9: The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young fathers and the services that support them

Following Young Fathers Further is a four-year participatory, qualitative longitudinal and comparative study of the lives of young fathers (those who became a father aged 25 and under). Building on a baseline study called Following Young Fathers (2012-15; Neale et al. 2015a), which has tracked the lives of 31 young fathers, the study provides extended longitudinal insights about the parenting journeys and support needs of young fathers and their families. As a population that is often stigmatised because of their young age and gender, many face challenges in their transitions to parenthood and experience family poverty and social disadvantage. In this chapter, we present an analysis of findings generated for interviews that explored the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We examine how the lockdown impacted on the earning and caring trajectories of young fathers and their formal and informal support networks. These insights sit alongside accounts from professionals who were required to quickly adapt their support offers to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on low-income families.

Introduction

In this chapter, we draw on insights from the first wave of semi-structured interviews for a qualitative longitudinal study called Following Young Fathers Further1 (hereafter FYFF). The substantive foci of the interviews were adapted to explore the diverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young fathers and the services that engage them. Evidence suggests that even prior to the pandemic, these young men were already more likely to be experiencing family poverty and/or social disadvantage (Hadley, 2017; Neale et al, 2015) and to be living in low-income families and contexts. They also negotiate stigma because of their young age and gender (Beggs Weber, 2012; Neale et al, 2015a) and therefore face a unique set of challenges in their transitions to parenthood and throughout their parenting journeys.

The unanticipated character of the pandemic meant that it was not our intention at the outset of the study to explore how young fathers and support professionals would fare at a time of global crisis. The study set out to explore and challenge the persistent problematisation of young parents, who continue to be constructed as a ‘problem’ (Duncan, 2007) in the UK welfare policy context and to be held largely responsible for their own marginalisation. These young men may face any combination of disadvantages including poverty; limited support in education, training, or employment; unstable homes; volatile family backgrounds and periods in care; mental health issues; and experiences of offending and domestic violence (as both victims and perpetrators). The qualitative longitudinal design of the study supported exploration of these complexities and their dynamics, as well as the effects of the major economic, social, and policy shifts wrought by the pandemic as it emerged. These were captured through retrospective and prospective accounts generated with young fathers and professionals working for national organisations that support young fathers in their parenting journeys.

In this chapter, we illustrate how existing inequalities experienced by young fathers were exacerbated in the new policy climate produced by the pandemic. These findings are placed alongside those generated via interviews with professionals who were forced to quickly adapt their support offers to mitigate its effects on low-income families.

Following Young Fathers Further

FYFF is a four-year participatory, qualitative longitudinal and comparative study of the lives and support needs of young fathers. Throughout the study, the team has been researching with young fathers and professionals, albeit remotely, to understand the lived experiences and parenting journeys of young fathers and their contexts of social support through the pandemic. By social support we refer to informal (that is, family, friends, and communities) and formal (that is, provided by institutions, agencies, and support services) mechanisms of support that comprise what Hall (2019) conceptualises as the everyday social infrastructures and tapestries of care that enable families to ‘get by’ when on a low income. The project has also continued to drive social change for young fathers through the co-creation of models of father-inclusive practice. As well as working across comparative national contexts and localities in the study, we are also collaborating with academic partners in Sweden to explore experiences of young fatherhood in different welfare contexts. We do not specifically develop a comparative analysis of the international impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young fathers in this chapter because the research is still ongoing, but we are already identifying interesting differences in how young fathers in both contexts have fared. The social security system in Sweden, for example, has meant that the economic impacts of the pandemic appear to have produced less precarity for young fathers there than in the UK. Uniquely, our study also builds on a baseline study called Following Young Fathers (Neale et al, 2015a), which tracked the lives and support needs of a cohort of 31 young fathers between 2012 and 2015. Via these existing connections, we have followed up with a sub-sample of participants, allowing us to explore the changes and challenges wrought by the pandemic on the working and caring trajectories of an otherwise stigmatised and marginalised group of fathers in low-income contexts.

A cohort of 17 fathers, aged between 15 and 30 years old, were interviewed within months of the imposition of the first national lockdown in the UK in March 2020. While all fathers were under the age of 25 when they entered parenthood, some of the participants were over the age of 25 at the time of the interviews. This is reflective of our sampling strategy whereby some of the young fathers we interviewed were recruited from the baseline study. A diverse range of work and family circumstances were described. There was a patchwork of employment circumstances, including variation in number of hours worked and the extent of employment precarity, a mix of home-based working and those classified as key workers, experiences of furlough (and in one case redundancy), and unemployment. The youngest of the dads were still in education, living with parents, and had limited resources. There was also diversity in relation to the number of children, experiences of being a father (some became fathers during lockdown while others had been fathers for nearly a decade), and in terms of relationship and residence status.

We also interviewed 17 professionals working for the voluntary sector and other generic and specialist family and youth support services. These were professionals and service managers addressing the broad range of complex needs that may be experienced by those in low-income families or deprived contexts, including some of the young fathers who participated in the FYFF study. These multi-agency services included youth, housing, mental health, and parenting support services.

In the remainder of this chapter, we explore the impacts of the pandemic and lockdown as a policy intervention on young fathers and support organisations in greater depth, before bringing the findings together as part of a short, illustrative case study about how interactions between the two were both affected and navigated to ensure vital social connections were maintained. We conclude with recommendations for practice and policy that centre on how more father-inclusive approaches might be instigated and embedded in the emergent post-COVID-19 era.

The trajectories of young fathers

The social disadvantages that many young fathers experience mean that adhering to contemporary cultural expectations of involved and engaged fatherhood (Dermott and Miller, 2015) can be difficult to fulfil. Even prior to the pandemic, many young fathers were navigating a complex variety of relational, socio-economic, and environmental challenges, some of which constrained their aspirations towards involvement (Neale et al, 2015b). Yet regardless of their young age, gender, and resources, young fathers still express their intentions to ‘be there’ for their children and engage in a variety of strategies to achieve this (Neale et al, 2015b).

Transitions into fatherhood during the lockdown were highly varied. Some of the new fathers who participated reported being subject to significant visiting restrictions when their partners were in hospital and one witnessed the birth of his child via a video call (Tarrant et al, 2020a). Once home, however, lockdown provided an unanticipated opportunity to bond with babies and engage in their care. Reflective of the national picture for fathers (Burgess and Goldman, 2021), several of the young men said they valued the time that lockdown afforded them to be at home with their children. Bradley became a first-time father during the lockdown and explained:

‘It’s been surprisingly good actually because we’ve had all this time to isolate in the house by ourselves. We’ve got to know her, like, we’ve had so much time with her, it’s actually turned out, I’m not gonna say good cause obviously everything that’s happened with [the pandemic], but us being isolated in the house, it’s been good.’ (Bradley, aged 15, in education, 1 child)

Several of the fathers with school-age children also engaged in remote learning, which was especially enjoyable to those with the time and material resources to invest in it. There were differing levels of engagement and uptake among the sample, however, and access to reliable technology was problematic for those who were unemployed or on a limited budget (see also Chapters 12 and 14). For those who were furloughed, had the threat of redundancy hanging over them, or who had lost work and were looking for alternative employment, remote learning was an additional pressure. Compounded by the loss of social contact and support beyond households, these pressures impacted on the mental health of the fathers but also meant that mothers predominantly shouldered the additional burdens of children being at home (see Chapter 8).

Non-resident fathers were perhaps the most disadvantaged by the lockdown with regards to fulfilling their fathering responsibilities. Of the 13 participants that were non-resident, two were in relationships with the mother of their children while the remainder were separated. 7 explained that their contact time with children had been restricted, either because of requirements to isolate, quarantine (one father contracted the virus), or because relatives were shielding. While gatekeeping by maternal family members was also identified prior to the pandemic (Lau Clayton, 2015) it became especially apparent during lockdown. The young men explained that the mothers and grandmothers of their children expressed concerns about the risks of spreading the virus and therefore limited contact (Tarrant et al, 2020b). Later in the chapter we consider the significant role that support services played in supporting young men in their relationships with their children’s mothers to distil the continued value of father involvement for children despite the risks associated with spreading the virus. However, for young men without existing support networks or access to professional support, the pandemic was a period of heightened risk around losing contact with children altogether, with the potential for much longer-term consequences for their relationships and fathering identities.

Increasing employment precarity and family finances

Even prior to the pandemic, many of the young fathers we were researching with had tenuous connections to the labour market and expressed varied education, employment, and training pathways that also intersected with their expectations around involved fatherhood (see, for example, Neale and Davies, 2015; Davies, 2016). The impacts of the upheaval wrought by the pandemic most notably fell disproportionately on those who were already living in contexts of socio-economic disadvantage (see Chapters 1 and 11 in this collection). Notably, the older dads in the sample, who we re-accessed from the Following Young Fathers baseline study and some of whom were being interviewed for the sixth time, had relatively secure employment trajectories and were able to work from home. The younger men, who were only just embarking on their parenting journeys, were more likely to be among those experiencing the complex mix of job loss, furlough with the threat of redundancy, complexities organising zero-hours contracts, and risk associated with front line work that had the potential to expose them, and therefore their families, to the virus.

At the time of interview, six of the fathers were in secure employment and two of these were working from home. Of the entire sample, four were furloughed and one lost his job when the business he was working for went into administration. The young fathers who were furloughed described a range of strategies for making up for lost income. One young dad took on extra shifts at his second job and another took ‘cash in hand’ jobs. Others were glad of the reduced involvement and requirements of job centres and advisors although this made it more challenging to identify secure work (see Chapter 11 in this collection). These young men therefore continued to navigate a labour market that has long been characterised by low-paid and precarious work that marginalises young men (McDowell, 2003; MacDonald and Giazitzoglu, 2019).

The precarity of work was especially apparent for those with zero-hours work contracts for whom balancing work and caregiving was an ‘impossible balancing act’ (see Cain 2016; Chapter 8, this collection). For Raymond and his partner, the need to balance childcare responsibilities around two zero-hours contracts, was a significant source of distress, making them vulnerable to a loss of employment:

‘I was supposed to start work at 5pm today. I can no longer do that so I’ve had to give my partner my shift … whatever she gets taxed she’s gonna have to pay me my shift in cash kinda thing … either way there’s no winning … then when I work, she’s gonna have to be home. I’m gonna have to cancel one of my shifts in the week and she’s gonna have to cancel two of her’s and give them away. So … there’s nothing really we can do. And this whole furlough business stops on the 31st October 2020 which doesn’t help … it’s just when we have to give up our shift at the end of the week only because like this whole COVID thing. We’re not getting paid for it at all. We give that up, our hours get reduced. And then we’re below contracted hours and then we’re in trouble kind of thing … as much as we try we have to take each day at a time. We just can’t do it.’ (Raymond, aged 26, on furlough, working a second job on a zero-hours contract, two children)

The young men employed in precarious positions also struggled to achieve the right balance between doing enough hours to maintain employment and sustain household finances while also managing the increasing food, energy and other costs associated with having children at home. As we explore later in the chapter, some young fathers were not entitled to furlough and became increasingly vulnerable to losing work altogether.

Informal support and community participation

The previous section demonstrates how restricted contact with children contributed to the social isolation of some young fathers and mitigated against their intentions to ‘be there’ for their children. Yet, the pandemic also produced new and more extensive practices of family and community participation. Whereas maternal grandparents were described by non-resident fathers as engaging in gatekeeping around access to children, the parents and grandparents of those still in a relationship provided vital financial and material support. Early in the lockdown when essential items like food and toilet paper were being stockpiled, for example, father of four Craig, aged 28, had to rely on his partner’s parents to source key items for their baby:

‘[partner] and me were getting worried that we couldn’t get baby milk in or nappies or stuff like that … the only thing that we’ve been really short of is baby formula for [youngest child] but that’s because the supermarket near us hasn’t had any in for a bit now … we did run out at one point but she rang her dad up and said, “Look, can you go to [the supermarket] near you, get some baby formula and send it down?” and he did.’ (Craig, aged 28, unemployed, 4 children)

While some young parents are often assumed to be dependent on their parents, financially, emotionally, and practically, the pandemic provided opportunities for increased family participation and engagement in the support of others. Many of the young fathers we spoke with had parents and/or grandparents who were shielding and required support to gain access to essentials like food and medicines. Several described doing the weekly shopping for family members, a practice that for some was already established but for others became more essential: “I’ve gone to the shop for my mum a few times” (Jonny, aged 21, unemployed, 1 child). “I do all the shopping runs for everyone. … I pretty much do all the shopping runs and I get like paint for the house and stuff and just general stuff like that” (Cole, aged 19, in education, 1 child). One of the participants also distributed food to local community members when the restaurant he worked at closed. Local social solidarity and community spirit were evidently heightened during the early days of the lockdown among those living in contexts of deprivation, although these have long been observed as compelling features of family and community lives in deprived localities (for example, MacDonald et al, 2005).

Schools were also key sources of support and resource for low-income fathers and their families, especially in the absence or reduction of formalised or specialised support services. Some of the families received food parcels from their children’s schools, for example, and in another case, a teacher gained notoriety among the community for going out on foot to deliver school meals and work to children at home. These were essential strategies as low-income families tried to ‘get by’ at a time of major flux and change (see also Chapters 1 and 11).

Service sustainability and relationship building at a distance

Beyond families, support from locally embedded services and institutions was essential for many of the young fathers we interviewed. Yet support organisations and professionals working with young fathers and low-income families also needed to adjust rapidly to the new context produced by the pandemic, shifting from face-to-face to remote working, and adapting and tailoring their support offers accordingly. Some of the young men in our study were already engaged with a wide variety of statutory and voluntary agencies prior to the pandemic, accessing them for different purposes and at different times in their parenting journeys (for example, Neale et al, 2015b). Indeed, the complex needs that many young fathers experience mean that they often come into the orbit of a variety of different services and agencies when they become a parent (Neale and Davies, 2015).

Relationship building and maintenance between professionals and young fathers has been identified as essential to service sustainability and for ensuring that services are accessible to young men (Davies, 2016). In the early days of the first lockdown, relationships were more challenging to establish and sustain. Services therefore sought to facilitate continued connection and engagement with young fathers in a context of enforced distancing and isolation. Many practitioners commented on the challenge of establishing relationships with new referrals to services and with young men with whom relationships of trust were not already established. Building relationships of trust was more challenged by newly imposed constraints on flexible, tailored interactions like simply being there with an open door (see also Chapter 11). A support worker for a mental health charity noted:

‘normally people would just come in, ’cause we have like a drop-in there between one and four too, so people could come in and maybe do a universal, sorry, a job search for the Universal Credit, or they could just come in and get a meal and things like that, so those things have gone’.

Lockdown rules also meant that it was difficult to reach out to people in their local communities to maintain visibility and actively offer support, making services harder for families to access. Several professionals also reflected on the loss of more subtle or less visible aspects of support, such as observations of body language to read emotional cues. A specialist learning mentor for a local council commented: “They don’t always articulate to you, as you know, the way that they’re feeling and the emotions that they’re going through and the stress that they’re under but you can read it through the body language. And then that leads to better conversations cause then you can explore things.” Paradoxically, professionals were perceived by some to be more accessible and reachable during the pandemic than they had been before. The shift to remote support therefore meant that contact with families increased, albeit outside of traditional work hours. A family service manager explained that remote working had “eased people to be able to send us messages at odd random times during the day, during the weekend and things that they normally probably wouldn’t send”. Services therefore found new ways of relationship building via their new digital offers, and the pandemic created new opportunities for implementing alternative working practices that were previously constrained by established working cultures; see Chapter 14 for a discussion of the challenges of remote working in a pandemic context.

We now explore insights generated by a community-based support group for young fathers and professionals who adapted to a digital offer to continue their mission to tackle the loneliness and isolation that many young men experience. The themes identified so far in the chapter were commented on by the professionals working this service and in combination, provide a multi-perspective account of how services adapted to maintain a continuous source of support for young men and their families.

Community support for young fathers: an illustrative case study

The North East Young Dads and Lads (hereafter NEYDL) are a dedicated and established organisation that provides specialist, community-based support to young fathers. Professionals engaged with the organisation are ‘local champions’ (hereafter referred to as support workers) for young fathers and support them with a broad range of complex issues, some of which we captured through the research, conducted both with them and the fathers they were supporting. Some of these issues were specific to, and exacerbated by the pandemic, while others were prevalent beforehand. Distinct pandemic-related concerns included: difficulties around reduced contact with children, higher levels of social isolation and loneliness, and greater employment precarity, and impacts on finances associated with having children at home, as we see in several chapters across the collection, such as Chapters 5 and 11. The findings reported as part of this case study include reflections from three support workers from NEYDL who took part in a focus group for Wave one of the FYFF study.

Supporting the accounts from the non-resident fathers, support workers reported that the pandemic had exacerbated tensions between parents residing in different households, linked to changes in contact arrangements for children. Here, one of the support workers at NEYDL explains his role in supporting one young father to navigate these issues during the pandemic:

‘[T]here’s a particular case at the moment where, we went into lockdown so the young man’s contact completely stopped. And then the mother a’ the child’s changed her phone number so he couldn’t make any phone calls, he couldn’t arrange contact. So he asked if I could support so I, I was calling Mum to try and facilitate the contact happening because the relationship had ended and they couldn’t, you know, it was very hard for the mum and dad to be able to talk to each other without it breaking down. Between myself and the maternal mum [child’s grandmother on the mother’s side], we managed to organise to re-establish contact when it was safe to do it that way. So yeah, that was quite a lot a’ work to be done there.’

Where young dads had daily contact with their children, there were also drawbacks, linked to the additional costs and emotional pressures of managing multiple children at home. These were not uniformly experienced and the support workers described a range of circumstances reflective of the complex needs young fathers either experience themselves or navigate on behalf of family members:

‘It’s the challenge of having one or two children at home all the time. We’ve got some young dads where their children have got learning difficulties and other needs and the challenge of just that lack of support. And also about the fact that we’re often working with young men in low-income families and suddenly the lights are all on, all the consoles are on and they’re having to feed their children all the time. So there’s that whole economic impact as well as the social impact and the challenge of educating their kids at home. So yeah there’s a lot of other aspects there that the young men are telling us are really, are really challenging them.’

Higher costs of living also ran in parallel with experiences of job insecurity and associated challenges securing a stable source of income. Here, one of the support workers reveals experiences of job insecurity similar to that described by Raymond earlier, confirming that those on precarious contracts or employed by agencies were especially vulnerable to job loss and social isolation:

‘a lot a’ the young men that we’ve worked with in the past and previously, and there’s a few that I’ve been working with during lockdown where they weren’t furloughed because they were on temporary contracts, they were working for agencies. So they were doing a little bit a’ work during lockdown and then changes to lockdown and then they just lost their jobs. So then they were in that limbo of waiting to go back on to Universal Credit and having to make that. So that was … none a’ the young men were, that I was working with got, were, eligible to be furloughed. They were all just let go because they were on temporary contracts or like I say agency work.’

While these examples illustrate clear parallels between the lived experiences reported by the young fathers who participated in our study and accounts given by professionals working at support organisations, they are also revealing of a diverse range of gendered experiences among young men produced in the pandemic context. For some families, dads were able to be more involved because they spent more time at home. For non-resident fathers, access to children was more likely to be reduced. Significantly, these observations reflect the importance of continued service support for young fathers at a time of crisis where welfare support has limitations. The support provided, however, was not delivered in ways the organisation would have pre-COVID-19, as we explore next.

Creating a digital support offer

Support workers were also reflective about the impacts of the shift to remote ways of working on their offer to young fathers. NEYDL adapted their offer to ensure that the young men continued to receive the support they needed, albeit with interactions online, via telephone or text. In so doing, they also experienced alternative ways of working with young fathers. A key observation was that while the amount of time spent supporting the young men remained the same, the nature of the support had had to change by necessity. One support worker explained:

‘I haven’t had a decrease in the amount of contact time with the young men. It’s just how I’ve contacted them and talking to them has changed. For me it’s really hard. I’m a very tactile person. You know, if the lads are all right I give them a cuddle. And I’ll shake their hand and walk alongside them. So for me that’s been really hard not to go, “Hello, mate, how you doing?”’

The loss of physical contact and co-presence in these formal support relationships was further exacerbated by digital exclusion. Not all of the young men who required support from the service had access to technology, which isolated them both from local and informal support, and from support services during the pandemic: “there’s this automatic assumption that all young people have access to digital media and smart phones and internet connection. They’ve got, you know, data on their phones and they haven’t.” It is evident that remote working is not a straightforward replacement for face-to-face, locally accessible support. The requirement of professionals to adapt and develop a new digital offer does mean, however, that in the post-pandemic support context, a combination of face-to-face and digital support can be combined to increase service sustainability and facilitate preventative work, enabling professionals to build and establish trusting relationships with a much wider constituency of young fathers. However, should services move towards a blended or online approach, young fathers may require support to access appropriate digital technology and to develop the digital skills needed to ensure services remain accessible to them.

Implications for policy and practice

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns engendered major changes in the organisation of work and family life for young fathers and their families. Accounts of the pandemic, by both young fathers and professionals, has revealed the complex ways that the lockdowns have contributed to increased social, economic, and relational precarity, especially among young fathers who were already living in socially disadvantaged contexts. The lockdowns also altered the informal and formal support landscapes of these fathers, impacting specifically on the wide variety of specialist, generic, statutory, and voluntary services that engage with low-income and marginalised families.

Our findings offer timely evidence that speak to a variety of policy areas. Significantly, time to bond with babies and engage in childcare was highly valued, although for the younger fathers or fathers who were not in employment, financial precarity and uncertainty was problematic. These findings also lend weight to the need for affordable and accessible paternal and/or shared leave for all fathers, regardless of their employment status. Indeed, research demonstrates that the earlier fathers are involved in caregiving in their parenting journeys the better this is for fathers, mothers, and for children and their developmental outcomes (Cundy, 2016). Young fathers increasingly face a variety of obstacles and structural challenges that limit their opportunities to access the labour market and secure employment. Their precarity is further compounded by limited access to affordable and flexible childcare. Change in organisational cultures in workplaces would also be beneficial, driven through recognition that fathers also benefit from home working, shorter hours, and greater flexibility to enable care sharing. Legislation that ensures flexible working as a default for everyone would be welcome and would challenge gendered assumptions around work and childcare.

The findings about how services adapted their offers to support young fathers at a physical distance also evidence the crucial roles that specialist, community, and locality-based support groups play in addressing some of the complex social, economic, and relational issues that young fathers navigate across their parenting journeys. Not only do these groups provide peer support and help young fathers to remain engaged in their children’s lives, they also support them to build confidence, and to flourish as part of a local community. Yet, the availability and accessibility of these groups for young fathers remains a postcode lottery (Tarrant and Neale, 2017). Fragmented and time-limited funding and inadequate policy support impacts on the sustainability of services, with real potential to marginalise disadvantaged young fathers further in the longer term. The pandemic has proven the adaptability of professionals in this sector and its vital role in filling gaps where the social security system fails, or where informal mechanisms of support are lacking. Sustainable funding to enable these kinds of new innovations among community-based groups for young fathers is sorely needed if young men are to reach their full potential, both as fathers and as citizens.

Note

1

Funded by the UK Research & Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship scheme (2020–2024, grant number: MR/S031723/1). Website: https://followingyoungfathersfurther.org

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