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Uncovering Men’s Participation in Low-Income Family Life
Author: Anna Tarrant

Anna Tarrant’s revealing research explores the dynamics of men’s caring responsibilities in low-income families’ lives.

The book draws on pioneering multigenerational research to examine men’s involvement in care for their families. It interrogates how this is affected by the resources available and the constraints upon them, considering intersections of gender, generation and work, as well as the impact of austerity and welfare support.

Illuminating aspects of care within economic hardship that often go unseen, it deepens our understanding of masculinities and family life and the policies and practices that support or undermine men’s participation.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

This chapter explores contemporary experiences of grandfathering in Britain and includes the stories of men whose families have been affected and restructured by divorce, either their own, or the breakdown of their children’s relationships. Analysis of 31 semi-structured interviews reveals that men are involved in their grandchildren’s lives and this is achieved through various gendered practices. In particular the form and functioning of grandfathering is regulated by the quality and character of intergenerational relationships, which influences how men perform and construct their identities in a variety of ways. A ‘new’ identities approach helps to make sense of how the contemporary context shapes the familial and intergenerational relationships of men in middle- and old-age, and gives rise to multiple grandfathering roles and experiences. The chapter therefore focuses on grandfathering, identity construction and masculinities, and the contradictions that some men face in resolving these.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

This chapter is the first of three that present analyses of men’s accounts of their family participation and care trajectories. It explores the questions of how and in which ways men participate in their families in low-income contexts and foregrounds their diverse caring arrangements and family configurations and trajectories. An in-depth examination is presented of the diverse and divergent sets of caring arrangements described by men in different generational positions, drawing on empirical examples across the cases. The findings in this chapter demonstrate how caring arrangements in low-income families are both negotiated and contested over time. This includes across familial generations, between men and women and often in engagements with services and agencies external to families. Attention to these caring arrangements reveals how gendered and classed inequalities are reproduced within family practices, personal relationships and intergenerationally, sometimes requiring men to reassert their right to their families.

The dynamic processes and family trajectories of both the participants and their family members, which determined how the men’s caring arrangements came to be, are also explored. Such processes are revealing of the social and relational character of men’s caring arrangements in low-income contexts and of the circumstances and personal biographies that required these men to respond to and meet the support needs of their younger family members. Consideration of how the participants narrate their care responsibilities, caring masculinities and the family structures that produce them renders visible the diverse, relational pathways that characterise men’s family participation in low-income family contexts across the lifecourse.

The vulnerable family contexts and caregiving arrangements that men manage and negotiate in low-income families also foreground often ignored forms of socially marginalised fatherhoods.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

The extent to which men’s relationships and lived experiences in low-income families and contexts have been addressed in academic debates and discussion is examined in this chapter. Superficial readings of interdisciplinary literatures that engage with questions of men, poverty and family and community life show that they make strong assertions that men’s experiences are a key area of empirical neglect. Yet, these observations only serve to re-enforce, rather than address, their invisibility.

Drawing on an interdisciplinary scholarship from social history, sociology, social policy and social geography, the questions of how and why the social and relational dynamics and lived experiences of men in low-income families and contexts are often rendered invisible are interrogated. In-depth engagement with the literature explains the dominant and historically rooted policy preoccupation with fathers living in low-income families, which locates them within ‘problem’ and ‘underclass’ families, considers them absent, and relegates them to the margins of social and familial lives in the low-income localities and communities of urban Britain. This history has predominantly steered and underscored contemporary academic interest in the cultural politics of representational contexts and the sustained focus on crisis and father absence. While it is not possible to provide an exhaustive account of the histories and evolving policy contexts that have rendered empirical accounts of low-income fathers invisible in this chapter, tracing their development and intersections is vital to a more comprehensive understanding of men’s family participation in low-income families over time.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

When Theo, age 39, made this point in his interview for the MLPC study, he was providing informal kinship care to his niece, great-niece (aged 16 and 1) and nephews (aged 19, 8 and 5) following the death of his sister at the age of 32, and of his father 16 months prior to that. He had left employment to provide care for his two youngest nephews, one of whom has suspected learning difficulties, and was living for five days a week in his sister’s rented accommodation. The five children mentioned here did not include his son, aged 12, and stepson, aged 2, whom he saw only at irregular weekends when he was able. While a decision was being determined by social services about whether he would obtain a care order for his two youngest nephews, he was paying for this house out of his now depleted life savings and with some money borrowed from his mother. His mother, aged 61, has Crohn’s disease and was incapable of providing care for the children. When he did spend weekends with his partner, son and stepson he had to rely on his eldest nephew and niece to look after the two youngest children. He explained that he felt like he was being forced by social services into securing a Special Guardianship Order because, in his view and in the longer term, this was cheaper for the local authority. While all this was happening (over the school summer holidays) he had just £3.26 a day to support all five children, not including his own.

Theo’s quote has been used to open this chapter because it so effectively illustrates the key themes explored both in the research and this book.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

For children growing up in some of the poorest parts of the country, men are rarely encountered in the home or in the classroom. This is an ignored form of deprivation that can have profoundly damaging consequences on social and mental development. There are ‘men deserts’ in many parts of our towns and cities and we urgently need to wake up to what is going wrong. (Fractured Families Report press release, Centre for Social Justice, 2013)

‘From when I left my ex, I was paying [ex-partner] maintenance, but she was refusing to let me see [son from previous relationship] … my ex-partner, she’s never worked and she’s always sat on benefits, which then affected what happened to me, with the Child Support Agency1 … What she did was, she took two part time jobs … they weren’t legal jobs. The emphasis was then on me to grass her up for working on the side whilst at the same time being pursued for maintenance by the Child Support Agency. I couldn’t convince them, because they saw me just as an absent father who was disgruntled and would say anything. Although I had four step-children, they dismissed [names of step-children with current partner Carolyn] and said that they, and they actually wrote to us … they said, “they do not count, you are an absent parent”. It meant Carolyn was worse off and her children were worse off than before I moved in and I thought that was intolerable.’ (Victor, aged 44, re-partnered, low-income father, interviewed for the Timescapes2 Intergenerational Exchange study in 2008, Hughes and Emmel, 2011)

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Author: Anna Tarrant

A significant context in which men in low-income families negotiate their identities as ‘present’ fathers is in encounters with health and social care services. It is in these contexts that family tensions and disputes in relation to men’s roles, responsibilities and rights in connection with their children coalesce, are supported, refuted and sometimes denied (Tarrant and Hughes, 2019). In the first of the empirical chapters of the book, accounts are presented of men’s family participation and complex needs as observed by local welfare providers and professionals in the city where the MPLC study was conducted. These accounts render visible the local and national practice and policy contexts contouring men’s participation in low-income families and localities and develop an understanding of the (inter)dependencies of men with local services and providers. The findings confirm that marginalised men are most visible to services when they are seeking to secure resources on behalf of their families or in relation to the individual troubles they may experience, such as material deprivation, problems securing employment and/or physical and mental health problems.

The analyses presented in this chapter are interpretations of data generated from informal ethnographic conversations, semi-structured interviews and a knowledge-exchange workshop held with several professionals to share early findings from the secondary analysis work that was conducted using existing data about low-income men (see Chapter 1 and Appendix 2). The professionals who agreed to participate were at the coal-face of changing family patterns and had an accumulated wealth of knowledge about the problems men encounter in their personal and family lives. The findings illustrate the importance of local networks of formal support for families living in hardship, as well as how professionals interpret and respond to men’s experiences of marginalisation and disadvantage.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

This final empirical chapter focuses on the experiences of men residing in a low-income locality in the city where the MPLC study was conducted. It reports on the ethnographic methods employed at a community centre based in an area of deprivation in the city. The centre was described as an important site of care and connectedness by the professionals who supported recruitment of participants to the study (see Chapter 4) and this was also confirmed by the men themselves. Ethnographic approaches have proven to be an effective means for identifying, engaging with and foregrounding the voices of ostensibly ‘hard-to-reach’ populations, including low-income families (Hemmerman, 2010) and disadvantaged and economically deprived fathers (Wissö, 2018). Indeed, despite policy and public alarmism about the pervasiveness of ‘dad deprivation’ (Ashe, 2014) and ‘men deserts’ in low-income localities across Britain, the centre was a space where the presence of men was observed, including visibly as fathers.

In accessing some of the more marginalised men in the city it was possible to observe how and why being a father or carer remains an important identity for men even when access to children may have been compromised or lost. The limits to men’s family lives and relationships are also considered via the lens of their local engagement, social networks and community participation. With a proactive agenda towards supporting community members with their mental health, the community centre therefore became a key site for uncovering the lived experiences of diverse fathering in low-income contexts. As Bonner-Thompson and McDowell (2020) note, care itself has become much more precarious under the conditions of austerity, yet it has also enabled new and alternative spaces and practices of care to emerge (Power and Hall, 2017).

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Author: Anna Tarrant

Fathering and Poverty both connects with and contributes to, ongoing public and policy debates and interdisciplinary scholarship about pressing and intersecting societal discussions and debates. These include men, masculinities and fatherhood; gender and care; and the lived experiences of family poverty. Taking forward ideas about fathering, families and poverty in new ways that have implications for practice and policy, this chapter confirms the overall thesis for the book. It argues that in a context of social ambivalence about men as carers, men with caring responsibilities remain highly isolated and welfare and market provision for ‘caring masculinities’ is being neither produced nor sustained.

In evidencing this argument and elaborating these advances, the key conclusions from the MPLC study are summarised to foreground the dynamic, relational, intersectional and context-specific character of men’s experiences of low-income family life and caregiving across the lifecourse. This necessarily more complicated view of men and their participation in low-income families and contexts supports a more detailed understanding of the complex and evolving relationship between fathers, poverty, families and policy. I also re-emphasise that the realities of family and fathering for men in low-income contexts are often rendered invisible in research despite their heightened visibility in policy and public arenas.

It is important to acknowledge here that in bringing men’s family participation in low-income families to the fore, the intention is not to generalise about the diverse and divergent trajectories and biographies of men in low-income families. Similarly, the arguments made are not offered to deny when some men are absent from households and family contexts. Indeed, Chapter 1 presents statistical evidence of father absence from households caused by change in family structures and within couple relationships. Chapter 7 also considers some of the mechanisms and processes that produce men’s familial absence, highlighting where men are sometimes present in problematic ways as well.

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Author: Anna Tarrant

This chapter develops the conceptual framework for the empirical chapters of the book, outlining how dynamic and temporally orientated constructions of the key themes, namely fathering, poverty and family, underscore a sociological conceptualisation and explanation of men’s family participation in low-income families. Given the dearth of empirical attention to men’s care responsibilities and the patterning of their family lives and participation over time in low-income contexts, it is important to elaborate these key theoretical starting points. The concept of family participation is foregrounded in this book to capture, but also widen the scope of, current academic and policy interest in the father generation and to better understand how, why and when men participate in low-income family contexts. Greater family diversity and increased opportunities for men to engage in family care over the lifecourse are linked to both structural and cultural changes and indicate the need to incorporate and account for the active family participation of other male carers, as well as fathers.

Four currently disparate yet interrelated bodies of knowledge are woven together, synthesised and considered in relation to low-income fathering. These are family diversity and dynamics; masculinities ‘in transition’; the doing of kinship and family care; and approaches to theorising low-income family life. Drawing predominantly on feminist interdisciplinary literatures, the intersections of the gendered, classed and generational power relations that shape family relationships and structures are considered as foundational to the analyses and interpretations presented.

The chapter begins with a brief overview of qualitative longitudinal research as the key theoretical paradigm in which the study findings and conceptualisation of family participation are situated.

Given its intimate connection to the Timescapes programme of research (see Chapter 1), MPLC drew on perspectives and concepts from QLR.

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