A qualitative analysis of fathers’ experiences of parental time after separation and divorce

A qualitative analysis of fathers’ experiences of parental time after separation and divorce

Mara Hallman

Research suggests that a lack of father involvement in divorced families may have negative effects on fathers, mothers, and their children. However, past research has often failed to include men’s perspectives of the factors that influence their parental role after separation or divorce. Despite the fact a majority of fathers experience a decrease in child access following separation; research has often overlooked the significance of parental time to fathers’ experiences of parenting after separation and divorce. This study is an analysis of interviews completed with men regarding their desire to remain involved with their children after separation or divorce. Emerging from the analysis was the overall tension experienced when desires for time with their children conflict with the time available to fathers. The results feature participants’ descriptions of this tension, as well as, the ways they navigated this tension in their efforts to maintain involvement following separation and divorce.

Keywords: father involvement, separation, divorce, social time


Through interactions with others and our experiences of the world in which we live and act, we have developed multiple metaphors to describe our experiences of time (e.g., “time flies,” “time stands still,” “time is money”), suggesting time is a phenomenon experienced with great diversity and difference. Considering our seemingly subjective experiences of time, it is surprising that social science has often been limited in its approach to time as a quantitative measure, frequently employing time diaries to record the amount of time individuals and families spend on various activities (Daly, 1996; Daly & Beaton, 2005). A focus solely on quantifiable time is perhaps one of the greatest limitations of past research on father involvement after separation and divorce as measurements of father involvement too often have been based on the frequency of contact nonresident fathers have with their children (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Hawkins & Palkovitz, 1999). Although frequency of interactions is a component of understanding father involvement after divorce, such research fails to address the influence social interactions and organizations have in shaping fathers’ subjective experiences of time with their children after separation and divorce.

More recently, social science researchers interested in a post-modern view of time have begun to consider concepts of “social time,” and the ways cultural and social contexts impact our experiences of family time. For example, regarding their study of social time in single-mother families, Hodgson, Dienhart, and Daly (2001) write, “Time in families is accordingly, experienced subjectively and is subject to numerous social interactions. It is more subtle and laden with nuance and meanings than concrete, linear clock time” (p. 3). From a post-modem position, time is viewed as being subjective and influenced by our social interactions. Furthermore, Daly (1996) suggests that a post-modern view encourages us to view our perception of time as being shaped by the characteristics of the actors (e.g., men, fathers), their reasons for interaction (e.g., responsibility, personal desire), and their definitions and interpretations of the situation (e.g., unjust, limited). Considering the apparent influence that time has in shaping our relationships and identities, it is curious that fathers’ experiences of time with their children after separation and divorce appear to have been largely overlooked in social science research.

Understanding more about fathers’ subjective experience of time with their children after separation and divorce is important when one considers some of the reported effects of father involvement post separation and divorce for all family members. For example, Fabricius (2003) found that when children do not live with their fathers for a substantial amount of time after divorce, their relationship with their fathers suffered. More specifically, Ahrons and Tanner (2003) report that children’s relationship with their fathers after divorce contributed to their feelings of well-being as young adults. Regarding the effect of involvement for fathers, Eggebeen and Knoester (2001) report that the strongest correlates of fatherhood are among men who live with their children and that once men live away from their children the “transforming power of fatherhood dissipates” (p. 391). Furthermore, studies have found that fathers who are more involved are more likely to pay child support (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999). Financial child support provided by fathers is associated with better parenting by custodial mothers (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 2002), and has also been associated with positive effects for children’s academic achievement (King, 1994).

The impact father involvement can have on an entire family system has led researchers and theorists to investigate the reasons why so many fathers are not more involved with their children after separation or divorce. Researchers and theorists have developed several lists of factors that appear to influence the degree men are involved in parenting relationships after divorce. Some of these factors include: geographic distance, remarriage of one or both parents, men’s economic status, mothers’ interference with visitations (King & Heard, 1999; Kissman, 1997), the establishment of a co-parenting relationship between ex-spouses (Fox & Blanton, 1995; Kissman, 1997; Madden-Derdich & Leonard, 2000), and social ambiguity regarding the parental roles of divorced fathers (Madden-Derdich & Leonard). Notably, one of the more obvious factors affecting father involvement after divorce is custody arrangements. In many cases, fathers may not decide how much time they spend with their children, as many mothers continue to be awarded sole physical custody in both Canadian and American courts (Bertrand, Hornick, Paetsch, & Bala, 2004; Juby, Marcil-Gratton, & Le Bourdais, 2004; Madden-Derdich & Leonard).

Past research clearly demonstrates that separation and divorce limits the amount of time fathers spend with their children; however, little is known about how this reduction in parental time is experienced by fathers. Consequently, the main objectives of this study were to explore the connection between separated and divorced fathers’ experiences of quantifiable and social time, as well as to gain a greater understanding of how their experiences of parental time influence involvement with their children. Believing that father involvement is a diverse and complex phenomenon, we were at first hesitant to adopt “time” as the focus of study because it could contribute to discourses that employ time as a measure of father involvement. However, noting the salience of time in the interviews, we began to consider that quantifiable (clock) time is likely of extreme importance to divorced fathers who want to maintain involvement after separation and divorce. Considering that custody battles are essentially about the negotiation of parental time, it seems impractical to ignore the significance of “time” following separation and divorce. Furthermore, social interactions between family members after divorce likely influence and shape how time is experienced by fathers. This study demonstrates that the quantity of parental time is highly salient to separated and divorced fathers, and concerns regarding a lack of parental time influence men’s views and actions as parents.



Participants in this qualitative, interview study responded to an advertisement in the local newspaper, as well as to an announcement on the radio requesting the participation of men interested in talking about their experiences of parenting after separation and divorce, particularly men who had maintained involvement with their children. During in-depth interviews, participants were asked open-ended questions regarding their experiences of maintaining relationships with their children post separation and/or divorce (see Appendix). For the purposes of this study, 14 interviews were randomly selected for secondary analysis from the original qualitative data set consisting of 28 open ended, semi-structured interviews conducted in 2000-2001. We would have randomly selected additional transcripts if theoretical data saturation (i.e., when no new information was found to expand and deepen the themes identified in the results) had not occurred with the 14 interviews. The sample size of this study adheres to the recommendations for qualitative research: 6-8 subjects for homogeneous samples and 12-20 subjects for maximum variation (Zyzanski, McWhinney, Blake, Crabtree, & Miller, 1992).

Sample Characteristics and Limitations

All men selected for the study were separated or divorced fathers living in the Province of Ontario who had maintained a parenting relationship with their children; none were involved in parenting activist groups. The average age of the men from the 14 interviews selected was 41 (ranging from 30 to 52). The average income of these men was $40,000 (ranging from $14,000 to $100,000) and participants held a wide range of employment positions. With respect to race, the majority of participants were white. Furthermore, the average number of children per participant was 2.3 (ranging from 1 to 5 children). Interviews selected for analysis represented men who had a number of different custody and visitation arrangements. Ten fathers had joint custody; of these 10, five saw their children every other weekend plus one night a week, two alternated weeks with their ex-spouse, and three had varied visitation agreements. Four fathers had custody arrangements in which the mother had sole custody, of these, three saw their children every other weekend plus one night a week and one saw his children on an irregular basis.


Maintaining a symbolic interactionist and constructionist approach that places priority on the phenomena being studied (Charmaz, 2002), grounded theory was the method of analysis chosen for the selected data. As a method of qualitative analysis, grounded theory emphasizes the discovery of relevant categories and the relationships among them (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Grounded theory was an appropriate choice for data analysis in this study because the main goal was to discover new perspectives regarding issues of father involvement and time following separation or divorce. Data analysis adhered to the constant comparative method, which encourages the researcher to compare concepts with previous incidents in both the same and different groups of analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Following the procedures of grounded theory, the first author utilized line-by-line coding to identify reoccurring themes throughout the data; these themes were further discussed, categorized, and revised with the second and third author.


Throughout the interviews, fathers were asked about their experience of being involved with their children. From participants’ descriptions of father involvement after divorce, “time” materialized as the focus of the analysis presented here. The emergence of time as the overall theme is logical when one considers that despite the range of custody and visitation arrangements, the majority of divorced fathers experience a loss of time with their children. More specifically, an overarching theme emerged as capturing the tension created when participants acknowledged how a shift in their experiences of time with their children after divorce creates challenges in maintaining a parental influence. The overall tension described by participants suggests there is a connection between quantifiable time and fathers’ experiences of social time, as a lack of clocked time with their children appears to influence their ability to enact a parenting role, thus influencing their subjective experiences of time with their children.

Stemming from this overarching tension, three categories, each with subcategories, emerged as highlighting the ways that participants navigate this tension (see Figure 1). The first category reports participants’ experiences of securing and protecting their rights to time, and therefore, their rights to parental influence (this was especially true for fathers who had to fight for more time with their children through the court system or with their ex-spouse). The second category relates to participants’ view of time as a commodity, and the third category is concerned with how participants cope and adapt to a shift in time experience following separation or divorce. All of the categories are tightly connected to the overarching theme, and therefore, certain elements in each of the different categories overlap and are directly related to one another.


The Discordance Between Desire for Time and the Reality of Available Time: How a Shift in Time Experience Creates Challenges in Maintaining a Parental Influence

Throughout the interviews, participants articulated how a shift in their experiences of time with their children after separation or divorce creates challenges in their ability to impart an influence in their children’s lives. At this point, it seems necessary to explain what is meant by a “shift in time experience.” Throughout the interviews, all participants spoke of experiencing both a loss of day-to-day time, as well as, an increase in concentrated time with their children. Many fathers noted that a loss of day-to-day time with their children results in missing aspects of their children’s development, as well as, opportunities to have an influence in their children’s lives. Furthermore, many of the participants experienced the time they did have with their children as being more concentrated because it is time often not shared with another adult, and they noted how this shift in time contributes to some unique parenting challenges. After being asked about the differences between fathering before and after divorce, Frank noted some of these challenges, as well as, how a shift in his experience of time influences his ideas about parenthood (all names have been changed to protect confidentiality):

The main difference, if there is one, is that now the time that I’m

with her–everything that I used to do with her in a seven day

period, 18 hours a day, is now concentrated. And that is a huge

challenge. I’m concerned about the consistency between how she is

treated in daycare, how she’s treated at her mother’s house, in

terms of everything from discipline to education. And, when she’s

with me, it’s such a concentrated period of time that I’m required

to be a complete parent. That, I think, is the biggest difference.

Frank’s description of “concentrated” time was typical of most fathers in this study. Frank also reported experiencing “troubles” as a parent because he views himself as “a co-ordinary influence” in his daughter’s life, as having influence secondary to that of his ex-spouse, daycare, and extended family. Similarly, other fathers reported being aware of having to share time, and thus share opportunities to influence their children’s development; they often attributed parenting difficulties to a lack of consistency that results from multiple parental influences.

At this point the question arises, what is meant by “influence?” From the data, it appears that influence has a range of meanings for participants. Generally, participants spoke about wanting to have a role in shaping who their children become, as well as, supporting and nurturing their development. Many of the fathers referred to wanting to have influence in a variety of different ways, both through direct and indirect contact. For example, participants spoke about wanting to introduce their children to new activities, teach them life skills, provide them with a sense of identity and history, give advice and guidance, and have a role in making decisions about health care and education. However, what surfaced from the interviews was the tension that results for these fathers when their desire to maintain a parental influence conflict with the reality of having less time, therefore, fewer opportunities for influence. Tom, a father of two who sees his children two days a month, articulated this tension:

I want to teach my children as much as I can. [You] can butter

bread, oh, great, I didn’t get to do that, you know. Where did you

learn to do that? You know, just like his uncle taught him to ride

a bike, it’s somebody else did this. You know, I’m there on the

weekend, you know. I don’t get to help him with his schoolwork. I

don’t get to draw pictures.

From participants’ descriptions of this overall tension, it can be noted that desires to maintain parental influence and desires to have more time with their children appear to be highly connected, as many of the ways these fathers would like to impart influence require having time with their children. For example, it would be difficult for Tom to teach his children how to butter bread if he lacked one-on-one parental time. Understandably, this overall tension was not experienced as intensely by the two fathers in the study who had shared physical custody as they have greater access to time with their children, and therefore more opportunities to impart an influence. However, both of these fathers did discuss concerns regarding their continued parental influence as well as ways in which their experiences of parental time had been influenced by the context of divorce.

The tension that develops when desires to maintain an influence conflict with opportunities for parental time raises a number of questions regarding how fathers cope with this tension, and how it influences their involvement after separation and divorce. The following categories stem from the overarching tension discussed above and shed some light on how separated and divorced fathers negotiate their experiences of this tension.

Establishing Rights to Time

As noted previously, after separation and divorce many fathers experience a loss of time with their children. Therefore, depending on their relationship with their ex-spouse and court proceedings, many divorced fathers may need to secure their rights to time. By ensuring their rights to time, divorced fathers are also securing opportunities to be an influence in their children’s lives. Three subcategories emerged from the data as being connected to rights to time: perceived threats to time, protecting and asserting rights to time, and naming the process of battling for time as unjust and resisting limiting stereotypes.

Perceived threats to time. All participants noted obstacles to their quest for time, with the majority of participants discussing elements of their situation they perceived as threatening time with their children. Although many of these threats and obstacles were echoed throughout the interviews, variation was also reported, particularly with respect to the two fathers who had joint physical custody and therefore experienced fewer “threats” to their time. Many of the “perceived threats to time” identified by participants are attributable to the unique context of divorce, such as: the geographical distance between separated parents, the challenges of being able to provide a suitable living environment for children, requiring a job with flexible hours for one-on-one child care, finding time in adolescents’ busy schedules, and the threat that new relationships posed to time with their children (this includes new relationships for fathers or for their ex-spouse). Perhaps most salient were fathers’ discussions of threats to time that were related to the process of battling for access to time after separation or divorce. Moreover, the majority of fathers in the study talked about their ex-spouses as “[trying] to take time away” (Frank), and feeling that as the non-custodial parent they have “no ability to practically obtain access when the custodial parent doesn’t want that to happen” (Greg). Discussions of having time restricted by their ex-spouse were often followed by talk about experiences of maternal gate-keeping that restricted parental influence, such as disallowing input into decisions about health care or education. For many fathers who experienced maternal gate-keeping, the most practical recourse was to go to court. Therefore, many fathers in the study noted the high cost of court proceedings as being an additional threat to time, both at the time of the separation, or subsequently in their attempts to uphold custody agreements.

Protecting and asserting rights to time. Logically, the manner in which fathers protect and assert their rights to time depends on their “perceived threats to time.” Many participants discussed making personal choices and sacrifices in order to secure access to their children. These sacrifices ranged from turning down job opportunities that would require them to relocate, to putting off dating because they wanted to ensure their children remain a priority in their life. Some fathers asserted their rights to time by justifying why they were deserving of time with their children. Many of these participants talked about pre-divorce experiences of being “with the children enough that it certainly should be at least a 50/50 arrangement” (Alex). For these fathers, time spent with their children before the divorce justified their rights to time after divorce. In regards to the battle for time through the courts and with ex-spouses, many fathers discussed the necessity of establishing a clear custody arrangement that would provide them with “undisputed” and “protected” time. Furthermore, some participants noted minimizing their efforts to assert their rights to time because they perceived their ex-spouse as controlling time and therefore felt that if they fought too hard, they could lose even more, as Alex said “resistance just brings resistance.”

One of the most common areas in which these fathers asserted their rights to time and influence was with respect to their children’s health care and education. Richard, a father of two who sees his children three weekends and several week-nights a month, spoke about having to take an active role in ensuring opportunities to have time and influence:

And also I, well let’s say, after the separation, I found that [I]

need to reinforce [the agreement] because, like I found out that I

was a bit excluded from what was happening in school and all this.

So, I decided on my own to meet the school principal and meet the

teacher and things like that, because I wasn’t receiving any news

from the school. And [without] the newsletters I was always missing

the Parent’s Night and all things like that.

Richard’s experience of having to assert his parental rights was echoed throughout the interviews. These fathers spoke not only about wanting to secure direct time with their children but also securing their rights to maintain an influence through time spent making parental decisions.

Naming the battle as unjust and resisting limiting stereotypes. Another way that fathers established their rights to time and influence was by labeling the battle for time as unjust and biased. For example, many of the participants labeled the court systems as being “pro-mom” because they experienced the courts as privileging mothers’ time with their children over fathers’ time. Furthermore, fathers established their rights to time through their resistance of limiting stereotypes. For example, many fathers attempted to establish their parental rights through a discussion of what they are not: “absentee fathers,” “Disneyland dads,” “deadbeat dads,” and “entertainers.” Many of the stereotypes resisted by participants depict divorced fathers as lacking time with their children or only spending “fun” time. Therefore, by resisting such stereotypes fathers were able to assert their desire to spend day-to-day time with their children.

Central to the process of resisting stereotypes was the idea that fathers shouldn’t have to fight for time with their children; they shouldn’t have to “prove” to the courts that they are good parents. Furthermore, through their refusal to accept limiting stereotypes, several fathers also resisted limiting benchmarks used to evaluate their parenting abilities, some fathers even went so far as to discuss creating their own benchmarks. Frank articulates his journey to find new parental benchmarks:

I don’t understand why the man has to, usually the man has to earn

his way back up to being the status of the father, or an equal

parent. So, I’m the exact same father I was when I was with [my

daughter] 18 hours-a-day…. I just can’t understand that, because

the onus is on the divorced father to prove himself caring,

competent, and committed again…. So, I think I’m going to be, for

the rest of my life, constantly trying to figure out how to be the

best parent that I can be. Not by magazine standards or study

standards. By what [my daughter] needs. That’s the benchmark. That’s

the criteria that I’m going to measure myself by.

Frank’s description captures the frustration experienced by many of the participants when they talked about having to “prove” themselves as fathers. Through their resistance of injustices and stereotypes divorced fathers establish their own standards of parenting, standards that move beyond their ability to provide financially and that include their desire to maintain an influence through time spent with their children. Furthermore, these divorced fathers attempt to decrease the tension between their desire to maintain an influence and the reality of time available by securing their rights to time with their children. It should be noted that the two fathers who had shared physical custody were not as focused on resisting stereotypes and did not label court proceedings as “unjust,” likely because they appeared satisfied with the amount of time they have with their children. Through a consideration of the concept of social time, it becomes apparent the context of divorce and the interactions between ex-partners influence how men perceive and experience time with their children; a finding that would likely be overlooked if this study focused solely on quantifiable time.

Viewing Time as a Commodity

Having likely experienced a loss of time with their children, and therefore a need to protect their rights to time, many divorced fathers may begin to view time as a commodity. Custody battles add to the commodification of time, as child access is often negotiated in a process that is similar to the division of material goods and property. Throughout the interviews, two subcategories emerged as contributing to the commodification of time after separation and divorce: trading and claiming time and creating opportunities to “steal” time.

Trading and claiming time. As a result of having to negotiate, share, or fight for time with their children after separation and divorce, all participants spoke of either trading or claiming time. Many participants who did not have cooperative relationships with their ex-spouse spoke of attempting to bargain, or trade, for more time with their children. The majority of these fathers used support payments as a way to access more time with their children, often paying more support than was required by support agreements. Alex, who sees his two sons four days every other week plus one other day, does not have a cooperative relationship with his ex-spouse and spoke of trading material goods for time:

I gave her (ex-spouse) everything. I gave her every stick of

furniture, anything we ever owned, she has. And I was willing to

give it all away. I was willing to give it, trade it for joint

custody and more time with the children. Actually, I gave it all

away for what turned out to be only a single day. Not even an


Alex’s description of trading for time with his children was typical of several of these fathers. Even fathers who shared equal time with their children articulated how the trading of days and weeks to accommodate both parents’ schedules could take on a “bookkeeping mentality” (Mike). Many fathers spoke about “giving back days” if they requested a day for a special event, alluding to this bookkeeping mentality in which “time accounts” need to be balanced.

Many fathers claimed the time they did have with their children by labeling or naming it. For example, several participants referred to their time as “daddy’s weekend,” “daddy-daughter days,” or “daddy’s time.” By naming time as belonging to “dad,” many fathers created boundaries that separated “mom’s time” from “dad’s time.” Perhaps, creating boundaries around time is another way that separated and divorced fathers attempted to establish and protect their rights to time, as the terms used to claim time provoke ideas of ownership and control.

Creating opportunities to steal time. Many fathers in this study who were unsatisfied with the amount of time they have with their children spoke of finding creative ways to access more time. Metaphorically, this time becomes “stolen” because it is time not accounted for by custody agreements and is often time fathers have carefully negotiated for with their ex-spouse. Several fathers spoke about offering their time in place of babysitters or daycare, this was especially true for fathers who faced financial difficulties. Some fathers were able to gain more access by offering to drive their children to school or extracurricular activities. Considering that many of the mothers in these situations were responsible for the majority of day-to-day childcare responsibilities, it is not surprising that these offers were frequently accepted, albeit often with some hesitation or dispute. A couple of fathers were able to gain more time by coaching their children’s sports teams, like Greg who said:

But I have coached most of the boys and that’s probably the most

contact I’ve ever been able to engineer on a regular basis, is

through the coaching. So, when I’m coaching that particular boy, I’m

transporting him, I’m with him….

Greg’s experience of “stealing” time exemplifies the struggle many of these fathers faced in their efforts to increase the amount of time they have with their children.

Viewing time as a commodity that can be traded, claimed, and stolen, many fathers found unique ways to protect their time and to increase their access to opportunities to have a parental influence. Furthermore, many of these fathers view having more opportunities to impart an influence as strengthening the parental bond, and therefore, securing the father-child relationship over time. Even when fathers are unable to secure more time after separation or divorce, many of the fathers in this study maintain hope that their children will one day know about their attempts to have more time, and will therefore, consider future opportunities for re-connection.

Adapting to a Shift in Time Experience

Beyond attempting to secure time and create opportunities for more time, participants talked about several ways they have adapted to a shift in time experience after separation and divorce. Throughout the interviews, adapting to a shift in time experience manifested in three different subcategories: coping with the loss of day-to-day time and an increase in concentrated time, creating bridges between time experiences and extending an influence beyond the here and now, and struggling with the pursuit of special time versus natural time.

Coping with the loss of day-to-day time and an increase in concentrated time. Many of these fathers talked about feelings of loss related to being unable to see their children on a daily basis. Feelings of loss were particularly powerful at the time of separation, and although several fathers noted that these feelings had become less prominent over time, they also noted that they still experienced a sense of loss. Even the fathers with shared physical custody were aware of the “gulf between weeks” (Mike) and the loss of daily contact with their children. Most of the fathers described strategies that keep them from dwelling on the loss of time with their children, many participants noted they use work as a form of distraction during their time away from their children. Participants were also very aware how an increase in concentrated time requires them to be a “full-time” parent. As a result of spending less day-to-day time and more concentrated time with their children, many fathers spoke of both anticipating their time with their children and appreciating time spent apart. All the fathers spoke of appreciating “time-off’ from parenting, and many use this time to catch up on rest or to get caught up with work and other aspects of their social life. Some participants suggested a compensating gain that resulted from having time apart was developing a greater appreciation of time spent together. For example, John said:

I think there’s, you know a sense of loss in my life and those

losses have provided me with an opportunity to see some of those

moments with more clarity and more appreciation and that’s

wonderful. You know and, it just makes it, makes me cherish my time

more with them.

Articulating an appreciation for time for themselves, as well as, “cherished” time with their children, suggests that although many of the fathers experience a deep sense of loss they also develop strategies for coping with this shift in time experience.

Creating bridges between time experiences and extending influence beyond the here and now. Many fathers had a desire to “bridge” their child’s experience of the two different households. Bridges are metaphorical interventions that span children’s experiences of time with both parents; for some they serve to unite separated parents, and for others they can be used as a way of helping children to make the transition to “father’s time.”

With respect to uniting parents, many fathers expressed a desire for more communication with their ex-spouse. Even a couple of fathers who did not have cooperative relationships with their ex-spouse had attempted to implement a “log book” that could be used to record information about the child. Such information would be helpful for parents interested in easing their children’s transition between households; for example, logbooks could be used to record important information about the child’s behavior, diet and health. With respect to orienting children to “father’s time,” several fathers spoke about creating rituals centered on their children’s arrival and departure. For example, one father spoke about having “show and tell” time when his young daughter first arrives, during this time his daughter shows him the things she has made and accomplished during the week they have been apart. Another father spoke about meeting his ex-spouse at a park for the weekly “drop off,” the park provided a neutral place for the parents to touch base as well as a child-friendly environment. Tom, a father of two who sees his children two days a month, talks about creating physical reminders of his children’s presence, an indication that “bridges” may not only be helpful for children. The reminders that Tom created appear to help him span the time he spends apart from his children:

Like I made, you know those cut-outs you see that are black of

cowboys or dogs or cats. Well, I did them of my kids. I did three

of them and put them on posts and painted them … and put them in

my backyard. So every time I look in my backyard I can see a

silhouette of my children.

Beyond creating bridges, fathers spoke about other ways they attempted to extend their influence beyond their direct contact with their children. For example, the majority of fathers talked about using phone calls and emails during their time apart to stay connected and informed. As well, many fathers spoke about extending their influence during time apart through meetings with teachers or doctors. Perhaps most touching, were fathers’ descriptions of wanting to communicate to their children their love, availability and desire to provide security, feelings that are not dependent on time together and that can serve to remind children of their fathers’ involvement. Many fathers were also very clear about communicating to their children that they are “there for them.” This sense of “being there” can be seen as extending beyond the here and now, as these fathers were very aware of their lack of ability to be with their children physically on a continual basis. Thus, “being there,” suggests that these fathers can provide support and influence even during time spent apart.

Struggling with the pursuit of special time versus natural time. As a result of a shift in time experience, many fathers struggled with wanting to have “natural” time with their children but also wanting their limited time to be “special.” Many of the fathers who see their children on weekends spoke about not making big plans for their time together, and instead, allowing their time to be “free flow” and “natural.” At the same time, these fathers also talked about protecting this time from work and household responsibilities, suggesting that in some way, this time is “special.” Conversely, other fathers expressed a desire to engage in “normal” daily life with their children. Two fathers, Lee and Alan, who have similar custody arrangements and see their children approximately every other weekend, highlight this difference. Lee indicates a desire to have “natural time” when he says, “I still make dinner, you know, try to keep as much of the normal every day activities that you used to do, it’s what you do now,” while Alan seems to desire more “special time” saying, “I mean, you know, if, you know, I have to worry about one meal a week, you know, it can be something special.” It is interesting to note that before their marital separation, Alan described himself as having more of the “breadwinner role” while Lee spoke of being actively involved with his children before separation. Perhaps fathers involved in the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting before divorce desire to continue their experiences of “natural” time with their children because these experiences contribute to the solidification of the fatherhood identity they established before separation. Furthermore, having “natural time” that is full of trials and difficulties may help separated and divorced fathers resist stereotypes about “Disneyland dads” who only want to have “fun time.” In addition, fathers who experienced a significant increase in concentrated time, such as the participants with shared physically custody, spoke about having a desire for quality time with their children, but feeling like the day-to-day responsibilities of full-time parenting made it difficult to find “special time” together.

Many fathers noted the importance and challenges inherent in “special” and “natural” time. For some fathers “special” time was seen as securing their relationship with their children. For example, when asked what it would be like if his ex-spouse remarried, Jean-Claude, who has joint physical custody, said,

… sometimes I just think that if I don’t take care of him, if I

don’t spend those kind of quality times that I’m talking about, then

[my ex-spouse] becomes involved with someone that’s … trying to

spend more quality time with him, and if that person can do it, then

I may run into the problem where [my son] realized that someone else

is giving him more quality time and he better be with that someone

else than with me.

If “special” time helps secure fathers’ relationships with their children, many fathers would likely say “natural” time that includes discipline can threaten the relationship. For example, several fathers talked about fearing their children would not want to see them in the future if their time together involved too much discipline, especially when they viewed their ex-spouse as being more passive. These fathers struggle with having to choose between their desire to impart important life lessons and rules, and their desire to ensure that their children enjoy spending time with their father. As well, some fathers also spoke about not wanting to “ruin” their limited time together with too much discipline and rules. Several fathers pointed out the practical challenges of implementing discipline when they lacked the consistency of day-to-day time. For example, a father who only sees his child on weekends is limited in his choice of consequences if a child misbehaves on Sunday night. As noted in this last category, a shift in time experience after separation and divorce creates many new challenges for fathers who desire to maintain a parental influence. However, as was noted by several participants, these challenges also invite divorced fathers to develop creative strategies to adapt to a shift in time experience and to maintain a parental influence. Moving beyond descriptions focused on quantifiable time, the descriptions offered in this category shed light on the meaning and significance of father’s experiences of time after separation and divorce.

Discussion and Conclusion

Previous researchers studying social time identified the diverse ways that time contributes to the organization of family life (Daly, 2001). However, our understanding of how social time influences the reorganization of separated and divorced families is extremely limited. More specifically, past researchers did not focus enough attention on the lack of quantifiable time fathers spend with their children post separation and divorce and neglected to take into consideration the influence that a lack of time might have on men’s perceptions and experiences of fathering after separation and divorce. However, this study used concepts of social time to increase our understanding of how men’s experiences of parental time after separation and divorce influence their perceptions of fatherhood and their ability to maintain a parental influence. Participants’ rich descriptions of their experiences of time have contributed to a number of important findings.

First, participants’ descriptions of their experiences of parenting suggest separation and divorce require many fathers to view time in a new light; fathers who become aware of a loss of time with their children are forced to consider its value and importance. Furthermore, ideas regarding the importance of clock time appeared to be highly connected to fathers’ ability to impart a parental influence, as participants noted that lacking physical time with their children meant missing opportunities to have a role in shaping their children’s development. In addition, the parental identities of these men were directly influenced by the time they had with their children. Thus, an equation can be developed in which these fathers view: Opportunities for parental time = Opportunities to have an influence in their children’s lives = Opportunities to act out the role of a parent. The connection between time and parental identity is consistent with results reported by other researchers interested in father involvement. For example, Kruk (1993) noted that for divorced fathers “child absence is accompanied by role loss” (p. 88). Similarly, other researchers have noted that fathers who are limited to visitations often feel disenfranchised from their role as a parent (Arditti & Michaelena, 1994). However, results from this study indicate that role loss may not be limited to fathers who see their children infrequently, as even fathers who shared joint physical custody spoke of feeling disconnected from their fatherhood identity during times they were apart from their children. Despite how frequently they saw their children, the participants in this study illustrated the complexity of the tension created when their desires to have time with their children conflict with their ability to obtain time. Therefore, this study can be seen as highlighting the connection between clock time and social time, as one can assume that these fathers’ experience of time with their children would likely be different if they had remained in their marriage and continued to have fluid access to parental time. In many cases it is a lack of quantifiable parental time that required these fathers to reconsider the meaning and value of their experiences of time.

Another important finding from this study highlights the commodification of time and the way in which time is viewed as the primary currency of divorce. It was perhaps Daly (1996), who first commented on the commodification of time, writing, “One of the key ways that time is objectified is through the tendency to treat it as a commodified form” (p. 105). Regarding this commodification of time, Daly also cites the work of Rutz, noting that “Clocks, calendars, schedules and various normative codes (appropriations of ‘when’ or ‘how long’) serve to objectify time and thereby make it accessible to control through relations of power” (p. 104). Therefore, it makes sense that the circumstances of divorce may inherently increase individuals’ perceptions of quantifiable time, as custody battles raise questions about “how much” and “when,” and access agreements require parents to become increasingly cognizant of schedules. In the context of divorce, social time may become particularly salient, as court proceedings, custody arrangements, and interactions between ex-spouses not only influence the amount of quantifiable time available to fathers, but also influence the experience and meaning of time for fathers. For example, many participants alluded to viewing time as more valuable, precious or limited after separation. Thus, it can be said that divorce provides fathers with a new lens through which to interpret their experiences of parental time.

Many of the threats identified by participants in this study echoed the results of previous research, such as threats related to geographic distance (King & Heard, 1999), gate-keeping (Fabricius, 2003), custody arrangements (Juby, Marcil-Gratton, & Le Bourdais, 2005) and the cost of court proceedings (Arendell, 1995). Beyond noting the obstacles they faced in obtaining time with their children, participants in this study indicated the complexity involved in establishing their rights to time, as it appears that for many participants protecting their rights to time often brought them face-to-face with many limiting stereotypes and discourses regarding father involvement. Participants’ descriptions of the stereotypes they perceived as limiting their role as a father speak to the power that social discourses and language have in influencing father involvement after separation and divorce. Perhaps the deconstruction of such stereotypes in future research will aid in the development of discourses that support fathers in their efforts to maintain involvement. Unfortunately, similar to fathers in other studies (Arendell, 1995), these fathers also spoke about experiencing the court systems as unjust and biased toward privileging mothers’ time over fathers’ time. Through their descriptions of perceived injustices, it became apparent that for these fathers, time not only became commodified it also became politicized. In spite of this, it appears through the very process of resisting limiting labels and stereotypes, these fathers were able to assert their desire to be fathers who share diverse experiences of time with their children. If one only focused on clock time, it would be easy to overlook the political significance of time following separation and divorce, yet through social interactions time becomes laden with meaning and value.

Perhaps most valuable to this study is the participants’ descriptions of the ways they attempted to cope and adjust to a shift in time experience. Noting their limited power to change custody agreements, these fathers spoke of learning to appreciate some of the benefits inherent in their new experiences of parental time, such as having “time off” from parenting and valuing “cherished time” with their children. Furthermore, these fathers also spoke of creative and innovative ways they had been able to “bridge” different experiences of time, and expand their influence beyond the here and now. At the same time, participants also identified struggles they faced through their efforts to adapt to a shift in time experience. More specifically, the data indicate a tension between desires to have time with their children that is “natural” and desires to have time that is “special.” Also connected to this tension were the difficulties these fathers faced in maintaining discipline during limited and inconsistent time with their children, a finding that is consistent with past research indicating divorced fathers frequently no longer engage in authoritative parenting after separation (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999). It was with respect to “natural” and “special” time that participants showed the most disagreement, and therefore, future research could benefit from further investigation of the meaning and difference between these time experiences. Bennett’s (2000) ideas about time and intimacy may prove useful to this investigation as he writes, “On the one hand, too much routine can erode the spontaneous aspect of intimacy. On the other hand, too much unpredictability can diminish our sense of continuity” (p. 43). Following this thought, fathers may desire the spontaneity of “natural” time because it helps to develop intimacy but perhaps experience tension when limited time constrains their ability to “go with the flow.”

There are a number of limitations of this study that should be noted. Firstly, this study utilized secondary analysis, and therefore concepts and themes that emerged could not be clarified or explored through further discussion with participants. Secondly, the participants of this study were men who already had or desired a high degree of involvement with their children post separation and divorce. Therefore, the findings of this study do not represent the perceptions of men who lack parental contact. As well, race is an obvious limitation of this study, as the majority of participants were white; future research would benefit from the inclusion of participants from various racial backgrounds. Furthermore, due to the small sample size of this study, generalizations cannot be made to the larger population of divorced fathers who have contact with their children. Nonetheless, the findings of this study have important implications for professionals who work with divorced families, policy makers, and future researchers.

For professionals, such as therapists and social workers, the findings of this study suggest the importance of preparing separated and divorced fathers for a shift in time experience, regardless of custody and visitation agreements. Furthermore, by validating experiences of loss associated with a shift in time, and raising awareness of limiting discourses about father involvement after separation, professionals can help empower fathers to explore the complexity of father involvement, and to develop parenting strategies that will support them in their efforts to remain involved. Encouraging divorced fathers to find ways to extend their influence beyond the here and now, and “bridge” time spent apart may also help men to extend their fatherhood identities to time spent apart from their children; thus, reducing the chance fathers will withdraw from parenting to avoid feelings of disenfranchisement.

Policy makers could benefit from considering that similar to fathers in other studies (Arendell, 1995; Maccoby, Buchanan, Mnookin, & Dombusch, 1993), these fathers expressed a clear desire to have shared physical custody. Perhaps even more important are studies that report that when young adults are asked about their experiences of living in a divorced family, many state they would have liked more time with fathers and would have preferred shared physical custody arrangements (Fabricius & Hall, 2000). These finding raise questions about why courts do not award joint physical custody more often, especially considering many of the fathers involved in this study were able to clearly articulate how they had been active parents prior to separation. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the men in this study viewed their parental involvement as a clear responsibility. Policies and research that measure father involvement relative to financial contributions and the frequency of paternal contact overlook the responsibility that fathers have to maintain a positive influence in their children’s lives. If more policies adopted the position that father involvement is a responsibility, and if more court systems viewed fathers as having equal rights to time with their children, perhaps more fathers would view their involvement as a valuable contribution to the lives of their children.

Lastly, research that examines divorced children and mothers’ experiences of time would contribute to our understanding of how experiences of social time influence the reorganization of divorced families. More specifically, research that compares the responses of divorced fathers to those of custodial mothers, who also experience a loss of parental time when children are with their fathers, would provide insight into mothers’ subjective experiences of parental time post separation and divorce. Regarding future research on separated and divorced fathers, it may prove useful to include a greater diversity of divorced fathers. For example, future studies that include fathers with sole physical custody may expand our understanding of father involvement. Future research may also benefit from including the perspectives of men who have minimal or no contact with their children, as these fathers likely have valuable insights regarding their experiences of a dramatic shift in parental time post separation. Most importantly, research on separated and divorced fathers that includes a focus on social time can only contribute to a greater understanding of the relationship between the unique experiences of time and the unique experiences of fatherhood after separation and divorce.

Although we are far from fully understanding the complexity of father involvement after separation and divorce, the perspectives of participants in this study have opened the door to considering the relationship between experiences of time and experiences of father involvement after separation and divorce. Considering the reciprocal influence that these experiences appear to have on one another, it seems important to further investigate the role that time plays in the reorganization of divorced and separated families. Furthermore, the fathers who participated in this study contributed to a greater understanding of the unique and valuable parenting contributions that many fathers are eager to make post separation and divorce. Considering the tensions and challenges many faced in their efforts to establish opportunities to impart a parental influence, we are left to assume the fathers in this study have a great deal of love and concern for their children’s well-being, factors of parental involvement that are too often overlooked by social science research. Hopefully, as we continue to consider the dominant discourses that influence both our ideas of father involvement, as well as, ideas of social time, we will gain a greater understanding of how to both recognize, evaluate, and support men’s contributions to parenting after separation and divorce.


Open-ended interview–Question areas


* How long have you been separated, divorced?

* Since you have been separated or divorced, what have been the various arrangements you and your ex-partner have had for providing continuous parenting of the children?

* How did you and your ex-partner negotiate these arrangements?

Maintaining a relationship with your child

* In a typical week, what contact and interaction do you have with your child?

* Compared to your pre-separation/divorce relationship, what have you noticed are the similarities and differences in your day-to-day interaction with your child?

* What has influenced you to stay involved in your child’s life?

* How would you depict yourself as a father before? Now?

* What has it required of you to remain involved in your child’s life?

* Have there been times when you considered having less involvement? More involvement? Please tell me more about those times.

* How do you suppose your child would depict you as a father now? How might this be different than before you separated/divorced?

* What do you imagine/know it has meant to your child that you have remained involved in his/her life since separating/divorcing?

* What do you imagine it has required of your child to adjust to separation/divorce? How has this understanding impacted you as a father?

Influence of separating/divorcing parent education program

* When in the process of separating/divorcing, did you take the parent education course for separated or divorced parents?

* What influenced you to take this course?

* How did participating in this course/seminar influence you regarding parenting your child post-separation/divorce?

* How did taking this course influence your sense of what was possible for you as a separated/divorced father?

* What have you learned about being an involved post-separation/divorce father that you believe other fathers should know?


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Family Services of Haliburton County

Haliburton, Ontario


University of Guelph

Guelph, Ontario


University of Guelph

Guelph, Ontario

Mara Hallman, Family Services of Haliburton County, Haliburton, Ontario; Anna Dienhart, University of Guelph; John Beaton, University of Guelph.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Anna Dienhart, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada, N1G 2W1. Electronic mail: adienhar@uoguelph.ca

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