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Redefining Relationships: Explaining the Countervailing Consequences of Paternal Incarceration for Parenting


American Sociological Review

Published online on


In response to dramatic increases in imprisonment, a burgeoning literature considers the consequences of incarceration for family life, almost always documenting negative outcomes. But effects of incarceration may be more complicated and nuanced. In this article, we consider the countervailing consequences of paternal incarceration for a host of family relationships, including fathers’ parenting, mothers’ parenting, and the relationship between parents. Using longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, we find recent paternal incarceration sharply diminishes parenting behaviors among residential but not nonresidential fathers. Virtually all of the association between incarceration and parenting among residential fathers is explained by changes in fathers’ relationships with their children’s mothers. Consequences for mothers’ parenting, however, are weak and inconsistent. Furthermore, our findings show recent paternal incarceration sharply increases the probability a mother repartners, potentially offsetting some losses from the biological father’s lesser involvement while simultaneously leading to greater family complexity. Taken together, the collateral consequences of paternal incarceration for family life are complex and countervailing.