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Gatekeeping in context: babymama drama and the involvement of incarcerated fathers.

In this study, we explore the process of negotiation between mothers and fathers to secure, to restrict, and to define men's roles in their children's lives. Field notes and life history interview data were collected with 40 incarcerated men in a work-release program in a Midwestern metropolitan community. Partnering relationships were marked by confusion and conflict due to incarceration, deteriorating commitments, and stresses of low-income family life. Half of the participants described their children's mothers' efforts to discourage their involvement, while almost 75% noted instances of mothers' encouragement of their involvement. We use Identity Theory to frame the transformation of father identities in response to correctional policies and negotiations with their children's mothers. We conclude with implications for the study of the process of maternal gatekeeping and paternal involvement in correctional facilities.

Keywords: fathering, gatekeeping, incarceration, low-income families, identity theory


Researchers have begun to pay closer attention to the ways in which fathering is situated in unique contexts (Marsiglio, Roy, & Fox, 2005). As the papers in this issue indicate, research on fathering and families in correctional facilities is underexplored (Day, Acock, Bahr, & Arditti, this issue). With a rapidly growing population of incarcerated offenders in the United States (Western, Pattillo, & Weiman, 2004), many men strive to develop relationships with their children from a distance. They may rely on mothers as important catalysts for these relationships (Clarke et al., this issue; Roy, 2005).

However, we know relatively little about how mothers encourage and/or discourage men's involvement during incarceration. Relatedly, how does this range of maternal gatekeeping behaviors shape men's identity transformation behind bars? In this study, we explore what incarcerated fathers describe as "babymama drama": the process of negotiation between mothers and fathers to secure, to restrict, and to define men's roles in their children's lives.


Research on incarceration and family life has commonly explored how men's family experiences lead to careers in crime and resulting incarceration (Laub & Sampson, 2004). In contrast, many recent studies discern how incarceration reshapes family life (Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). If families offer a fabric of interdependencies that keep men embedded in social relationships (Currie, 1985), then the sudden, involuntary separation of partners, parents, and children can lead to economic, psychological, and interpersonal problems for the entire family system (King, 1993). Qualitative studies have examined how incarceration presents extreme difficulties for paternal involvement and partnering relationships (Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003; Nurse, 2002; Roy, 2004).

As Clarke et al. (this issue) suggest, patterns of couple relationships are both complex and informal before and after incarceration. Over the course of confinement, some partnering relationships deteriorate considerably (Hairston, 1995). Women take on new roles as sole providers and decision-makers for their families, and they experience depression, loneliness, demoralization, and frustration with their incarcerated partner (King, 1993; Hannon, Martin, & Martin, 1984). Loss of emotional support from partners can trigger feelings of abandonment, isolation, rejection, and loss of self-esteem in men as well (Freedman & Rice, 1977). Incarcerated men can lose trust in their partners, straining communication and contributing to deterioration of relations (Showalter & Jones, 1980). They fear losing control of these relationships, particularly when partners threaten to leave them for new boyfriends (a process that young incarcerated men in Nurse's study (2002) called "the summer shake"). Partners struggle to maintain closeness in the face of stress, role flexibility, and leadership in relationships (Carlson & Cervera, 1992).

Fathers' incarceration has severe and negative consequences for children as well (Braman & Wood, 2003). Concerns with families' declining financial base and demands of childcare are often paramount (Hairston, 2003). Incarcerated fathers may emotionally retreat from their children as a means of dealing with the pain of separation (Palm, 1996). Many fathers feel overwhelmed by institutional life and withdraw into "hard timing," cutting off social ties with the outside world (Nurse, 2002). These processes may be related to a more general process of prisonization (Hannon, Martin, & Martin, 1984), in which men are socialized to accept a new set of values and roles as "incarcerated" men who are subject to strip searches; schedules for sleep, meals, and bathing; and roles with few responsibilities. For some men, surplus time to think about reformed family relationships may be the most positive aspect of fathering behavior in correctional facilities. There may also be a benefit to separation, which allows both partners freedom from one another to view relationships in a more favorable light (Hannon, Martin, & Martin, 1984).

Upon release, incarcerated fathers are expected to be decisive, responsible, and reliable members of their families and communities (Ekland-Olson, Supancic, Campbell, & Lenihan, 1983). This adjustment is made easier by the availability of supportive interpersonal ties and bridging networks. Supportive families and partners provide a stability zone for offenders that "softens the psychological impact of confinement" (Toch, 1975). Men who are tightly integrated into their families may have lower rates of recidivism (Hughes, 1998) and become increasingly aware of their responsibilities as parents, acting in a more prosocial manner both behind prison walls and in the free world (Lanier, 2003).


We borrow from three theoretical perspectives to frame this study. First, taking the lead from Dyer's paper in this issue, we use identity theory to examine the transformation of fathers' identities during incarceration. Ihinger-Tallman, Pasley, and Buehler (1993) relied on identity theory to describe the negotiation of father involvement post-divorce. This work, in addition to other recent studies (Maurer, Pleck, & Rane, 2001; Minton & Pasley, 1996), highlights the importance of mothers' role expectations for men's identities as nonresidential fathers. Mothers' appraisals of men's behavior in father roles are directly expressed through maternal gatekeeping behavior, either as encouragement or discouragement of men's involvement. The relational nature of gatekeeping, in this way, is central to how men interpret and give meaning to their identities as fathers (see Henley, 2004).

Men's identities are mutually negotiated through interaction in specific physical and social contexts (Marsiglio, Roy, & Fox, 2005). Identity theory is useful for examining father involvement during separation, either due to divorce or incarceration. As Dyer suggests, the specific context (prison or jail) and the length of sentence serve to interrupt the identity confirmation process (Burke, 1991). Men's family relationships are closely regulated in correctional institutions. Through regular contact or even through cutting off communication altogether, mothers can exacerbate the isolating effects of incarceration or provide an alternative set of role expectations for incarcerated fathers. Mothers of children can create new avenues for men to enact their father roles, reconfirming their identities as fathers during incarceration.

Second, we use recent conceptualizations of gatekeeping to understand the fathers' and mothers' negotiations post-incarceration. Men's parenting poses a challenge to researchers who conceive of families as systems of complicated dyadic interactions among family members. Models of normative paternal involvement suggest that men's parenting activities are closely tied to their behaviors as partners with the mothers of their children (Doherty, Kouneski, & Erikson, 1998; Townsend, 2002). The concept of maternal gatekeeping links diverse bodies of research, including studies of women's employment experiences, marital quality, responsible fatherhood, and different measures of father involvement, including interaction, access, and responsibility. Recent gatekeeping studies have focused on mothers' efforts to monitor, discourage, or deflect men's interaction with children and how the efforts intimately shape the nature of paternal involvement (Allen & Hawkins, 1999). Most of these studies have addressed married, middle-class, White mothers and fathers, although Fagan & Barnett (2003) extended the concept to low-income families of color and unmarried partners and parents. However, reviews of gatekeeping literature suggest that evidence for maternal gatekeeping--when conceptualized primarily as discouragement of men's involvement--is not robust (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004).

Cultural contexts also shape the processes of negotiation over men's involvement with children (Morgan, 2003). Seery & Crowley (2000) document women's facilitation and discouragement of middle-class White men's involvement with children, accomplished through emotion work in family relationships. Single mothers in low-income extended families actively recruit nonresidential fathers to provide a range of supports, including material resources, time for caregiving, and linkages to paternal kin (Roy & Burton, under review). In both of these contexts, mothers both restrict and promote relationships between children and fathers--relative to the needs of children and the dynamics of their partnering relationships (Walker & McGraw, 2000). Attention to cultural contexts expands our understanding of the range of gatekeeping processes and offers insight into how mothers and fathers build partnering and parenting roles.

The challenges to active fathering during incarceration are substantial. Daily life and policies in correctional facilities create high levels of stress for fathers and their families, pushing already tenuous relationships between partners and parents to the breaking point. The third theoretical conceptualization used to examine post-prison fathering is the notion of ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999). This concept complicates how we think about fathers' identities within constrained physical and social contexts. Although the concept first described psychological father absence in intact families (Boss, 2004), it also helps us to conceptualize the effects of fathers' physical and psychological absence from their families due to incarceration. Men are limited to a few hours of contact with family members over the course of many weeks, although they still live and work in local communities. Under these conditions, fathers, mothers, and children pass through extended periods of liminality, in which men are beyond contact, "neither here nor there" (Roy, 2005). Role expectations for fathers grow confused; even if mothers welcome their communication, fathers cannot see or talk to their children on a regular basis. The theory of ambiguous loss emphasizes how family boundaries become ambiguous and how, in an effort to regain some control over family relationships, mothers may struggle to carefully define and monitor men's involvement through gatekeeping.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin in midyear 2003, two-thirds of more than two million persons were in custody of state and federal prisons, with one-third of inmates (almost 700,000) held in jails with local jurisdiction (Harrison & Karberg, 2004). Since 1995, the nation's jail population on a per capita basis has increased 23%. Nine percent of the jailed population in midyear 2003 was supervised in alternative programs, including community service (24% of inmates in alternative programs), weekend reporting (17%), electronic monitoring (18%), and pretrial supervision (16%) (Harrison & Karberg, 2004).

Work programs (the research sites of the present study) have historically served as warehouses for cheap labor with otherwise unengaged working men who might pose a threat to social order (Hopper, 2003; Mizruchi, 1987). Currently, these programs, including work release, work gangs, and other work alternative programs, accounted for 4,498 persons in midyear 2003 (6% of inmates in alternative programs) (Harrison & Karberg, 2004). First created in the 1970s and 1980s as local alternatives to jail, segregated work-release facilities house and monitor offenders of nonviolent crimes (inability to pay child support or alcohol- and drug-related violations, such as public intoxication or operating a vehicle while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs) for sentences of six weeks to 18 months in duration. Some offenders may move through the work-release facility as a transitional program, prior to exiting the system after a longer sentence in prison.

Work-release programs require offenders to work in the community in order to pay rent and related expenses. As minimum-security sites, they permit inmates to travel to and from work, restricting men to quick stops to pick up food, which is not provided on-site apart from vending machines. Program staff manages men's interaction with family members, and visitation times are minimal. Most inmates cannot visit with their children or partners without a pre-approved pass to leave the facility. Passes are offered sparingly and are written for limited amounts of time. In Indiana, for example, offenders could receive up to two blue passes per month that varied in duration (two hours, four hours, and eight hours), contingent on the amount of time served in the facility (90 days, six months, and one year, respectively) (Roy, 2005). There is variation in the degree to which programs call for a "deep break" (Nurse, 2002) between offenders and their families, depending on length of sentence, distance from family households, and family contact guidelines.



In this study of incarcerated fatherhood, we draw upon the strengths of qualitative approaches to address context, dynamic processes, and subjective perspectives (Burgess, 1982; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Both structural and phenomenological approaches to the social construction of fatherhood were important to the research design (Lupton & Barclay, 1997). First, we used participant observation and field work in context, to reveal micro-level individual, group, and neighborhood processes and patterns that are missed or obscured by less intensive methods (Jarrett & Burton, 1999). Second, we recruited a focused sample of fathers for life-history interviews to understand the meaning systems that undergird paternal roles, how meaning systems are socially constructed, and how deeply held beliefs and values are influenced by opportunities and constraints (Jarrett, Roy, & Burton, 2002). This range of qualitative methods "may play a crucial role in developing a rich understanding of cultural context and interpersonal processes associated with ... how fathers are directly or indirectly involved in their children's lives" (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, 8,: Lamb, 2000, p. 1179).


As facilitators of a "life after incarceration" curriculum, our team of four researchers (a Black male, two White males, and one White female) spent 18 months directing weekly workshop sessions with men involved in a work-release program in a small metropolitan county in Indiana. These men were serving sentences of up to two years and were formally restricted to the facility during nonwork hours. From approximately 80 different participants in eight workshop groups, we identified each participant who was a father and asked whether the man wanted to volunteer for an interview about father involvement. Almost every father was interested in participation, although we ultimately interviewed 40 men--typically those with first or second work shifts who were not in the workplace and who were awake during the hours when we could conduct interviews (4 p.m. to 8 p.m.).

The sample reflected the age and racial/ethnic diversity in the work-release program in Indiana (Indianapolis Department of Correction Fact Card, 2004). It included 28 White fathers, l0 Black fathers, one Asian-American, and one Native-American father. The sample was diverse in terms of age with 17 of the men between the ages of 23 and 28, 14 of the men between the ages of 29 and 40, and nine of the men over the age of 40. On average, fathers had two children. Eight men had only one child, 22 men had two or three children, and six men had four or more children. Four of the fathers were expecting a child or were social fathers of their partner's biological children. Men's engagement in program services and their continuing reflection on fathering allowed a strong rapport to develop between researchers and participants.


Multiple methods of data collection were utilized for this study. Interviews were conducted and recorded during two-hour sessions in small classrooms in the correctional facility. Using a life-history protocol, we asked men to discuss various turning points in their lives, such as changes in employment, education, residence, or families of origin and procreation. During the interviews, we plotted timing and sequencing of turning points onto life-history calendar grids, a methodological technique that enhances the validity of longitudinal data (Freeman, Thornton, Camburn, Alwin, & Young-Demarco, 1988; Scott & Alwin, 1998). While discussing these turning points, we asked fathers to consider how relationships with their current or former partners helped to shape or define their involvement as incarcerated parents. Also, two members of the research team served as participant observers and developed field notes that detailed men's accounts of fathers' relationships with the mothers of their children. Complete field notes were collected systematically for the first three meetings with a workshop group, and targeted notes were developed for subsequent meetings (those relevant to curricular issues, such as group exercises on family relationships). In this analysis, field notes were used only to validate patterns in the interview data. We also constructed genograms for each participant in the project.

We established trustworthiness in data collection through reliance on a range of established criteria (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Data credibility was enhanced through prolonged engagement and persistent observation in the field. Triangulation of multiple sources of data (including researchers, program staff, and fathers themselves) along with multiple methods of data collection helped to meet criteria for both credibility and dependability of data. We also used member checks (in-person discussions with fathers some weeks after the interviews) to validate preliminary notions of the process of "babymama drama."

Interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed, and both interviews and field notes were coded for fatherhood themes with the QSR NUDIST qualitative data analysis program. The basic elements of grounded-theory approach informed a constant comparative method of an analytic induction (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We re-read interview texts and developed a simple coding scheme using sensitizing concepts (van der Hoonaard, 1997), such as maternal gatekeeping and identity work, as well as emergent codes, like babymama drama. During a wave of axial coding, we compared and contrasted patterns of coding within and across 40 cases. We also constructed profiles to consolidate this information for each father and the range of his partners. Finally, a conceptual framework for selective coding was developed to link patterns of various sub-codes to the core category of identity work for incarcerated fathers (Strauss, 1990). For example, we integrated patterns of encouragement and discouragement of father's involvement to offer insights into the process and context of gatekeeping.


Incarcerated men in this study were embedded in multiple, complex partnering and/or parenting relationships over time. Each father described a range of relationships with one or more mothers of his children as well as partners with whom there were no biological children. Of the 40 fathers, 31 men (78%) had children with only one woman. Another eight men (20%) had children with two women, and one had children with three women. These relationships often extended beyond "break up" and overlapped with each other. Over the course of men's incarceration, partners spoke of tentative expectations for each other. Relationships were marked with ambiguity and were considered to be "on again/off again."

Researchers have linked men's parenting and men's partnering through the notion of maternal gatekeeping. Many studies document mothers' discouragement of men's involvement as parents, and almost half of the men in this study (48%) described such experiences. However, a larger percentage of men (74%) suggested how mothers of their children encouraged their involvement despite incarceration. In particular, just over one of every four fathers (26%) identified experiences of discouragement and encouragement from the same mother.

In the following sections, we discuss the process of "babymama drama" as a negotiation of expectations for men's roles as fathers. First, we explore how partnering relationships were marked by confusion and conflict due to incarceration, deteriorating commitments, and stresses of low-income family life. Next, we examine, in the context of "doing time" in a work-release setting, how mothers' efforts either to discourage or to encourage paternal involvement forced men to rework their identities as fathers. Throughout these examples, we also indicate how facility policies reshape the ways in which partners negotiate involvement--and, as result, reshape men's relationships with their children and current or former partners.


Fathers and the mothers of their children faced ambiguous and conflicting messages about how they should act as parents and partners. Crafting a workable plan for father involvement was much more challenging when men were serving time in jail. Most of these relationships "had a history": they moved through cycles of hope and distrust over time. What is referred to in family research as maternal gatekeeping--the role of mothers in shaping father involvement in the context of their partnering relationship--was referred to as "babymama drama" by participants in the study. Babymama drama was a process of negotiation of men's roles as fathers. It reflected a risky balance of conflict and support between incarcerated fathers and their former or current partners.

Mothers and fathers bore the brunt of accumulated histories of animosity in intimate and family relationships. Marley, a 32-year-old father of two grade-school children, felt that communicating with his children's mother was "like walking on broken glass all over the place." Bob, a 24-year-old father of a two-year-old, realized that his biggest challenge was maintaining a friendship with his ex-partner. He said, "It's the last thing I want to do, to end up back with her ... but I love her to death. My grandpa always told me that there is a thin line between love and hate, and I'm starting to find that out." Incarceration was only one of many difficult barriers facing partners who sorted out their relationships. For Jake, another 32-year-old father of two children, visits to see his children depended on "whether I was drinking or not." During incarceration, scheduled visits with his children also depended "on her mood, I guess. She once told me that she has to have a crisis in her life or she doesn't feel normal." It was common for mothers of children to share many of the same problems as fathers: drug use, depression, violent family and intimate relationships, even incarceration.

The process of making damaged relationships workable was long and arduous. Deacon, a 27-year-old father who had never seen his five-year-old son, admitted that "a lot of tricky workings behind the scenes" were necessary to reestablish trust and communication. Remy, a 27-year-old African-American father of three gradeschoolers, did not believe that conflict over father involvement was inevitable, even in prison.
 You always hear about babymama drama, but my kids' moms
 ain't like that. When me and my oldest daughter's morn broke up,
 we broke up on bad terms. It took us a year, and we patched
 everything up when I was in here, and it's cool.

Incarcerated fathers needed to speak to their children's mothers about common interests. Ben, a former contractor and divorced father of two teens, finally sat down with his ex-wife in the midst of "doing time." He realized that "just because we can't get along, we still have to be parents; you try to keep some kind of normality." Fathers with more than one partner had greater challenges balancing different needs. Addressing jealousy that had built up over time was next to impossible from within the correctional facility. Chris, a 21-year-old father of two children from different mothers, put off dealing with damaging misunderstandings: "The biggest challenge after release will be to get back into my older son's life and reestablish a good relationship with his mother and balance that relationship with my son and current partner."

Instability and stress from living in poverty, multiple residential moves, and repeat jail terms resulted in parents losing contact over time. Keith, a 25-year-old African-American father of two toddlers, had been moved from jail into the work-release facility. He said, "Seeing my son is iffy. I lost track of his mother and recently just found out where she was, by a big fluke." Limited resources also kept current and former partners apart and fathers out of contact with their children. Chris admitted that he could not get in contact with his older daughter's mother. "She has a cell phone with prepaid minutes," he said, "and if she has the minutes, then I can talk to her--but if not, I can't."

Over the period of incarceration, mothers could not rely on fathers as parents or partners, and as a result they grew more financially and socially independent. Most fathers interpreted this new sense of independence as a failure to take responsibility as mothers. Men did not know whether children's mothers were "trying to palm off the kid so she can go out on weekends or what." Particularly for incarcerated men, this freedom of mobility was enviable. Randy, a 24-year-old father of a second grader, felt that "[my son's mother] is always kind of glad to get rid of Tim for awhile. She'd rather go out with her friends, and she calls my mom all the time. She gets him to ask 'Can I spend the night?'" Some mothers disappeared into prison or drug use as well, and fathers were left to negotiate access to their children with her family members.

Babymama drama took its toll over many months of trying to figure out how to remain involved as an incarcerated father. For their part, some fathers tried to keep a safe distance from potential frustration with men's inability to contribute. Andy admitted that "being locked up is easy; being in the same room, doing things with her again, that might be difficult." Lombardo, a 30-year-old tree cutter and father of two stepdaughters, avoided the tug of war with the mother of his firstborn son. He said, "We don't hate each other, but I don't love her. We get along for his sake and save face, I guess. She never pushed him on me, and she never pulled him from me." Limiting his interaction with his son's mother reduced tension and allowed him the time and space to reflect on his life and to get reacquainted with his son. Ronald, a 24-year-old White father of one- and five-year-old sons, grew to anticipate and then accept conflict with his former partner and current coparent: "I'm gonna have drama with both of my kids' mothers until the kids are both 18. Period. I ain't really worried about it as long as I get my kids."


About half of the men in the study reported that mothers of their children actively discouraged their involvement. From their perspectives, in the atmosphere of heightened conflict and strict correctional policies about family interaction, many mothers did not allow men to participate in decisions or interaction with children. The months of separation wore on men, many of whom heard nothing from their children. Men became frustrated at being unable to be the fathers that they once were--or that they knew they could be. Roland, a 40-year-old Black former steel worker, was father to four children. He could not use a pass to visit his children who lived just out of reach, a two-hour drive away. But he placed primary blame on his children's mother for not including him in the everyday turning points in his young sons' lives.
 If she was a good mother, she would say, "Why don't you write
 your daddy? Why don't you draw him a picture? Let me send this
 to your daddy." I asked her to do let me see their scribbles, put it
 in a little frame, when they first started writing and drawing.

Some mothers did bring children to see their fathers but kept tight control over the limited interactions. Many men realized that mothers were fearful of their substance abuse, violence, or sporadic contributions to families. However, fathers also realized that tight control limited their chance even to establish a relationship with their children. Marley described how the stress of confrontations with his ex-partner during visits took precedence over any effort to spend time with his children.
 She asks for money, and I give her money, just drive money [for
 gas]. Never mind the baby's crying; I don't get a chance to hug
 him or nothing. Stuff like that, to get back at me.

Fathers had few choices but to live and work with mothers' decisions about visitation and children's access to paternal kin. Over the course of incarceration, Boo, a 23-year-old White father, saw less and less of his two young stepsons.
 I don't really see the boys anymore, unless their mother brings
 them out to pick up my daughter. Since I've been locked up, my
 mom gets her two weeks out of the month. Mom will try to get
 ahold of my baby's mother, but she don't answer the phone for
 three, four days.

For these men, the isolating atmosphere of the program was enhanced by the rejection of mothers and inability to interact with children. Enhanced isolation led many fathers to despair and to "hard time," cutting off all relations with family members. A few fathers, though, found deeper meaning in resistance to the efforts of mothers and the facility to severely limit their fathering. Deacon spent many hours reflecting on his relationships. He realized that he could work for a relationship with his son despite incarceration, and he began to petition courts for paternity and visitation upon release.
 Going to jail helped me refocus. I sat in jail, not getting letters
 from anybody; nobody accepted my phone calls. It really makes
 you open your eyes and be, like, "I can't count on people if I can't
 count on myself." She's tried to discourage me from being with
 Brian. Makes me angry and drives me harder to be a part.

If mothers were accessible by phone or through paternal kin, fathers had some chance to see their children. However, since the correctional facility severely restricted men's mobility, the most effective way to discourage men's involvement was to move children out of town. Evan, a 39-year-old alcoholic, had not seen his two teenage children from a previous marriage for many years. However, he had recently established regular contact with his five-year-old daughter, Kate, and he felt as if he was a father "for the first time." Evan was desperate to retain his identity and the promise of being a parent, but his partner was fearful of his drinking habits.
 So she moves to Kentucky. She's trying to put her foot down, but
 yet not fall back into my web, because she don't believe I'll quit
 [drinking]. I feel like I'm losing another family, and now here we
 go again; I'm gonna lose Kate the Great, too.

On the other hand, moving children closer to the community where the program was situated could mean "a pretty big shift on many levels." One father from the workshop recalled, "It wasn't long after the move-back that she started to let me make decisions [for my son]. I get to see him regularly, every two weeks."

In addition to physical relocation, it was very difficult for incarcerated fathers to secure involvement as they navigated new intimate relationships. Partners were often jealous of men's involvement with children from previous relationships. Roland tried repeatedly to find a car ride to bring his four children, from two different partners, together for a few hours on the weekend. The logistical challenge paled next to mothers' resistance to each other.
 They feuding with each other: one don't want the other taking care
 of her kid, and that one don't want the other taking care of her
 kid. But that ain't the issue. That's the bottom line: I'm trying
 to get them to unite, to meet. I don't care what you're all going
 through; let's get the kids to meet their brothers and sisters.

Fathers were also discouraged by mothers' new partners, who could threaten or even undermine men's hard-won status as parents and partners. Boyfriends and husbands refused to allow children to visit the facility and put blocks on home telephones. Randy endured many months of his ex-partner's new husband and noticed that she was more receptive to his interaction with the children after separation. He said, "When she was married, her husband was always crappy to me.... It was just basically him in the picture causing problems." Several men worried about their children's exposure to violent men. In jail, they could not guarantee children's safety, which they saw as a basic responsibility of fatherhood. Danny, a 33-year-old White father of two preschool-age boys, received calls at the facility from his ex-partner.
 When she would have problems with Jim, it would be OK for me
 to see the kids and take them. She'd call and be crying, "I need
 help." Last time he beat her and hit her with a glass table. The
 kids seen all of this, so I took the kids to my family, and I told
 her until he is totally up out of her life, I ain't giving you the
 kids back.

Empathy and emotional support for fathering opportunities were vital during incarceration, and many men turned repeatedly to current or former partners for encouragement to see them through the stress of the work-release program. For some, the greatest fear was "losing my kids' mother," who offered emotional support and parenting privileges. For John, a 42-year-old father, his partner's betrayal overwhelmed his tentative efforts to reconnect with his children.
 I had a feeling that she [was cheating on me while I was in] prison.
 I kept asking, and she didn't tell me. I kept writing, writing, and
 didn't get no more letters. You know when you're in a relationship
 and they're lying. I thought "Why in the hell am I doing this?"

Similarly, Roland relied on the tangible support of his partner during difficult days in the facility. When another charge doubled his time in the work-release program, he found that she was ready to move on from their relationship--and from arranging his visits with his children.
 I said, "What's wrong, baby? I thought you said you loved me. I
 thought you said you were going to be there for me." She said, "I
 was until you got the [charge]. I don't want you to call me no
 more. I met somebody else." Click. You can usually put two and
 two together. When you ain't out there handling things, she's
 gonna get someone else to do it for her. She's got needs that need
 to be filled, too.

In summary, half of the men in the study struggled with partners who limited access to and interaction with children during incarceration. Often, tense relations and frustration led women to ignore pleas for involvement, to physically relocate children, or to explore new relationships that could threaten fragile understandings about emotional support and fathering. Incarcerated fathers had little control or leverage in which to negotiate more involvement with children. They feared being isolated or replaced as parents and partners; they grew frustrated at having few options through which to demonstrate fathering behaviors. Identity work, in the contested context of babymama drama while behind bars, was challenging since fathering expectations between parents remained confusing and often unresolved.


Fathers were also asked if they felt that partners encouraged their involvement with their children. Almost three-quarters of all men in the study noted moments in which mothers consciously promoted their opportunities to be fathers. Their responses went beyond expressions of social desirability; fathers noted specific strategies by which children's mothers encouraged their involvement. This concrete acts confirmed that men's desires to be fathers were accepted and needed. Support for paternal involvement offered incarcerated fathers hope for a meaningful family role after release from the facility. As a result, some men struggled to keep rising expectations for involvement in check.

From the men's perspectives, emotional support from children's mothers reflected integrity and commitment to "be there" through periods of isolation and stress. In itself, this type of support encouraged men to be better friends, partners, and even parents. Lionel, a 42-year-old Black father of an eight- and 10-year-old, was impressed with the insistence of his common-law wife to stay at home before his incarceration. He hoped to fulfill her wishes after release.
 She wanted me to be home more. It's the thing to do, the place to
 be: Be at home with your kids and be a family. I thought I was
 doing the right thing, going to work, taking care of this and that.
 But now it just don't seem right, and there wasn't enough time. I
 think about that a lot now.

Men were strengthened when they received emotional support in difficult times. Marley was frustrated by the poor quality of work options for a father of color. He was able to suppress his anger by returning again and again to a conversation that he recently had with his ex-wife, one of the only supportive persons in his life.
 She'll come out and say, "You are one of the most intelligent,
 creative...." She'll just start complementing me, "You've got so
 much going for you." She kept encouraging me. I love the woman,
 man. I still care about the woman. She's the mother of my kids.

Partners could also provide instrumental support in tandem with words of encouragement. Roland felt helpless in the face of courtroom debates over child support and his criminal record. After desertion by two wives, he prized loyalty from his partners. He relied on his girlfriend to navigate his case and to argue for continuing access to his children in the courtroom. He said, "She knows what I'm going through. She was, like, 'I ain't letting you go nowhere.' Without her, I would have still been in prison. I had to let her take control; I gave it all to her."

Men acknowledged that the mothers of their children "had a hard time" throughout the process of incarceration. Mothers also developed a deep understanding of what it took for daily survival in a correctional facility. Fathers referenced this level of understanding when they stated, simply, "She gets it." For example, Keith's partner had decided to keep him out of the picture with his son. However, with his incarceration and a death in the family, she began to understand his situation and became an active supporter of his involvement.
 My grandmother just passed, and my daughter's mother knows
 how much to take her away from me would just kill me. Every
 Wednesday, she calls in time to see if I want to see her, or if
 there's a weekend that she knows that she doesn't have anything
 planned, and I don't have anything planned, then I'll see her.

Empathy also allowed children's mothers to share in fathers' frustration with limited visitation rules. Some men asked their partners to bring their children to see them in the community during lunch hours or trips back from the workplace, a strategy that ran the risk of earning them a violation. When the stress of the facility became too much, Marley would approach his ex-partner about bringing his kids to the local diner, where he cleared tables.
 I can't help myself. Sometimes I'm, like, "Yeah, bring them over
 here. Sit down and eat. I'm paying for this. Let me just see my
 kids." She's pretty cool about doing that for me. If I get caught, I
 get caught. I mean, it's worth it for me.

For some men, perseverance through "histories" of conflict led partners to acknowledge their value as parents. Despite most fathers' negative experiences with their children's mothers' new partners, Keith felt that these new relationships helped his fathering. A 25-year-old father of two toddlers with two different mothers, he could be clear with his former partners about his intentions to be a parent.
 One of the biggest problems was that they told me that they still
 loved me, and I was not in love with them. So I guess the way to
 hurt me was to keep me away from my children. But now they are
 getting married, in their own secure relationships, and it makes it
 a whole lot easier. It takes a lot of stress off our relationships.
 It gives me more of a chance to interact with my daughter and son.

For Charles, an older father with three adult children, the weight of bad relationships in his girlfriend's family led to a firm commitment to his involvement. In spite of his alcoholism and incarceration, he could compensate for his partner's early experiences with her own parents.
 Her mother had four children by four different men. She's the
 youngest, so they all grew up talking about each others' daddies.
 She said that would never happen to her children. We got little
 jokes. I used to tell her [the kids] ain't mine. "Aw, they're yours,
 all right." I'm their daddy, and they're going to know their daddy,
 everybody in the world gonna know. She was set on that.

Most mothers took what men considered to be a "wait-and-see" approach--cautious about allowing men into their children's lives but supportive if he made productive changes. Some mothers welcomed the two-hour release time that fathers earned every few weeks, and they allowed their children to meet their fathers during Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays. Most mothers permitted men's efforts to communicate with their children as well, usually early evening calls from the public pay phone in the common room of the correctional facility. At times they placed blocks on phone calls but then removed them to accept collect calls from men in jail. Although Evan's ex-partner discouraged his involvement by relocating to Kentucky, he felt some reassurance when she kept a channel of communication open between him and his daughter.
 She does let me talk on the phone to [Kate], pretty much whenever
 I try to get in touch with her. Enough to where I feel like I'm
 growing up with her a little bit. In my mind, I'm saying, "It's
 going to be OK, she's only going to be 6 or 7 when I get out, and
 I'll see her again and keep that relationship."

Many mothers left open the possibility for a second chance for men to reestablish contact with their children. Second chances encouraged men not to let go of being fathers and to resolve problems that had placed them in the work-release program in the first place. Ronald, a 24-year-old White father, broke up with the mother of his one-year-old daughter during the first months of incarceration. He knew that he had "pushed her away" with his lifestyle of drugs, but he respected her willingness to wait for him to "come around" to his children.
 [She] ain't going to keep my kids from me. I don't think it will
 ever come to that; [her family] are not that kind of people. Like I
 tell them, let me get caught up with what I'm already behind on.
 Let me get out of here and get back into their lives.

A few fathers and mothers could maintain their commitment to each other despite incarceration, and men had an open invitation to be with their children whenever and wherever it emerged. Trent, a 24-year-old father, was married to the mother of his fourth child, Patricia, who kept him informed of his son's activities. From his perspective, even his sporadic visits reflected continuity of intergenerational values in their families.
 She said, "You can stop by anytime you want. Call anytime you
 want. Take him." And I did that because she wanted our son to
 know his father. That's because of the way we were both raised.
 She'll say, "You need to go to his T-Ball thing." And she doesn't
 have to encourage me. I like to go to those things. My dad went to
 my stuff. He looks exactly like me when I was a child. He reminds
 me so much of me.

For eight fathers, or about 20% of the sample, mothers took a much more active part in recruiting and pulling incarcerated men into their children's lives. Typically, mothers transported fathers back and forth to work every day, a policy which was permissible through the facility. Although unintended, children's presence in the back seat of the car gave men a chance to check in frequently. Jake was a 32-year-old metal worker with seven- and nine-year-old children. He was surprised at the commitment of his former partner: "She's gone overboard on her part, bringing the kids over, transporting me to them a lot, and picking them up."

Mothers could serve as catalysts by coordinating incarcerated men's permitted visits and attendance at public events. Jimmy, a 45-year-old metal worker with three teenagers, asserted that his wife "... is always wanting me to go to Fall Festival, a play this Thursday, a wrestling meet in a few weeks." Lionel's partner was similarly dedicated to keeping her children in contact with their father. She coordinated meeting times and places apart from his scheduled visits so that he could "run into" his kids in the community. He stated simply, "I see the kids whenever I want to. This work-release thing is a problem, but it's not that bad--I still get to go home every once in awhile." As catalysts of father involvement, they set new expectations for fathering and established new opportunities to interact with children. In this way, identity work during incarceration could be productive and even promising.

The work-release program provided men with many hours of isolation in which to confront difficulties from past relationships. This chance for soul searching and separation from social relationships was important, particularly for fathers addicted to alcohol and other substances. Reflection led some fathers to renewed levels of commitment to their children and to new stages of relationships with their partners, including marriage, separation, and divorce. Most fathers knew that a promise of a "change of heart" meant little compared to desistance from substance use and positive interactions with partners and children. The opportunity for two-hour visits every few weeks offered Lombardo a structure within which to rework his involvement with his son.
 Work release helped me get to see him more. I really don't get to
 see him much, I only have four hours on my passes, and by the
 time I drive out to my mom and dad's to see him, I've got to turn
 around and come back. But at least his mom knows that I drove out
 there to see him. That I do care. Hell, I don't know if it will

In summary, the majority of fathers received some type of encouragement for their involvement with children. Even mothers' "wait-and-see" approach that allowed men to call or meet with children confirmed potential for transformed expectations as fathers. About 20% of the fathers described partners who actively created opportunities for contact with children. Emotional support from current or former partners also encouraged men's parenting, if only in that it suggested that children's mothers understood their stress, confusion, loneliness, and anger. Restricted in their interaction with children, fathers translated mothers' encouragement as support to make the best of time in isolation and to reassess family relationships.


Incarcerated men are stigmatized as untrustworthy partners who might be unable to financially contribute (Edin, 2000; Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). We would expect current and former partners of incarcerated fathers to discourage their involvement with children. These findings would run parallel to previous studies of maternal gatekeeping, which emphasize how mothers work to limit nonresidential fathers' involvement with children. In this study, incarcerated fathers referred to "babymama drama" to represent maternal efforts to discourage and, which is more significant, encourage men's involvement. Situated in a correctional facility, gatekeeping emerged as a complex and often ambiguous process of negotiation and identity transformation, in which men reworked their identities as fathers.

Maternal gatekeeping is more than mothers' values or beliefs about paternal involvement. It is an active process of negotiating overlapping role expectations as partners and parents, and it requires a focus on "what goes on" between mothers and fathers. Studies of gatekeeping often focus on conflictual partnering relationships (such as in divorce and other nonresidential parenting). In such situations, mothers may exercise greater control and restrict fathers' access to children. However, as this study suggests, mothers can also exercise control to open gates as catalysts for involvement, such as during incarceration. Mothers often recruit low-income fathers for much-needed financial contributions, time for caregiving, and connections to paternal kin (Roy & Burton, under review). We find that "babymama drama," as a process of gatekeeping over negotiated roles, requires an active response from fathers. For example, actions to restrict men's access to children were seen by mothers as responsible mothering but by fathers as threats to their second chances for family involvement after release. However, we noted how both incarcerated fathers and their children's mothers could develop a sense of empathy with each others' challenges (see also Clarke et al., this issue), and that this empathy could be vital to the encouragement of men's involvement.

Work-release programs are particularly unique sociospatial environments: they allow for offenders' transit to and from workplaces and family settings and result in limited sentences (Roy, 2005). Negotiations over men's roles as incarcerated fathers are shaped by shared frustrations, increasing independence for children's mothers, new logistical hurdles (like limited time for interaction or extensive physical distances), and the effects of prisonization as men drift away from social relationships. A period of incarceration may offer a turning point in men's lives as parents (Edin, Nelson, & Paranal, 2004). This study also suggests that time away from families may contribute to successful desistance from substance abuse. This may be particularly true in environments in which offenders find interstitial spaces to resist helplessness and a discouraging culture of prisonization (Arditti et al., this issue; Clarke et al., this issue).

Men in this study lived a dual life, within and beyond the correctional system. As family members who were neither psychologically nor physically present, incarcerated fathers became liminal figures in circumstances similar to ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999). Dyer (this issue) asserts that incarcerated fathers have a dearth of options available for behaviors that would reinforce or reconfirm their identities. We found that mothers often shaped men's involvement by simultaneously encouraging and discouraging their fathering, which required ongoing identity transformation for incarcerated men (see also Maruna, 2001). In particular, mothers' strategies of encouragement of involvement, in this minimal security facility, may allow men to salvage old and new family relationships. The informality of the partnering relationships in this context can provide opportunities to resolve ambiguous loss. Mothers and fathers negotiated new role expectations, leading to firmer relationship boundaries during incarceration.

We relied exclusively on fathers' reports of maternal gatekeeping. In comparison to other studies of gatekeeping (such as Arditti et al., this issue), we found more reports of mothers' encouragement strategies. These differences may be due to use of different methodological techniques. First, over 11 weeks in the field with each group of men, we had multiple opportunities for exchange and took part in more extended discussions about relationships, which allowed fathers to disclose their need for emotional support and the importance of mothers' emotion work. Second, the culture of the work release program, in contrast to other correctional facilities (see Nurse, 2002), was more supportive of intimate relationships with children's mothers. This could be due to the relatively short time that offenders spent away from their families, which can convey a sense of hope for renewed relations. However, the "halo effect" of imminent release and high expectations for family relationships (Day et al., this issue) were evident as well, and our data did not allow us to observe if mothers' encouragement actually resulted in renewed paternal involvement.

Mothers' reports would contribute to a more accurate understanding of encouraging and discouraging behaviors and, perhaps most important, motivation for gatekeeping. Future studies with a focus on parenting and partnering relationships should gather matched pairs of reports to best assess how gatekeeping changes over time. Finally, comparative research on the effects of different correctional settings--prison or jail programs, for example--would offer insight into differences in paternal involvement and the potential for promoting active parenting for incarcerated men.


Correctional facilities and policies shape family relationships as well as the level of social capital and collective efficacy of neighborhoods in which families live--and to which inmates return upon release (Rose & Clear, 2003). If facilities allow only one partner and set of children for visitation (Nurse, 2002) or punish inmates for contact with their children, they will do very little to assist incarcerated men to foster these relationships. However, sentences in work-release programs are shorter, which may keep expectations high that men can maintain their involvement with children, despite separation and regulation.

Throughout the period of incarceration, fathers and the mothers of their children take part in ongoing negotiations over the potential for his involvement in family life. Children's mothers may restrict whatever limited access men have to their children, which enhances the isolation of correctional facilities. Mothers may also work to encourage men's fathering during incarceration. In this study, there were few opportunities provided by the program for family interaction, and mothers and fathers made the most out of what little time and space was available. However, by following the lead of incarcerated fathers and their current or former partners who work to encourage men's involvement, correctional programs can promote potential recommitment to father/child relationships as well as partnering relations, upon release (Maruna, 2001). Most important, in the creation of effective family policies, programs that promote supportive interpersonal ties may actually deter recidivism and contribute to a new ethos of rehabilitation (Clarke et al., this issue).

This study was conducted with support from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development under Project No. 5 R03 HD 42074-2 and the Purdue Research Foundation at Purdue University. The authors would like to thank Melissa Morgan and Keith Cross for assistance in data analyses.


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Kevin M. Roy

University of Maryland

Omari L. Dyson

Purdue University
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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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