary to confront pain and
despair that requires willing individuals.
Construction of hope occurred in various experiences ranging from significant moments
to daily activities. For Tom, hope emerged in a significant moment when his son found a grain
of rice on a white carpet. This story can be seen as a dynamic event that unfolds over time, has
an apparent force from within or behind, is going somewhere, and seems to be pulled towards a
particular but often unspecified goal (Stern, 2010). This particular moment unfolded in an
instant. The force was understanding and hope, and the goal they were pulled towards is the
realization of Greg being all right. An intersubjective moment of meeting has occurred that
results in Tom viewing Greg differently (Stern, 2004). His hope for Greg has changed, and
ultimately his way of being with Greg has changed. Other examples of significant moments
include the moment Jimmy and Maya decided they would accept and deal with Teresa’s
disability and Brian crying when telling his boss that he was leaving to avoid the long commute.
Engagement in everyday occupations allows Brian to answer the tough questions about
Adam’s quality of life. Extraordinary questions of life and disability are answered in the
ordinariness of Brian’s everyday activities. Masten (2001, 2009) argues that resilience, or
positive outcomes in spite of threats to development, does not exist in the extraordinary, but in
ordinary adaptive systems. Though Masten’s child psychology perspective and focus is very
different than this study, there is an overlap in the importance of the ordinary. Further, a focus
on narrative can provide insight into the process that lives are transformed by ordinary systems
Das (2007) noted that after the riots and violence of India’s partition in 1984, women
began healing through work including quilting, stitching, and the repairing of everyday
relationships. This significant form of healing was included in the title of Das’ book, Life and
words: Violence and the descent into the ordinary. For Brian, moving from sleeping next to his
son in a hospital bed to sleeping next to his son at home was a descent into the ordinary.
Whether constructed through significant moments or daily activities, hope is developed
through the narrative structure of experience. Engagement in occupations, whether extraordinary
or ordinary, creates a bridge between where individuals are and where they want to be. Actions
take on meaning of hope within unfolding life stores (Mattingly, 1998). It is insightful to view
both significant and common experiences as creating possibilities of hope. For Tom, watching
television together allowed for the opportunity to observe Greg finding a grain of rice on a white
carpet. This reflected the future possibility that their son would be all right. Participating in
daily activities created experiences for Brian that allowed him to hopefully reflect on the
possibilities of his son’s happiness.
Within the fathers’ narratives there were several examples of imaginative hope
(Mattingly, 2010b). Jimmy dreamed that some day Teresa would “snap out of it” and walk, even
though he knew it was unlikely. In one interview Brian stated that he still wants to “believe that
something would trigger and click and he would be typical.” Though clinicians describe this
kind of wishful thinking as denial, illusions of change can be deep moral stances. For Jimmy
and Brian, hope is “a kind of daydreaming that takes children and even the adults around them
into imaginative landscapes where improbable, foolish, or magical feats are regular occurrences”
(Mattingly, 2010b, Chapter 5, Section 1, para. 3). As improbable as dreams of the future are,
they are still a form of hope. Yet, at the same time these fathers are participating in imaginative
play, they are also making very real plans for the future. Like many forms of imaginative play,
dreams of the future do not cloud visions of future reality.
Though it is clear that Jimmy and Brian engage in daydreams of sorts, the hopes of other
fathers become gray areas. For instance, Edward talked about Dillon eventually going to college
because of his special education. It may be unrealistic to talk about college for a 12 year old who
ditches almost as many days of school as he attends. Regardless of the probability, Edward’s
goals for Dillon remain a source of hope that he continues to act upon.
Uncertainty. The fathers in this study described their children’s disabilities as wrought
with uncertainty including diagnosis, symptoms, and prognosis. Though medical professionals
have the potential to be anchors in these times of uncertainty, Tom and Sarah’s experience of
dealing with medical professionals is not unique. Parents of children with developmental
disabilities often have described encounters with healthcare professionals as leaving no hope.
For these parents, though honest communication was important, they also wanted
communication that left room for hope (Kearney & Griffin, 2001). A New York Times article
described the delicate balance that doctors must find in keeping hope alive, not providing false
hope but also avoiding what some social workers have referred to as false hopelessness
(Hoffman). The term false hopelessness adequately describes the feelings of Tom and Sarah as
they received “devastating news after devastating news.” Researchers also have challenged the
idea of “false hope.” False hope has been described as inaccurate because all the “available
evidence suggests that it consistently contributes to greater productivity and well-being in
various life arenas” (Snyder et al., 2002, p. 1017). The response of Tom and Sarah to uncertainty
was to find their own sources of hope.
Common beliefs about divorce rates of parents also create uncertainty around fathering
children with disabilities. Early on, doctors had told Jimmy that there was an 80% divorce rate
for parents that have a child with a disability. Though the commonly held belief of higher
divorce rates for parents of children with disabilities are inflated they remain of a source of
uncertainty for parents (Freedman et al., 2011). However, Jimmy has resisted this definition and
it has become an important part of his narrative. In the face of uncertainty around their marriage,
Jimmy and Maya believed they needed to find a way to work together to make Teresa’s life
better and that is something that they still work towards. Their resolve has strengthened their
relationship and their ability to work together to give Teresa a better life. For Jimmy, it is also
possible that accepting Teresa’s disability and finding a means of action has been a way to deal
with the stress that has been associated with having a child with a disability (King et al., 2006;
Lamb & Billings, 1997; MacDonald & Hastings, 2010).
Personal transformations. Several fathers talked about personal transformations around
their children’s disabilities. When talking about shifting goals, Tom says, “your perspective
becomes more focused on what’s, like I said, really important.” This quote is significant in that
it demonstrates that not only has Tom’s hopes for Greg changed, his perspective has changed.
Tom no longer hopes for accomplishments such as being the valedictorian or the high school
football star. What is now important is that Greg is happy and is trying his best. In my study of
narratives written by fathers of children with disabilities, I found that the authors described
adaptations to their child’s disability as being an area of personal growth (Bonsall, 2013). In his
book about his experience fathering a son with a disability, the football player Rodney Peete
(2010) defined this process as needing to “get the man right.” Similarly, in the process of
narrative re-envisioning, Mattingly (2010a) describes parents as acquiring strength and
compassion during the experience of having a child with a disability. Tom describes his
experience with Greg as refocusing his values on what is important.
Other transformations included spending more time with children. Brian quit his job in
order to have more time with his family. Jimmy spent more time with Teresa, assuming more
childcare responsibilities such as feeding. For both of these fathers having a child with a
disability changed how they enacted fatherhood.
Underground explanations of disabilities. Within this study, several underground
explanations of disabilities emerged. Underground explanations of disability include Edward’s
belief that many of Dillon’s difficulties were caused by alcoholism and Jimmy believing
Teresa’s disability was caused by the twisted umbilical cord. Brian at one point told me that he
believed his wife’s consumption of mercury was a factor in his son’s autism. Underground
explanations are also reflected in the popular press. The previously mentioned football player
turned author Rodney Peete (2010) wrote that even though his review of current scientific
understanding has convinced him that vaccines are not responsible his son’s autism, the timing
of the diagnosis leaves him feeling deep down that they are. These narratives aren’t always
shared across partners. While Maya shares Jimmy’s belief that the umbilical cord was
responsible for Teresa’s cerebral palsy, when Brian brought up his theory of mercury
consumption and autism Joanna quickly disputed it.
It is helpful to view underground explanations as a means to understand deviations from
the norm in a comprehensive form (Bruner, 1990, 2008). For these fathers, alternative narratives
can define disabilities, becoming a constant in a world that lacks understanding. For Edward,
framing Dillon’s difficulties as alcoholism redefines them in a realm that he can understand and
deal with. In Edward’s story re-envisioning could be a means of gathering hope that he knows
how to help Dillon. In interviews he has demonstrated that he knows the process of being
involved in Alcoholics Anonymous and believes that this group can transforms lives.
Acceptance and denial. In talking about learning to accept Adam’s disability, Brian
talks about his denial, a term often used by professionals to describe children with disabilities
(Hinojosa et al., 2002). However, qualities perceived by clinicians as denial can also be hope
(Kearney & Griffin, 2001; Mattingly, 2006a), courage (Hartshorne, 2002), and rejection of labels
(Ferguson, 2002). These are all important qualities for a parent struggling to cope with the stress
of caring for a child with a disability.
There are several ways that Brian’s acceptance where he was once in denial can be
viewed. It is possible that Brian’s initial difficulty accepting Adam’s disability was a strategy
adopted to create distance until he was ready to deal with his son’s disability (Pelchat, Levert, &
Bourgeois-Guérin, 2009) In another sense, this transformation can be seen as a re-envisioning of
hope (Mattingly, 2006a, 2010a, 2010b). His hopes have transformed from believing his son
would become a typical child that he could play sports with to enjoying what he could do with
his child. This includes going on community outings, joking with his son, and swimming
Brian’s change in perspective can also be seen as an adoption of Joanna’s narrative.
Within families, multiple perspectives can exist about the nature of a disability, meaning of
illness, and priorities of intervention (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009). When Brian was in denial, he
had a very different perspective on his son than Joanna. Brian believed that his son would one
day decide he wanted to talk, while Joanna believed Adam needed therapies and interventions.
Brian has changed his perspective to reflect Joanna’s more closely. Having done this, he now
refers to his past narrative as denial.
Acceptance emerged as a complex concept that could mean very different things within
fathers’ narratives. In Jimmy’s narrative, acceptance meant dealing with his daughter’s disability
including making tough decisions about her quality of life. Jimmy and Maya’s initial decision to
accept Teresa’s disability went a long way in keeping their marriage strong. Tom’s acceptance
was instantaneous; he could tell immediately that something was wrong. He was prepared
through his past experience of disability within his wife’s family. Once Tom had accepted
Greg’s disability he was able to educate doctors and work with Sarah to improve Greg’s quality
of life. For Brian, acceptance was a process of coming to terms with his son’s autism. After his
acceptance, Brian understood Adam and was able to interact with him on Adam’s terms. Brian
made life decisions that reflected his new understanding. For these three fathers, acceptance is
Unlike the above examples of acceptance, Edward’s acceptance of his son’s diagnosis at
times can be construed as negative. He still denies Dillon’s autism, but accepts him as a
“wounded bird.” Dillon is able to get away with manipulating Edward in ways that Dillon’s
brothers never could. Because Edward has accepted Dillon’s difficulties, it is possible that he
has given up on certain aspects of Dillon’s mental and social development.
Chapter 5: Processes and Transitions in the Enactment of Fatherhood
I am still learning. It is like a learning process. Especially these teenage years. Oh my
God, my daughter. She is 14 and oh man, me and her are like water and oil. We are just
always bickering, arguing. She is one of, I just say, "Hey Mary, how was school today?"
"What? What do you care?" I mean just pops off. I can't have a civil conversation with
her. My son is starting to get this attitude now too. I am still learning you know. It is
just a learning process as you go. I don't think there is no way to become a father.
This quote by Jimmy illustrates fatherhood as a process of becoming, a theme that
emerged across the fathers. The assertion that fatherhood is a process and not just something
that happens was supported by descriptions of shifts in enactment of fatherhood over time.
Previous studies on becoming a father have focused primarily on the early transition occurring in
the prenatal period and first few years (Cooper, 2005; Doucet, 2009; Genesoni & Tallandini,
2009; Hamilton & de Jonge, 2010). However, these studies do not fit with the stories of the
fathers in this study. Fathers’ stories included transitions and processes that lasted longer than
the first few years.
Palkovitz and Palm (2009) argue that transitions occurring within fatherhood are more
important than the initial transition to fatherhood in terms of affecting family, child, and father
outcomes. Transitions include both a change in external behavior and inner psychology.
Looking at fathering not as a one-time transition, but as several transitions that occur throughout
the lifetime, gives insight into the process of fatherhood. While identifying transitions within
fathering, Palkovitz and Palm do not explore the various forms that these transitions take.
Within the data of this study, fathering also emerged as a process that developed over time as
seen in the evolution of responsibilities and men learning to be fathers. This chapter illustrates
some of the transitions that influence the enactment of fathering for the men in this study.
In using the term enactment I refer to individuals carrying out activities connected to
meaning (Alsaker & Josephsson, 2010; Ricœur, 1984). The enactment of fatherhood refers to
individuals participating in activities connected to the meaning of being a father. The current
chapter is primarily concerned with the shifts that occur in the enactment of fathering.
Descriptions of enactment of fathering run through all of the other chapters including the places,
experiences, and investments of fathering occupations.
Transitions in the Enactment of Protector
The fathers often talked about protecting their children. Aristotle best summed up the
feeling of being a protector when he talked about the first time he saw his oldest son. Before his
son was born Aristotle primarily thought about buying clothes and shoes, but holding his son for
the first time made the situation real.
You’re just like, whoa, this is -- and it’s weird that that’s when you see it, because you
see this baby with his eyes closed, a human being, hands trembling, feet barely kicking,
moving its head, feeling the world for the first time, but completely defenseless. Like at
the mercy of the world it was just slammed into. And you are there, going, you and that
woman that just gave birth are the ones that are going to hold that baby, and care for it,
and guard it, and keep all of the harm that happens in this crazy world from happening to
this defenseless thing. And that’s when it hits you. You look at that, and go -- it’s like it’s
almost an instinct.
Aristotle paints the image of the child facing a very uncertain world when he describes
the baby as being “at the mercy of the world it was just slammed into.” The theme of wanting to
protect his children came up several times in interviews with Aristotle. However, reading this
quote again makes me wonder if Aristotle’s goal of protecting his children from the world is
realizable. Regardless of how hard Aristotle tries, his children will eventually be hurt by the
world. The “harm that happens in this crazy world” will happen to his children.
In an oft quoted work on maternal thinking, Ruddick (1995) describes protective thinking
as one of the core features of mothering. However, though the role of protector has often
historically been associated with fathers, most research examining protecting children has
focused on mothers (Marsiglio & Roy, 2012). When researchers do recognize men as protectors,
it is often in dangerous or disadvantaged communities (Roy & Dyson, 2010; Taylor & Behnke,
2005). Strategies are most often apparent in neighborhoods that contain high incidents of
violence and conflict (Marsiglio & Roy, 2012). In this study, the need to protect children
emerged as an important aspect of fathering.
At the end of the previous quote, Aristotle says that it is almost an instinct to protect
one’s children. He goes on to say that men have “a father instinct, where now you’re going to
fight for this child.” The birth of Aristotle’s son is a moment of narrative significance that leaves
Aristotle permanently changed. Aristotle’s enactment of fatherhood has transitioned from being
a consumer of children’s clothing to being a protector of his children. He has described
undergoing a lasting transition in devotion and ultimately enactment of protector. The moment
that Aristotle sees his son for the first time he reflects on future possibilities of protecting his son
and being together.
Tom also describes a transition in protecting his children. Though Greg is a very social
boy who enjoys being around other people, at times protecting him can also create difficulties.
During one of the interviews I asked Tom if he was more social because of Greg’s outgoing
No, it forces me to be protective because I can see and have hindsight that the world is
not fair, that the world is cruel, the world is, [laughs] there is not nice people in the world,
the right situation could be a catastrophe for him.
Tom believes that Greg is very trusting of others because of his disability. Greg always
thinks everyone is joking, even if other kids are picking on him. One time when another child
was picking on Greg, Tom stepped in and reprimanded the other child. Another time, Tom told a
stranger that was unnecessarily touching Greg on the chest to stop. These are forms of physical
protection. Tom further describes how he physically protects his son.
So you have to be protective. You are not rude you just shield him. Momma duck or
daddy duck and put yourself between the situation. So any time you interact with adults I
try to be protective.
It is interesting that Tom talks about both momma ducks and daddy ducks indicating that
both mothers and fathers can be protectors. Tom is a big man with tattoos and a goatee whose
physical presence can be intimidating. However, his wife also has the ability to protect Greg
with her physical presence.
Tom finished the previous quote by saying that he tries to be protective any time Greg
interacts with adults. He is constantly vigilant in protecting his son. In the same interview I
asked Tom if he felt he was more protective with Greg because of his disability.
Greg is a first child so that is all I know. In fact if anything it is probably a hindrance
with my second child who is normal because you know I am going off my experience
with my one child. But on the other hand my second child, Chad who is four, he is a
little more reserved, he is not the extravert that Greg is, he is much more guarded. So I
don't really have to do it as much because he is already shy.
In essence, Greg’s disability has influenced his fathering, though Chad’s temperament
has reduced this effect. Tom’s description of protectiveness resembled what I observed in
interviews. While walking across the parking lot going to get yogurt or along the sidewalk
towards the train station, there was a difference in protectiveness for the two. Tom held Greg’s
hand while his younger brother Chad would hop or skip along with them. When Chad wandered
too far Tom would tell him to come back or get out of the street. Because of Greg’s vision
impairment, Tom kept him closer but still kept a watchful, protective eye on Chad.
The first time Greg went to school represented a change in how Tom enacted being a
protector. As illustrated above, Tom views himself as Greg’s protector, especially since Greg
has a disability that limits his ability to access social situations. However, Tom’s view of
himself as Greg’s protector changed when Greg went to school for the first time.
I would always just think, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be his protector at school. I don’t have to
really worry about it.” But, when he starts going to school and you’re not there and you
have to be at work, what are you going to do? You’ve got to put some faith in other
people to do their jobs and to act appropriately. And, you know, I met a lot of people at
school, they’re good people. I don’t really have any fears.
Since Tom sees himself as Greg’s protector in social situations, Greg entering school was
a difficult time for Tom. When Greg was at school, Tom was unable to be there to protect him.
As a result, Greg’s transition to school coincided with a parallel transition in Tom’s life. He
realized he could no longer be the physical protector and that responsibility shifted to others.
Tom’s enactment of fatherhood has shifted as Greg has gotten older and entered school.
These three transitions within the enactment of fathering represent different levels of
transition. Upon seeing his child for the first time, Aristotle described immediately becoming a
protector. Tom’s protection of his son Greg is a process that occurred over time and is related to
Greg’s disability. Just as he has learned over time to protect Greg, he has also learned to let
Chad have more freedom. His second transition occurred when Greg went to school. Tom
realized that he could no longer be a protector but must trust the people at Greg’s school. His
enactment of fatherhood has changed in that he does not always need to protect Greg.
The Evolution of Responsibilities
As fathers talked about their experiences raising their children, it became apparent that
responsibilities were not stagnant, but were the result of long ongoing processes of negotiation.
Responsibilities were not determined at birth, but were evolving, often negotiated and
renegotiated. The negotiations that produce changes in responsibilities are social forces that
shape the enactment of fatherhood.
Jimmy is primarily responsible for childcare tasks for Teresa, including feeding her, a
process that takes 45 minutes to an hour. He regularly gets her ready for school and picks her up
from school. Jimmy tells an important story about how his childcare responsibilities evolved.
You know, it just kind of naturally evolved, when it comes to the homework and stuff
like I'll, I'll help. Well now with our older kids they are like beyond my needs. But with
my three year old and stuff, it was always me that would be the one to help them with…
We kind of decided that actually when the twins were barely born that I would be the one
to help the kids with the homework and I do most of the chores because she had her
hands full and stuff like that. Well, I'd say everything evolved because when she was
under all the stress, when Teresa was first diagnosed she had a lot of learning to do. And
she learned, I give her credit. She learned everything and she knows how to handle
insurances and how to... I mean she knows the game to a T.
Before Teresa was born, Maya and Jimmy both worked outside the home with Maya
doing the bulk of childcare and housework responsibilities. Maya quit her job in order to be at
home full time when Teresa and her twin were born. When Teresa was diagnosed Maya needed
to spend more time dealing with insurance companies and learn about Teresa’s diagnosis, so
Jimmy assumed the responsibility of childcare. Maya got very adept at dealing with insurance
companies, a skill that was invaluable for both Teresa and later dealing with medical issues that
Maya’s mother encountered.
In the previous quote, when describing how he started to help the kids with their
homework and do the chores, Jimmy says that they “kind of decided.” On the other hand he also
says that caring for children “kind of naturally evolved” and that “everything evolved” because
Maya had a lot of learning to do when Teresa was first diagnosed. These two descriptions give
insight into the process. Though there was at least one point in time when Jimmy and Maya had
a conversation about him assuming homework and other childcare responsibilities, these
responsibilities also evolved. This creates an image of Jimmy at times taking on responsibilities
just because they needed to be done. Another significant moment occurred when Maya started
having difficulty coping with the negotiation of Teresa’s medical and educational needs. Jimmy
started attending appointments with her to ease her stress and burdens.
Fatherhood today has been described as a response to circumstances and biography as
opposed to a reflection on traditional ideals (Williams, 2008). Fatherhood is particularized for
Jimmy as he and Maya negotiate forms of parenting that work best for them. Jimmy and Maya
have created a distribution of responsibilities that their descriptions indicate fits their needs in
response to Teresa’s disability. Their distribution of responsibilities reflects my own findings
from a study of books written by fathers of children with disabilities. Fathers described
cooperation, negotiation, and differentiation as strategies for distributing responsibilities related
to their children with disabilities (Bonsall, 2013). However, Jimmy and Maya’s story also goes
beyond my previous work in that here distribution of responsibilities is seen as a process that can
include all of these strategies.
This historical shift in fathering responsibilities creates the conditions in which Jimmy
and Maya are negotiating responsibilities in raising Teresa. However, there are still limitations
on the household tasks Jimmy has taken on. Though Jimmy has taken up his share of childcare
and cooking, he continues to describe an uneven distribution of the tasks of cleaning the house.
Jimmy: I cook too so we split everything.
Interviewer: You split the cooking? How about cleaning?
Jimmy: Ahhh, I help her out. [Pause] When necessary.
Though Jimmy has taken up more of the childcare tasks, he still leaves the housework to
Maya. Interestingly, their distribution of labor is a reflection on both traditional roles and current
societal trends. Men demonstrate a greater increase in the time they spend with children than the
time they spend in housework (Shelton, 2006). Hoschild and Machung (1989) argue that though
men spend more time working at home, it is often doing preferred jobs such as taking children on
community outings. Women still tend to do a majority of the undesirable household chores such
as cleaning. This is reflected in the distribution of responsibilities between Jimmy and Maya.
Jimmy has increased the amount of time he spends with his children but Maya continues to be
responsible for housework.
Though there continues to be an inequality in the distribution of responsibilities between
Jimmy and Maya, their accomplishment in finding a distribution of responsibilities that they both
agree on is important. Gerson (2010) argued that the most important aspect of family structures
was not whether responsibilities were distributed evenly, but whether both parents were satisfied
with those family structures. According to Gerson, parents’ satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, can
be played out in their children’s’ lives. Though it is not perfect, Jimmy and Maya have found a
distribution of responsibilities that appears to work for them.
During the course of the study, Jimmy was employed full time for a month. When he
was not employed full time he did odd jobs such as coaching or selling DVDs to get by. Because
of this, it is tempting to conclude that Jimmy primarily does childcare because he does not work
full time. However, this is not the case. Jimmy started feeding Teresa and doing other childcare
tasks when he was still working full time. During the time that Jimmy did work during the
study, he came home from ten-hour shifts to feed Teresa her meal. More than just something he
does because he has time, Jimmy describes feeding Teresa simply because it is his responsibility.
Differentiation of responsibilities. The fathers in this study often talked about
differentiation of responsibilities including childcare, earning money, and taking care of the
household. Responsibilities were demonstrated as being distributed both along lines of fit and
necessity. Sometimes differentiation of responsibilities was based on talents. Tom talked about
working towards their strengths when I asked how he negotiated responsibilities with Sarah.
I mean each of us have different strengths when it comes to Greg. Like I said before, I
am pretty much in charge of brushing teeth and getting them ready to go to bed. As far as
hygiene and stuff like that goes, it pretty much falls on me because I do stuff better with
the kids as far as that goes. I guess my wife just doesn't, they respond to her differently.
So that is my responsibility more or less. And any time my wife has to do something
everything falls on me anyway. So it is not, nothing was ever negotiated, it is just I am
doing my part.
Tom uses humor to get Greg to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. This is a
responsibility he takes because he is good at it. There seems to be a fit between Tom’s skills and
Greg’s needs around nightly routine. Because Tom can get Greg to laugh and is able to move
the process along, it has become his job. However, their distribution is not always so neat. For
instance, while Tom went to work, Sarah drove Greg to school every day even though she
disliked driving. Tom told me that since he enjoyed driving, he wished it could fit into his
schedule to drive Greg to school. Sometimes the distribution of responsibilities makes sense, but
at other times it is just a matter of necessity.
Jimmy and Maya demonstrate a more situational distribution of responsibilities. The
difference between their responsibilities with the schools and coaching softball illustrates the
contingency of their responsibilities. When dealing with schools, Maya does most of the heavy-
handed work, while Jimmy maintains relationships. During an interview that included both
Maya and Jimmy, Maya described how she yelled at one of the therapists on the phone. Jimmy
added to her description by saying that he never should have handed her the phone.
That was bad; I never should have passed her the phone. I didn't think about that until
after. Because she was having a bad day but she started asking me all these questions and
I was like, "Oh here you go." And that was it. Man she lit that poor lady up.
I got the impressions during the conversation that Jimmy acted as kind of a buffer
between Maya and the schools. When I asked him if he was kind of a buffer, Jimmy replied, “I
gotta be.” Having Maya deal with the schools and insurance companies while Jimmy worked
and took care of the children seems to be a logical distribution of responsibilities. However, the
distribution of responsibilities that have developed between Maya and Jimmy related to coaching
softball is quite different.
She’s usually the good cop, and I’m the bad cop, and they start, you know, goofing
around. And then one practice, you know, we’re talking to some parents, and I send them
out there to stretch, and they were all still standing out there. I was watching them. Five
minutes had went by. Then I let them finish stretching, and they ran their laps, and then I
called them over, right? I called them over off of the field to this concrete, right? There’s
this little -- where the concrete ends and where the field steps, and I go, Okay, come here,
everybody. I go, you see this right here? I said, Once you set foot on that dirt, I said,
you’re mine. You’re here to practice. You’re not here to gossip and all that. I said, it’s
serious business here, you know. I said, what you guys were doing, you know, that’s not
cool. I said, we take this serious. This is what we do. Ask any of these other girls around
here. This is our time. This is, you know, we live, and we die for this stuff, you know. Of
course, that was done in a little bit more higher tone than all that, you know.
Jimmy and Maya have been coaching baseball, softball, and t-ball together. They are
currently coaching their daughter’s high school softball team. The coaching negotiations of
responsibilities they have developed are very different from the roles they play when dealing
with schools and insurance companies. Dealing with insurance companies or schools creates a
very different scene than coaching softball. It is helpful to analyze Jimmy’s story in terms of
what Burke (1969) describes as scene-agent ratio. Some moments are driven more by scene and
while others are driven by agents. In Jimmy’s story, motivation is drawn primarily from the
properties of the scene in contrast to the personalities of the agents.
Tom and Jimmy display very different differentiations of responsibilities in these two
examples. The differentiation of responsibilities by Tom is very logical; he does Greg’s
nighttime routine because he is good at it. On the other hand, Jimmy and Maya differentiate
responsibilities along lines that change as scenes vary. As Jimmy describes, he can either be the
good cop or the bad cop. Their distribution of responsibilities depends more on who they are
dealing with than a preset differentiation.
Learning to be a father. The men in this study often described fatherhood as an
ongoing learning process. For instance, when I asked Jimmy where he learned to be a father, he
replied that he was still learning.
I am still learning. It is like a learning process. Especially these teenage years. Oh my
God, my daughter. She is 14 and oh man, me and her are like water and oil. We are just
always bickering, arguing. She is one of, I just say, "Hey Mary, how was school today?"
"What? What do you care?" I mean just pops off. I can't have a civil conversation with
her. My son is starting to get this attitude now too. I am still learning you know. It is
just a learning process as you go. I don't think there is no way to become a father.
For Jimmy, the learning process includes how to deal with teenagers and how to include
Teresa, his daughter with cerebral palsy, in everything. Jimmy’s description of learning
emphasizes the importance of how lives evolve over time. He is continually learning. Jimmy
himself relates his learning to development when he talks about “becoming a father.” It is not
just a process of learning, but also a process of becoming. The contingency of fathering on
children is demonstrated in Jimmy’s difficulty communicating with his children, his daughter’s
teenage years, and his son’s “starting” to get an attitude. As his children are getting older they
are changing and Jimmy’s relationship with them is transforming.
Central to Elder’s (1994) study of the life course is the concept of linked lives, or that
“human lives are typically embedded in social relationships with kin and friends across the life
span” (p. 4). Jimmy’s enactment of fatherhood is linked to his childhood and what he has
described as a lack of male role models growing up. As he explained during one interview, “I
grew up without a father so, like I said, it is all learning experience for me.” Jimmy’s enactment
of fathering is embedded in his relationships with others, even his father whom he did not know
Brian also expressed a need to learn about fathering. During one interview Brian
repeated to Joanna my question about what he learned about fathering from her. Her answer was
“everything.” Joanna is referring to having taught Brian to change diapers, bathe the baby, and
give baby bottles. According to Joanna, Brian did not even know how to hold a baby. Brian
agrees and describes a “fear of just screwing up and not doing something right.” Since then he
has learned how to change diapers and is responsible for the nightly baby feedings. Previous
studies have found that lack of skills and knowledge can be a hindrance to paternal involvement
(Hamilton & de Jonge, 2010; Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004).
Brian contrasts his history with children with Joanna’s. Growing up, Joanna had younger
siblings that she cared for including feeding and changing diapers. She had a younger sister
when she was 10 and did babysitting all through high school. Brian’s youngest brother was born
when he was seven and he never helped with childcare. Coincidently, Brian and Joanna’s 11-
year-old daughter helps with childcare while their seven-year-old son is considered too young.
These age ranges appear to be merely coincidences until one considers that Brian’s father also
never participated in childcare. This points to Brian’s lack of opportunity in childcare as due to
gender. Whether for reasons of age or gender, Brian simply did not have the same opportunities
to participate in childcare that Joanna had. While Jimmy attributes his lack of knowledge to the
absence of a positive father figure, Brian had a father figure present but also did not engage in
care for children until he became a father.
The learning process. Fathers described learning parenting from their own fathers,
extended family members, friends, and their wives. Tom’s example of learning patience and
understanding from his wife illustrates the learning process.
Oh yeah, they were goofing off in bed one time and I went in there and spanked them
and my wife kind of went unglued on me. And in all fairness she was right, I shouldn't
have ran in there and spanked them because it was like, I was on the phone trying to do
some business and they were goofing around all night long. So I knew they were already
goofing around and my wife, and I did not see her go in the other room to chastise them
already, she had already gone in there to chastise them. I am on the phone. I told my
partner to you know, hold on I will call you back. Bam, hung up the phone run in there
spank some butts and all of the sudden my wife is yelling at me "What did you do? Blah,
blah, blah, blah." And then I am upset because "Why are you going in there to console
them after I have just disciplined them? Now they are going to learn that they can do
whatever." Yeah, I made a mistake, totally. You know it doesn't happen all the time but
I mean hey, sometimes you do the wrong thing.
This is a relevant example of the actual learning process. Tom made the mistake of
disciplining his children when he really did not need to. This story must have weighed heavily
on Tom, it was one of the few stories he told me several times. The first time he told this story
as an incident when he made a mistake and had to apologize for to his children. He thought he
was being a good father, but later realized he was just being a jerk. The second time, a month
and a half later, he told the story as an example of how Sarah taught him about patience and
compassion. He concluded that he “should have emulated her instead of getting upset.”
Fathering is a learning process and Tom attempts to change his behavior as he learns.
This story illustrates not only how Tom learned from Sarah, but also the experiential
aspects learning within communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Though Tom’s friends
and family represented communities of practice, he had to learn from his own experience within
these communities. When asked what advice he would give to other fathers, Tom replied,
“Figure it out, dude. I had to.”
Though this story does indeed demonstrate how Tom had to “figure it out,” he also had
the support of Sarah. Though Tom describes the brief argument he had with Sarah, he was able
to learn from this encounter. He realized that he was wrong and apologized. The next step was
to follow Sarah’s example by increasing his patience. Tom’s learning process reflects the
research of Palm (1993) who described a learning environment that supports reflection as a
precondition for growth through fatherhood. Tom described Sarah as an important influence that
created a learning environment whereby Tom could learn through his own experience.
The Influence of Perspectives of Fathering Before Fatherhood
The examples of Tom and Aristotle illustrate contrasting descriptions of becoming
fathers. Tom did not always want to have kids. He contrasts his current enjoyment of spending
time with his kids with his previous dislike of children.
I would spend every day with my kids if I could. It is just weird because when I was a
younger guy, unmarried and even before we had kids I hated kids. I didn't even want
Though at one time Tom did not want to have kids, now he would spend every day with
kids if he could. There is a transformation that happened between when he was younger thinking
about kids and now. Tom goes on to talk about a buddy with six kids that always told him that
he would enjoy having children. Though Tom did not believe him at the time, he admits now
that his friend was correct. I then asked Tom what his past perception about kids had been that
prevented him from wanting to have children.
Just a lot of responsibility, which it is. And just a lot of mess, a lot of messes. And a just
a lot of noise, which it is. Everything I don't like pretty much. But the upside to all that
is every other time when it is not like that and it is just awesome.
In other words, Tom’s past perception of children as messy and noisy were correct.
However, alongside the mess and the noise also exists the “awesomeness.” Though he did not
specifically define what he meant by “awesomeness,” it is obvious from interviews and
observations that Tom enjoys being with his children. He enjoys going on outings and just
spending time together. When going on outings during observations with Tom and his kids, it
just seemed like the things he did were just more fun when he was with his children. Though
Tom once thought of kids negatively, being together with his children has changed his point of
For Aristotle, fatherhood was a lofty decision embedded in his own sense of wanting to
have children. Consider the following excerpt taken from an interview when Aristotle talked
about the importance of being married and raising children.
I was just trying to express how much of a tie and a bond it really is to have a child, as
opposed to just being married, you know. We waited to have kids. I didn’t want to have
kids right away, for that very reason. I didn’t say it to anybody, but I just thought, gee,
what if we bring a kid into this world, and our marriage fails? I’m not just going to get
married and right away start pumping out kids. You know what I mean?
Secretly, Aristotle wanted to be sure that his marriage was solid before they brought
children into the relationship. Aristotle went on in the interview to talk about a friend that got
married and had a child and then got divorced. After getting divorced, his friend did not take
care of their children.
Aristotle’s view of marriage and family reflects conceptualizations of marriage and
children as a package deal, or a composite goal that combines work, marriage, home, and
children (Townsend, 2002). The package deal has recently been taken up in explaining
unmarried fathers lack of involvement because relationships with a child are viewed as
contingent on relationships with the child’s mother (Amato, Meyers, & Emery, 2009; Edin,
Tach, & Mincy, 2009; Guzzo, 2009; Tach, Mincy, & Edin, 2010). The previous quote indicates
that Aristotle viewed caring for his children as a package deal with Elizabeth, but in a preplanned
way not expressed previously in the literature. He was worried that if his marriage failed he
would not be able to care for his own children.
Aristotle has thought about having children since he was young. He talks about having a
But yeah, so I was talking about fatherhood, and, like -- I’m the type of person that, when
I was a kid, would [unintelligible], and all my friends wanted to be sponsored. I actually
wanted to be the sponsor. I wanted to be the guy that put kids on the team, and gave them
their boards, and signed them on, and put together the team, similar to a coach, you know
-- like the coaches. Coaches that coach kids’ teams, that’s a father right there, even if the
coach didn’t have kids. You know, that’s the father mentality.
According to Aristotle, fathering is not something that you do just with your children, but
a mentality. He had this mentality since he was a kid. When all of the other surfers wanted to be
sponsored by large companies, he wanted to be the sponsor that helped out other surfers. It is
helpful to view what Aristotle calls a fathering mentality as generativity (Erikson, Erikson, &
Kivnick, 1994). Aristotle’s description of wanting to give back to the next generation reflects
arguments by McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) that explain generativity not as a clearly
demarcated stage, but closely related to narrative throughout the lifespan.
Aristotle’s tendency towards generativity throughout his lifespan is particularly salient
when considering Aristotle’s youth. It is possible that Aristotle’s early identification with
fathering is closely entwined with the disappointment he felt in his own fathering figures.
Aristotle moved away from his father with his mother and siblings when he was young. His
relationship with a stepfather after his mother remarried left Aristotle disappointed. Aristotle’s
experience is not unique, other men have reported being motivated by reworking the narratives
of their fathers (Coles, 2003). Though he did not specifically say it, there is evidence that
Aristotle’s desire to be a father is related to his own father. Aristotle’s redemptive fathering
narrative is further explored in the next chapter.
Although Aristotle has always wanted to be a father, he was not as involved with his
children the first four years of their lives as he was in subsequent years. Aristotle describes that
when his children were younger, he did not feel like he was able to handle them. Since
Aristotle’s primary participation with his two sons is participation in the community, it also
makes sense that he did not have a lot to do with them before they were four. Interestingly, for
Aristotle, there was a shift in the enactment of fatherhood that occurred around the age of four.
Aristotle’s change in involvement is important in that it illustrates one of the multiple transitions
that occur within fatherhood (Palkovitz & Palm, 2009). His transition to a more involved father
coincided with the transition of his children into the community. Until he was actively involved
with his children at the age of four, his actions were inconsistent with his descriptions of the
meaning of fatherhood.
While Tom did not want to be a father before he was married, fathering was a strong
drive for Aristotle. Their experiences represent very different paths to fatherhood. One
similarity is that they both had to grow into fatherhood. The transition represented by Tom can
be seen as more of a transition in inner psychology while Aristotle’s transition was more of
external behavior. In addition, Tom’s transition occurred sometime between before he had
children and now. It is unclear if it happened at birth or after he spent more time with his
children. Aristotle on the other hand, had a transition in external behavior that occurred around
Whereas past research of fatherhood has focused on the enactment of fatherhood as
developing around birth, this chapter illustrates the various processes and transitions in the
enactment of fatherhood. Some enactments of fatherhood were processes that developed over
time such as evolution of responsibility and learning to be a father. Others developed during
major transitions within fatherhood such as birth or transitions to the community. For instance,
Brian’s story of quitting work to spend more time with his family was a transition due to his
son’s disability. In Chapter 7, I present some of the contexts of fathering that can further
influence transitions in the enactment of fatherhood.
One developmental milestone of children that resulted in transitions in enactment of
fatherhood for fathers occurred around the age of four. Tom described how he changed his
enactment of the protector as his children went to school. Aristotle talked about spending more
time with his children when they turned four. It is possible that this transition is highlighted
within this study even more so than birth because one of the selection criteria for fathers was
having children seven to twelve years old in order to capture the developmental shift that occurs
between five and seven (Janowsky & Carper, 1996; Sameroff & Haith, 1996; White, 1996). The
selection criteria of children from age seven to eleven highlighted the transition in fatherhood
that occurs around the age of four.
The fathers in this study demonstrated that the enactment of fatherhood is not static, but
developing. This process of change reflects Elder’s (1994, 1998a, 1998b) description of linked
lives, or that lives are embedded in social relationships with family and friends across the
lifespan. It is significant that the enactments of fathering changed as relationships and situations
changed. This is important in the overall study of fatherhood because it highlights the
significance of the multiple transitions that occur within fathering.
Chapter 6: The Influence of Redemptive Narratives on Fathering
A key theoretical assumption of this study is that actions take on narrative meaning.
Mattingly (1998) describes the three-fold presence of time as locating narratives enacted in the
present between a remembered past and anticipated future. Present action acquires meaning
from past experience and future possibilities. This chapter is primarily concerned with how past
experiences influences present action.
Mattingly (2010b) states that “stories can have powerful consequences upon how the
present is experienced and what future actions seem most reasonable, likely, or appropriate”
(2010b, p. 52). In other words, the stories that we tell, remember, and enact influence both the
present and the future.
In this chapter I explore redemption as a particular type of narrative whereby negative
scenes are transformed into positive outcomes (McAdams, 2006). Second chance narratives can
include either a redemption for personal past mistakes or reworking of a family heritage (Roy &
Lucas, 2006). This chapter illustrates examples of how redemptive narratives influence
fatherhood: personal redemptive narratives, reworking of family narratives, and redemptive
narratives as they occur as part of lives that include multiple plotlines.
The importance of fatherhood as redemption for personal past mistakes emerged as
particularly powerful in the interviews with Edward. Redemption for his own alcoholism was
expressed as a driving force for fathering his children. Edward talks frequently about drinking
heavily while raising Edward Junior, his oldest son. This created numerous problems in Edward
Junior’s life, not the least of which was his own alcoholism. Multiple arrests and attendance of
court mandated Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings did not convince Edward that he was an
alcoholic. Edward Junior’s arrest for drinking and driving made Edward to stop drinking. In the
following story, Edward has just gotten home from the court mandated AA meeting where he has
not yet identified as an alcoholic.
I went home that night, I was watching TV on the couch, and I fell asleep on the couch.
About midnight, phone rings, “This is ___ __ Police. We have your son here. He’s been
arrested for drunk driving. You want to come and get him?” And, I go, “No, just leave
him. Just leave him, I’ll get him in the morning.” He goes, “Okay.” So, the next day, I
went to a meeting and identified as an alcoholic. I’m sorry, I cry every time I tell that
story, and I told it hundreds of times. It’s still strong, still strong with me.
This story is powerful for Edward since he blames himself for his son’s drinking. When
asked why it is important for Edward to tell this story he said it was “to keep the memory alive
so I don’t go back.” Seeing his son arrested was a turning point in Edward’s life. It prompted
him to identify as an alcoholic and never take a drink again. Today, neither Edward nor his son
Edward Junior consumes alcohol. Edward is actively involved in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In a study of members of AA, Cain (1991) identified a link between identity and the adoption of
a drinking narrative. The AA story is a “cultural device, which acts to mediate self-understanding
for newcomers acquiring the AA alcoholic identity” (Cain, 1991, p. 244). Drinking stories are
one of many narratives that lead to one’s understanding of the self (Cain, 1991). This rings true
in Edward’s story; his drinking interacts with and shades the stories of his family and his career.
Edward’s story includes the elements of an AA narrative including problems in his life
caused by drinking, hitting rock bottom, and changes in his life since joining (Cain, 1991;
Holland et al., 1998). Receiving a phone call from the police was Edward’s rock bottom. This
important moment in Edward’s life can be described in several different ways. Using narrative
terms, receiving a phone call from the police that his son had been arrested was a breach or
disruption in narrative that became a space for learning (Jacobs-Huey, 2007; Mattingly, 1998).
In Edward’s instance, this breach is a major life-transforming event.
Edward’s drinking story continues with how his life has changed since identifying as an
alcoholic. An important aspect of living ones life as a member of AA as described by Edward is
making amends with those that have been wronged in the past. Edward has twice attempted to
make amends for past mistakes with his son Edward Junior. Though he is not sure if Edward
Junior accepts his amends, Edward is living it every day of his life.
These kids, Marvin and Dillon, have never seen me drunk. Part of my amends...[crying
as he talks] to Edward Jr., I was not a good father. I was a drunk. He got the worst. I
made an amends, I am sorry. I made an amends with him, and I said, "those kids will
never see me drunk and will never have to be treated the way I treated you. And that's
my amends to you. It is a living amends I will make every day because of what I did to
you as you were growing up."
For Edward, raising his sons is redemption for the way he treated his oldest son in the
past. Wertsch (1998) describes narratives as cultural tools that allow for interpretation of the
environment and mediate action. Edward’s narrative suggests that adoption of the AA narrative
can have not only a positive affect on drinking behaviors, but also on other areas of life, such as
fathering. His adoption of the AA narrative as a cultural tool guides his interpretation and
enactment of fatherhood.
The story of how Edward fathers his children as part of his commitment to change his life
came up several times during the course of the interviews. The significance of this story led to
my puzzlement about the power that redemption for past mistakes holds in Edward’s life. Upon
further analysis, I recognized that other told a story that illustrated personal redemption.
Researching the idea of fatherhood as redemption, I discovered that McAdams and other
researchers have explored redemption in relation to fathers (Marsiglio & Roy, 2012; Maruna &
Roy, 2007; McAdams, 2006; Roy & McAdams, 2006). The redemptive narrative is both a
personal and social story that influences fathering. McAdams (2006) describes narratives of
redemption as a particular kind of stories that are “told and lived.” Particularly important for the
study of the enactment of fatherhood, redemptive narratives have been described as related to
generativity; addressed in the previous chapter (McAdams, 2006). Though these researchers
have explored personal redemption, the majority of their attention was on reworking of family
narratives. I realized that the concept of fatherhood as reworking family narratives allows for
new insight into the analysis of several fathers stories, including of Aristotle’s.
Redemption: Reworking Family Narratives
Though several men related stories about giving their children what they did not have
growing up, Aristotle’s story stood out as particularly illustrative. Aristotle related a powerful
story about redemption, a time when he worked hard to give his children what he did not have
when growing up. Aristotle’s mother separated from his father when he was young and he
describes his life as lacking strong male presences. The family moved to America and
Aristotle’s father stayed in his country of origin. Though his mother later remarried, his
stepfather was unreliable.
When asked about a time when he was disappointed as a child, Aristotle told a story
about when he wanted to go to the snow with his stepfather.
I remember they were talking about how Lancaster sometimes gets cold enough to snow.
I was like, whoa. Because I wanted to go to the snow. I hadn't ever gone. And I was
like, "Snow, no way it really snows?" And they are like, "Yeah, it really snows there."
…. I was like "Whoa, I want to go. I want to go." And he [his stepfather] was like,
"Yeah, I am going to take you there, the next time it snows I am going to take you there."
That never happened.
In spite of Aristotle bugging his stepfather to go see the snow, the never went. Years
later, when Aristotle did make it to Lancaster, he learned it was a dry desert and not the winter
wonderland he had imagined as a kid. On a much deeper level, what Aristotle longed for was
not just the snow, but dependability and reliability.
I asked Aristotle if there was ever a time when he did not want to do something and
thought, “No wait, I need to do this.” His reply was a story about taking his own kids to the
It is funny because this is the, it is almost the same thing over again because the snow
relation when I was a kid, that is why… So anyways, last year what happened is we were
planning this snow trip, bought them their clothes, had everything ready to go and I
Aristotle then called his wife into the room to help him recount the story. Though it is
long, here I present the story of the snow trip as recounted by Aristotle and his wife Elizabeth in
order to give the reader a sense of the chaos of the day they went to the snow. Elizabeth’s
participation in this dialogue gives a sense of how her perception of the trip may have been
another obstacle that Aristotle had to overcome.
Elizabeth: Well, didn't my car break; broke down at that moment and we had to borrow
your Mom's car, something like that happened?
Aristotle: Ok, that is one issue.
Elizabeth: So, I said, forget it.
Aristotle: Yeah, she was like forget it, we don't have a car. OK, so here I am trying to
fight all of these odds and I am like, "All right cool, we can do this." And she was like,
"no, that is too much. Your Mom has probably got things to do, blah blah blah." Finally
secured the car, so now we have the car. What was the next problem?
Elizabeth: We left late.
Aristotle: We did leave late. What was the problem, why did we leave so late?
Elizabeth: I don't know.
Aristotle: Just getting the kids up I guess.
Elizabeth: Getting the kids up.
Aristotle: No, didn’t we have some huge breakfast deal.
Elizabeth: Oh, we went for…
Aristotle: Did we go out for breakfast or did we make it here?
Elizabeth: No, we made it here.
Aristotle: We made it here, which took forever. We just weren't prepared.
Elizabeth: It was, it was a bad day from the beginning.
Aristotle: Yeah, it was just like a lot…
Elizabeth: We got there and there was so much traffic.
Aristotle: OK, so that is exactly what happened. So here is the, I forgot all about the car
situation. You are right we had to go borrow my Mom's car. OK, then we probably had
to put gas in it and that's, oh my god, by the time we got up and out of here, had
breakfast, went and got the car, packed everything in the car
Elizabeth: It was already like 12 or 1.
Aristotle: Got the kids in the car, went and got gas, we drove up, we are like, the kids
were all packed clothed up and we had to take everything off because we were already
getting hot. So we go in, oh, and the traffic.
Elizabeth: And the main, like road to get to the place was closed.
Aristotle: OK, so here is another one, so I, I am driving, she is yelling at me, why didn't I
plan the map to get there earlier. And I am yelling at her, I am a man and I know
everything [laughing]. I am a man; I am a human GPS, so here I am going "No, my
middle name is Thomas guide."
At this point in the story they have already gotten out of the house late and overcome the
obstacle of a broken car. The next obstacle they encountered was that quickest route up the
mountain was closed. Elizabeth did not want to go. Notice how even in the recounting of the
story, Elizabeth primarily remembers the negative details such as traffic and the car breaking
down. It seems as if most people would have turned back.
Aristotle found another route. It was much longer and the steep windy roads made
everyone in the car nervous. Then another accident delayed them an additional two hours as
they waited for the ambulance to come and the police to take a report. At around 3:00 they
Aristotle: It was one of those snow places. It was a snow play place. And we were just
going up there so they could rubber tube down the hill. That is all it was. The kids don't
know how to snowboard yet or anything.
Interviewer: So you went on the rubber tube a couple of times?
Aristotle: Yeah man, we packed a lot of fun within that hour. But man, it was, it was one
of those deals like, I think she called it right off, “We should not go today.”
Interviewer: You just kept going and going?
Aristotle: I just was so stuck and I was adamant I had to get there.
In the face of numerous obstacles, Aristotle continued to work to get his children to the
snow, something that he never had when he was a child. Aristotle did not want his children to
have the same disappointment that he felt. He was adamant that they saw snow, even if they
only had an hour to play in the snow.
This story represents a simple yet significant moment in Aristotle’s enactment of
fatherhood. This day represented redemption for Aristotle’s childhood. Not only did he take his
children to the snow, he proved to himself that he is a dependable father.
Returning to Wertsch’s (1998) description of narrative as cultural tools adds further
insight into Aristotle’s story. Wertsch describes narratives as having the ability to transform
actions through constraints and affordances. However, individuals also have the ability to resist.
In this case, Aristotle is resisting the narrative of unreliable, undependable fathers that has been
enacted by the prominent father figures in his life.
Redemptive Narratives as Part of Lives that Include Multiple Plotlines
After discovering the importance of redemptive narratives in the enactment of fatherhood
by Edward and Aristotle, I went back to the other fathers’ stories to see if they also displayed
redemptive narratives. Jimmy did not have a father growing up and his redemptive narrative
resembled Aristotle’s. Brian and Tom talked about the important influence their fathers have on
their current enactment of fatherhood. Though their fathers provided positive examples of
fathering, they also expressed aspects of the redemptive narrative in their stories. Brian’s story is
presented here because it displays the nuances of multiple plotlines that influenced his fathering.
The following quote from Brian demonstrates the important influence of his father.
Brian: So, when I was in like my, 14, 15, 16 years, I worked with my dad on the
weekends, so I spent, I spent more time with my dad growing up then I think anyone else
did, so, I happen to know him a little better then these guys. So, he made some stupid
business mistakes, overall, my father, you know, I’m grateful for what he did to provide
for a family for all those years. So, he did good.
Interviewer: So, in what ways would you say you are like your father?
Brian: More in providing. I think I’m a very good provider. My wife spends more money
than anyone I know.
Working was an opportunity for Brian and his father to spend time together. Brian identifies
working as the primary occupation that his father participated in. Researchers examining co-
occupations have looked primarily at mothers and young children, lacking the viewpoint of
children (Pierce, 2000; Zemke & Clark, 1996a). For instance, Price and Stephenson (2009)
demonstrate how a mother needed help in learning how to develop co-occupations with her
special needs child in order to promote their relationship and his development. In this excerpt
Brian gives his perception of how this co-occupation participated in with his father 20 years
earlier affected his life. Brian has imitated his own father’s primary fathering responsibility:
Brian’s father was a breadwinner and so is he. In another interview, Brian pointed out
“95% of my job is just providing.” Within their family, Brian is the breadwinner while his wife
makes the decisions about how it is spent. When Brian says he is a good provider, he in essence
is also saying he is a good dad since in his definition, 95% of the job of fathering is being a
Though Brian expresses his gratitude for his father, he also does not overly romanticize
his memories. He adds that his father made stupid business mistakes, recognizing his fallibility.
Brian is deviating from the heritage of his father in that believes he can overcome similar
In the previous excerpt Brian has firmly defined himself as a breadwinner while other
interviews reveal the importance of childcare responsibilities. In the following excerpt, Brian
starts with a description of himself as being a good dad because he is a provider then switches to
a description of childcare.
I think overall I am a good dad. I think I provide well for them. If the kids need me, I
think their is probably a certain time every night I get to a relaxed, or a tired point where I
am not very helpful and I get grouchy. But when Adam comes up and says, it is 12:30 at
night and I want to be asleep, and he'll say "I want a certain film on YouTube" and he has
a hard time seeing it, I will go downstairs and type for him.
Brian has framed getting up and helping Adam late at night within the context of being
tired from work. When he has had a hard day, it is because he has been working all day. Thus
he goes above and beyond being a breadwinner in order to perform childcare tasks even when he
is tired. Other direct childcare tasks that Brian has described include changing diapers, feeding
his youngest daughter her early morning bottle, and driving Adam to school.
The end result of having spent so much time with his father can also be seen as a
limitation in how Brian enacts of fathering. Brian’s busy work schedule often leaves him
lamenting the lack of time he has to spend with his children. He associates his lack of balance
between work and family with the experience he had with his own father.
I spent a lot of time with my Dad and I guess as a result I am probably a workaholic. So,
Joanna will say I am a workaholic and that is true. I would literally be there at work at
8:30 every night if I wasn't reminded, you have people at home. Because there is always
something I can do or there is always something I can research for some sort of project or
something. So that is difficult for me to get used to that because I was raised by a Dad
who all through my high school years I don't remember him taking, but a day here and a
day there off work.
Though Brian defines the bulk of his fathering responsibility as being a breadwinner, he
also wants to be more balanced than his father was. He has a desire to be able to spend more
time with his children and provide more childcare than his father did. During the course of the
interviews, his guilt over not being able to allocate the amount of time he wanted to spend with
his children became evident. It is significant that Brian changes diapers though his father never
did. During one interview, Brian noted, “over the last year or two I guess I have done more
introspections, saying ok, how am I interacting with them and am I really teaching them
Brian is trying to take what he learned from his father and improve on it. Though he
talks fondly of his father’s legacy of breadwinning, Brian still wants to do more than his father
did. This can be seen as part of a greater historical trend that has seen increased involvement in
childcare than the past generation (Finn & Henwood, 2009; Lamb, 2000). Brian is combining
his own personal experience with a changing cultural belief in equality in parenting.
Mattingly (2009) argues that life is not shaped by one single life story, but is the result of
multiple plotlines. In Brian’s narrative multiple plotlines compete to define the enactment of
fathering and the definition of a “good dad.” The two possible plotlines that Brian enacts on a
daily basis are being a provider and being an involved father. Being a provider is based on his
experience with his own father. Brian’s urge to spend more time with his children can be seen as
a rewriting of past narratives. Spending time with his children serves as a redemption for not
spending time with his own father.
What stands out in this chapter is the powerful influence that past experience has on
current enactments of fathering. Stern (2004) describes the effect of the past on the present as
fractals, or patterns that have the same general form regardless of size or scale. He describes the
present moments as a preexisting general pattern that has a tendency to find expression as it is
put into action in particular settings. Patterns men wanted to emulate that emerged in this study
included providing, teaching children, and demonstrating patience.
Though patterns tend to occur over and over again, there also is evidence that men
actively resist these patterns, forging new courses that include increased involvement with
children. Fathers described striving to be more involved with their children and having more
balance than their own fathers. Even for fathers such as Brian and Tom who revered and
admired their fathers, they had significant portions of what they wanted to change.
Even though fathers described a desire to be different than their fathers, in some cases,
the fractals still repeated themselves. Like his father, Brian is a self-described workaholic who
wants to spend more time with his children. Aristotle strives to never disappoint his children, but
people make mistakes. It is human nature that at some point, he will fall short of his children’s
expectations and his own standards. For example, Aristotle’s story of how he let his children
down when they saw him smoking a cigarette during a work barbeque is presented in Chapter 5.
Edward is following in his father’s footsteps when he describes himself as an alcoholic, even if it
is a non-drinking alcoholic. In spite of the best efforts of these fathers, some past narratives will
be relived. Others can be rewritten; leaving legacies that can be passed on to the next generation.
Chapter 7: Contexts of Fathering: Constraints and Affordances
Descriptions of constraints and affordances that influenced the enactment of fatherhood
emerged as an important theme within the data. Wertsch (1998) refers to cultural tools as
resources that both impose constraints and allow affordances to actions. Cultural tools can be
appropriated or resisted by individuals. Elder (1998a) states that “individuals construct their own
life course through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of
history and social circumstances” (Chapter 11, Section 2, para. 22). McAdams and de St. Aubin
(1992) related Elder’s work directly to fathers concluding that cultural demands include
resources and opportunities as well as constraints that motivate and shape generative
In order to examine individual narratives, it is important to analyze the social and
historical constraints and affordances that influence them. Researchers concerned with family
forms have recognized the changing definitions of families (Cabrera, Tamis LeMonda, Bradley,
Hofferth, & Lamb, 2000; Gerson, 1993; Miller, 2010; Williams, 2008). Gerson (2010) argues
that shifting family structures have forced individuals to search for private solutions to social
Work and family shifts have created an ambiguous mix of new options and new
insecurities, with growing conflicts between work and parenting, autonomy and
commitment, time and money. Amid these social conflicts and contradictions, young
women and men must search for new answers and develop innovative responses (Gerson,
2010, p. 7)
This chapter explores some of the social contradictions that are embedded in the
everyday lives of the men in this study. Contexts for fathering can be wide ranging, including
social demands, societal institutions, and physical limitations. Included in my exploration of
contexts are the innovative responses that have developed amongst couples and families to make
their situations work.
Several men described societal pressure that limited the enactment of fatherhood. What
Aristotle described as “full dad mode” emerged as a societal prescription for enacting fatherhood
along gendered lines. When I asked Aristotle about the first time he realized he was a father, he
told me a story about when a co-worker pointed out he was in “full dad mode.” This story
occurred at a work picnic. Aristotle does video and web design for a surfing company; an
industry at the forefront of trends and fashion. In this excerpt he is cooking at a work picnic
when he turns around and disciplines his kids.
You don’t talk the same way, and when you’re at work, and you’re hanging out with your
buddies, or whatever, you’re a totally different person, almost. And so I’m talking to my
friends, or whatever, and I’m talking to coworkers, and we’re all cool, and we’re all in
this same level, and all of a sudden, my kids show up, and I got to do something, and I go
to turn around, and be like, this, that, and the other. I got to order them around, and then I
turn back around, and, like, get back into the conversation, and they’re just like, we just
saw you in full dad mode right now. Like, you just did a whole, like – you know what I
mean? I was looking at them like, oh man, they caught me.
The first time Aristotle told this story, it was presented as inconsequential and light
teasing. But a deeper look reveals that, as Aristotle says, his actions with his children were
different than when he was with his co-workers. It is helpful to view Aristotle as displaying
what Mattingly (2009) describes as a narrative sense of self that is neither coherent or
continuous. Instead, Aristotle is “continually poised, with an eye to the future, toward multiple
possible plots, multiple possible selves” (Mattingly, 2009, p. 250). Plots of work and home
come into contrast at work barbeques. The fathering narrative enacted by Aristotle, or being in
“full dad mode,” looks very different than his work environment. When Aristotle is around his
children he is responsible and disciplined. Observing Aristotle enacting his fatherhood narrative
gave his colleagues pause.
Later in the interview, Aristotle goes on to explain the significance of the comment that
he was in “full dad mode.”
Earlier I explained that one time when somebody was like, I just caught you in a dad
mode. They actually kind of laughed at me. Yeah, it was poking fun at me for being that
dad. They made me feel just a little bit uncomfortable, and then I snapped out of it. I was
like, well, so what? I am a dad. Whatever. You know what I mean? But it’s not a cool
While at work, Aristotle displays a very cool laid-back persona. When his children
misbehave, Aristotle becomes a dad. In essence, Aristotle enters another plotline. His friends in
turn censure his display of responsibility by laughing at him. The comment that he was in “full
dad mode” was not just joking, but also an admonishment for being “that dad.” Aristotle says he
got over it quickly, but he does not say if he is now less likely to discipline his kids around co-
workers the next time they are at a barbeque. Though Aristotle has described social expectations
of gender and fatherhood, it is unclear how these expectations have influenced his fathering.
West and Zimmerman (1987) describe doing gender, or participation in routines and
recurring accomplishments that determine competence. Both men and women are subject to
constant demands of managing conduct in order to sustain activities and attitudes that relate to
appropriate sex categories. Societal expectations of gender place both constraints and
affordances on the performance of masculinity (Lamelle, 2010; Messner, 2000; Sargent, 2001).
In turn, gendered expectations of masculinity can lead to cultural enactment of fatherhood
(Coltrane, 1996; Coppolillo, 1987). Aristotle’s example of being told he is in “full dad mode” is
a demonstration of the gendered expectations he encounters at work.
At the end of the above quote, Aristotle finishes by saying that it is not cool to be a dad.
He then goes on to talk about the negative attitudes towards fatherhood as he sees them.
We cannot be insecure as fathers, and I think that some fathers might feel a little insecure
to be proud of who they are as fathers, because it’s almost like it’s not the macho thing to
do nowadays, you know.
When Aristotle talked about being in full dad mode he did not admit that his fathering
had been influenced by societal pressures, but here he does say that the pressure might get to
other fathers. Aristotle himself brings the conversation into the realm of masculinity when he
says some men are insecure about being fathers because it is not “the macho thing to do
nowadays.” Though Mexican-American males have been stereotyped as macho and uninvolved
fathers, this stereotype can be misleading. Recent descriptions of fathers of Mexican descent
have described an increase in attitudes of gender equality that are associated with increased
responsibility towards children (Coltrane, Parke, & Adams, 2008; Hofferth, 2003). Both
Aristotle and Jimmy, the two fathers in this study that identified themselves as being of Mexican
descent, were very involved in their children’s childcare. Though it is possible that Aristotle and
Jimmy had never thought about it, they are part of a larger movement amongst Mexican
American men that is redefining macho as being an involved father (Taylor & Behnke, 2005).
Representations of fathers in the media. Closely related to doing gender are depictions
of fathers in the media. Past research on media representations of fathers recognize both “new
nurturing” fathers on television as well as negative images of fathers. Aristotle, who describes a
lack of father figures in his life, talked about media as influencing his fathering. Some of the
television shows he watched as a kid set good examples of what a father should be. These
included Alan Thicke in Growing Pains (1985-1992), Bill Cosby in the Cosby Show (1984-
1992), and Bob Saget in Full House (1987-1995). All of these actors played fathers that were
cool yet understanding, traits Aristotle wanted in a father.
The fathers that Aristotle watched when he was a child created a cultural script he still
remembers. Palm (1993) describes positive representation of fathers interacting with their
children as creating a cultural script that models behaviors. According to Palm, these cultural
scripts influence fathers to become more involved, nurturing, and skilled fathers. Another set of
researchers in 2000 argued that popular media reflects a changing definition of fatherhood to
nurturing co-parents (Fox, Bruce, & Combs-Orme, 2000). The description of fathers as
incompetent also conflicts with some of the portrayals of fathers described previously such as
Bill Cosby on the Cosby Show.
Tom also talked about positive images of fathers in the media. When I asked if there were
any movies about fathers that he could relate to, Tom talked about the movie Real Steel that he
had seen with his son.
I seriously I mean, the point where he realizes he can be a dad to this kid and that he has
feelings for him, because all he wanted to do was get money before and live his own life;
he didn’t want to be bothered with it. But, in the end he comes around and he really
realizes it that he’s a good person and that he loves his son. It was touching, it was really
The movie Real Steel provides a cultural representation of the redemptive narratives
talked about in Chapter 6. In Tom’s description, the father goes from wanting to be on his own
to being a good person and realizing he loves his son. For Tom, there is a value judgment in
that the father is being a good person by caring for his son. McAdams (2006) describes
redemptive narratives as both cultural and personal. Reel Steel is a reflection of the cultural
reflective narrative that is enacted by several men in this study as demonstrated in Chapter 6.
The recreating and re-telling of cultural stories contributes to their enactment in men’s lives.
Though Aristotle talked briefly about positive images of fathers in the media, he talked
much more extensively about negative images. This is primarily because in Aristotle’s opinion
the media images of fathers have become progressively worse. In my analysis of the literature,
articles that mentioned positive media representations of fathers in the media were over 10 years
old. It is possible that these past researchers’ excitement for positive representations of fathers
Media can also provide cultural scripts that limit the enactment of fathering and
masculinities. Aristotle gave the example of a brash radio talk show host named Tom Leykis
that he used to listen to. Though Aristotle says he thought the show was funny at the time, he
explained that he has grown up since then and realizes how damaging to society the show is.
After listening to the Tom Leykis Show on a regular basis, Aristotle started to realize that the
show was “trying to get men to behave in a certain way.” Namely, in a way that is selfish and
disrespectful to others, especially to women. One example Aristotle gives is Tom Leykis’ advice
not to spend more than $40 on a date.
Aristotle has actively rejected the sexist views of the Tom Leykis Show throughout both
marriage and fatherhood. He further points out that the media, movies and TV, often degrade
fathers in general.
Aristotle: To me, it seems like they’re making the father out to be some lame dude. You
know what I mean? No, I’m wrong, I’m wrong. It’s not fathers. It’s pretty much adult
men in general. We’re always the butt of every joke now. It’s like everything that comes
out -- how do I explain it? What’s that -- “Grown Ups”? You ever seen “Grown Ups”?
Interviewer: The Adam Sandler one?
Aristotle: Yeah, but -- yeah, I mean, it just happened to be on, so I watched it. And it’s
that kind of stuff, where it’s these grown men that act like that. I guess it kind of is true
that grown men nowadays do act like that, and so maybe you can poke fun at that, but it
just seems like every kind of programming is just -- it’s just to make you out to be a
sucker if you’re married or have kids. I don’t know. But then again, it also could just be
that you’re a sucker for being a grownup at all. It’s like nobody wants to grow up.
Nobody wants to be a grown man. They all want to be kids out there, like, learning the
latest dance moves at a bar or something. I don’t know. They all want to be 21.
The narrative script provided by movies and television that frames fathers as the butt of
every joke is very different from the narratives of fathers in this study. According to researchers,
fathers in the media are often displayed as incompetent, leading to the conclusion that fathers’
direct interactions with children should be limited and monitored (Sunderland, 2000; Unger,
2010; Wall & Arnold, 2007). Aristotle points out that the movie Grown Ups where fathers are
made out to be the butt of the joke displays the incompetence of men.
Portrayals of fathers in the media both constrain and encourage involved fathering.
Aristotle’s description of cool understanding fathers in television is closely related to his own
enactment of fatherhood. His interactions with his children are very relaxed and personal. He
jokes around and has a good time with his children. When I observed football practice Aristotle
was able to identify when Leo was struggling, demonstrating his attunement with Leo’s needs.
On the other hand, the media portrayals that discourage being an adult and taking responsibility
closely resembled Aristotle’s story of being criticized for being in “full dad mode.” The struggle
to define fatherhood is being played out in men’s personal lives as well as within the media.
Aristotle told a story about a work barbeque on another day that further illustrates the
importance of social context. Though this story is similar to the example of “full dad mode”
used to illustrate doing gender, I feel it is worth telling because it demonstrates the importance of
social contexts. This excerpt is taken from a story Aristotle told about a time when he had to
take his kids to a Saturday work barbeque due to Elizabeth’s work schedule.
And so I’m just having fun, just talking, you know, just talking crap, just, you know --
between me and my friends, we just cuss, you know, we just, like, throw out, like, while
I’m at work. And then, you know, then I bum a smoke off my friend. I’m sitting there
smoking. I look over, and my kid is just sitting there going -- had never seen me with a
cigarette before, and never heard me cuss just openly like that in front of people. Like, he
couldn’t believe it -- like he saw a ghost. Who is this man? I do not know this guy. Like,
that look in his eye -- and then he went back.
This moment is particularly troublesome for Aristotle in that two opposing worlds came
together. Being with his children and being at work represent two very different ways of being.
At work, he cusses and smokes; two vices that are out of place around his children. When these
two worlds clash, his children see him cussing and smoking and are left disappointed with him.
It is telling to think about Saturday work barbeques as cultural borderlands, spaces of
encounters that are defined by practices that bind people together who otherwise would not
belong together (Mattingly, Grøn, & Meinert, 2011). Aristotle’s work associates and his family
represents two worlds that do not belong together. Further, for Aristotle, these two groups each
represent very different answers to the question of what story he is a part of (Mattingly, 2008;
Mattingly, Jensen, & Throop, 2009). At work the story revolves around representing masculinity
in a tough abrasive manner. Since his job in an entertainment related industry depends heavily
on connections and image, the way he acts and dresses can have an impact on standing at work
and with the surfing community. At home Aristotle is part of a family narrative, focusing on
responsibility and caring for his children. Masculinity is represented in caring for his children.
Work barbeques represent moments when these two enactments of masculinity clash. Earlier in
this chapter, I used another story of being at a work barbeque as an example of expectations on
doing gender when it was noted that Aristotle was in “dad mode.” This story of smoking at work
was told about a different day when Aristotle was at a work barbeque with his children.
Later, when Elizabeth arrived to pick them up, Aristotle’s son brought up smoking.
Mom knows about you and the cigarette. I was like, oh yeah, I was putting that out.
Okay. I was just putting that out for my friend. I didn’t know what to say, you know. I
don’t want to lie to my kids. That’s not what I’m about. But how am I supposed to, you
know, repair this? How am I supposed to patch this up?
So, opening up later, I was like, yeah, you know what? My friend did give me a cigarette,
and I smoked it, but you know what? Oh man, I don’t like those things. I was like, I’m
not going to smoke that. Then after that, I made a point of, like, slowing down and just
stopping. I’m like, you know what? I got to make that not a lie, you know. I don’t want to
lie to them. I don’t want to openly say, you know what? I’m not going to do that
anymore. And then go, and just constantly do it again.
Aristotle’s first reaction to being caught is to lie. He then says that he does not want to
lie because that is not what he is about. Aristotle has a very comfortable relationship with his
sons; they enjoy being together. It is important for him not to let his children down. It hardly
seems plausible that his pre-teen sons would believe that Aristotle was extinguishing the
cigarette. He says that they will figure out that he was lying, if they had not already.
Although Aristotle may not get caught the next time, he still wants to be truthful with his
children. On the other hand he does not want to disappoint his children. His solution is to turn
his lie into a truth by cutting down smoking. His sense of responsibility to his children has
directly changed his behavior. In this instance, his behavior has changed in a manner
advantageous to his overall health in that Aristotle smokes less. However, there is also a social
aspect to smoking, and Aristotle later told me he still occasionally goes out for a cigarette break
with some friends at work. Smoking breaks are an important opportunity to socialize that
Aristotle doesn’t want to give up. Though Aristotle has found a solution for his children
catching him smoking at work, the clash between his work identity and his home identity still
Descriptions of Religion and Spirituality
The men in this study described religion and spirituality primarily as an important
affordance to fathering. Past research has shown that religious participation is associated with
increased involvement with children (King, 2004; Petts, 2007; Wilcox, 2002). The fathers in this
study valued teaching their children religion and spirituality, though often in very different ways.
However, behavioral difficulties displayed by their children also resulted in difficulty attending
regular church services. Aristotle’s example stands out as an exemplar that displays the
importance of religion. He grew up in a religious household and is an active member of the
It’s just basically wisdom, you know, passed on from people going, you know, generation
after generation, for thousands and thousands of years, outlining what works, and what
doesn’t work, what you shouldn’t do -- not as in because it’s bad, but because if you want
to live a proper and happy life, you should take this route.
Aristotle envisions religion as a guide, offering quick answers to the questions that may
arise in raising children. Aristotle lacked male role models growing up. Having a guide for
answering the daily questions of fatherhood is important.
According to Aristotle, religion is passed on from on generation to the next. Aristotle’s
mother was actively religious and relied heavily on the teachings of the Bible. Religion is
important for Aristotle because of his upbringing. Though Aristotle grew up religious, he was
rebellious in his teens and early adulthood. Aristotle’s religious involvement has increased due
to having children. When Aristotle found out that his wife was pregnant, he started adhering to
“what the Bible would say to do” and raising his children according to those teachings. Research
has shown that the birth of a child leads to increased involvement in religion in order to pass on
beliefs to children (Petts, 2007). As Aristotle says, “I think as long as they got the fundamentals
down, I think they’ll take it from there.”
Though Jimmy does not consider himself a member of any religion, he values
spirituality. Jimmy’s wife is Catholic so he went to classes before he got married and
occasionally attends the Catholic Church. He believes that he will be judged for the way he lives
I try to instill that on them, to be a good person, and stuff like that. And they see, you
know, how we help people out a lot, you know. I mean, like we have friends going
through, like, rough times and all that, you know. They have a lot of kids and stuff. We’ll
take them, like, our old clothes.
The example of giving clothing away is also significant. Over the last year, Jimmy has
only had a full time job for about two months. Yet, he is willing to give to those that have less
than he does. I frequently encountered the example of helping people in the year that I observed
Jimmy. He told several stories about helping people whose cars had broken down on the side of
the road. When we were walking together along the river, several young men stopped and talked
to Jimmy, their former baseball coach. It was apparent that Jimmy enjoyed helping people. The
spirituality that Jimmy wants to pass on to his children is based on helping others and not a
Limitations on religious involvement. Brian’s story demonstrates the problems that
fathers can experience taking children with disabilities to church. Instead of participating in
church programs or classes with other children, Adam would frequently end up in the gym with
one of his parents. Other members of his church have criticized Brian for not taking Adam to
I’m like, if I’m going to sit in the gym with my son on Sunday, I’m just not going to go.
They’re like, but. I’m like, no, they don’t get it.
Brian and Joanna made the decision that Adam would just not go to church with the
family. At first, they would rotate, taking turns staying home from church with Adam.
Inconsistent attendance threatened to affect Brian’s standing in his church. Eventually they
started hiring someone that would come to their house on Sunday and stay with Adam while the
rest of the family went to church. This is a solution made possible by their financial situation
since they pay someone else to take care of Adam. Though they have found a solution for
getting themselves to church, they are still not going to church together as a family. Consider the
following answer when I asked Brian how he viewed fatherhood.
I guess I want to instill in them, I guess from a religion standpoint I want to instill in them
a belief in a higher power, a god, and that there are certain things that there are right and
wrong and clearly with Adam we, you know, religion is something that he has never
gotten. The most religion he has gotten is from the Veggie Tales, I don't know if you
know what those are [a little bit] Yeah, they are just goofy stories [umm mhh] I think
with the other kids we try to instill in them that you try and go to church and do good and
that you tell the truth and don't lie and with Adam it is, I think he understands right from
wrong in some respects but sometimes he just doesn't care. And I think he just doesn't
care, and I don't think he is not choosing not to care but I think he just, something clicks
out in him when he is upset and what is supposed to be done is not right.
Teaching religion is important for Brian just as it was for many of the other fathers.
However, Adam’s comprehension of religion is somewhat of a question mark. Since Brian
values teaching his children right from wrong, in Adam’s situation he is not sure if he can
achieve that goal. His attempt to understand Brian’s ability to make moral decisions is an
attempt to understand his own success as a father.
In addition to not being able to assess Adam’s spirituality, Adam’s disability also limits
his church attendance. The other members of Brian’s family go to church regularly, a place
where they learn values and spirituality. Since Adam does not attend church, he is missing out
on the religious teachings that occur at church. These are teachings that Brian wants to pass on
to his children. Adam’s disability creates a disruption in Brian’s ability to teach him spirituality,
an aspect of fathering that Brian deems important.
Fathering and Health
Men’s health issues can have a complex relationship with participation in fathering.
Health concerns can limit amount of time men spend with their children and influence how they
participate in fathering. Edward is in his 60s. A few years ago he suffered a stroke and has
mobility issues due to his current medications. He also does not drive due to a seizure he
suffered about the same time. Before his health difficulties, Edward’s participation with his
children was primarily based around sports. Because of his limited mobility, Edward can’t play
sports like he did with his oldest son. In addition, there are no parks around their home and
Edward does not have a car or driver’s license to get them somewhere they could play sports
including driving his sons to play organized team sports. His inability to do as much as he used
to do with his children bothers Edward. Several times during the interviews he talked about how
he should spend more time with his children.
While health issues can influence participation, fathering can also have a complex effect
on men’s physical health. For several of the fathers in this study participation with their children
included physical activities such as swimming, baseball, going on walks, and riding bikes
together. When Aristotle took his son Leo to football practice he often walked around the track
several miles while waiting for his son. Jimmy’s children kept him involved in the community
through volunteering at schools and coaching teams. During one interview Jimmy told me how
involved he was at his children’s schools. When I asked him why, he said, “Just because we like
to be a part of their lives. It keeps us young.” This is an appropriate description of the sense of
well-being that comes with being involved in children’s lives.
On the other hand, fathering can also have a negative influence on physical health. While
Adam was in the hospital, Brian ate at the vending machine and had a lot of fast food. He grew
to really like the McDonald’s breakfast burrito and gained weight due to his poor eating habits
and the stress.
There are also negative effects of fatherhood on mental health that emerged around stress.
General stresses related to fatherhood included providing for family, being unprepared to father,
teaching children right from wrong, behaviors of children, marital stress, keeping up with kid’s
schedules, and concerns about the future. As Edward has said during several interviews, “The
family rule is, the kids can’t have all the problems at the same time. Well, they broke that rule,
Supporting the fathers’ statements from the current study, researchers have found that
fatherhood can have both positive and negative influences on men’s health. Identified positive
effects include happiness and increased physical activity while negative effects include pressure
due to fathering. However, these complex effects of fathering on men’s health are still
understudied. Examining fatherhood and health is an important step in identifying social
contexts of fatherhood and in recognizing the social contexts that influence health (Garfield,
Clark-Kauffman, & Davis, 2006).
Fathering and Government Institutions
Fathers’ described both the importance and fears of government. Government run
disability related services such as schools, state run programs, and health insurance were
described as valuable for fathers raising children with disabilities. Having a child with a
disability made Brian look around and realize that some people need more services and that
government should have a role in providing those services. However, fathers also expressed fear
of too much government intervention.
Tom says that he closes all of the windows in the house when he gets into a loaded
argument with kids. Though Tom is quick to point out that he does not beat his kids (or even
spank his kids), they do get into heated arguments (especially with Greg). He says that the
government should stay out of his business when it comes to raising his kids.
Though Aristotle talked about the government providing education as a tool for raising
children, he also talked about the dangers of that power. The following except was taken from
Aristotle’s description of the tools that government possesses to form and shape generations.
Think about social services, and how easily a kid can be taken from a family, just by
somebody in the neighborhood going, I just saw this happen. No questions asked -- the
kid gets taken immediately. Do you know what I mean? That’s a lot of power.
The fear of losing children to the government is very real for Edward, who has had to
deal with children’s services multiple times. Edward had to fight with children’s services to get
his children back after they were born. Marvin’s mother tested positive for drugs during her
pregnancy, prompting them to remove Marvin from the home. When Edward explained that he
was seven years sober the social worker wrote it down as “having a drinking problem going back
seven years.” Edward then had to work towards changing this report. Though Edward resented
having to get his children back he also realizes that the rules must be consistent, even when
applied to him.
Money Makes a Difference
Children can be expensive. Fathers’ described the expense of clothes, school supplies,
and medical care. The lack of money serves as a constraint to fathering while the presence of
money has numerous advantages. Tom’s life has been different since having kids because now
he is broke. Brian says he would have enough to retire (he is in his late 30s) if he did not have
Not having money can limit what fathers do with their children. Jimmy takes fewer out
of town trips with his children because he lost his job and doesn’t have the money. Before the
twins were born they took frequent overnight trips. After the twins were born, they continued to
take trips and bought season passes to theme parks. In the year, since Jimmy has not ben
working they have had to cut down on frequent activities. The following transcript demonstrates
that in spite of the limitations of not having money, there also can be a bright side. Jimmy talked
about Christmas one year when he had no money.
Jimmy: It’s just, you know, no money, man, because of my employment situation and all
that. It was probably the worst holidays ever, you know, but we made it through, got
through it, and, you know, it is what it is.
Interviewer: Yeah. Did you guys do anything at all, or --
Jimmy: No, we just hung out. Well, actually, you know, it was cold, because my wife’s
family, they celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and that day was, like, freezing cold,
and so we just had, like, a couple of our little nieces came over. We hooked up the Just
Dance 3 outside on the projector, and we had, like, a Just Dance 3 dance-off with the
kids and a couple of the neighbors. That was it, nothing extraordinary.
Interviewer: Yeah, sounds like fun, though.
Jimmy: It was. It actually was pretty cool. Everybody got into it. Then, you know, later
on, like, all the neighbor kids and my kids, they had, like, a Just Dance championship
outside, and that was pretty fun. We had, like, one of our old trophies for my kids. I just
took off the nameplate, touched it up, like -- it had a little ball that rolls, and I touched it
up with some paints and all that, make it, like, a little disco ball and gave it to the person
that won, so that was cool.
Reading this excerpt I can still feel the swing in excitement when Jimmy talked about the
dance competition, saying, “It was actually pretty cool.” Jimmy starts by saying that it was
probably “the worst Christmas ever” and “nothing extraordinary.” However, during the actual
interview, his tone quickly changed when he started talking about getting the kids together and
giving away an old trophy to the winner. Their Christmas emerges not as an ordinary
experience, but as a creative moment when family and friends came together in spite of not
having any money.
It is helpful to look at Jimmy’s Christmas experience as a moment of meeting that is
physically, emotionally, and explicitly shared (Stern, 2004). It is evident that something
significant has happened due to the change in Jimmy’s narrative from disappointing to
something fun. Their lack of money prompted originality in ways in which they can be together.
Jimmy describes it in the above passage by saying, “So that was cool.”
Another interesting note is that the expensive projector was free. Jimmy and Maya have
a friend that calls them whenever an electronics expert visits a locally filmed national television
show. All of the adults in their family go in order to claim free giveaways. The projector they
used to play was obtained as a free gift as part of the show. This is another example of making
the best of a difficult situation.
Having a child with a disability can be expensive. Tom tells of how he was forced to file
for bankruptcy in the face of Greg’s mounting medical bills.
Tom: The other aspect is financially it drains you. We had to file bankruptcy. Our bills
were just out of control.
Interviewer: What kind of bills did you have?
Tom: We had hospital bills, specialist bills, operation bills, drug bills.
Interviewer: Did you have insurance?
Tom: Yeah, we had some insurance, but not… It wasn't the best insurance. It is not like
we are paying 10% and everybody else is… the insurance is picking it up. You know we
have a 70/30 insurance or something like that plus co pays plus prescription co pays and
when you are spending $120 a week on medicine four times a month it gets out of
Interviewer: So that was just the stuff that he had to have.
Tom: Yeah, it was, he had to have that. If he didn't have that he would probably get sick
and die. So what do you do? You just do it.
Interviewer: So that is not even just like extra therapy sessions it is just stuff he had.
Tom: [Laughs] That is right, yeah. It wasn't like selective or elective, type stuff it was
OK he needs and eye operation for each eye and three weeks from now he needs another
eye operation. You know he has got to have this, this, and this.
This excerpt demonstrates the financial hardship of having a child with a disability. Tom
actually had insurance and still was forced into bankruptcy. Notice that I asked twice if these
were necessary expenses that Greg had to have as opposed to elective surgeries. During the
interview I was naively surprised that a family simply trying to keep their son alive would be
forced into such financial hardships. For Tom and Sarah, the only other option to incurring the
kind of debts that would force them to go bankrupt was to let their son die. Bankruptcies due to
medical conditions are not uncommon. In 2007 between 2.8 and 3.3 million bankruptcies were
medical related. A surprising 14.6% of medically related bankruptcies were due to a child’s
medical bills. Since the recent Affordable Care Act does not restructure private insurance,
bankruptcies due to medical expenses are not likely to decrease (Sugden, 2012). In fact,
bankruptcy fillings due to medical expenses actually increased after Massachusetts instituted
similar health care reform (Badding, Stephenson, & Yeoh, 2012). The stress of medical bills is a
strain that does not appear to be improving.
Brian, who has a well-paying job, describes a very different relationship with money.
When I asked him if having money made fatherhood easier Brian replied, “Oh, 50 times. Tons
easier.” Brian is able to supply both of his son’s with therapy services and treatments related to
their disabilities that they would not get through school or the medical community. It also makes
their marriage much easier in that they do not fight about money anymore. They are able to buy
Adam televisions, computers, and IPods. Adam’s room has two computers and a large screen
television. Brian’s household has a cleaning lady that comes in and does the cleaning and the
laundry. Ultimately for Brian this means that there is no expectation for him to do housework,
freeing him up to work and spend time with the kids.
Brian reaps numerous advantages from having money sufficient for his needs. It has not
always been this way for Brian. Around the time that Adam was just starting behavior therapy,
Brian lost his job. Uncertainty about money resulted in discord in his relationship with Joanna.
Unable to deal with the pressures at home, Brian spent his time at the library. Today, Brian is
able to appreciate the money he has.
The money does help a lot because it eases, I don't worry about what stuff cost or
anything. So, sometimes I, I think I have changed, no I just don’t care. Which is kind of
crazy because, you know, but. I think the stress of not knowing how we are going to pay
for stuff is pretty big. But my adding now, I have got this slug of money coming, and
that slug of money coming, and that slug of money. But seven months from now it could
be a different thing because I don't have any slugs coming in or something like that. But
for the most part, the money factor really makes things easier for me because I know that
we can provide. I used to worry a lot about the long term care of Adam.
In addition to the extra therapies and advantages mentioned above, most important, Brian
knows that he can provide for his children. He is able to provide for their immediate necessities
as well as plan for Adam’s long-term care. But on the other hand, Brian also realizes that
because of the nature of his job, his money could eventually disappear. Though it seems
unlikely, not having money is always a possibility.
This chapter was originally envisioned as an exploration only of constraints on fathering.
However, as I started to write a chapter on constraints on fathering, it became evident that
constraints and affordances often went hand and hand. Influences such as money can be an
affordance for one man who has it and a constraint for another who doesn’t. Other influences
such as the media can be both a constraint and an affordance on fathering at the same time.
Therefore, this chapter was transformed into an analysis on constraints and affordances on
This chapter has demonstrated several types of contexts that create constraints and
affordances on fathering. On a social level, cultural expectations such as gendered
responsibilities can influence the enactment of fatherhood. On a more tangible level, the
contexts of religion, government institutions, and money can be constraints and affordances. On
an interpersonal level, families, and dynamics that exist within families can also be considered a
context for fathering. Finally, on a personal level, men’s physical health can be a context for
fathering. Though presented separately, these levels of contexts are often intertwined.
One question that can be asked about this chapter is how much the constraints and
affordances that emerged are related to having a child with disability as opposed to having a
child in general. The significance of disability is unclear in Jimmy’s quote, “Until you walk in
our shoes shut your mouth.” For Jimmy and Maya one of the primary difficulties with parenting
Teresa is that they lack support (Donovan, VanLeit, Crowe, & Keefe, 2005; Hornby, 1992, 1995;
Risdal & Singer, 2004). It is difficult for them to find someone to care for Teresa outside of their
relationship. Jimmy’s response has been to put family before work, something that he has been
criticized for. Though it is unclear if he would have made these same decisions if Teresa did not
have a disability, it appears likely that caring for Teresa has provided a resource to resist the
constraints of gender expectations.
Chapter 8: Descriptions of The Experience of Fathering Occupations
The meaningfulness of fathering occupations emerged as an important aspect of men’s
lives across cases. Though meaning was construed and constructed in very different ways,
thematic analysis of interviews revealed a deep meaning in doing and being together. In this
section I present particularly salient examples that demonstrate the meaningfulness of
Conceptualizations of co-constructed occupations have guided my analysis of
interactions within this chapter. Lawlor (2003) describes co-constructed occupations as
occurring when the “nature of the action and the interrelatedness of the social actors are
inextricably intertwined” (p. 432). The importance of engagement is not just in doing, but also
in doing with others (Lawlor, 2003). In my own study of narratives written by fathers of
children with disabilities, occupations were both constructed as experiences in the moment and
over time (Bonsall, 2013).
During co-created occupations, actions are given meaning through narratives that
incorporate the past and anticipate the future (Lawlor, 2003; Mattingly, 1998). For instance, in a
book about his experience with his son with a disability, Hoyt (Hoyt & Yaeger, 2010) tells the
story of how his son with cerebral palsy came home one day and asked if they could run in a race
together. From this simple beginning, Hoyt and his son moved on to compete in marathons and
triathlons around the world. This moment took on narrative significance in that it was a breach
in the everyday experience of a father whose child had cerebral palsy as well as projected into
future experiences (Bonsall, 2013).
The Importance of Play
The importance of play emerged as a significant aspect of fathering occupations.
Aristotle and his children participated in imaginative verbal play. Tom enjoys going on outings
with his children. He describes the fun that he has being with his children.
They’re just cool human beings, I guess. They’re fun to hang out with, but it’s fun to
watch them learn, it’s fun to watch them experience many things and see how they react.
My observations with Tom and his two sons supported his description of having fun with
his children. During a train ride, Tom and Chad started play fighting. Chad pretended he was
hitting Tom who pretended that he was bleeding from his jaw because of Chad’s powerful
punch. Tom countered Chad’s next punch with a bite to his fist. During this encounter I could
hear Chad’s giggling and Tom’s laughing. When Tom talks about having fun with his children,
he is talking about playing. My observation of Tom made me realize that just being together
with his children was a form of play.
Playing with his children has significant meaning for Tom. When I asked Tom what he
did to facilitate the relationship between his two children he talked about doing fun things
together as a family.
We go everywhere together as a family. We do fun things together all the time.
Sometimes just the boys, sometimes with Mom.
Having fun together as a family facilitates the relationship between Greg and Chad. It is
important that the brothers are together having fun, creating experiences. The enjoyment of
being together is consistent with Segal’s (1999) description of family occupations that focus on
being together as centered around having fun. These were occupations that children wanted to
do, that were relaxed and undemanding. In Tom’s family, being together is a way of building
relationships that are particularly important to Tom. Since Greg has a disability, Tom hopes that
someday Chad will learn to stick up for and take care of his older brother. The opportunities that
they play together are building relationships for the future.
I asked Brian if he played with Adam. Though at first he said he did not play with Adam
very much, when he talked further he revealed forms of play that were actually quite significant.
I don't think we necessarily play much in the house. Other then when I am in his room
with him and interacting with him and talking. I think I try to get under his skin a lot. So
unlike, aah, he has, he has kind of, he has a sense of humor where a lot of autistic
children don't so I can try and get under his skin and bug him and get him to say, "Nooo."
Brian starts by saying that he does not play much in the house. He then switches to
talking about verbal play, an important interaction between Brian and Adam since they are
limited in what they can do together because of Adam’s physical ailments. Getting under
Adam’s skin is important for Brian in that it identifies a sense of humor that he believes most
autistic children do not have. Their verbal play is marking Adam as different than other children
with autism. In a sense, Adam’s sense of humor is significant in Brian’s narrative of his son in
that it separates him from his disability. Brian teases Adam, trying to get him to interact. A
description of how Brian tries to get Adam to admit there are only two dwarves in the movie
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” further illustrates the importance of play between Brian
Brian: Yeah. For me it is. It’s the only way I can get through to him. Like, I’ll try and see
if I can get him to admit that there were only two dwarfs. Because, he has kind of a sense
of humor like that, because he’ll be like, oh, those two dwarfs. And, then you ask is it
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?” And of course, I couldn’t name all seven of them,
but he can whip it right out. But, yeah, that’s what I have to do.
Interviewer: It’s just kind of that -- so why is it important?
Brian: For me, I have just this weird sense of humor and I like to just see that in him and
get it out of him. So, because it’s him, he has to then communicate. And, when he’s doing
something, I wouldn’t say it’s bad or sneaky, you know you can see him kind of smile
when he does it. Like he said there were two dwarfs, he smiled. And, so to be able to see
him do that is kind of neat. Because, he’s having to think and most children with that
disability don’t have that. I wouldn’t say warped sense of humor, but a sense of humor
like that. So, you can try to get that in a little bit.
Brian describes verbal play as a way to getting through to Adam. When Brian teases,
Adam has to communicate. These interactions have important implications for Brian.
Researchers in the area of family studies have described play as an important pathway to
attachment for fathers (Paquette, 2004; Paquette et al., 2003; Roggman, 2004). It is apparent that
Brian is building relationships with Adam through play.
Having a sense of humor is an important indicator that Adam’s life includes happiness.
This is significant in that at other times, Brian has questioned Adam’s quality of life. In the
above interview, Brian says “I have just this weird sense of humor and I like to just see that in
him and get it out of him.” I think this is a wonderful quote that encompasses what it means for
Brian to be a father of a child with a disability. Regardless of Adam’s limitations in the areas of
health and communication, Brian sees himself in his son during their simple acts of verbal play.
Moments of playful togetherness take on narrative significance in that they create places of
becoming where play takes on meaning of hope within Adam’s unfolding life story as seen
through Brian’s perspective (Mattingly, 1998).
The importance of play for Brian in understanding Adam resonates with popular
literature. In an autobiography about his experience of his own child with a disability,
philosopher Blastland (2006) tells a story about how an instance of communicating demonstrated
self awareness in Joe, his son who has autism. The first time his son sat in an armchair,
springing himself backwards then upright again, he announced, “Go! Pee! Peeeee!” In Joe’s
language “Go” is Joe and “peeeee” is happy. Blastland describes that since he had previously
wondered at his son’s self awareness, this moment serves as an indication of Joe’s identity
(Bonsall, 2013). Similar to Brian, Blastland is finding his son’s personality through play.
The play of fathers has been described as important with an emphasis on the stimulating
and motivating influence of rough and tumble play (Paquette, 2004; Paquette et al., 2003).
However, the play of fathers in this study was much more nuanced than rough and tumble play.
In addition, the importance of play went beyond stimulation and motivation. For instance,
family outings are important to Tom in that they are a significant aspect of how his family has
learned to interact together. For Brian, the verbal play he participates in with Adam has become
vital to his understanding of his son.
Moments of Accomplishments
Fathers’ descriptions of engagement with their children went beyond fun in expressions
of joy, pride, and fulfillment.
Jimmy told a story about his oldest daughter getting a hit in softball that illustrates pride
that fathers have in their children’s accomplishments.
Two years ago, the last time my wife and I actually played adult softball. We were short
a girl. And my daughter, my oldest daughter was there. And everyone was like, "Just let
Mary play." So we had to sign this form because it is an adult league, that she could
play and all that. We have this rule in adult softball, where you are batting, because once
you bat you start out with one ball and one strike automatically. So she goes up there,
and the rule is if you strike out it is a case of beer, in softball, adult softball. So they
throw her a pitch and it hits the plate and they go "That is strike two." So right away
everybody is going "Hey, if she strikes out that is a case of beer for you. You gotta pay,
it still counts." She came up and she got a hit. And when we were in the outfield,
because I play outfield, I was playing right center. And they put her in right field and
she was playing right next to me and I told her, "You know they are going to pick on you,
they are going to hit to you." And so right off the bat, the first two batters hit it to her and
she caught them. I was just standing out there and I was going, "Damn, you know it, it
don't get no better than this. Out her playing with my kid." It was just cloud nine. In
remember just standing there looking like, "It's alright. Hmmm." It was actually cool.
And then actually she came up, her next time up. We had bases loaded and she hit a
double. Drove in some runs. She did good, man. She actually did very good. I was just
like, "All right Mary. Not bad." I front of all the people that we play with and all that.
So that was a good day. That was a great day.
This story is a great example of the pride that Jimmy demonstrated in his children. This
sense of pride is tied to playing softball, something that Jimmy’s family enjoys doing together.
The importance of this moment is highlighted when it is thought of as marking a rite of passage
(Turner, 1979). Mary is now able to play on the adult team. Shortly after the softball game
described, Mary participated in a quinceanera, a more formal rite of passage ceremony for 15
year old females in Mexican culture (Davalos, 1996). Further, Mary also helps coach Teresa’s t-
ball team. Her contributions to the family have expanded as she enters adulthood. It seems as if
all of these markers of adulthood combine to define Mary’s position in the community, in her
family, and in Jimmy’s eyes.
Though this is not a story about his daughter with cerebral palsy, equally significant
moments of accomplishment were also expressed for children with disabilities. As will be
shown below, Jimmy demonstrates the same pride in Teresa’s involvement in t-ball as Mary’s
softball accomplishments. Tom described the pride he feels when his children figure things out
such as when Greg points out something that he recognizes in a magazine. Aristotle shows great
pride in his son Leo’s art. During one interview we spent about 15 minutes going through Leo’s
art book with Aristotle proudly pointing out Leo’s understanding of perspective and talent for
facial expressions. These are all example of fathers describing pride in moments of
accomplishment in the lives of their children with disabilities.
Occupations as Connections To Family and Community
The exemplar of Jimmy’s inclusion of Teresa in family and community activities
illustrates several fathers’ descriptions of the importance of keeping their children involved.
Jimmy and Teresa take frequent walks around the neighborhood and according to Jimmy, all of
the neighbors know Teresa. One of the important activities that his family participates in is
softball. His oldest daughter plays softball on the team that Jimmy and Maya coach. The other
children play softball, baseball, or t-ball at their various levels. Jimmy coaches Teresa’s t-ball
team. He has told me a few times that he lives for t-ball.
I observed Teresa’s t-ball game on a sunny afternoon and the following description is a
summary of my fieldnotes. T-ball games are truly a community as well as a family affair. The
two boys across the street are both on her t-ball team and their dad helps coach. On the day that I
observed, Teresa’s twin brother was in the stands and Mary, Jimmy’s oldest daughter, was the
base coach. Maya rotated between coaching at the bases and assisting Teresa in the outfield.
Jimmy was in the outfield both helping Teresa and coaching the team. Whenever another batter
walked to the plate, Jimmy yelled, “Get your gloves on the ground.” All of the players then put
their gloves on the ground in anticipation. Jimmy reached over the back of Teresa’s wheelchair
and held her hands down. At one point, when Maya was in the infield with Teresa, Maya picked
up the ball, put it in Teresa’s hand, and helped her to throw it.
The pinnacle of their t-ball games was when Teresa got up to bat. Jimmy hit the ball and
quickly pushed her wheelchair to first base. When he got there they stopped and waited on first
base for the next batter to get up. Jimmy yelled to the player on second base to listen to Mary,
who was coaching third base, for directions of when to run. When the next batter hit the ball,
Jimmy pushed Teresa’s wheelchair to second base. A little girl on the opposing team ran up to
give Teresa a hug. Jimmy wrapped Teresa’s arms around the little girl’s neck. Teresa’s smile
was huge and could be seen from bleachers. When the next batters came up Jimmy and Teresa
advanced to third. They waited patiently as the batter missed the ball and twice hit the tee.
Maya instructed the batting coach on the best bat to use. The boy then hit the ball off the tee and
Jimmy and Teresa ran home to the cheers of the crowd.
This short scene displays Teresa’s involvement in t-ball. Coaching the team creates social
capital, or resources that exist “in the structure of relations between actors and among actors”
(Coleman, 1988, p. 98). Because Jimmy coaches, Teresa is allowed entrance into the community
that she might not otherwise have. Everyone in the community knows Teresa. A TV actor that
lives in their community has said how much he admires what they are doing with Teresa and has
brought her signed gear from his show. The five-year-old girl on the opposing team that gave
Teresa a hug is indicative of the friends that Teresa has made through t-ball, she was on Teresa’s
team the year before. During another game, a player on her own team smiled and played with
Teresa when they were both supposed to be staying alert for the ball. These are all examples of
Teresa being included in the community through t-ball.
Jimmy is the head coach of the t-ball team. For this team, his coaching style reflects the
importance he places on inclusion for Teresa. Though they are technically not supposed to play
t-ball until they are five, Jimmy takes kids at three and four. As a result, his team is often
smaller than the other teams. He also rotates his players’ positions. Other teams often leave the
most able players at first and pitcher. Though in t-ball the pitcher does not pitch the ball, the ball
often goes to the pitcher after it is hit. The pitcher then throws the ball to the first baseman or
runs and tags the batter out. Jimmy rotates players after every play, including pitcher and first
baseman. Though this results in more batters getting on base, it also results in every child
playing each position and getting an opportunity to field the ball. As a result, the game is more
interesting for everybody and not just a select few. This strategy makes even more sense when
considering that according to t-ball league rules they do not keep score and every child gets an
opportunity to bat regardless of how many outs are made.
Past researchers have defined family occupations as occupations that the entire family
participates in together (DeGrace, 2003; Sachs & Nasser, 2009; Segal, 1999). In contrast to
previous uses of the term, I would propose that playing baseball/t-ball/softball is a family
occupation, even though it does not include all family members. Playing sports helps the family
grow closer. T-ball is particularly important for Teresa in that it facilitates her involvement in
the family. Everyone plays or coaches some sort of baseball, t-ball, or softball. This is Teresa’s
important point of participation, where she can be a ball player just like everyone else in the
family. The other family members also contribute to her game, from Jimmy batting with her to
Maya and Mary coaching.
The definition of family occupations as including all family members excludes Jimmy’s
family in several ways. First, Teresa’s disability limits her involvement in activities that other
families often participate in. For instance, eating together is often cited as a family occupation
that includes all family members (DeGrace, 2003; Segal, 1999). However, because of Teresa’s
feeding needs, she eats separately from the rest of the family. Jimmy also has a large family,
Hispanics tend to live in larger households than non-Hispanic whites (Ramirez & De La Cruz,
2002). The size of Jimmy’s family limits the amount that they all spend time together.
Similarly, Brian’s son Adam does not eat dinner with the family because of his dietary needs.
Brian also has a large family, making it difficult to spend time together in activities such as
outings or eating together. Brian is Mormon, a religion that tends to have large families
(Roggman, Benson, & Boyce, 1999). For these two fathers, coming from very different
backgrounds, there is a cultural aspect to family size. Though they both value family
occupations that include the entire family, the combination of having a child with a disability and
having a large family is a hindrance. Defining family occupations as only participated in by the
entire family unit ignores important instances of occupations that occur within families.
One significant conceptualization at stake in the term family occupations is the definition
of families. DeVault (1994) argues that the term families refers to two kinds of realities.
Families can refer to an institution or ideal rooted in social discourse. Family occupations strictly
defined as including the entire family reflect one particular ideal of families. On the other hand,
families can also refer to “activities of daily lives: to small groups of women, men, and children
who usually share resources, who may work or play together, who sometimes love each other
and sometimes fight” (DeVault, 1994, pp. 14-15). Families are based on experience and family
occupations are the experiences that build and define families.
I propose a conceptualization of family occupations as occupations that build and define
families. Within this conceptualization, family occupations range from including two members
to the entire families. This conceptualization also recognizes occupations like t-ball that are co-
created by multiple members of the family but are not always participated in at the same time.
This conceptualization recognizes the complex building of families through occupations
participated in over time and the various influences on engagement.
Finally, a historical analysis of Teresa’s participation in t-ball demonstrates that
occupations can be co-constructed by families. Though Jimmy played football and basketball in
high school, he never played baseball. Maya played softball in high school, and Jimmy and
Maya played together on a team before his children were born. They had a team they played and
traveled with. At that point they had co-constructed an occupation together based on their
mutual enjoyment of sports. When their children were born, they integrated their children into
this co-constructed occupation and expanded how they participated. The older children have all
started with t-ball and then graduated to baseball for the boys and softball for the girls. Their
children’s influence in the construction of softball as an occupation has been that they have
forced Jimmy and Maya to stop playing on their own teams; they only coach now. Because of
Teresa’s cerebral palsy, she plays t-ball with a younger age group. Her twin brother is already
playing baseball. Each family member has contributed to the co-construction of t-ball as a
The Difficulties of Managing Disabilities
In contrast to the joys of accomplishment and fun of being with their children, fathers
also experienced their child’s disability as an interruption that prevented participation in
occupations. Several fathers talked about their children’s difficulties as barriers to participation
in occupations. Tom’s description of Greg’s behavior illustrates the problems that fathers
described with their children’s behaviors. Tom has described Greg’s behavior in several ways.
Sometimes Greg just wants to get his way, he likes to be in control. According to Tom, Greg is a
smart kid and will exploit any weakness that he sees. If he does not get his way, the behavior
escalates. Greg can also be unpredictable and gets angry every couple of hours. Sometimes, like
when they are at Disneyland, he just won’t listen.
Tom described the strategies that he uses for Greg’s behavior. A common strategy is that
Tom distracts Greg with goofiness. This particularly works for the difficult task of brushing
teeth. Another strategy Tom will use is just to walk off and leave him. This usually gets Greg’s
attention. During one observation, Greg did not want to go on an outing that they had been
planning because he was playing a video game. Tom reminded Greg about how excited he had
been to go on the outing, but Greg did not budge. We sat there for a few minutes while Greg
played his video game and then Tom said, “OK, we are going to go Greg, see you later.” Tom
walked to the door. Greg quickly got up and followed him out.
Though Tom has learned to deal with Greg’s behavior it still bothers him. In one
interview he talked about the difficulty he has with Greg.
We try everything in the book basically. I hate when he gets upset because it makes me
feel lame. You are just trying to be a parent and lay down some rules or enforce some
rules or try and guide them to a certain result that you know is good. He has got some
other ideas and it is always a constant battle.
For Tom, these outbursts reflect his identity as a good father, a subject that Tom returned
to several times during the interviews. In one interview Tom stated, “Any parent that loves their
kids and respects their family can be a good father.” However, going beyond this statement,
Tom also talks about times when dealing with Greg’s behavior that he made what he described
as the wrong decision. Difficulties dealing with children can make fathers question their
abilities. Having a child with a disability can compound these doubts.
The Significance of Place
It became apparent during the interviews that occupations in particular places were
meaningful to the fathers that participated in them. Significant spaces include home and various
places in the community. In Chapter 9, I further explore the car as a significant place where
occupations occur. Jimmy’s example of taking his children to the river that borders their
neighborhood illustrates the complex significance of space. Jimmy will walk with Teresa down
the bike path or take his youngest son fishing. One of our interviews was conducted walking
along the bike path because Jimmy wanted me to see the river for myself.
Jimmy first talked about going down to the river during a conversation about how dealing
with his daughter Teresa can get overwhelming. Some days Jimmy just had to go for a walk.
When I asked Jimmy if things were better when he came back, he talked about going fishing.
Jimmy: It’s cool. It’s always good. Lately, I’ve just been going down to the river and
Interviewer: Oh, really?
Jimmy: Yep. That’s my little break. Me and her little brother, and her twin, we’ve been
fishing, Friday night fishing buddies.
The connection to nature provided by the river is particularly meaningful for Jimmy.
Before Jimmy had children, he and Maya lived in a popular mountain town and ski resort. There
he spent a lot of his free time hiking, fishing, and camping. He occasionally worked as a fishing
tour guide and was trying to set a state record for golden trout. Shortly after the birth of their
oldest daughter, Jimmy and Maya moved back to Los Angeles where they had grown up in
search of reliable employment. Since moving to Los Angeles, Jimmy has not taken his children
camping. As he says, “they have become regular flatlanders.”
Jimmy still wants to take his children camping. However, several factors in his life have
held him back from camping. In this excerpt Jimmy is talking about taking Justin, his youngest
Jimmy: I can’t wait to take him out there. Waiting for him to get a little bit older. My 13
year old, he’s going through his little cool phase right now. But this one, I’m not going to
Interview: You go fishing with him, huh?
Jimmy: Yeah, that’s my little partner. I’m also trying to get a hold of, like, my nephew,
and trying to get my 13-year-old son to go do the Mt. Whitney. You heard about that,
right? Up there to the top of Mt. Whitney, where they have that ledger that you sign.
Interview: Uh huh, uh huh.
Jimmy: When I worked up there, I seen so many pictures, and there were like cool
people up there, drinking beer and all that. That was one of the things when we lived up
there, that I wanted to do, but could never find anybody that was down to do it… it’s the
tallest point in the Continental United States, and they actually have that trail, the Mt.
Whitney trail, where you can go up there, and they have the ledger where you sign your
name up there.
The simple walk that Jimmy and I took along the river became a reflection on past
outdoor experiences and future possibilities. The previous excerpt was taken from the first
interview that Jimmy and I did walking along the river. Just being in that particular space
opened up a narrative that reflected his love for the outdoors. Jimmy did not talk about his past
in the outdoors and desire to take his children camping in previous interviews.
When Justin and Teresa were born, medical bills and expenses limited how much Jimmy
could travel with his family. In the last year, after Jimmy was laid off from his job, their travel
budget decreased even further. The only time they travel anymore is in conjunction with their
oldest daughter’s softball team. Jimmy remembers fondly the days when he could just get away
and go camping, fishing, and hiking. Going down to the river and fishing with his son is a
reflection of those times. As Jimmy says, “he is my little partner.”
It is helpful to examine the significance of place in terms of enacted togetherness, the
process whereby everyday activities form an “arena where togetherness and belonging can be
created” (Nyman, Josephsson, & Isaksson, 2012, p. 416). In studying elderly adults, Nyman,
Jossephsson, and Isaksson described the importance of both every day activities and place in
determining participation. Enacted togetherness can also be applied to Jimmy. Walking, fishing,
and riding bikes along the river provided an arena where togetherness was created between
Jimmy and his children. In this case, the scene had a particularly important impact on drawing in
past narratives and creating future possibilities.
The Co-creation of Occupations
Though co-created occupations are often seen as co-created in the moment, I have argued
that occupations are often co-created over time between fathers and their children (Bonsall,
2013). In the current study, co-created occupations between fathers and their children supported
this description but also added to it. The stories told by fathers displayed the importance of past
efforts in occupations, the evolving nature of occupations, and how togetherness can be co-
constructed with each participant maintaining very different definitions of the meaning of the
The unseen work of occupations. Tom enjoys going out with his children on what he
calls adventures. Before he had children Tom often went on outings with his wife. When his
oldest son Greg was born with a disability, it was important for Tom to include him in their
outings. They took him everywhere they went.
We have tried to include him in everything we do and just public situations and stuff and
how to be polite and say "thank you" and "no thank you" and "please" and all the basics
in order to get along in society.
For Tom it was very important to teach Greg the basics of society including how to
politely interact with others. Language socialization is the process of being socialized into a
community through language (Ochs & Schieffelin, 2001). “Thank you” and “please” are
important aspects of socialization. A large part of Greg’s learning and growth is the social
aspects of being involved in the community including training in manners that lead to social
acceptance. Teaching Greg to be polite has always been an important part of parenting for Tom.
In addition, Tom and Greg continue to enjoy going on adventures together. Sometimes
they even go without Tom’s wife or Greg’s brother. After a recent trip downtown by train, Tom
described how much they both enjoyed going on adventures together.
Greg loves to just, yeah, let’s do it, let’s do it right now…. He likes to check out new
stuff. He finds it, I don’t know if he finds it interesting, but I would assume so because
he likes to do it. He’s always been fascinated with anything that moves and automobiles
and going new places. He’s always loved that, so that’s what I try and do, because I love
it. I love to just get in the car and go and Greg likes to do the same thing. He likes to
explore; he likes to go to new places and see new things and experience new things.
Their trip downtown on the train combined elements both of what Greg enjoys and Tom
enjoys. As Tom says in the quote, Greg has always been fascinated by anything that moves.
Greg’s favorites include train stations, riding trains, and watching the airplanes at a park beneath
the airport. Tom has explained in past interviews that he felt Greg is fascinated with trains and
automobiles because they are large objects that are easier to see with his limited vision.
Both Greg and Tom like to go on adventures and see what they can find. The highlight
for Tom of their trip downtown was a man playing a popular song on the piano. Tom describes
hearing the piano in the distance. “And, we just went and watched him play this awesome tune
and he just got up and I shook his hand and said, thanks man that was awesome.” For Tom,
spontaneously found adventures are the prizes he hopes to discover.
The ability to freely go on outings is an accomplishment for Tom when considering his
earlier fears about Greg. Sarah’s brother has the same disorder that Greg has. The major
difference is that Sarah’s brother is more severely impacted by the disability. Greg’s uncle with
the same disorder has severe behavioral difficulties including throwing chairs across the room
and crying. A few months into the interviews, Tom described an incident when Greg attempted
to hit the car window with a rock. Tom said that since Greg had recently started at a new school
these kinds of incidents had increased. However, as the study went on these negative public
behaviors decreased. Tom also attributed this change to Greg getting more comfortable in his
new school. Whatever the changes, Tom appeared more relaxed, less vigilant on outings
observed by the interviewer at the beginning of the study as opposed to the end of the study.
This change in behavior allowed Tom to be able to take Greg on more elaborate trips that they
could enjoy together without Tom having to worry about a way out.
When Greg received a diagnosis, Tom worried about Greg’s ability to participate
socially. These fears have subsided somewhat, but still exist.
He has never been afraid to do anything as long as he feels safe and secure he is "yeah."
But he has no guard and that scares me because you know, what happens that one time
that he does get away and he gets lost in the crowd.
For the most part, Greg is involved. His family creates an environment where Greg feels
safe and secure, allowing him to participate. However, with his disability, he is still uninhibited
socially. He does not have the ability to discern dangers or be weary of strangers. This creates a
fear for Tom; here he talks about his fear that Greg will get lost, but he also worries that Greg
will get picked on. In this situation, the positive attributes that allow Greg to confidently
participate can also go too far and put him in danger.
In addition to safety, Tom’s protection allows for Greg to learn and grow. Ruddick
(1995) describes maternal thinking as protecting or preserving children, nurturing children to
allow for emotional and intellectual growth, and training for social acceptability. Tom displays
all three of these aspects of maternal thinking while also demonstrating how closely intertwined
these responsibilities are. I pick up where the last excerpt left off.
Tom: But he has no guard and that scares me because you know, what happens that one
time that he does get away and he gets lost in the crowd. Not that that might ever happen
it just scares me if it does happen because he has no compunction about walking up to
anyone and saying "Hi, how are you doing, my name is Greg."
Interviewer: So it sounds like part of the outgoing personality is because he feels like he
is protected and has those opportunities.
Tom: Yeah, I mean he feels comfortable in most situations. It might be part of his
syndrome in that he doesn't really realize those situations around him and he doesn't
understand the real dangers of life.
Tom emphasizes his ability to protect Greg as being an important factor in allowing Greg
to participate. Greg is able to do anything as long as he is “safe and secure.” Fathers have been
described as instrumental in allowing children to take chances because children are confident
that they are protected from potential dangers (Paquette, 2004). Tom’s protection gives Greg an
opportunity to learn language socialization in a safe environment. Greg is allowed to
experiment, making mistakes without facing real world dangers and the consequences of those
Evolving occupations. Brian’s fathering occupations reflect the importance of keeping
his son Adam involved. When I first meet Brian, his interactions with Adam included frequent
trips to Disneyland and swimming at the YMCA. These activities changed during the year that I
followed Brian. Starting with Disneyland, the evolution of Brian’s participation with Adam over
the last year is traced and analyzed in this section.
I think it is from when he was young, the different Disney shows. He started to like
them. And when we moved back here, he was probably five, six, when we moved back
here. And we went to Disney Land and he liked it. And so it was just something that we
found that he liked.
Once Brian and Joanna had found something that Adam liked, they stuck with it. Joanna
primarily took Adam to Disneyland until the responsibility shifted to Brian. Joanna tells about
how Brian started going to Disneyland with Adam.
Joanna: It was about two years ago, about when I got pregnant with Cheryl that I was
like, "I can't do Disneyland anymore." I had been doing it weekly for a couple of years.
And where he finally got comfortable taking him because I physically battled for years. I
can have him on the ground quick. And he was like "I don't want to do it, I don't want to
do it." And he got where he could do it [Brian: Yah]
Though this quote is from Joanna, Brian confirms what she is saying at the end. Brian
started taking Adam to Disneyland when Joanna could not ride the roller coasters because she
was pregnant. At first, Brian was reluctant to go to Disneyland because of Adam’s behavioral
issues. Because of this, being able to take Adam to Disneyland is a big accomplishment. At this
point, Brian has grown comfortable enough with Adam to take him to places like Disneyland.
Observing Brian and Adam together, it is obvious that Brian is always vigilant to Adam’s needs.
Though this schedule has since changed, Brian typically took Adam to Disneyland once a
week when I first meet him. Brian described the schedule of their trip in detail.
We do Mr. Toad followed by Peter Pan followed by Snow White, Pinocchio and then we
go over and do Alice and Wonderland. From there we do Space Mountain, Finding
Nemo and then the new Star Tours ride. And he has to do those and if one of those rides
over their breaks down he will sit down and wait. So we have waited for 25 minutes for
one of those rides to go before we go out of order. Like we won't go out of order.
Though for some families, going to Disneyland may be an extraordinary trip, for Brian
and Adam, going to Disneyland converges into the ordinary. There is a certain routine that they
follow at Disneyland that rarely varies (though Adam has added Thunder Mountain Railroad to
his routine). For Adam, this strict routine is a reflection of his autism. Brian admits that he kind
of enjoys the routine because it allows him to not have to focus on anything. Trips to Disneyland
reflect a distinct co-construction of an occupation that fits the needs of both Brian and Adam.
Trips to Disneyland are an important way to allow Adam to be part of the community.
Adam likes to compare hands with the employees. At Disneyland Brian is a self-described
goofball and goes out of his way to say happy birthday to employees and other guests. They go
to Disneyland with family friends and even have a friend that they meet and maintain
relationships with solely at Disneyland. Brian describes Disneyland as a community and his
personality adds to their acceptance into that community.
Family relationships are also encouraged through their trips to Disneyland. He
occasionally goes to Disneyland with his sister.
And so he doesn't really care for his siblings but he will always ask when they are not
there. So say Tara comes to Disneyland with Adam and I because they ride the same
rides. If Tara goes to the bathroom and we go to a ride without her, you know, "where is
Going to Disneyland is one of the very rare times that Adam participates with his
siblings. Though it may seem insignificant, asking, “where is Tara?” is huge for Adam. At
home Adam rarely communicates with his siblings and when he communicates with his parents
it is to ask for assistance with his videos. Asking for his sister is a marked contrast from his
usual isolation. Disneyland creates a medium whereby Adam can participate with his sister.
Brian was also able to communicate with Adam while at Disneyland. At Disneyland
Brian would ask Adam about each ride, what he saw, and what he wanted to do next. This was a
way for Brian to communicate with Adam. But as the next quote demonstrates, Brian is also
benefiting from the particular way of being together that happens at Disneyland.
I actually enjoy, you know for me it's like, you go, it's tough when it is really hot in the
summer but for the most part you are sitting there and it's just, you are just sharing with
him, focused with him, and dealing with him.
Being together was important for Brian though the trips can be difficult. Brian
acknowledges that what is important is that he is “sharing with him, focused with him, and
dealing with him.” Going to Disneyland is a way for Brian to share Adam’s world. Adam
spends most of his time in his room watching movies, mostly Disney movies. Many of the
Disneyland and California Adventure rides that Adam enjoys are reenactments of the movies. It
is almost as if the rider is entering the movie and moving through the space of the movies. For
Brian and Adam they are sharing the experience of movies in reality.
Though at other times Brian says that Disneyland is mindless, in the above excerpt he
says that at Disneyland he is focused with Adam. Brian is able to communicate with his son at
Disneyland. Not only was Brian teaching communication, but this also represented a particular
way of being together. At home or in the car, Adam is engulfed in his movies or his music. He
will only communicate for seconds at most before saying, “no more talking.” At Disneyland
they are together all day. Brian has all day to talk to Adam in a way that is focused and tentative.
The task of taking Adam to Disneyland has transferred to Dan, an employee at Adam’s
school that their family has befriended. They got to the point where Brian could only take Adam
to Disneyland on Sunday’s. Taking Adam became disruptive and resulted in Brian spending too
much time away from the other children. Though this could just be seen as a circumstantial
passing along of responsibility, there also seems to be a developmental trajectory to this change.
Adam started going to Disneyland with his mother, his primary contact with the world at the
time. He progressed to going with his father once his father became comfortable dealing with
Adam in public. Now he goes with Dan. Though Dan is paid over $100 a trip, he also
represents a friend, not associated with the family. There is a symbolic movement away from
Mom and away from Dad. Adam is fast approaching his teens and high school, an age when
children begin making friends and going out on their own.
When the Disney trips decreased, Brian started taking Adam swimming at least once a
week. Here I summarize my first observation at the local YMCA. Their routine started in the
Jacuzzi. They got out of the Jacuzzi when Adam was ready. He went over to the pool, Brian
helping Adam to carry the seven balls that he had in the Jacuzzi. Eventually Adam wandered out
into the water without the balls and called for Brian. Brian came over and they bumped chests as
Adam giggled. Then Brian asked what Adam wanted to do and he responded, “Surf with balls.”
Brian said, “No balls.” They then proceeded to surf, with Brian going underneath the water to
the bottom and Adam standing on his back. Whenever Brian would come up for air, Adam
would request that they go deeper into the pool.
Their interaction in the pool is very physical. This physical type of play seems to be
important for Brian. Wrestling with his children is an activity that Brian has inherited from his
own father. Brian had always dreamed of having a child that played football and soccer.
Because of Adam’s disability, he does not participate in sports. However, wrestling is a
replacement for playing sports together.
I think I always thought it would be fun to be a dad and play football and sports with my
kids and I never really had that with Adam. And I do a little. I wrestle a lot with my kids.
I have even wrestled; I used to wrestle with Adam all the time.
Though Adam does not play team sports, their physical play in the pool is Brian’s way of
being physical with him. He says that he used to wrestle with Adam all the time. Though Brian
does not specifically state it, physical play such as bumping chests and surfing on Brian’s back
are manifestations of wrestling. This is an important definition of how Brian enacts fatherhood,
based on conceptualizations passed down from his own father.
And he likes the sensation of going from the Jacuzzi to the pool. There is a spot that is
like two feet deep and he sits there and goes between that spot and the Jacuzzi and I think
he really likes the sensation of the different temperatures. I don't comprehend it all but
that is what his body does. So we just kind of figured out that swimming was a thing he
likes. So then we said let's get a thing to the pool, we don't have a pool here, and so I
started going with him. And it's, it's been something we just do.
Brian believes that part of the importance of going to the pool for Adam is the sensations
that he gets. Learning how to integrate sensory input is one of the ways that Brian has come to
understand Adam’s disability and needs. At other times during the course of the interviews
Brian has said that swimming is an important way that Adam gets physical exercise.
Recognizing these needs and Adam’s enjoyment of swimming, Brian started to take him to the
YMCA on a regular basis.
Once Brian recognized that swimming is important for Adam and that he enjoys doing it,
they started going to the YMCA on a regular basis. Brian is very responsive to Adam’s needs.
When Adam requested visiting Brian’s mother, the next day they made the two-hour drive to
visit her. This responsiveness has been the driving force behind what Brian and Adam have
done together. Over the last year they have gone from Disneyland and swimming to movies and
Chuck E. Cheese. Brian believes that Adam’s requests reflect his needs for physical activity and
interaction. Therefore, he is responsive.
The continuous co-construction of occupations is not predetermined, but what Stern
(2004) calls the process of moving along. Intersubjective moments are strung together in a way
that redefines the self through reflections of the self in others eyes. Though Stern describes the
moving along process in therapy, his description also applies to fathering. The moving along
process is unpredictable, sloppy work. Through this process, Brian and Adam have co-
constructed continuously changing occupations.
Co-constructions of togetherness. Occupations were co-constructed to be meaningful
to both fathers and their children. During one interview when I asked Tom if he was doing
anything fun lately he replied, “No, we’re watching the Tour de France right now.” Though his
initial reply did not identify watching the Tour de France as fun, further analysis reveals that
watching this bicycle race on television is significant.
Tom is an avid bike rider. He rides his bike to work every day and takes longer bike
rides on weekends. Cycling is the only sport that Tom is passionate about and his passion for
cycling extends to his sons. On Saturdays after Tom goes on a long distance ride he takes one of
the kids on a shorter ride around a nearby park. Tom and his two sons have attended live cycling
races including one in the local mountains.
The Tour de France is the premier international bicycle race. According to Tom, he lives
for the month long race. Tom described the experience of watching the race together.
It starts at 5:00 in the morning, but we tape it. We DVR it and then I watch it when I get
home from work. But the kids all know who’s who, and they know all the teams. We’ll
be watching it, and Greg is on the computer looking up the next stage, trying to find out
Tom’s interest in the Tour de France comes from his passion for cycling. However,
Greg’s interest comes from his enjoyment of computers. Greg has only been using the computer
for the last year, when he started watching YouTube videos to learning strategies for video
games he was playing. After Tom taught Greg about the dangers of clicking on things he could
not click on, he and Sarah were comfortable with letting Greg get on the computer. Tom also
talks with pride about how Greg learned how to get on the computer with little help from anyone
else, defining a capable level of intelligence. Being able to use the computer is a small victory in
Looking up maps on the computer combines Greg’s interest in computers with his
concern for maps and spatial relationships. While riding in the car during an observation, Greg
was constantly interested in what direction we were going and where we would go next. When
he asked questions about streets or buildings, Tom would often repeat them back to him and
Greg would give the correct answer. Looking up tour stages on the computer and watching the
race make the Tour de France an interactive experience for Greg.
I asked Greg and Chad what they liked about watching the Tour de France. His eyes lit
up as Chad explained that he liked the final stage because it was exciting. Greg said that he liked
the first stage because it was the easiest. Tom confirmed that the first stage of the Tour de
France was in fact the least grueling. While his younger brother was more into the excitement of
the sport, Greg was interested in the terrain.
Watching the Tour de France combines aspects of the lives of Tom, Chad, and Greg.
Tom watches the Tour de France primarily based on his own interests in cycling. Chad, Tom’s
younger son, watches the Tour because he enjoys the competition. Greg watches the tour
because he can relate it to computers, maps, and studying spatial relationships. They are taking
individual passions and combining them in order to create something everyone does together.
This example gives insight into the co-construction of an everyday occupation. At first
glance, watching the Tour de France may not be seen as an occupation; after all, they are just
watching television. However, a deeper analysis has shown both individual significance and
meaningfulness in being together. In this case, watching the Tour de France is co-constructed
both on meaningfulness and individual interests.
This chapter provides insight into the significance of fathering occupations. One aspect
that stands out is the importance of everyday occupations. Activities such as play, creativity,
verbal play, and family outings are significant in that intersubjective ways of being together have
been forged over time. Tom’s history of adventures, Brian’s example of going to Disneyland
with his son, Jimmy playing t-ball with Teresa, and Tom watching cycling with his sons all
illustrate the importance of the time spent together in co-creating occupations.
Jimmy’s story of his daughter Mary getting a hit in softball is the culmination of
moments over time that has resulted in a significant mutually shared moment that bursts into
consciousness. Stern (2004) uses the term moments of meeting to describe when two individuals
become aware of each others experience. New states of being and ways of being together are
created through moments of meeting. It is clear that the significant moment of Jimmy feeling
pride in his daughter is one such moment of meeting.
Chapter 9: A Discovered Place Of Fathering Occupations: The Car
Occupations are ordered by time and space and are more likely to be repeated under
specific conditions (Townsend et al., 2009; Zemke & Clark, 1996b). However, within
occupational science, the study of place, particularly the immediate space, has received little
attention. In this chapter I differentiate between space and place, in that space is a physical
entity that becomes place through occupational interactions, often through collaboration (Zemke,
2004). Within fathers’ descriptions of their experiences, the car emerged as an example of a
space where occupations happen.
The fathers in this study spend a significant amount of time driving in the car on a daily
basis. According to the US Department of Transportation, the average American traveled 36.3
miles per day in 2009; the average household traveled 90.42 minutes per day (Santos,
McGuckin, Nakamoto, Gray, & Liss, 2011). The men in this study resided in Los Angeles, a
city associated with traffic and endless freeways. Though it seems that residents of Los Angeles
would travel more than residents of other U.S. cities, they are actually about average (Dunphy,
2002). Descriptions of the amount of time spent in the car by the men of this study reflected
national trends. In this chapter I explore the meaningfulness of being in the car and interactions
that occur within the car.
The Automobile Is Ordinary
I first became interested in car talk while traveling to the YMCA with Brian and his son.
This first instance passed mostly unnoticed, though it did warrant a brief mention in my
fieldnote. Later, while driving in the car with Tom, I was impressed by the vibrant back and
forth exchange between him and his son. It became apparent that more communication was
happening in the car on the way to the yogurt store and the park than was happening at these
activities themselves. These two observations peaked my curiosity, leading me to ask Tom about
talking in the car. The enthusiasm in his voice when he answered this question led me to a
realization, something significant was happening.
Once I had identified the importance of talking in the car, I specifically asked all of the
fathers about it. These men consistently shared stories and examples of talking in the car, but
only after further prompting beyond the initial question. The only father who did not have an
example of communicating in the car does not currently drive due to health concerns.
The experience of being in the car with their children never came up until I asked. Even
when I asked, fathers consistently responded that their interactions with their children in the car
were insignificant. When I first asked Brian about talking in the car with Adam, he initially told
me that Adam usually just sleeps in the morning on the way to school. However, I later returned
to the question and Brian expanded on the significance of communicating with Adam in the car.
Jimmy first responded by talking about how his children primarily listen to their IPods or use
their computers in the car. However, he later identified a local radio show that they all listen to
These fathers’ responses reflect a cultural view of being in the car as a way to get from
point A to point B, and not as a place where something significant occurs (Primeau, 1996).
However, the extraordinary often occurs in the ordinary aspects of daily living (Das, 2007;
Masten, 2001; Mattingly, 2010b). As will be illustrated below, the everyday business of
traveling in a car can be meaningful. Due to the age of the children in the study, getting them
where they need to be is a major childcare responsibility. In a sense, it is the overlooked
ordinariness of being together in the car that makes it such an important enactment of fathering.
Driving as Enactment of The “Good Father”
For several fathers, driving has emerged as a responsibility linked to being a good father.
With the birth of the new baby, Brian took over the responsibility of driving Adam to school one
day a week. Because Adam attends the school they decided is most appropriate for his needs,
the drive generally takes about 45 minutes each way. When I asked Brian if they had a bus that
he could ride, Brian said the buses would have to make a lot of stops and they did not want
Adam to be on the bus that long. For them, it is a choice to drive him to school every day. They
have worked it out so that paid help often give him a ride home.
Dowling (2000) describes the achievement of the “good mother” through car use. For
instance, mothers in her study often drove their children to destinations away from unsafe
neighborhoods in order to provide the best quality of care and activities for their children.
Similarly, for Brian, driving is a moral endeavor, an indication of “good parenting.” Brian and
Joanna drive Adam to school because they don’t want to ride the bus.
Participation in driving tasks also represented Aristotle’s enactment of good fathering.
Aristotle drives his two sons to practices and games for various sports. For Aristotle, it is
important that his two sons participate in sports to give them discipline and a sense of
community. Aristotle never received support in playing sports growing up, so he feels it is
important to give his children that opportunity. Aristotle talked about the responsibility of
keeping his children involved in sports. The following fieldnote was written after an observation
of Dante practicing basketball.
I asked Leo if he was playing any sports right now. He said he thought he was playing
soccer. Aristotle explained that he is not playing soccer right now because he did not
sign him up. He would not be able to sign him up next week because he was out of town
and he was pretty sure that Elizabeth would not take him if she had to sign him up.
Earlier Aristotle had told me that Elizabeth hates taking them to practice. She often
makes excuses for taking them to school and picking them up, even when she is off work.
This made me realize how important going to practice is. If Aristotle didn’t take them,
Aristotle’s wife apparently will not take the kids to practice on her own, so the
responsibility is left to him. He spends a significant amount of time each day driving his
children to school and to practices. In a separate interview, Aristotle talked about the work of
getting the children around.
It's - it's just too much rushing. Not so much physical work; it's just a lot of stress. Hurry
up - get out of work in time - go pick him up at school. I get him home, feed him
something quick, put his uniform on, get him to work on time. Then I do laps - just to…
But, it's time consuming. Sit around here and watch him. Like this. We're not out of here
and not home until 8:00. I need to go home. Sometimes, I got work to do at work. But I -
sometimes I got to leave early. So, we got to - I mean, I've got things that I go to do
after 8:00. And, sometimes after he leaves - it's not ‘til 9:00. I won't get back home ‘til
11:30, 12:00. Then, I come home, unwind, go to sleep. I don't go to sleep ‘til 1:00 or
2:00. Then I got to get up early in the morning. Now, it's school time. Tomorrow, I got to
wake up at 7:00.
For Aristotle, the enactment of fatherhood includes the responsibility of driving his
children to practices. He picks them up at school, stops at home, and then drives to practice.
The act of driving his children is what Aristotle physically does and can be described as an
embodied interaction of fathering (Doucet, 2006b, 2009). Aristotle’s commitment to keep his
children involved in sports requires effort on his part. However, all of this work is done as part
of his commitment to being a good father.
A Unique Opportunity to Communicate
For Brian, traveling in the car provided a unique opportunity for communication. The
following excerpt was taken from a fieldnote.
On the car ride Brian asked Adam where they were going and Adam yelled from the
back, “To the Y.” He then asked if they were going home and Brian said, “No, to the Y.”
This banter occurred on the way to the YMCA. When driving Brian yelled from the front
seat to Adam in the back. During this observation Brian drove an SUV and Adam sat on the
very back row. The rows between Adam and the front seats were empty. Adam listened to his
IPod with headphones but responded to his fathers teasing.
Brian described being in the car as the only way he can get through to Adam. At home,
Adam spends most of his time in his room. Adam will occasionally come out of his room in
order to get help finding a specific video on YouTube. When I asked Brian if it was easier to
talk to Adam in the car, he answered, “He is confined.” Past researchers have recognized being
in the car together as an important place to talk, especially for parents and children. Talk
happens in the car because they have nowhere else to go; people either have to talk or sit silently
(Laurier et al., 2008). For Brian, he is in control of their interactions because Adam has
nowhere to go. However, their interactions also demonstrate meaning that goes beyond
constraints on time and space.
During interviews and observations the idea that they were going somewhere also
emerged as a significant aspect to the interaction of Brian and Adam in the car. This is
especially important when the destination is somewhere of interest to Adam. When driving to
school, Adam is often asleep. However, when driving somewhere he wants to go such as Burger
King or the movies, he is awake and attentive. The following exchange occurred on the way to
the movie theater.
Adam: [From the back] Where are you?
Brian: Where are you? Are we going home?
Adam: Burger King.
Brian: OK, what do you want? Do you want 6 nuggets?
Adam: No 8 nugggggeeeettttsss!
Brian: All right, see now he is getting mad [Laughs]. That is his frustrations. All right,
let's go to Burger King.
In the previous exchange, Brian is structuring their conversation around going to do
Burger King. He knows what Adam wants at Burger King and playfully uses this knowledge to
tease Adam. At the point when Adam started to get agitated, Brian pulled back. He values the
communication that occurs during their interactions, but is also vigilant in not taking his teasing
too far. Brian uses the same teasing for going to the movies, the YMCA, and the bookstore.
This playful exchange was an interaction that they returned to multiple times.
While riding in the car with Tom and his sons, it was apparent to me that the outside
environment they observed while driving in the car provided platforms for communication.
While they were driving, Greg would make comments about where they were going and ask
questions. On our way to the park Greg pointed out a train station where they had recently
boarded the train. This led to a discussion between Tom and Greg about where they had taken
the train. At one point Greg told Tom that they were going the wrong way. Tom assured him
that they were going the right way and he would see in a minute. The outside environment
observed through the window provides opportunities for discussion, sharing of memories, and
The Significance of The Vehicle
The automobile that they drove in was important for fathers. When Brian’s wife Joanna
got pregnant with their sixth child, they decided to buy a new van. According to Joanna, they
“had to buy a car with him [meaning Adam] in mind because of the way he sits and he can't
touch the other kids.” The van has three rows of passenger seats, so that Adam could have a seat
all to himself when the whole family was in the car. Even when the front two rows are open,
Adam reclines in the very back seat with his legs stretched out. The back seat is equipped with
Adam’s favorite items included his IPod, charger, and blanket. Brian drove the Mercedes van on
the day I accompanied him on a trip to drive Adam to school. This can has essentially become
Adam’s van that they drive him around in.
Teresa’s disability also creates transportations needs. They must have a car that fits the
whole family along with Teresa’s wheelchair and equipment. The family car is a van that has
170,000 miles on it. The van is no longer reliable and they paid $2,000 in repairs over the
summer. Though they would like to replace the van, Jimmy is currently out of work and they do
not have the money.
A friend recently entered Jimmy and Maya in a contest on Facebook for a new van. In
order to enter the contest their friend created a video that expressed their need for a van for
Teresa. Even though they lost, Jimmy proudly proclaimed that they had over 9.000. He
described it as the “first thing that we ever wanted for Teresa we never got.”
Groening (2011) argues that television commercials and sitcoms present the family car
“as a mobile shelter from disaster” (p. 150). Recent national disasters such as evacuations for
impending hurricanes illustrate the importance of mobility. Like homes, cars are equipped with
their own televisions, climate control, and meals often take place in the care (Groening, 2011).
Groening made me think about how cars were represented as places of safety in this study. A
story told by Jimmy about a very scary moment stood out.
About two years ago man, it was like 5:30 in the afternoon, 6:00. They had a shooting
out there in front of the park. So we all had to jump in our van. We get like 15 people.
It really terrified Teresa's twin brother Justin because he was on the playground all
paralyzed and he didn't know what to do and I am all, "Come here, run, come here. Get
in." That was a pretty scary moment.
The family was at a local park, a place where they frequently visits. However, when the
shooting occurred, they ended up in the van, a place of safety. Though this story was not told to
illustrate the van as a place of safety, it definitely emerged as such. For Jimmy, their van was a
place where he was able to shelter his children in order to protect them.
Electronics in the Car
The car has become closely related to the use of personal electronics including radios,
cell phones, and IPods. For instance, talking on cell phones while driving has become a social
issue due to decreased awareness (Becic et al., 2010; Just, Keller, & Cynkar, 2008; Strayer &
Drews, 2007). Half a century ago, the same criticisms were raised about listening to the radio in
the car (Brown, 1965). The use of personal electronics often had a disconnecting affect on
family interaction. The radio was both unifying and divisive.
Fathers often said that they do not talk much because everyone had their own personal
devices. When I asked Aristotle and his two sons if they talked in the car, Leo answered that
they usually just played their Nintendo DSi (a handheld game console). Dante then revealed that
Leo actually broke his Nintendo DSi and he mostly just fought with Dante to use his. As will be
seen in the sections below, the interaction between Aristotle and his sons in the car is much more
vibrant than Leo and Dante’s initial answer.
When I asked Jimmy if they talked in the car, his initial response was that they “always
argue about the music.” This is especially true when his children’s IPods or computers are
broken. In this case, the personal devices create a sort of peacefulness as each child is engaged
in their own media. The radio resulted in argumentative interaction. However, when Jimmy
thought for a minute, he revealed a more cooperative use of the radio.
Jimmy: But in the morning, on the way to school, we always listen to Ryan Seacrest,
KISS FM, where he calls up, the people call up and see if their husbands and wives are
cheating on them. You heard that before?
Interview: Yeah, I’ve heard that before.
Jimmy: Yeah, we listen to that every morning. And, then, sometimes when we pick
them up from school, they’ll be, “What happened? What happened? Was he cheating on
The radio can be a source of discord but can also have a unifying effect. Though they are
all in their own spaces, they are all mutually engaged in listening to the radio. Asking about
what happened at the end of the day demonstrates that they are engaged and interested.
Tom and his family have also found a unifying bond in the radio. He often encourages
Greg to sing along to the radio in the car.
So we will be listening in the car and all of the sudden "Dad are you ready for me to sing
it?" I am all "hit it Greg, hit it Greg. Sing it buddy." "OK” And he will start singing and
he just makes my day man. Even though I hate country. I am not a big country fan. But
I got to tell you the kid is just awesome as far as it goes, just his enthusiasm for things.
The kid has a zest for life. He loves, he loves things. Just doing fun stuff.
The car and the radio serve as cultural tools (Wertsch, 1998) that mediate the experience
between Greg and Tom. They can bond over country music. Whereas Jimmy’s family fights
over music, Tom plays country music because Greg likes it. Tom’s own preferences are
suppressed in order to facilitate their relationship.
The following quote is a nice representation of the bonds that can emerge in the car. It is
helpful to examine these experiences of sharing as moments of meeting (Stern, 2004). These
moments are significant not only in themselves, but also in their reflections on the past and the
future. Tom often worries about Greg’s future. However, Tom also believes that Greg can do
anything that he sets his mind to, and these moments reflect this belief.
I think Greg can do anything he is interested in. He loves music, he loves reading, he
loves school. You know, you never know. I don't know. But I think the future is
optimistic for him.
It seems like one of the reasons why these moments are so important for Tom are because
they remind him of Greg’s love for life. They remind him of some of the skills that Greg has
acquired that Tom at one time believed he never would have because of his disability. Singing is
just one of many developing passions that motivate Greg. For Tom, these moments of meeting
create optimism about the future.
The Car as a Place for Connecting
Several fathers described driving in the car as an opportunity for teaching values. The
talks between Tom and Greg represent a lot of what Tom is trying to do as a father and how he
interacts with Greg. I will break up his answer into two sections for analysis.
Interviewer: So, what kind of things would you say you talk about in the car with them?
Tom: Well, I don’t know. It just depends on who’s in the car really. A lot of times when
we’re all in the car, I’ll tell them, hey, you know what – I don’t know. Sometimes it just
depends – whatever comes into my head, I guess. I don’t really have any set things. I’ll
ask them how school was; I’ll ask them what their favorite toys are, if they think
something’s cool, if they like doing this or that.
Tom talks about having conversations with his sons in the car about everyday things in
their lives such as how their day at school was, if they like something, or even their favorite toys.
This is particularly important because in previous interviews, Tom had talked about his
relationship with his own father. Tom’s father was often sick when Tom was growing up and
they did not do a lot together. Now that his Dad is gone, Tom wishes that they had spent more
time together. Tom had expressed difficulty spending time with his sons, but often has difficulty
getting up and going out and playing with his children because his Dad never did. However,
Tom strives to break that trend. Though Tom’s father had never asked him how his day at
school was, it was important for Tom to ask his children about their day so they knew that he
cared and wanted to be involved. A lot of this conversation happens in the car.
Tom then goes on to talk about the importance of teaching his children values. The
transcript continues from where Tom left off above.
But, then sometimes when it’s just me and Greg, since he mostly has the behavioral
problems, when he’s amiable to it, I’ll tell him, hey, Greg, you can’t act like that all the
time, you’ve got to give me a break, man.
You have to – it’s not OK to beat your brother up every day, it’s not OK to throw a fit
every time you don’t get your way. I try and teach him, let him know in a kind way,
because most of the time I’ll probably be yelling. Instead, I just try and let him know like,
hey, you have to think about what you’re doing before you do it, because you create
problems when you throw a fit every time. And, you never get your way when you throw
a fit. If he really keeps throwing it or does it every time; but, I try to do it in a different,
nicer way. It’s a more personal communication that way. Other than that, I don’t know.
Tom talks to Greg about his behavioral problems in the car. They spend a lot of time
together in the community, and Greg sometimes has behavioral difficulties related to his
disability. For Tom, being in the car together is a time when he can explain to Greg the
appropriate way to act in public.
But, this passage goes beyond teaching, to a way of being together. Tom explains that
usually when behavioral problems occur, he yells. However, in the car, he can take time to look
back and approach things in a calmer manner. Later in the same interview, Tom expands on this.
Yeah. I just want my kids to know that I overreact sometimes, I flip out, I yell at them.
But, I can also be calm too, I can also be, hey, let’s have a conversation here
[unintelligible] to try talking or I’ll use that time to praise stuff they do like, hey, I really
liked your art work that you did this week. I thought it as awesome. Chad, you’ve
become quite the little artist. I like it.
Here Tom is explaining that these quiet moments are a time when his kids can get to
know him. They can talk to Tom when they have problems. Tom then returns to talking about
being able to praise his kids, to point out the positive things they do such as Chad’s art. They are
being together and sharing in ways that often do not happen outside of the car. Tom wants his
children to learn something about him, about his ability to address problems fairly and rationally,
and that comes out in their car talks.
Expanding the Circumference of the Scene: The Example of Rabid Robot Rabbits
This chapter has primarily been concerned with the physical space of the car as the scene.
Burke (1969) states that “the choice of circumference for the scene in terms of which a given act
is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (p. 77)
The circumference in which their interactions take place often transcended the space of the car.
To explore the expansion of the circumference of the scene, I have adapted an example from my
fieldnotes of an interview that included Aristotle, Dante, and Leo. In examining scenes, I also
draw on Crapanzano’s (2009) argument that imaginative scenes color the experience of
During an interview with Aristotle, Dante, and Leo on the last day of school, I asked the
family if they talked in the car. At first the brothers said they played video games and Aristotle
said they just fight. But when I asked the second time, the boys were able to remember things
that Aristotle had told them in the car like the origins of magma, the invention of ice cream
waffle cones, and how he used to draw by hand before computers. Some of these things
Aristotle had forgotten that he had even told them. Finally, the group explained a complex video
game that they invented in response to the Angry Birds craze.
Aristotle: I told them, “Hey, you guys like Angry Birds. Let’s come up with our own
Their video game conceptualization started with an idea by Aristotle. They then worked
together to build upon the idea. Aristotle describes it as a “kind of like brainstorm.” Though I
was not present during the original event, this group recollection is an adequate example of how
they all work together to explain the video game they are imagining, with each member adding
Aristotle: So, they jump in their shopping carts and one dog is pushing that guy and he’s
the one that has to try to launch him off a ramp into the rabbits. I don’t remember if it
was his mouth or ears or something, and put a dynamite stick in there and blow its head
Dante: Or like a Dalmatian.
Leo: There were robots though.
Aristotle: Yeah, the robot. The giant robot rabbits.
Interviewer: Of course, they’re robots. Why not?
Aristotle: Rabid rabbit robots.
Dante: Remember banana banana fruit?
Leo: Yeah. I remember like one of them we made like one of them with a huge,
humongous head. It has tiny ears and it looks like a fuse.
In this example, Aristotle gives the overall details; a guy pushed the dog off the ramp and
into the rabbits. Dante adds, “Or like a Dalmatian,” reminding them of an essential detail. Later,
Dante explains that since Dalmatians are associated with firefighters, they use hoses to fight the
rabbits. Aristotle recognizes that Dante and Leo added this detail. Since each angry bird had a
different technique, every dog should also have a unique power to fight the rabbits.
Leo next says, “There were robots though.” This reminds Aristotle that the invading
rabbits were actually robots, promoting him to remember the alliterate title of their video game
Rabid Rabbit Robots. Dante next asks them if they remember “Banana, banana fruit.” This is
actually a totally different idea that they had worked on that is not taken up by Aristotle or Leo
this time. In these creative sessions, not all ideas are taken up.
Their creative process resembles what Harris (2000) describes as pretend stipulations that
can be exploited by partners. Aristotle started with the stipulation that they would create a game
similar to Angry Birds. This stipulation was built upon, adding dogs that were then given special
powers related to their breed. Dante bringing in another idea is an example of how other
stipulations were rejected along the way. In Harris’ description, imaginary play is centered on a
prop. The prop in their imaginary play is the game Angry Birds that they have transformed into
a new game.
The circumference of this particular scene was no longer the car. In one sense, they are
entering the fictional world where a game called Rabid Rabbit Robots is real. It is unclear if they
are imagining a world where rabbits actually take over the world, or if the Rabid Rabbit Robots
only exists as a game within their imaginary world. It is possible that the circumference of
imaginary scenes includes both worlds.
Another imaginary scene that the family has created is that of video game designers.
Aristotle and Leo demonstrate how they bring their imaginary roles as video game designers into
the real world.
Aristotle: If I could program on IOS I would be set. I would have made that for them.
Aristotle: Yeah, dude.
Leo: The funnest thing is like, I don’t know, I created like I drew a picture of one of
those guys. It was like a robot.
Aristotle wishes he had a gaming program so he could make this game for the kids. Leo,
an avid artist, actually draws some of the characters they have invented. Their idea, something
they played with in the car, has left the car and entered another creative sphere.
When asked where these creative conversations happen, Aristotle explained that they
occur when all three of them are together, usually at home, in the car, and at church. One of the
conditions necessary is that his wife is not present because the three of them can get too loud for
her. This new created scene displays excitement and cooperation that otherwise would rarely
exist within the confines of the car.
There are other places of occupations emerged in the study though they are not included
in this chapter. The neighborhood park allows for Jimmy’s family to participate in numerous
occupations that continue to expand. Not only do they play sports, Maya is now on the park
council in an attempt to make it more universally accessible. The children attend camps there
and Mary volunteers there during the summer. For Brian, Disney, the YMCA, and the movie
theatre are all spaces that allow him to interact and connect with Adam. Aristotle uses the
computers at work to teach Leo about art. The river was included as place of occupation in
Chapter 8: The Experience of Fathering Occupations. However, unlike the car, these are obvious
places that fathers would easily identify as places where occupations occur. The car as a place of
occupation is unique because of its ordinariness.
For all of the fathers, the home was a place of occupation including childcare, teaching
children, games, and meals. However, I found it difficult to set up observations in the home.
My observation of Jimmy feeding Teresa was not done in the home, but on the front porch. Tom
resisted an observation in his home, tending to steer choices of observations to the community.
Though I was never able to determine the reason for this, I believe part of his motivation was
that he just did not think they would be interesting enough. Perhaps, like the car, the home did
not emerge as an important place of occupations because it is too obvious.
What intrigued me the most about interactions between fathers and children in the car are
the unique qualities that create fathering occupations. In one sense, the automobile is an
ordinary insignificant place, yet a place where important moments of meeting take place.
Driving in the car is so common, that the fathers in the study overlooked the significance of
being together. It wasn’t until I actually observed fathers in the car with their children that I
realized significant moments of meeting were occurring in the car.
One the other hand, the car is an important setting for occupations. The enclosed space
of being in a car for the extended periods of time facilitates conversation (Laurier et al., 2008).
In addition, this chapter has demonstrated that the car can actually facilitate ways of being
together. For Brian and Aristotle, driving their children to school or practice represents an
enactment of a “good father.” The car radio is a cultural tool that facilitates engagement between
Tom and Greg and Jimmy and his family. For Tom, the car provides opportunities to connect
with his sons that he did not have with his father. Jimmy and his sons experience driving in the
car as a time away from their mother when they can be creative and loud. These are all ways
being in the car together can be an important place of occupation.
Cars are a place of privacy that allows fathers to freely talk with their children. The car
can be described as an extension of the home, a place of both privacy and security (Groening,
2011). The security provided by an automobile was demonstrated when Jimmy, his family, and
other members piled into their van during a shooting. These are all aspects of the automobile
that create a unique scene where moments of meeting can occur.
Chapter 10: Mealtime as An Example of The Togetherness of Fathering Occupations
The importance of fathers spending meaningful time with their children stood out as a
significant finding in this study. One of the occupations that stood out was Jimmy’s description
of feeding his daughter, Teresa, who has severe cerebral palsy. After observing and recording
Jimmy feeding his daughter, I realized that their interaction was deeply rooted in meaning. In
this chapter I pursue the question, “What is at stake for Jimmy?” I present fine-grained analysis
of Jimmy feeding his daughter in order to explore this question.
Devault (1994) focused on the work that goes into feeding a family from a feminist
perspective. The unseen work around feeding, primarily done by women, includes provisioning,
planning, and managing all aspects of a meal. Feeding is not just a biological need, but also has
a social aspect. Family meals are often a time to convey values of families and cultures
(DeVault, 1994; Segal, 1999).
In analyzing the interaction between Jimmy and Teresa that occurs during feeding, I draw
on Stern (2004) in the analysis of moments of meeting. The transformative power of experience
is located in intersubjective moments. During moments of meeting implicitly felt
intersubjectivity is altered when something significant happens. Ultimately, action must be taken
as a result of moments of meeting. In this chapter I argue that the process of feeding is
significant in that it represents a meeting between Jimmy and Teresa.
The analysis of Jimmy feeding presented here is more in depth than other chapters. After
interviews had been analyzed according to previous described data analysis, I further analyzed
the video, identifying meaningful interactions and moments of communication between Jimmy
and Teresa. Significant interactions were then analyzed and themes were identified. The themes
that emerged are presented below.
The Intensity of Feeding
The process of feeding Teresa takes about 45 minutes per meal. All of Teresa’s food is
mashed, though her diet has recently been expanded to include foods with a little bit more
texture such as refried beans. Jimmy described some of the difficulties of feeding.
OK, well, she takes a while to feed her because she has a tongue thrust and if you put it in
there most of the stuff comes out. A lot of the time she becomes distracted.
The tongue thrust causes food to come out of Teresa’s mouth that Jimmy wipes using a
towel that is wrapped around her neck. The towel is an indispensible tool for feeding. Choking
hazards are common for children with cerebral palsy (Sullivan et al., 2000). Teresa is more
likely to choke when she becomes distracted so Jimmy is constantly vigilant in keeping her
During the entire feeding session, Jimmy was very attentive, constantly responding to
Teresa’s needs. Though Jimmy talked to me while feeding Teresa, he often switched between
addressing Teresa and myself. His audience was sometimes unclear. At the end of the feeding
observation I asked Jimmy if he eats at the same time Teresa does. He replied, “No, I eat after. It
takes too long. My food will get cold.” This quote illustrates his devotion to Teresa, her needs
are taken care of. During the feeding observation, a hamburger from Jimmy’s favorite place was
waiting inside. Jimmy went on to say that after he feeds Teresa, it is difficult for him to eat
because she still wants to share his food. Though he did not specifically talk about why he didn’t
eat at the same time, observing Jimmy feeding it became apparent that the attentiveness he gives
her while feeding leaves little space for other activities. Not only is he vigilant that Teresa does
not choke, their constant interaction requires his attentiveness.
For families that feed their children who have cerebral palsy, the process often results in
increased stress due to drooling, time commitment, and choking hazards. Mothers are most often
left with the responsibility for feeding children with little support from others (Sullivan et al.,
2000). In Jimmy’s family, the primary responsibility of feeding Teresa falls on the father. This
is a break from traditional gendered responsibilities.
Teresa drinks out of a special bottle invented by a feeding therapist. The bottle consists
of oxygen tube placed into a dye bottle. Jimmy placed the tube end into her mouth and squeezed
out small amounts of liquid. When liquid dribbled out of Teresa’s mouth Jimmy quickly wiped
it with a towel. Teresa has a tendency to become dehydrated, so it is important that they get
enough liquid into her.
One of the major problems we have is keeping this little girl hydrated. It is so hard to get
fluids into her. Especially during the summer, man. The way I do it is always go, if I am
thirsty, I know that she is thirsty. So whenever I get something to drink, she gets
something to drink.
This statement demonstrates the responsibility that Jimmy takes for Teresa. The
responsibility of keeping Teresa hydrated has become intertwined with Jimmy’s own needs. He
has embodied her needs into his own experiences in that when he is thirsty, he knows that she is
thirsty. This is not only a tool for keeping Teresa hydrated, but also another way that Jimmy
relates to Teresa.
Regardless of their efforts, Teresa still struggles to obtain the calories that she requires on
a daily basis. This adds to the intensity of the experience of feeding.
About last year, last year about this time we were going through the thing where they
wanted to actually put a feeding tube in her because she was only 24 pounds or
something like that. He gave us 6 months to try and bulk her up so we put her on that
high calorie diet. All the good stuff and she drinks those boost essentials and all that. So
we actually got her up to 28.
Keeping the weight on Teresa adds immediacy to Jimmy’s feeding responsibilities.
Parents in general feel responsible for their children eating healthy and growing strong (DeVault,
1994). For parents of children with moderate to severe cerebral palsy mealtime takes on
additional importance as feeding issues often lead to poor health and nutrition (Fung et al., 2002;
Sullivan et al., 2002; Sullivan et al., 2000). For Jimmy and his family, feeding Teresa is a fight
One solution to feeding problems for children with cerebral palsy is the use of a
gastrostomy feeding tube (g-tube) to forgo feeding (Sleigh, 2005). Jimmy and Maya have
avoided giving Teresa a g-tube. When I asked Jimmy why they avoided the g-tube his reasons
were cleanliness issues and the possibility of Teresa pulling it out. In addition, a trusted friend
that often advises their family recommended against a g-tube. However, the intensity of their
fight to keep her weight up made me believe that their motivation ran deeper. I wondered if their
fight also had to do with the responsibility that parents take in feeding their children. If they do
resort to a g-tube, will that mean they could not care for her? Jimmy’s experience feeding
Teresa would not have the same importance even though they could still feed her orally. I
wondered if these factors also influenced their decision.
Lack of Outside Help
Jimmy and Teresa get very little help from outside family members in feeding Teresa.
Though the older children are starting to feed Teresa more often, for most of her life, it was
either Jimmy or Maya that fed her. The following statement occurred during a conversation
about how Maya’s mother has been critical of Jimmy missing work in order to go to doctor’s
People are always so quick to judge about this and that. And I am saying, "Feed her, try
and at least feed her once." And the only ones, like I said in our last meeting, about
maybe three months ago was the first time in Teresa's life that her Mom [Meaning Maya's
Mom] fed her because I was at a doctor’s appointment with Maya. But I mean, our kids,
even our son, our older son, our older daughter, they know how to feed her now.
Feeding represents a difficult responsibility that others do not understand. In this quote
the act of feeding Teresa is used symbolically as the sum of Jimmy’s responsibilities. Not only
does Jimmy fed her, he also is responsible for picking the kids up at school, homework, dressing,
and bathing. If people critical of Jimmy would feed Teresa, they could understand the
overwhelming responsibility of his experience.
Only a few people in Jimmy’s family are able to feed Teresa. In the last year the older
kids have started to learn to feed her. However, it is a difficult process because of Teresa’s
intense feeding needs. Even the professionals at Teresa’s school have difficulty when it comes
to feeding her.
You have got to be careful with her nose too. She always gets all kinds of food in it.
One of my main gripes with her school is that she always comes back with all kinds of
stuff stuffed all up in her nose.
Details like keeping food out of Teresa’s nose are important. When others do not have
the same devotion these details are going to be neglected. This also adds a burden to Jimmy’s
responsibility of feeding. Though his children have started to feed Teresa more often, there are
no plans for her future. When I asked Jimmy about Teresa’s future, he talked about trying to
make her as happy as possible. However, he had no plan for who would take over the
tremendous responsibility of feeding her if he or his wife could no longer do it.
During the observation, it became apparent that the communication between Jimmy and
Teresa was an important part of his experience. In the following excerpt, Jimmy is trying to get
Teresa to respond that she wants the soda, a treat she does not always get.
Jimmy: Want more soda? Want more soda?
((Jimmy looks down at the soda and back up at Teresa. He does this two times))
((Teresa smiles big))
((Jimmy smiles back))
Jimmy: Want some of that?
((Jimmy smiles back))
Teresa responds to Jimmy by smiling at him, but this response is not what he is looking
for. Jimmy smiles back, reciprocating her communication. He asks her again if she wants some
soda, Teresa smiles back at him. Jimmy returns her smile. His smile encourages her interaction.
However, it should not be mistaken that he is only smiling to encourage interaction. Jimmy’s
tenderness for Teresa is evident in his smile. He continues their interaction.
Jimmy: Where is your soda? Where is you soda?
((Jimmy moves his head and looks at the soda twice. Teresa follows his gaze the second
time. They look at each other))
On the fourth try, Jimmy gets Teresa to look at the soda. The feeding process has
become an opportunity to elicit communication. Here, Teresa’s communication is a subtle series
of smiles and eye movement. The simple action of making eye contact and waiting for Teresa to
follow him represents an important act of socialization, performed at Teresa’s level. Jimmy’s
repeated smiles and head movements that get Teresa to respond are a form of scaffolding, a
learning process in which the teacher builds around the abilities of the learner (Holland et al.,
1998). He is maximizing Teresa’s ability and engaging in a process of socialization, allowing
her to participate in her community on a level appropriate to her abilities.
This simple exchange between Jimmy and Teresa demonstrates intersubjectivity, the
“ability to understand the minds of others, whether through language, gestures, or other means”
(Bruner, 1996, p. 20). Jimmy is creating understanding through Teresa’s smiles and gaze.
Teresa shows her connection with Jimmy’s in following his lead. When she did not respond to
the meaning of Jimmy’s words and his tone of voice, he added smiles and eye contact.
Missed opportunities. The communication process is not always smooth, and can even
be a series of stumbles. In the following excerpt, both Tom and Teresa miss cues before making
the feeding work. This is a description of a five second interval taken from a video observation
of Jimmy feeding Teresa.
Jimmy tries to give Teresa a bite, but she is not looking. He looks at a passing truck.
Teresa then looks at Jimmy but he is not looking. She follows his gaze and looks toward
the truck. While Teresa is looking at the truck, Jimmy gets another spoonful of beans and
turns toward her. She is looking at the truck and he follows her gaze. They both look at a
passing truck then their gaze returns to each other. They smile.
Jimmy and Teresa participated in a complicated dance of eye movements and gestures.
A series of moments of attunement are mixed with inattention. Similar to the previous example,
this interaction between Jimmy and Teresa can be seen as narrative mind reading. They both
have picked up on subtle clues to identify the story that they are in. The scene also reflects what
Mattingly (2008) has referred to as “good enough” mind reading. Their attunement with each
other does not have to be perfect, it just has to be “good enough.”
Similar to the good enough mind reading, Stern (2004) describes the process of moving
Moving along captures the often ambling, loosely directed process of searching for and
finding a path to take, of losing the way and then finding it (or a new one) again, and of
choosing goals to orient to-goals that are often discovered only as you go along (Stern,
2004, p. 150).
I think this amply describes the process of what is happening between Jimmy and Teresa.
Both Jimmy and Teresa have missed opportunities for connection. Teresa misses opportunities
to connect with Jimmy when she is not ready to take a bite. Jimmy misses opportunities for
connection when Teresa looks at him and he is looking at the truck. They also follow each
other’s gazes toward the truck, resulting in missed opportunities at connections. Finally, they
find their way when they gaze at each other and smile. This interaction demonstrates that “life
between people is directly lived at a relatively small scale: a sentence, a pause, a facial
expression, a gesture, a feeling, and a thought” (Stern, 2004, p. 149). The complicated dance has
resulted in a subtle yet significant moment of meeting.
The moment when Jimmy and Teresa catch each other’s gazes is a significant moment of
meeting. I return to the transcript of their feeding, picking up when they look at each other
again, in the following excerpt.
Jimmy: [High pitch voice] "See the truck? That is a big truck hu?" Good stuff? [He
smiles at her] As you can see, the lights are on and somebody is definitely home. She is
very curious. Too curious.
The statement, “the lights are on and somebody is definitely home.” In the context it is
placed, demonstrates that something significant is happening during this subtle dance of
communication. Jimmy uses his voice to point out that Teresa has been looking at the truck. He
then goes on to talk about her curiosity in having noticed the truck, saying she is “too curious.”
Jimmy has used this small moment in time to reflect on Teresa’s abilities.
The clicking sound. At one point when Jimmy asked Teresa if she wanted more soda,
Jimmy asked her “Do you want some more? Yes? Say yes?” She then made a clicking nose
with her mouth. Jimmy responded by giving her more soda. Teresa can be heard making a
clicking noise while eating, especially when eating foods she loves. This noise occurred much
more often while Teresa was eating a cookie than when she was eating refried beans.
When I asked Jimmy about communicating with Teresa, he described the clicking sound:
“That is her cue. That little click. That is I am hungry, I am thirsty.” In a review of memoirs
written by fathers of children with disabilities, I identified the interrelationship between
occupations and communication (Bonsall, 2013). In their books, several fathers had identified
unique patterns of communication between themselves and their children, such as a private
language shared between a father and his son with autism. As parents teach their children to be
part of society, they also learn from their children how to be parents (Pontecorvo, Fasulo, &
Sterponi, 2001). The clicking noises that Jimmy faithfully responds to is an example of how
socialization is a two way process.
For Jimmy, feeding time takes on added meaning because of the opportunity it offers for
communication with his daughter. As he says, the clicking noise is an indication that she is
hungry or thirsty. This is also her primary form of communication. Their interactions primarily
revolve around eating and drinking.
Giving Teresa a voice. At times Jimmy gave voice to Teresa, using a high pitch voice I
will refer to as giving Teresa a voice. In the following example he switches from his usual voice
to a higher pitch voice in order to answer his own question about Diego their dog.
Where is that Diego guy? [Whispering to Teresa] There he is over there. [In Teresa’s
voice] "See that Diego guy. I don't care about that guy. Give me some soda." ((Gives
Jimmy has a subtle conversation about the dog, but Teresa just wants some more food. In
this transcript I replaced “high pitch voice” from the original transcript with “Teresa’s voice” in
order to capture the fullness of the voice Jimmy gives Teresa. The voice is playful, often
forceful and demanding. There is an edge of harshness in the rhythm and stress on important
syllables that demands attention.
A lot of the voice that he gives her is around her wants and needs. In a later interview I
asked Jimmy about the voice he used with Teresa. It revealed that there is also a social aspect to
Like if one of the girls is sitting with us, and she don’t know us, you know, and she has to
sit next to her, then Teresa will be looking at her like, “Hey, who’s this woman?” You
know, and she’ll just like [Using Teresa’s voice] “Get out of here, man. Hey, I don’t
know you.” And, it’s just, I know what she’s thinking, and I can read her mind.
At times, Teresa’s a voice serves to let other people get to know her and recognize her
needs. Jimmy’s use of Teresa’s voice allows her to be in the community and interact with
others. Teresa is situated as a girl with attitude. Jimmy has described being annoyed by the
looks that people give Teresa enough to confront them.
The one thing that kind of bothers us is when people stare, you know, and we go, what?
You got a problem? We ain’t the type that will be quiet. We’ll come out, and we’ll tell
you, hey, you got a problem or what? Got something you want to say? We’ll tell you. I
guess that’s the Mexican side and growing up over here, you know.
Since Jimmy will confront strangers at times, it makes sense that Teresa does also. In the
example of Teresa talking to the stranger above, it is unclear if her voice is used by way of
introduction or confrontation. It is clear that Teresa, like Jimmy, sticks up for herself. What
Jimmy describes as his “Mexican side” is seen in Teresa when she stands up for herself.
Jimmy’s use of Teresa’s voice gives her an identity that attaches to their family.
When I was observing Jimmy feeding Teresa, I experienced the reproachful aspect of
Teresa’s voice. The day I went to observe Teresa eating, my car wouldn’t start. In addition, this
was already an hour after Teresa’s normal lunchtime and she was hungry. While talking about
how Teresa was not as distracted as she usually is while eating, Jimmy explained that it was
because Teresa was hungry.
A lot of the time she becomes distracted. But we ain't seen much of that, well, we seen
some but not as much as usual because she was starving. [In Teresa’s voice] “Yah
homie you took too long.”
I realized that I was the “homie” that took too long. Teresa was reproaching me. I had
delayed her already late lunch another 15 minutes. In this example Jimmy is giving Teresa a
voice to stand up for herself.
Bogdan and Taylor (1989) argue that families fight inherently fixed categories for their
children with severe disabilities by constructing their children as individuals with personality
traits, likes and dislikes, and feelings that they express. In other words, by giving Teresa a voice
to protect herself in public, Jimmy is fighting people’s perceptions of her lack of abilities. The
voice he uses allows her to be recognized by others as part of the community.
Though I find Bodgan and Taylor helpful in recognizing the social significance of
Jimmy’s giving Teresa a voice, I am not sure if their use of the description “constructing” quite
fits. As Jimmy is giving Teresa a voice, it is uncertain how much he is constructing her
personality as opposed to reflecting what she is feeling. Though it is possible that Jimmy is just
making up what he is saying, there are a few cues to indicate that this is not the case.
First, consider the subtle interactions between Jimmy and Teresa described earlier.
Subtle eye movements and the clicking sound she makes are nonverbal forms of communication
that may be missed by the observer. The eye movements and smiles did not become apparent to
me until I watched the video several times including at slower speeds.
Second, the personality that Jimmy has created for Teresa has spread to others, including
professionals that work with Teresa. Lori, an occupational therapist that works with Teresa and
has become a family friend uses the same voice and the same phrases.
Same voice like that too, and it’s like, we’ll have the same phrases and everything. It’s
just, you got to know her to be around her. You got to like get to know her and then
you’ll know her and then you’ll say, “Oh, he was right. That’s her.”
Jimmy has giving voice to Teresa in a unique way that has spread to others. The high
pitch voice represents a way that others have gotten to know Teresa. Not only Lori, who now
uses the same voice, but also anyone that hears the voice and says, “Oh, he was right. That’s
Giving Teresa a voice can be described as narrative mind reading, or linking observable
acts to a motive (Mattingly, 2010b). Jimmy is placing Teresa’s subtle actions into a plot based
on the familiar narratives they have experienced together. He is verbally identifying some of the
plotlines that often go unspoken in everyday interactions.
Eating time was playful. While feeding Teresa, Jimmy became playful as he spoke.
And actually her favorite foods tend to be beans. Beans, beans, any kind of beans.
[Jimmy’s tone becomes higher and he starts talking to Teresa as he says the next line.
Teresa smiles]. Pork beans, baked beans, black beans, brown beans, refried beans.
The playful song that Jimmy sings about beans makes feeding fun. Since it takes 45
minutes to feed Teresa, it is possible that singing this song and other forms of playfulness are a
way for Jimmy to amuse himself. But on another level, Jimmy’s playfulness is important in
keeping Teresa’s attention. There is a fear that Teresa will choke if she does not pay attention
The end of the feeding session was also a very playful time. After the session, Jimmy sat
Teresa on his lap and let her feed him. After several attempts, Teresa lightly grasped the bottle
that she has been drinking from. She clumsily lifted it to Jimmy’s mouth. Jimmy made sucking
sounds pretending to drink out of the bottom end of the bottle. Teresa smiled as he did this. This
only lasted a few second before Teresa dropped the bottle.
The act of Teresa placing the bottle in Jimmy’s mouth is fairly significant. Eight months
ago Teresa did not have enough control of her arms to purposefully place the bottle in Jimmy’s
mouth. Their playful interaction represents current improvement and future possibilities for
Actors Not Present
One particular instance of Jimmy’s use of Teresa’s voice demonstrates the influence of
actors that are not present. Using Teresa’s voice, Jimmy said, “It is nice out here huh? Better
than being hot inside the damn house.” At first this seemed insignificant until I started to wonder
whom he was addressing and why the voice was so forceful. I then realized that this instance of
Teresa’s voice was actually directed towards Maya. I draw on a fieldnote written the day of the
appointment to set the background for my belief that Jimmy was actually talking to Maya
through Teresa’s voice.
There were two chairs on the porch, where we usually sit to do interviews. At first I
thought that we were just doing another interview and thought that this might be a bit
frustrating due to it took so much work to get there (I did not mention that I have been
sick the last couple of days). However, when I walked up Jimmy came out of the house
with Teresa in the wheelchair. I could hear yelling but I was not sure where it was from
at first. I later surmised that it was Maya and that she was upset that he was feeding her
on the porch and not in the house. When we had sat down, she stuck her head out the
door and in a much friendlier tone said that it was cold and Jimmy should feed Teresa in
the house and that it is his fault if Teresa gets sick. I was not sure why he wanted to feed
her on the porch, but it actually made for a nice setting. It was a sunny day and I did not
think it was at all too cold. Maya opened the front door and told me she would leave it
open if we decided we wanted to come in.
The comment that it was “better than being hot inside the damn house” was actually an
extension of Jimmy’s argument with Maya. I think this is an interesting example of how Maya
was an actor in their feeding sessions even though she was not present. The plot of feeding
Teresa outside is enacted within the imagined presence of Maya. The three of us being together
without constraints of weather is an extension of the argument. It was actually a pleasant day;
the sun was shinning and the birds can be heard chirping in the background. Our experience is
proving Maya wrong.
Stern (2004) has argued that we spend our lives in the presence of others, both real and
imagined. Though Stern primarily argues for a two-person intersubjectivity, Jimmy’s addressing
Maya demonstrates that multiple actors can also be present. This realization made me wonder
about possible imagined actors. The list could include therapists that have taught them feeding
techniques and invented the bottle Teresa drinks out of, teachers who can’t keep the food out of
Teresa’s nose, family members that have criticized, and doctors that have said if she does not
gain weight they will give her a g-tube. Jimmy feeding his daughter happens in the imagined
presence of all of these social actors that have shaped Jimmy feeding Teresa into what it is today.
At stake for Jimmy is a particular way of being with Teresa that exists within the feeding
experience. For Jimmy feeding Teresa is an occupation, deeply embedded in the context of
Teresa’s social and family participation. The difficulties of feeding Teresa that require Jimmy’s
vigilance are intertwined with the meaningfulness of his experience. In some ways, the
attentiveness required to keep Teresa clean without choking turns the ordinariness of the feeding
experience into something extraordinary. It requires time and attention for an activity that
otherwise could be done mindlessly. When Jimmy feeds Teresa, he is fully engaged, not even
taking time to feed himself. His attentiveness to Teresa’s needs forces Jimmy to be in the
During feeding more than any other activity, Teresa’s identity is on display. The
uncertainty arises, is Jimmy creating Teresa’s identity or is he recognizing it? Thus far in this
chapter, I have argued that he is recognizing her identity. However, it is insightful to examine
Jimmy as an identity agent, or an individual who participates in the formation of the identity of
another. Parents as identity agents participate in the development of their child’s identity.
Identity agents act as an intermediate level between the large social contexts and the individual
(Schachter & Ventura, 2008). In this sense, Jimmy’s efforts in co-constructing the identity of
Teresa, his daughter with cerebral palsy, is not so different from other parents.
The occupation of feeding is actively co-constructing an identity for Teresa within their
family, the community, and their own intersubjective relationships. This identity is on display in
aspects of feeding such as giving Teresa a voice, the clicking sound, playing, and the
embodiment of Teresa’s need for water. There is an implication that fathers can act as identity
agents, actively co-constructing identity through fathering occupations. In this study, Jimmy is
an identity agent, developing Teresa’s identity similar to a lot of parents do. This is an area of
further study and theorization.
Chapter 11: Reflections On The Interview Process
Lawlor and Mattingly (2001) argue that ethnographic studies depend on the openness of
informants who are asked to disclose sensitive information such as beliefs and values.
Therefore, the trustworthiness of the data “depends highly on the relationship developed between
researcher and informant” (p. 148). The men in this study have opened up, talking about beliefs
and values in ways that have enriched the data and made this study possible.
At times I was surprised at the results; I asked myself why these men were so open and
willing to talk. At other times, I wondered if interviewing busy fathers about their experiences
was even practical. The process of doing interviews was most similar to the moving along
process used to describe relationships between therapists and their patients (Stern, 2004).
Moving along captures the often rambling, loosely directed process of searching for and
finding a path to take, of losing the way and then finding it (or a new one) again, and of
choosing goals to orient- goals that are often discovered as you go along (Stern, 2004, p.
Significant results of the moving along process include changes in interpretations and
dramatic changes where the intentions of two partners flow together. The interview process was
similar to my finding on the construction of fathering occupations in that it was built open a
history of participation between two people.
I believe that over the course of the interview moments of meeting occurred that led to
dramatic change. This may seem like a lofty statement, but I believe it is backed by both the
men’s descriptions of the interviews and my own experience. In this chapter I attempt to
illustrate the moving along process as it relates to narrative interviews. In order to describe this
process I present some of the obstacles and uncertainties, decisions made along the way, and a
description of the experience that made this study work.
“Some White Guy is Here to See You”: The Awkwardness of Research
The title of this section is taken from a conversation with Jimmy. When I arrived for an
observation of Teresa’s softball game, his daughter answered the door and I asked for Jimmy.
Later he told me when his daughter came to get him, she said, “Some white guy is here to see
you.” I thought that this title was an adequate way to describe the awkwardness I felt as an
outsider in relation to both Jimmy’s family and community.
A lot of these awkward moments were based on forgotten or missed appointments. There
were several months in the summer when I could not get a hold of two of the fathers.
Interestingly, around the time that school started, I was able to get a hold of both of these fathers
on the same day. On another occasion a father forgot an appointment that we had set earlier that
Part of the difficulty of forgotten appointments was my uncertainty about how I should
react. Should I call or wait or leave? One particular incident with Aristotle illustrates the
awkwardness of this indecision. When I arrived for an interview with Aristotle, his wife was
talking to a woman on the front porch. When I asked, Elizabeth said that he would be home
soon. I stood on the porch awkwardly for a moment then said I would be back in 10 minutes. I
pick up from my fieldnotes.
I did not want to just sit in the car because they could still see me. That would be
awkward. They live across the street from a McDonalds so going there was the obvious
move. However, when I was in college I decided not to eat at McDonald’s and have not
eaten there in about 20 years. So I walked past McDonald’s and looked down the street
but there wasn’t anywhere else I could walk to. So, I turned back and hesitantly walked
into the McDonalds. I ordered a strawberry lemonade, figuring I could drink it and still
maintain my dignity. When I was finished about 10 minutes later I walked back to his
house but his car was not there. He pulled up as I was walking towards his house.
In this instance, and before several other appointments, I waited for Aristotle to get back.
Another possible decision would have been to go home and reschedule. This might have sent a
message of expectations. However, this is not my personality and not what I felt the situation
needed. I believe that the flexibility demonstrated in this situation was necessary to get me to my
Another awkward moment occurred at a park while observing Theresa’s t-ball game the
same day that Jimmy’s daughter made the comment that “some white guy is here to see you.”
Since members of the family were all involved in the t-ball game in some way, I sat alone along
the third base line. They live in a close community and everyone at the park seemed to know
each other. From a fieldnote written later that day:
Before the game started, as I sat there alone, one of the parents commented that there was
a strange man in the park that is “taking children.” I definitely felt like I stood out. Shortly after
this as I recorded the game another woman came up and asked me “What it going on here?” I
felt guilty, out of place, and most importantly, pegged as “the stranger.”
Me: “I am just filming. I am Jimmy and Maya’s friend.”
Her: “Oh, I thought ronin.” [She had a thick Spanish accent and it sounded like ronin]
Her: I thought ronin.
Me: [Not understanding] No.
The conversation increased my perception of myself as an outsider. I am not sure how
much of this difference was due to an obvious observation that I was the only non-Hispanic at
the park as opposed to simply being the stranger. Filming parts of the softball game also created
a feeling of awkwardness. The park was a tight knit community where everyone knew each
other. In addition, since there were no Caucasian kids on the team, I felt it was obvious that I did
not have kids in the game that I was filming. It is significant that once the game started, I forgot
about this perception and became a spectator like everyone else. The presence of a common
activity created a bond that allowed me to feel as if I was part of the community.
Decisions Along the Way
There were several decisions made along the pathway of the moving along process.
Though this was obviously my study, for the most part, these decisions were not just made by
me, but I left them up to the fathers.
What to do about family. After a few interviews I found that family members wanted
to be involved in the interview process. Wives, sons, and daughters often hung around the
periphery and wanted to contribute. I made the decision to go back to the IRB and changed my
study to include family members in interviews. The previous study design included family
members and other members of the community only in observations. My current study design
allowed me to encourage participation of family members and use their input as data.
After changing the IRB, I obtained informed consent from Aristotle’s wife and assent
from his two sons. Once his sons Dante and Leo had signed the assent, they were excited to
participate, sharing stories and bringing out art and trophies to show me. I had Elizabeth sign the
consent form when Aristotle asked her to come into the room to fill in details around a snow trip
they had taken. Her input enhanced the story that he was telling, and became a performance
between the two of them. During an interview that happened to be the last day of school,
Elizabeth, Dante, and Leo all came in the room to participate. They recounted a trip to the
bowling alley and Elizabeth teased the boys that she won. I was not sure if I was still doing an
interview or we had slipped into an observation of the family spending time together.
Brian wanted his wife Joanna involved in the interviews. When I asked questions
concerning Adam’s medical history, he often referred the questions to Joanna, saying she would
know more. Having Brian and Joanna do interviews together created an interesting dynamic.
There were times when they were talking and it felt like they forgot I was there. This excerpt
comes from an interview when I asked Brian what he learned from Joanna. He called Joanna in
the room and asked her the same question. She replied “Everything.” They soon slipped into
discussion between themselves that contained an underlying criticism of Brian.
Joanna: You know why do I have to spend that much on a pair of shorts, well, because
it’s the modest pair, the appropriate pair?
Brian: But, outside of that. I said you taught me to put the kids first and I don’t do a good
job of that still, but I’m working on it.
Joanna: But, I think that that’s all of it. It becomes the selflessness that becomes the
parent that is not really interesting for you.
Brian: That’s my problem, that’s my dilemma.
Joanna: So, that will probably always be your problem.
This discussion occurred after I was unable to get a hold of Brian for a month. Early in
the interview Brian said that he had been very busy at work over the last month. A few nights
before, Joanna had criticized by Brian for not getting up with the baby when he was tired from
the previous days work. It felt to me like this exchange was an extension of their argument.
I am not sure how Joanna’s presence affected the interviews. My seemingly lack of
presence could have been a good thing in getting natural conversations. However, I also got the
feeling Joanna’s conversations with me were lessons for Brian. The conversation about buying
modest clothes one such example. Joanna was explaining to Brian why she paid more money for
clothes through me.
Jimmy’s wife Maya was putting up Halloween decorations as we did an interview in the
front yard. She would occasionally make comments and it was apparent that she was curious. I
decided this would be a good time to talk to her about the study and have her sign the informed
consent. Maya was interested in the interview. After answering a few questions, she returned to
decorating the porch.
At one point Jimmy asked her a question about IEPs and she stopped working and
answered. It was not a really long answer, but she kind of mentioned that she was the
one that liked to talk a lot when she was finished. Then she put on her headphones and
occasionally sang along to the song, as if specifically saying to Jimmy, “This is your
interview.” At the end she did thank me for letting her tell her story.
This fieldnote seems to sum up a general feeling that I got from all of the wives that
participated. Though they were interested and willing to participate, they really thought of this
as their husband’s thing and wanted to give their spouses a space to participate.
Though fathers wanted their families involved in the interviews, there were also
limitations. During the first interview with Aristotle I asked him to tell me about Leo’s
It is kind of hard for me to do that when he is right there. [To Leo] Little guy can stop
hamming it up and go and sit down or go in your room.
A few times throughout the interviews Aristotle asked Leo to leave the room because he
wanted to talk about something that he did not want them to hear. Similarly, when Brian wanted
to talk about something personal, he cleared out the room. His house was generally chaotic with
children and other family members coming in and out. When he wanted to talk about something
personal, he cleared out the room except for Joanna.
Setting the scene. The fathers also had control over where the interviews took place.
When I first asked him where he wanted to meet, I suggested my house, since I have known Tom
for a few years and he lives close by. He wanted to do the interviews at my house since he
thought his house would be too noisy. All of the interviews occurred at my house. This at times
was difficult as my house can have many distractions. However, I also think that this decision
limited the involvement of his spouse who was never present at any of the interviews or
observations. It also eliminated some of the spontaneous in home interactions that I observed
with the other fathers.
It is tempting to look back and say it would have been more effective to do the interviews
in Tom’s home. However, he does live in a small apartment and his sons would have wanted to
be involved in every minute of the interviews. Unlike Brian or Aristotle who have a house to
disperse children into, Tom has little space to send his children. Some of the intimate details that
Tom shared about his children and his relationship with is spouse may have been more difficult
I never did interviews inside of Jimmy’s home. Interviews often occurred outside of his
house on the front porch. On days that were cold I remembered to bring a sweater. I was never
quite sure why he chose to do interviews on the porch.
Several of the fathers also changed the locations of the interviews. In the early
interviews, Jimmy told me about how much he enjoyed walks along the river that borders their
neighborhood. When I showed up one day at his house he said, “let’s take a walk.” We walked
on the path that runs along the river. This turned out to be a particularly interesting interview
because Jimmy related his activities along the river to his love of being in nature. Jimmy used to
live in a popular resort town, but moved to inner city Los Angeles when his children were born.
The river is a source of pride for Jimmy’s community and walking along the river felt like
something that he felt proud of that he wanted to share with me.
My interviews with Aristotle gradually shifted to the football practice field. Talking
during practice was a way that Aristotle could fit the interviews into his busy schedule. These
interviews during activities blurred the line between what was an interview and what was an
When I called Edward for the last interview, he offered to take me to lunch. Since
Edward does not drive, we went to a diner close to Edward’s house. Though I offered to pay,
Edward insisted on paying and I let him. After, I asked him why he wanted to go out for lunch.
Interviewer: Why did you want to do lunch today? Do you have any reason? Just tired of
being in the house?
Edward: God, yes. Just starting to really get on me.
Edward: I got to get out more, but I’m so lazy.
Edward does not drive and has limited community mobility. He does not have a lot of
friends that visited him. This final trip out seemed to be an act of friendship, a way of saying
thank you for the interviews that he had seen as therapy.
In terms of where to do the interviews, I left the decision up to the fathers. When fathers
wanted to do interviews at my house, the park during football practice, while walking along the
river, or at a local restaurant, I followed their lead. Some times, like walking along the river, I
think this approach was very successful. At others, like doing the interviews at my house, the
overall influence on the interview process is unclear.
Collective narratives. My IRB approval allowed for three collective narratives designed
to elicit group discussion of what is important to fathers (Mattingly, 2010b; Mattingly et al.,
2002). After encountering difficulties with scheduling interviews and observations with the
fathers, I decided not to have collective narratives. One of the difficulties I encountered was the
shift from interviews to observations. This slight change in schedule (observations were on a
different day, in a different place, and included family members) was enough to throw off the
momentum of the interviews. Another logistical problem was the difficulty of finding a meeting
place as the fathers lived up to an hour away from each other. With these barriers in mind I
decided not to have collective narratives.
Since collective narratives were included in the informed consent, the decision to cancel
collective narratives was discussed with my dissertation advisor and later with the fathers. The
fathers had no objection to cancelling, though Aristotle said he thought it would have been cool
if we all meet during a Lakers game and had pizza. Throughout the study, Aristotle was one of
the fathers with whom I struggled to schedule interviews and appointment. However, his
conceptualization of camaraderie did give me pause to wonder if I had made a mistake in
cancelling the collective narratives.
Several commonalities between the fathers and myself were used to build relationships
that strengthened the interview process. The most frequently referred to commonality is that I
am also a new father. Brian and Edward often asked me about my son.
Edward: The best part about kids is right now, where you are, you watch them develop
and watch them start to do things, and you can teach them things, and they learn things
and you get a lot of self-satisfaction from that. That’s, one to six is the best time to have
kids. You should kill them right at seven. Because as soon as they start talking back. As
soon as they start, “No” or how old is your son now?
Edward: Terrible two’s. Has he started saying no?
Interviewer: He says no. He’s been saying no for a while.
Edward: He’ll go through that. “No, no, no, no” But later on, it’s “no” with an
explanation, it’s, “No, I don’t want to do that, because I don’t think I have to,” or
whatever. It’s all, and what is amazing for me, with three sons, what I learned from the
first didn’t help me with the second, what I learned from the second didn’t help me with
Edward often asked about Thomas. His question here was directly related to his own
children, and quickly followed by advice, a common way that the fathers found commonality
with me. I enjoyed the small bits of advice that the more experienced fathers offered both from a
research aspect and a personal aspect. In the above quote, a description about what to expect
from fatherhood quickly moved into a discussion on Edward’s children. My favorite piece of
practical advice came from Jimmy who told me always buy the extended warranty when buying
electronics the kids would use.
There were several other commonalities that fathers built upon. After interviews, Tom
and I would often spend time talking about a television show that we were both watching. Brian
would often talk about religion and politics. Since Brian knew we are both Mormons and
democrats, a rare combination, I think our conversations at times returned to religion and politics
in ways that it would not have otherwise. Jimmy and I would spend 10 or 15 minutes during
interviews talking about USC football during the football season.
Sometimes our talks about commonalities created awkwardness on my part. When Brian
talked to me about religion I wondered if my own politics and religion was guiding the beliefs he
addressed. At other times, when he talked about politics and religion that I agreed with, I was
unsure if displaying my agreement would encourage a certain discourse. In my mind, this stood
in contrast to Tom’s libertarian beliefs that sometimes made me uncomfortable in his brashness.
I worried that encouraging Brian and inadvertently discouraged Tom would influence the overall
tone of the data I was getting. Not only was collecting data around religion and politics difficult,
but also I am unsure if I was able to adequately use it in my presentation of the data.
Though fathers often built on commonalities, there were also times when I felt that they
just did not know me. Though Aristotle and I are a few years apart and grew up in the same
region, I often thought he did not make these connections and though I was much younger. For
instance, when Aristotle made references to television shows such as cartoons that we both
watched as children, he would act surprised when I knew what he was talking about. While
observing Leo’s football practice, Aristotle explained elementary details about strategy and
positions. This was a stark contrast to the complex discussions about football I had with Jimmy.
For me this lack of recognition made me feel like a stranger, a confusing feeling since I knew so
much about his life.
Themes that resonated in my life. In addition to commonalities that built relationships,
I also found commonalities between the fathers and my own life that served to pull me into their
stories. Consider my own experience feeding my son in Chapter 1. Feeding Thomas was a
moment of significance. Because of the importance I place on feeding, I found myself drawn to
the similarities between Jimmy’s and my own experience. One of Jimmy’s primary
responsibilities is feeding. Brian is also responsible for late night bottle feedings even though he
describes being a provider as 95% of his responsibilities. This is interesting in that feeding is a
responsibility that has been described as primarily being performed by mothers (DeVault, 1994;
Sullivan et al., 2000). After the experience of feeding Thomas in the hospital, I have continued
to feed Thomas, being responsible for late night feedings as well as general feedings. Not only
can I relate to the significance of the intersubjectivity that occurs during feeding, it is meaningful
to me that within this study I have found other males that have embraced this responsibility.
Through feeding his daughter, Jimmy is unknowingly challenging definitions of gendered
responsibility. These are the stories that are redefining conceptualizations of fathers.
Similarly, themes talked about by other fathers also resonated in my life. I was drawn to
Edward’s tale of redemption, but not until I explored Aristotle’s tale of rewriting his family’s
narratives did I realize the importance of the redemptive narrative in my own fathering. Like
Aristotle, I grew up with a single mother and this is reflected in my own commitment to involved
fathering. Though I had never contemplated the themes of redemption and generativity before
this study, I now realize that they are major narratives in my life.
Fathers’ Reflections on The Interview Process
While Lawlor and Mattingly (2001) emphasize participants relationships with the
interviewer, I also sensed that participants relationships with the experience was important. After
having done interviews with these men for over a year, I was curious to know their impressions
of the interview process. The informed consent signed by participants read: “You will receive no
direct benefit from your participation in this study. However, in past research, some parents
have reported interviews as an opportunity to reflect.” During the interview process I got the
feeling that our interactions were significant to the fathers. During the last months of interviews
I asked the fathers to talk about overall perceptions of the interview process. Fathers’ answers
confirmed that the interviews were an opportunity to reflect as described in the informed
consent. In addition, fathers seemed to be both appreciative and apprehensive about interviews.
I have included the comments of all five fathers in the study in this section. Their own words are
used for subheadings.
”It’s cool you went to Teresa’s games.” During interviews with Jimmy, I got the
feeling that he really wanted me to understand his life. Similar to Jimmy wanting me to
experience the river, during one of the interviews Jimmy talked about how he thought it was cool
that I attended his Teresa’s t-ball game.
Jimmy: It’s cool that you went to Teresa’s games, too, to go see that.
Interviewer: Yeah, I think that..
Jimmy: Cool. That’s actually what I live for. I live for that. I look so forward to her
games. It’s the best.
Attending a t-ball game was something that Jimmy talked about the first time I meet him.
He continually talked about her t-ball games as a meaningful way that Teresa was both part of
their family and part of the community. As he said, it is what he lived for, and my attendance
was a significant way of getting to know him.
When I asked about what Jimmy thought of the interview process he said described it as
kind of cool.
Jimmy: It’s cool. I kind of looked forward to it.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Jimmy: To talk, I don’t know. Get away. Away from my wife. Away from everybody for
As can be seen in previous chapters, Jimmy can be overwhelmed by the world. The
movie he could relate to was The Descendants, where George Clooney plays a man whose world
falls apart while his wife is in a coma. With all the stress in his life, it is significant that Jimmy
found the interviews a chance to get away.
”I don’t get a chance to talk to people about this stuff.” I asked Aristotle what he
thought about the interviews. His answer was quite profound.
Aristotle: They’ve been cool. Yeah, I like them. Because I don’t get a chance to talk to
people about this kind of stuff. I don’t get a chance to talk to anybody about this. I’m
certainly not going to talk to my wife about it.
Interviewer: You aren’t?
Aristotle: No. She doesn’t want to talk. She doesn’t want to talk about anything but
herself. Her friends. Her work. Her problems. Or the things that I got to do. It’s like,
anything else, it’s like, uh, yeah. So disinterested.
Interviewer: Do you guys talk about him?
Aristotle: Yeah, well yeah. When we need to talk about the kids, we’ll talk about the
kids. Finances, and that kind of stuff. But not about me.
For Aristotle, the interview process was an opportunity to talk about his children,
something he does not get to do. He went on to say that in his profession, people often interview
him, so he gets an opportunity to talk about himself, but not regarding his children. With
Elizabeth, it was business, solving problems as opposed to listening to problems. This seems
like a small point, but one that is significant in Aristotle’s life.
Like Jimmy, Aristotle seemed appreciative that I attended his son’s games. The
following fieldnote excerpt occurred as I was leaving and the recorder was turned off.
I asked Aristotle if I could do an observation of the game. He said, “You want to go to
the game?” I said “Yeah, if that is all right.” His eyes kind of lit up, he seemed a little
bit excited. “”I’m down.”
I attended the game with Aristotle less than a week later. Since Aristotle was filming the
game, we sat in the media section on top of the press box. If I had not been there, he would have
been alone. Aristotle is an extremely social person. I felt like he enjoyed the company.
Aristotle has shown hesitancy at times. When I told Aristotle that I would write about the
data in journals he asked, “And we’re not going to be named, right?” Though Aristotle was
willing to participate and wanted to talk about himself, his privacy is important to him.
“You’ve had to pry for some things”
Interviewer: So, what are your thoughts about the interview process? As you were going
to the interviews and stuff?
Brian: Interesting, cause it’s like, I feel bad for you because I’m not open about all that
stuff, so you’ve had to pry for some things, but it’s been kind of neat. You find that you
talk, and hopefully something that I say might help someone else, so… When you’re on
the John Stewart show after he reads your book, so…
Brian then goes on to talk about a recent episode of the show that he saw. Though Brian
is exaggerating in his expectations that the interviews will result in a book that I talk about on
John Stewart, he believes that the process will result in a product that will help someone else.
The idea that telling his narrative will help others carries over into Brian’s personal life. During
the interviews Brian explained that when Adam was younger, Brian never talked about autism.
Now talks to about autism with everyone he meets. Similarly, in books written by fathers of
children with disabilities, fathers often wrote books as a form of advocacy (Bonsall, 2013).
Here, Brian says that I had to “pry for some things.” Though the concept of prying into
someone’s life often has a bad connotation, Brian is using my prying as a good thing. I picked
up on his use of the term “pry.” Later in the interview I asked him if there were things he felt
Brian: No, I think I pretty much opened up over the time. No, you had to pry on how I
felt and stuff like that. It took me a while, but I feel like certain things, I don’t know if I
could put them into words, but hopefully I did. But no, I think I pretty much told you
everything, so. And some things, I just don’t focus on it every day or think about it so,
it’s like, like I didn’t think of, we went to Chuck-E-Cheese and that was different. It was
just, like, we just did it.
This is an interesting summary of the complexities of the interview. From my own
perspective I felt that it took time for Brian to be able to open up and talk with me. This reflects
the time it took him to talk about autism when Adam was a young child. But I also think in this
quote Brian is referring to a desire to give me what I needed. Often during the interviews Brian
would ask if he was answering my questions or telling me what I needed to hear. I explained
that I was interested in his experience so anything he wanted to tell me was relevant, but he still
wanted that feedback that he was going in the right direction.
Brian also talks about how he does not “focus on the every day.” Earlier in this
interview when I asked Brian if he had done anything new he answered that he had not. But
when we talked more, it turned out that they had made substantial changes to Brian’s routine,
they started going to Chuck-E-Cheese instead of the movies. The interview allowed Brian to
think about his life in ways that he never had before.
”It is cool but not cool.” I did not specifically ask Tom about the interview process at
the end of the project as Tom’s thoughts about the interviews process emerged during the
process. While talking about doing an observation of Tom brushing his children’s teeth, I
noticed some hesitancy. We talked about his concerns but I never figured out what his primary
concern was. Tom was worried that if he got mad, someone watching the video out of context
might misconstrue what was going on. I explained that I could always turn the video off if
something arose. Tom was next concerned about the effect an observer would have on their
interactions. Greg would not act natural if he knew the tape was on. In addition, Tom confided
that he was often silly during their routine and he would not be comfortable being silly in front of
the camera. He was slightly worried that there would be a video record that would be out of his
control. We decided to start with a community observation that did not include video. After a
few observations in the community we returned to the discussion and decided not to do any
I never found one definition of why Tom did not want to participate in videotaping. I
think it is really a combination of misgivings. Tom has explained that he is a very private
person. Shortly after our initial discussion about brushing teeth, Tom said that he thought I was
easy to talk to. I asked him why.
Well, it is not like; I don't think you are really judging me number one. If I thought I had
to worry, like, you know, six months from now if we were going to be friends I might say
something that, you know. I don't think I have to worry about you mishandling the
material. I think you have some integrity. And umm, I think what you are doing is a
good thing so I don't really have to worry about, I mean even if I, like I am telling you
how I feel and if I thought you were going to judge me six months from now I probably
wouldn't be here. But I think you are an honest person and I am trusting that you will do
the right thing when it comes to putting the results together and hopefully it will help
somebody else. [Yeah, thanks] But you are easy to talk to, so…
Though I appreciated this commentary on my integrity, during the interview I felt that
Tom was not just reflecting on the past, but also outlining his expectations for the future. When
Tom twice says that he knows six months from now I would not judge him, he is not just
affirming my character, but laying out his expectations. Along with the expectations of privacy
is the belief that the results will be put together in a manner that helps someone else.
Tom finishes up by comparing the interviews to church. In the Mormon religion that
Tom belongs to, there is not paid clergy and members get an opportunity to speak to the
congregation on a regular basis. However, in past interviews he has explained that he does not
like to speak at church. That reluctance to speak in public is reflected in the following excerpt.
It is cool to be open about it and to have somebody to view it is completely a different
thing. It is kind of like going to church then speaking in church. It is cool but not cool.
On one hand, Tom likes being able to tell his story, and having someone else view his
narrative. On the other hand, it leaves Tom vulnerable. As he says, “it is cool but not cool.”
I do not think it is taking Tom’s analogy too far in pointing out that there is a spiritual
aspect to speaking publicly in church. Within Christian religions, speaking is an embodiment of
faith, an act of conversion (Harding, 1987; Mitchell & Mitchell, 2008). In a way, I also believe
that for Tom and other fathers, speaking about fatherhood during interviews was a way of
solidifying beliefs about fathering practices.
“It’s like sharing at a meeting.” Edward was much more specific about how the
interviews affected him. During the last interview I asked Edward what he thought about the
interview process. Edward said that the interviews have been helpful. When I asked him why,
he compared the interviews to sharing at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, something that has a
powerful influence on his life.
It’s like sharing at a meeting. It’s the same thing as sharing at a meeting. Getting it out. It
takes, especially with the kids and stuff, it takes the pain away. Plus, it’s like, as I get it
out there, I rethink my opinion on it. I kind of rethink my opinion on it, so, maybe I
wasn’t altogether right.
The interviews were therapeutic in that they took the pain away, similar to the experience
of sharing at an AA meeting. The interviews with Edward occurred at a particularly difficult
time in Edward’s life. His wife whom he had been separated from passed away while the
process was going on. His two teenage sons were struggling in school and had various
encounters with law enforcement. Discussion that could take the pain away was very
meaningful to Edward. But this was also a time of reflection. Edward was just recovering from
a stroke and approached his life reflectively. During one of the interviews Edward told me that
he had never told these stories all in one place.
This process demonstrates the observations and interviews as a moving along process.
Along the way there were awkward moments to endure and decisions to make that allowed this
research to grow into its present state. A lot of the decisions were left to the fathers themselves.
The power of narrative to forge connections in people’s lives allowed for the openness
that characterized this study. There is a power in conveying ones story while another listens.
My interest in their stories, including what was meaningful to them, was noted. The fathers in
this study often conveyed how cool it was that I attended sporting practices or games. The
significance of being listened to prompted comparisons of the interview process to church and to
AA meetings. As Edward expresses, sharing ones life has the power to take away one’s pain.
For me, the fathers’ sharing of their narratives has provided data for my research. But,
there were also moments of meeting when I felt my own intersubjective understanding of another
had changed. The following fieldnote was written after an interview.
I always feel really good, excited for my research, after doing interviews with Aristotle.
After the question part of the interview was over, we talked for another half an hour
about my research. He asked me what I was hoping to find in my research, and kept my
answer on the level of helping OTs. He then said that I was talking more about the
psychology behind being a father in this interview. He talked about what he would like
to see from research. Aristotle’s own words are well spoken as can be seen in the
transcript. What Aristotle wanted was a voice for men, to say that being a father does not
have to be uncool or unmasculine.
The excitement that I talk about is in reference to a moment that I would identify as
something significant happening. Aristotle shared his belief about what this study was about,
reminding me the importance of the study. My outlook and view of my work in steering the
conversation about men was changed. This is one of the many moments that occurred over the
course of the study that prompted me forward, reminding me why I persevered through the
awkward moments of sitting outside houses and unreturned emails. At that moment, I was
reminded that there was something significant and real about studying fatherhood that could
make a difference in men’s lives. It is moments like these, more than anything, which drove this
Chapter 12: Implications
As Flyvbjerg (2001) points out, the goal of social science is not to provide an
authoritative voice, but to be part of an ongoing social dialogue. Studying fatherhood using
narrative phenomenology has provided valuable insight that has the potential to add to dialogue
around the study of fatherhood as well as occupations. This final chapter will describe the
implications for the study of fatherhood, conceptualizations of occupation, family centered care,
and future research.
Contributions to Fathering Research
The findings in this study provide insight into the study and conceptualization of
fatherhood. Contributions include the importance of narrative phenomenology in the study of
fatherhood, cultural tools and mediated actions that influence fatherhood, and the importance of
significant moments in studying generativity.
Narrative phenomenology in the study of fatherhood. Narrative phenomenology as
both a theoretical lens and a research methodology has proven within this study to be a valuable
way to study fatherhood. The event-centered approach of narrative phenomenology has allowed
for “near” level experiences of fathers. Individual experience within context has emerged as the
core of this study. Contexts that have emerged have included the historical shift around the
responsibilities of fathering, gendered expectations, and the importance of place. However, the
individual remained at the forefront of the study. Personal narratives including redemptive
narratives and disability narratives also emerged as important influences on fathering.
Examining experiences of fathers proved a valuable means of getting at what is important
to fathers. Interviews provided meaningful stories that displayed the significance of occupations
in men’s lives. The observations of fathers participating in occupations with their children
provided valuable insight into underappreciated significant moments. For instance, none of the
fathers mentioned car talk until I specifically asked about it. Similarly, Jimmy did not talk about
Teresa’s voice until I observed it and specifically asked about it. Observations were important
in that they revealed the significance of occupations, even when fathers had not recognized that
Generativity. Examples of generativity are spread throughout the data. Though
generativity as applied to fatherhood stems from Erickson’s developmental stages, I situate
generativity in relation to narrative similar to McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992). It is helpful to
break down their description of generativity in order to demonstrate similarities and differences
with the findings in this study. McAdams and de St. Aubin conceptualize generativity as arising
from inner desires and cultural demands that result in concern for the next generation. Concern
for the next generation then leads to commitment. Inner desire, cultural demands, and
commitment combine to make up generativity.
McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992) describe inner desires as consisting of agency and
communion. Agency is the tendency to assert the self while communion is the need to relate to
others. Within the data, moments of meeting Stern (2004) provide insight into inner drives.
Intersubjectivity is a basic primary motivational system, universal and innate yet requiring
environmental shaping. Stern identifies falling in love as the result of the intersubjective push.
Qualities of intersubjectivity that can be recognized when one falls in love include being driven
by intersubjective motives, attention to others feelings and intentions, and playfulness. Though
Stern does not identify it as such; fatherhood can also be considered an important response to the
intersubjective push. For instance, the importance of being together was demonstrated in
Jimmy’s interaction with Teresa during feeding and in Tom’s enjoyment of being with his
children. As Tom has said, if his children did not go with him on outings, his wife would.
Cultural demands are described as opportunities and resources as well as constraints
(McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992). The cultural demands on fathering emerged in descriptions
of the context of fathering provided in Chapter 7. The fathers in this study described general
cultural expectations that shaped generativity including gender, involvement, and breadwinning.
Sometimes the standard of the “new” or “involved” fathers encouraged increased involvement
with their children, a particular type of action.
Within this study, social relationships emerged as a third influence on generativity.
Relationships with spouses, parents, and children arose as important influences on both the
commitment and action of generativity. Redemptive narratives presented in Chapter 5
demonstrate the influence that fathers can have on commitment to children. Both Aristotle and
Brian talked about wanting to give their children what their fathers did not give them.
Relationships with mothers had an influence on action in that mothers guided fathers,
particularly Brian, on what to do with their children and how to do it.
Within their conceptualization of generativity, McAdams and de St. Aubin (1992)
describe narrative as “a life story that provides life with unity, purpose, and meaning.” (1006).
My own conceptualization of narrative and fatherhood adds to the description of generativity by
McAdams and St. Aubin in that generativity not only guides fathering, but also is constructed in
the act of fathering. As fatherhood is enacted, relationships are forged and generativity is
constructed. At least one father, Tom, described the enactment of fatherhood as increasing his
commitment to his children. Tom displayed a relationship where inner drive and commitment
was actually influenced by action. Since this study was limited to only one year, studying fathers
for longer periods of time could provide further insight into the relationship between the
enactment of fathering and the commitment of fatherhood.
Fathers of children with disabilities. The lack of marking disability stood out as
significant in this study. Fathers of children with disabilities that had less affect on participation
downplayed their children’s disability. Edward, whose son has been diagnosed with Asperger
syndrome, questioned his child’s diagnosis. Similarly, Aristotle at one time asked me why his
son Leo would qualify for the study, but quickly concluded that it was because of his ADHD.
These two fathers infrequently thought of their children in terms of disability. For instance,
Edward talked about lack of motivation as the most notable condition of his son Dillon’s
disability. In contrast to previous descriptions of disability as a life stressor (MacDonald &
Hastings, 2010), Edward framed lack of motivation as more of a personality trait to be dealt with
and planned around.
Two fathers with children with severe disabilities talked about having a child with a
disability as a way of life. Coincidently, for both Tom and Brian, their oldest children had a
disability. Because their child with a disability was their oldest child, they talked about their
disability as all that they knew. When talking about protecting his children, Tom explained that
since Greg was his first child, he had nothing to compare in dealing with his experience of
Greg’s disability to. In some ways he had difficulty being over protective of his second child,
but this was overcome by Chad’s self-reliant personality.
Fathers talked about the importance of keeping their children involved. Jimmy
emphasized Teresa’s involvement both in the community and in their family activities. Both
Brian and Tom emphasized the importance of taking their children on community outings. For
all three of these fathers, they placed the same importance on keeping all of their children
involved although circumstances were different for their children with disabilities. Both Jimmy
and Brian described spending more time with their child with a disability than other children.
Tom spent more time with Greg because both Tom and Greg enjoyed going on outings in the
community that they called “adventures.” Greg’s younger brother would prefer staying home
with his mother. Tom spent more time with Greg primarily because of Greg’s enjoyment of
being active in the community. On the other hand, children’s disabilities could also limit
participation in the community, particularly around issues of behavior.
Cultural tools and mediated action. In the design of this study I conceptualized
fatherhood as learned through communities of practice, primarily intergenerational communities
of practice that included the men’s fathers (Holland et al., 1998). However, the relationships that
emerged were much more complex. Men’s fathers served less as teachers in an apprenticeship
model than producers of cultural tools that are appropriated or resisted (Wertsch, 1998). Wertsch
(1998) describes narratives as cultural tools that mediate actions. Narrative pasts are
demonstrated in Chapter 5. Individuals have the ability to either accept or reject cultural tools
(Wertsch, 1998). Though Brian and Tom demonstrated acceptance of their fathers’ narratives,
they also rejected other aspects. In this study, rejection of past narratives emerged as a common
theme. Life factors aid in the active rejection of past narratives seen in Chapter 5.
Fathering a child with a disability was a life circumstance that coincided with fathers to
breaking away from family and personal narratives. After Greg’s birth, Tom’s perspective
changed and he became more focused on the important things in life. Similarly, Jimmy took
over feeding Teresa and other childcare responsibilities when his wife Maya was occupied with
medical issues. Brian transferred jobs in order to decrease his commute time and spend more
time with his family. For these fathers, their children’s disabilities necessitated adopting
responsibilities their fathers did not fulfill.
The historical shift in fatherhood can be seen as setting a model for resisting the
examples of fathers. The distribution of gendered responsibilities is in a historical flux (Cabrera
et al., 2000; Gerson, 1993; Miller, 2010; Williams, 2008). The historical shift to increased
involvement creates a cultural tool that allows for a wider variety of enactments of fathering as
seen in descriptions of the contexts of fathering. For Brian and Tom, this shift provides cultural
tools that allow them to resist the unbalanced parenting of their own fathers through spending
more time with their children.
Several aspects of occupation as described in the past have been reconceptualized
through the study of fathering occupations. I will briefly recount and expand upon the arguments
I have previously presented.
Enfolded occupations. Enfolded occupations have primarily been described as
something mothers do as opposed to fathers (Bateson, 1996; Primeau, 1998). However, fathers
in this study display the enfolded nature of occupations. For instance, several fathers
demonstrated driving in the car as an enfolded occupation, driving as both a way to get from one
place to another as well as a way of being with their children. Edward’s enfolding of going to
work with being with his children is one of the few ways that he has found that he is able to be
with and participate with his children. It is more likely that past researchers were looking in the
wrong place as opposed to enfolded occupations between fathers and their children not existing.
It is also possible that the direct observations of men engaging in occupations with their children
that are part of this study allowed for insight into the study of fathers that was not obtained in
The limitations of the term “co.” The examination of fathers’ experiences also adds to
the previous use of the prefix “co” in describing occupations. Occupations have been described
both as co-occupations and co-created. Examining co-occupations was historically important in
conceptualizing the meaningfulness of occupation to both mothers and children as opposed to
just mothers (Zemke & Clark, 1996a). The occupations meaningful to the fathers in this study
were often not just between themselves and one child. For instance, Tom often took both of his
sons on outings, partly as a way to encourage bonding between them. The section on talking in
the car displayed a fun creative way of belonging for Aristotle and both of his children. At other
times wives were involved such as Jimmy coaching Teresa’s t-ball and Mary’s softball.
Co-created occupations have been described as a network of everyday activities between
a mother and child (Olson & Esdaile, 2000). In this study occupations emerged as not just co-
created by fathers and their children, but also often included interests, participation, and beliefs
of mothers and other family members. The examples of Jimmy coaching t-ball and Joanna’s
control of Brian’s participation with Adam demonstrate the influence of family members on
There is also an imagined presence occurring in many of these fathering occupations.
Humans are social beings that “spend a majority of our lives in the presence of others, real or
imagined” (Stern, 2004, p. 77). Chapter 5 on the narrative relationship between past experiences
and present actions demonstrates the powerful yet imagined presence of their own fathers in
participating in occupations. Brian’s participation with his children is created and enacted in the
presence of having spent time going to work with his own father. When enacting fathering
occupations, he is both resisting and appropriating his father’s enactment of fathering.
The presence of others is more than just a context for performing occupations. Stern
(2004) described the presence of others (both real and imagined) as a continuous dialogue
between minds. However, dialogues are limited to two people whereas I have proposed a much
greater circle of inclusion in the conversation. I would like to expand the conceptualizations of
co-occupations and co-created occupations to include participation in and creation of
occupations as a conversation that includes the intersubjective meeting of multiple minds.
Family occupations. Family occupations have intrigued me with this study because of
the importance that I place on families in their various formations and meanings (Please see:
Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Carlson & Berger, 2010; Gerson, 2010; Kornbluh & Homer, 2010). The
importance of families doing together has emerged as important throughout this study. With this
in mind, I have reconceptualized family occupations. Within occupational science, family
occupations have been conceptualized as including the entire family (DeGrace, 2003; Sachs &
Nasser, 2009; Segal, 1999). However, the conceptualization of families that I argued for in
Chapter 10 does not necessarily include every member of the family. Instead I conceptualize
family occupations as those activities that define families through doing together. The family
occupations that emerged within this study include softball and other sports, driving in the car,
community outings, and working together.
There are several unique features of my conceptualization of family occupations. First,
family members do not need to participate in an occupation in the same time and space to make
it a family occupation. Co-occupations have been conceptualized as not necessarily occurring in
the same time and space (Pierce, 2000, 2009), family occupations could be described similarly.
When Jimmy’s family played t-ball, not all of the family members were involved. Second,
family occupations can also include extended family members. This can include an unseen
presence such as the memory of Aristotle’s past disappointments in his father figures
demonstrated during his outing to the snow.
Defining family occupations as activities that build and define families, I propose that for
Edward and his family, alcoholism is a family occupation. This is in contrast to previous
conceptualizations of family occupations as being important in that they provide opportunities
for sharing, being together, and learning (Segal, 1999). Similar to my designation of alcoholism
as a family occupation, Kiepek and Magalhaes (2011) defined addictions and impulse control as
occupations using established criteria. These criteria were: giving meaning to life, being an
important determinate of health and well being, developing or changing over a lifetime, shaping
and being shaped by therapeutic environments, and organized behaviors.
Alcoholism runs in Edward’s family including himself, his wife, and his father. He
defines alcoholism as another family heritage passed on to his children. Though as a non-
drinking alcoholic Edward does not imbibe with his children, they do fight the influences of
alcoholism together. Edward has taken his twelve-year-old son to Alcoholics Anonymous
meetings. There is a bond around alcoholism and the influence of alcoholism that runs
throughout their family, including Edward Junior that does not live at home.
Implications for Occupational Therapy Practice and Family Centered Care
In implementing family centered care, it is important to account for the multiple
trajectories that exist within a family (Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009). One thing that emerged as
important in this study is that men wanted to be part of their children’s lives. This opens a space
for support by therapists. Though I did not specifically focus on fathers’ experiences with
occupational therapists, the insight provided by fathers has several implications for occupational
In this study, the mothers most often interfaced with professionals while fathers were
often working or taking care of the other kids. In addressing family needs, it is beneficial to take
into account what fathers are doing while mothers are taking care of the children. Whether
fathers are working more hours or taking care of the other children, their lives are different than
they were before. Even if fathers are not directly interacting with therapists, it is valuable to
account for their unique fathering needs.
Fathers’ lack of knowledge of how to be a parent before they had children emerged as a
theme. Brian needed to be taught by Joanna to do basic childcare tasks such as feeding the baby
and changing diapers. Whereas therapists and professionals often focus on educating mothers,
fathers who lack knowledge would also benefit from interventions.
It is also important for therapists to take into account the economic situations of families.
Fathers who struggle with money may have greater limitations on their work schedules and
recreational activities. Several fathers lost occupations that they had previously participated in
due to the expenses of raising a child with a disability. At times it may be valuable to support
fathers in finding new occupations they can participate in with their children with disabilities
when money is a concern.
Several of the fathers’ stories highlight the importance of working with fathers’
schedules. Edward’s belief that his son received a diagnosis of autism because he was too busy
to meet with the evaluator stands out as significant. Similarly, Jimmy missed days of work in
order to attend his daughter’s doctors’ appointments. When he missed work to due to a death in
the family, it was too many days for his employer and he lost his job. On a smaller scale, it was
important to several spouses that their husbands attended meetings with educators in order to be
The significance of hope emerged when fathers recounted their children’s narratives.
Too often, experiences with healthcare professionals left the families scared, confused, and
frustrated. It is important for professionals to support the hope of families in these difficult
times. When I worked as a therapist, one mother would often talk about the doctor that
incorrectly said her son would never walk. In my subsequent conversations, I never wanted to be
the therapist that dampened hope in declaring a child would never do something. It is valuable
for therapists to encourage hope in all of its many forms.
It is beneficial for therapists to recognize and encourage the importance of everyday
occupations in building relationships. Both Brian and Aristotle had little interaction with their
children the first few years. Therapists working in early intervention should recognize the
importance of interactions in building co-occupations. Parenting a child with a disability can be
stressful. However, if parents of children with disabilities get divorced it is likely to happen
while the child is young (Hartley et al., 2010). Assisting fathers in these first few years can be a
valuable way of assisting families.
This study also highlights the importance of the storytelling aspect of narrative reasoning
in therapy practice (Bonsall, 2012; Clark, Carlson, & Polkinghorne, 1997; Mattingly & Fleming,
1994). Fathers’ narratives of both their own fathers and their children’s disabilities display the
valuable influence that these narratives have on the enactment of fatherhood. If therapists are
able to understand why fatherhood is important to fathers, they can better support fathers. In
addition, through listening to fathers’ narratives therapists can identify those areas of importance
such as work schedule, money, or lack of knowledge.
As demonstrated in Chapter 9, media images around parenting a child with a disability
are often negative. The statistic that 80% of parents of children with disabilities get divorces, as
discussed in Chapter 6, is a cultural resource that could discourage father involvement.
Therapists working with fathers of children with disabilities can provide cultural scripts that can
guide occupations. This can include recommending movies and books, introducing families, and
encouraging fathering groups.
Implications for Future Research
This study raises several implications for future research. First, this research was limited
to five fathers, three Caucasian and two Hispanic living in the Los Angeles region. In order to
explore the various factors and contexts that support or hinder fathering involvement, narrative
phenomenology should be expanded to other regions. For instance, how does the experience of
fathering occupations in a more traditional patriarchal country differ from a country that has
implemented policies in order to produce more egalitarian parenting such as Sweden?
All of the fathers in this study were married biological fathers at the beginning of the
study. The study of fathers’ experiences can be expanded to include a wider range of family
structures including non-resident fathers, stepfathers, single fathers, gay fathers, and other men
such as relatives that fulfill fathering responsibilities. These various forms and structures of
families are important for child development as well as men’s experiences.
Fathers in this study talked about interactions with doctors, educators, and specialists. I
attended a school IEP meeting on Edward’s suggestion. However, data gathering in this area
was not a primary focus of the study and was limited. Further studies of fathers’ experiences
raising children with disabilities could directly focus on interactions with health care and
education specialists. This could include direct observations of therapy sessions and doctors’
appointments. Further examination of fathers’ experiences interacting with education and
healthcare professionals is significant in that it would allow for further guidance of how
therapists and other professionals could support fathers. This is particularly useful for
occupational therapists concerned with family centered care (DeGrace, 2003; Hinojosa et al.,
2002; Lawlor & Mattingly, 2009). This research points to the importance of family centered
care and therapeutic interventions that can be used to support father involvement. The
examination of fathers’ experiences with therapists can be a first step in translational research
aimed at supporting fathers directly as well as within family centered care.
Appendix: Sample Questions
The following questions will be used as a guide for possible questions. The interview will be
conducted in an open interview format.
Can you tell me about the last time you and your child did something together that you thought
Can you tell me about the last time you and your child did something together that you thought
Can you describe a particular experience when you felt like you were being a good father?
Can you tell me about a time when you felt you could have done more as a father?
Can you describe a time when you learned about being a father?
Can you tell me a time when someone else taught you about being a father?
Do you feel you spend as much time as you want with your child?
Can you tell me about a time when you wanted to spend more time with you child but were not
Can you tell me about a time when you were prevented from spending time with your child?
What kinds of things help you spend time with your child?
What are some lessons you have learned since becoming a father?
Can you tell me about when you found out your child has a disability?
Can you tell me about a time when your child’s disability has influenced your life?
Describe for me the jobs that you do as a father.
What does it mean to you to be a father?
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University of Southern California Dissertations and Theses
Unpacking experiences and narratives: life changing, changing life, or merely taking a trip
Transformative occupations: life experiences of performers with disabilities in film and television
Understanding bilingual Latino parents’ experiences of their children’s autism services in Los Angeles: a critical ethnography
Voices of adult Latinos with physical disabilities and their families
Using cognitive task analysis to capture expert reading instruction in informational text for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities
In visible families: gay fatherhood and the politics of family change
Parenting in a foreign land: the lived experience of Taiwanese immigrants with disabled children in the United States
Academic coaching practices for students with learning disabilities and differences
Working with la familia: a study of family work relations among Latina/o children and adolescents who work with their parents as street vendors in Los Angeles
Perceptions of inclusion: high school students diagnosed with learning disabilities and their level of self-efficacy
Innovative strategies to accommodate postsecondary students with learning disabilities
No bodies wasted: undocumented community college student experiences of hope and the chameleon phenomenon
Meaningful access to the Common Core for high school students with significant cognitive disabilities
Imperial injuries: race, disease, and disability in North American narratives of resistance, 1908-2006
Perceptions of community choral children on singing and influences
Nothing without us: understanding the belongingness of students with disabilities
Situated experiences: a qualitative study of day-to-day life and participation of adolescents and young adults with a spinal cord injury and their caregivers
Translating race, class, and immigrant lives: the family work of children language brokers
Utilization of accommodations for learning or other non-apparent disabilities: the influence of ableism on student behavior
Mothers’ perspectives on everyday life with children with autism: Mealtimes explored
An ethnographic study of men fathering children with disabilities
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