The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Fathers in Visiting Relationships

Non-residential fathering in the Caribbean is common and raises deep questions.

Do you have to live with your child to be an engaged father? No, as plenty of separated fathers who live apart from their children can attest, or even other fathers who serve time away on military duty or in other lines of work. Here, we shift our view to the fathering landscape in the African Caribbean and find that many fathers are involved in their children’s lives, but do not live with them or an ongoing partner. Through involvement in fatherhood projects in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and St. Kitts, the common expression of fathering within visiting relationships (rather than cohabitational marriage or common-law unions) stands out. In Jamaica, one estimate is that about half of all children are born into visiting relationships, while another data set found that about a third of fathers of newborns were in visiting relationships.

There are parallels between the visiting relationships that have been described for decades in Caribbean scholarship and growing literature, primarily from Europe and North America, on LAT (living apart together) relationships. Both kinds of relationships recognize that couples may have emotionally and sexually charged relationships even though individuals live apart from each other. However, a key distinction is that visiting relationships are more likely to entail childbearing. For many parents in Jamaica, St. Kitts or other parts of the Caribbean, they may be in a visiting relationship, with individuals living with their respective families, when a woman bears a first or second child. That visiting relationship may evolve into a coresidential relationship—the couple may move in with each other in a common-law union or perhaps at even later ages and stages of the relationship become formally married. In this view, a visiting relationship is part of a relationship development process and an early step that can proceed toward a long-term, stable partnership. Or it may dissolve, with subsequent children conceived with different partners.

Fathers in visiting relationships can be quite involved. They may play important roles in child social development, provide financial resources, and engage in interactions with their children. But visiting relationships also tend to be more tenuous and are shaped by other aspects of the wider social context. Couples at lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to be visiting relationships, suggestive of a permissive capacity of education, income, and wealth to afford more stable and longer-term relationship outlooks. Religious affiliation also has some associating with formal marriage, tying relationship dynamics into the values by which individuals live.

Some of the deepest questions with visiting relationships are their roots. Are visiting relationships part of the social package traceable to historic turmoil and events? Might they be the sensible byproduct of ongoing economic challenges to relationship stability and parenting? Some scholars have suggested that key features of contemporary African Caribbean families, which would include visiting relationships, should be viewed as a legacy of West and Central African marital and parenting dynamics. They point to the allowance of polygynous marriage and horticultural systems in which mothers might work in fields with their dependent children while marrying within polygynous unions to a husband with complementary economic, social, and political roles. Other scholars invoke the upheavals of slavery—contending that families were broken, resulting in minimalist mother-child units in what would become “matrifocal” (female-centered) social systems characterized by short-term (if any) reproductive partnerships. By these views, today’s visiting relationships trace to previous centuries.

But these views also need to be grounded, as best possible, in the available cultural and historic evidence. Studies of slave social life and demographics in Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Barbados around 1800 suggest that family life was variable, but commonly included both male-female coresidential partnerships and matrifocal social units, along with the occasional polygynous union. In some 26 holdings in 1820s Barbados, men tended to be about five years older than their partners, women had on average three children, and birth spacing was around three years apart. Moreover, in observations similar to contemporary discussions of Caribbean relationship dynamics, “[T]he frequent listing of a young girl with her first child in the household of her parents, or mother, does permit some inferences about sexual customs. Few girls under twenty cohabited with their mates; few mothers over twenty lived with their parents, and most, as we have seen, lived with mates. Nearly all girls who bore their first children in their mothers’ households began separate cohabitation at, or shortly before, the birth of their second child.” (Craton, 1979, p. 13)

Any portraits of African Caribbean family life around the 1800s leave open questions of their relevance to earlier and other settings and the causes of variation. Scholars suggest that slave family life was more feasible on larger plantations, in part because of availability of mates. Sex ratios could also be relevant, with more male-biased Trinidad also having more adults, particularly males, living without partners. Genetic research also recognizes the sex-specific ethnic contributions (e.g., larger African female than male genetic representation) of Native American, African, and European populations to contemporary Caribbean society. All said, there appear to be strands of history helping make sense of contemporary African Caribbean family relationships, including fathering.

In today’s Caribbean economic world, sugar has faded in importance relative to tourism and off-shore banking. Many features of African Caribbean family dynamics seem rooted in contemporary structural factors, particularly the job market, educational system, and high cost of living (in islands where most foodstuffs and durable goods are imported). Couples may find it difficult to afford the expenses of moving in together, instead enjoying a partnership and possibly having a child born within a visiting relationship. If future prospects for investing in one’s “educational or social capital” seem uncertain and the array of potential mates quite variable in their ability to contribute positively, that may favor early fertility within a visiting relationship, possibly one in which a mother can draw upon her own mother’s support. If prospects grow, that visiting union may develop into a long-term and stable cohabitational relationship. This dynamic also show similarities with fertility patterns in the U.S. Fragile Families Study, in which visiting relationships are common among low-income communities. Still, Caribbean parents seem quite aware of the challenges to having many kids within existing economic constraints. Fertility rates in much of the African Caribbean, apart from Haiti, are right around replacement—at about two kids born per mother. It is a complicated and challenging effort raising a family, whether in a visiting relationship or not.

 

References:

Ariza, M., & De Oliveira, O. (2001). Contrasting scenarios: Non-residential family formation patterns in the Caribbean and Europe. International Review of Sociology, 11, 47-61.

Benn Torres, J., Kittles, R. A., & Stone, A. C. (2007). Mitochondrial and Y chromosome diversity in the English-speaking Caribbean. Annals of Human Genetics, 71, 782-790.

Chevannes, B. (1993). Sexual behavior of Jamaicans: A literature review. Social and Economic Studies, 42, 1-45.

Craton, M. (1979). Patterns of slave families in the British West Indies. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 10, 1-35.

Higman, B. W. (1975). The slave family and household in the British West Indies, 1800-1834. The Journal of Interdiscplinary History, 6, 261-287.

Palmie, S., & Scarano, F. A. (2011). The Caribbean: A History of the Region and its Peoples. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roopnarine, J. L. (2013). Fathers in Caribbean cultural communities. In D. Shwalb, B. Shwalb, M. E. Lamb (Eds.), pp. 203-227. Fathers in cultural context. New York: Routledge.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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