An explorative study of the experiences of partners and adolescent children when the biological father is incarcerated
Fatherhood is a role that is understood and exercised differently, but to most it infers a responsibility to provide and protect. Fatherhood is associated with manhood, in the sense that a man is expected to take on the role of fatherhood. The relationship between manhood and fatherhood is: the physical act of begetting a child (manhood) and the processes of accepting, as well as, performing, the role of a father (fatherhood). A paternal identity, or a man’s identity as a father, comprises of all the internalized expectations of behaviour that he has associated with being a father (e.g. being a breadwinner, being a caregiver). In the Western world, it is widely accepted that a man becomes a father when he impregnates a woman; however, masculinity is neither biologically determined nor automatic. There are many different, culturally sanctioned ways, of being a man; not only one universal masculinity. It can therefore be presumed that masculinity/fatherhood/manhood is acted or performed. This study focuses on biological fathers, instead of the broader concept of father figures. Any male can fulfil the role of a father figure to a child and take responsibility for rearing a child, but biological fathers indicate a blood relationship and a biological connection. A paternal father also retains his status as a biological parent of a child, regardless of the level of subsequent contact or involvement in the child’s life. The aim of this study is to explore the experiences of the partners and adolescent children, when biological fathers are incarcerated. In order to do this, an assessment of the biological father’s experiences, in prison, is first implemented. Paternal incarceration places a strain on families, especially children, who experience parent-child separation. The unexpected separation of a child from the parent can be linked to various emotional consequences. Incarceration limits fathers ‘familial involvement and parenting capacity’, thereby compromising family relationships. Incarcerated fathers are separated from their partners and children, which limits family contact in many ways, weakening familial bonds, not only while time is being served, but also after release. The incarcerated man also experiences a sense of insignificance, being devalued as a person and powerless.A qualitative research approach was used to explore the objectives of the study. Purposive sampling was used to select twenty incarcerated participants for this research. Due to the strict selection criteria, only fourteen (14) were eventually chosen to participate in the study. Their fourteen (14) spouses/partners and biological adolescents were also expected to participate, however, only four (4) partners, one (1) significant carer and 5 adolescents formed part of the sample for this study, due to some partners not wanting to expose their adolescents, nor their personal details, to scrutiny and others simply not being interested to participate. Data was collected by using semi-structured interviews with face-to-face interaction, open-ended questions (with fathers) and focus discussion groups (with the partners, significant carer and adolescents). Although the theoretical framework focuses on Attachment Theory, the study also considers other principles of criminological theories, regarding the identified increase in child disruptive and criminal behaviour, caused by parental incarceration. A thematic data analysis approach was used to extract themes. The main findings of this study show that the fathers experienced difficulties with maintaining their role as a father prior to, and after, incarceration. They were concerned about the financial adversity their families had to endure when they were imprisoned and the mothers/partners being forced into single parenthood. They also felt excluded from all decision-making processes and isolated from the development of their children. The partners experienced financial difficulties, loneliness and humiliation, as a result of the biological father’s incarceration. The significant carer, who was involved as a result of the biological mother not being able to fulfill the caring role, identified the problems experienced as financial difficulties, lack of child-care support and, in some cases, the substance abuse of the biological mother. The separation affected the adolescent children psychologically, when they were exposed to the stigma attached to having a father, who was incarcerated. They also identified feelings of abandonment because of the lack of a father-child relationship and being deprived of opportunities to share important events and personal achievements with their biological father.