Whilst I recall my younger years I can remember always wanting to be a father. Admittedly, life didn’t always go to plan and I had found myself over time being a young father, an old father, an adopted father and a step father at various points in my life. Like most parents, I could say that although these roles had been rewarding they had also been difficult and often demanding.
When I set out to write about fatherhood it took a great deal of time and consideration to identify a common thread. Like mother’s there are fathers of whom are; natural, adopted, step, young, old, disabled, fit and so on. However, I have heard it said a number of times that fathers are a biological necessity, but a social accident. This train of thought was certainly present during the 20th century and most evident during the 21st. Unfortunately, this idea of fatherhood has seeped into our culture and many sections of society have both conformed and adopted this stance.
C. Passingham (Lone Fathers – One Parent Families. Pg 35 – 1975) described how important paid employment was to a mans self-respect. This was not just based on the fact that fathers could earn more and felt that poverty was as much a threat to children as was ‘inadequate’ parenting. But ‘providing’ during this period was what was expected of men.
Useless and inept?
During my lifetime it has appeared that fathers have been portrayed as being uninvolved with the daily routines of childcare. It has been implied that the father was useless with the changing of nappies or hopeless at warming a bottle in readiness for a feed. This has re-enforced the idea that child rearing has, and always was, a female role. The mans role, as a result was to provide material and moral support to the mother and to be the breadwinner. Therefore, as being an inactive participant in the rearing of the children the father did indeed become the social accident. My own experiences of my fathers’ was varied and mixed. My adopted father was kind and loving but I don’t recall him dressing me or collecting me from school. In fact, he rarely cooked a meal but he had a positive effect on me – he was a good father. Whereas, my natural father was able to play a role that soon fizzled out when his true character emerged (I found him when I was 40) and as a father he was utterly useless – he was not there from the outset and failed to make any positive efforts when I found him.
I strongly doubt that this stereotypical view of fatherhood ever actually existed. Many historians (namely; Stearns, “Fatherhood in Historical Perspective: The Role of Social Change” and R.D. Parke, “ Fatherhood and Families in Cultural Context) have both argued that this portrait of the uninvolved father is, at best, oversimplified and at worst utterly wrong. I am both sure and confident when I say that there has never been, and is not, one single type of father. Indeed, I accept that there are some fathers (like some mothers) who wish to remain uninvolved. But equally there have been fathers who have played an active and positive role in childrearing. It is also now accepted that some fathers do it alone. Like myself I raised my two sons alone for many years. I know I was seen, at the time, as the exception and not the norm. As a result access to resources and support for lone fathers during that period (1990s) was both difficult and limited. The joy of watching my children grow up was immeasurable but it was difficult when trying to integrate in a woman only monopoly of parenthood. I recall being once asked to leave a ‘mother and toddler’ group, because, as it said, it was for mothers. Although I am now aware that times have changed there is still an artificial atmosphere of questioning a fathers ability to raise his children.
By todays standards, either due to economic necessity or for personal fulfilment many mothers are now opting to work. And it isn’t just for part-time, low level income roles. Many mothers are successfully taking on professional full time positions. As a result, it has also become far more evident that many fathers are also taking on more and more responsibilities for early infant and child care duties. In fact I consider that for some people it is essential to have two wage earners to maintain a certain standard of lifestyle once children arrive.
Today, the idea of the nuclear family has lost its meaning. More and more people are moving away from their home towns and setting up new homes miles away from other family members. As a result, the historical duties of grandmothers, aunts and so on who very often took on the caring role, are becoming more diluted and gradually unrecognisable. The roles of these women have changed and there is no longer an assumption that they will be ‘there’ when you need them. People are working well into their retirement and so as a result more and more is expected from fathers and (even) grandfathers. It is not, in my opinion that fathers have been forced to do the parenting against their will, it is just that there is now more of an opportunity of which fathers are willing to grasp.
Parenting is not performed in isolation. It is intimately linked with all other aspects of everyday life. The social, economic, cultural and religious backgrounds often prevail in relation to family structures. Issues such as housing, poverty, health and employment play in conditioning a parents’ ability to nurture. Clearly these factors are equally true for both mothers and fathers and so require an even and equal response regardless of gender. But a parents’ love is unconditional, yet many fathers have to live with the threat of not seeing their children on the whim of the mother. This is re-enforced and promoted by a set of outdated and wrong research findings that have infiltrated and tainted the role and importance of the father.
An active role (model)
The concept of fatherhood within my lifetime has seen a root and branch reform. During the 1970s any ideology associated with fatherhood was often connected to them either being a shadowy figure or a hapless no hoper who was ridiculed and seen as a comical figure amongst the ‘carry-on’ generation. But the new generation are (rightly) encouraged to be present at childbirth classes with his partner, attend the delivery and take responsibility for the care and feeding of the growing child on equal measure to the mother. Indeed, no longer is a father to be considered as a social accident but as a positive and active role model.
However, and this really makes my blood boil, once the relationship is over between the parents the father is instantly labelled as useless, unhelpful, inept and incapable of doing what a ‘mother can do’. This is certainly the case when a new ‘father-figure’ steps into the family home to replace the natural father, who until that point more than likely, had a more active role – often dictated by the mother of whom the children automatically live with. Indeed, it is important to readdress and correct earlier myths about fatherhood and it must now be recognised that fathers really are having an active involvement with their children. Not through expectation but because we want to. It is impossible to conceivably argue that a father is good one moment and not the next based on a falling out with the mother.
Evolution not revolution
With modern developments and changing roles of mothers it may be worth considering the fact that the ‘new’ father is a product of evolution as apposed to revolution. The role of a father needs to be reassessed in the face of outdated and often incompatible social expectations. However, despite the slow rate of change and acceptance it is now clear that fathers can and do play an important role in the development of their children.
It appears that psychological research has often ignored the role of fathers. One argument for this was that the social theories of parenting roles at the time had deeply penetrated the theories attached to parenthood. Theories can just be seen as the way the world works. But theories constrain the idea of concepts and notions. As a consequence early researchers had not just forgotten about fathers, they were completely ignored because they were considered to be less important than mothers. And so, the dominant (and wrong) theories were left to develop and fester unchallenged or addressed for decades. The two main protagonists within this field was Sigmund Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) and John Bowlby (26 February 1907 – 2 September 1990).
An utterley flawed theory
Both Freud and Bowlby may have differed in their approach and views on fatherhood but they both came to the same conclusion – mothers were the most important figures during infancy. In Bowlby’s paper entitled ‘The Nature of the Child’s Ties to his Mother’, he argued that maternal deprivation led to infants and children failing to adequately develop. Unfortunately, this view was also sanctioned by other theorists such as Rene Spitz and Margaret Ribble in ‘The Rights of Infants ‘- 1943. Bowlby’s later works pushed this concept further when he discussed attachment theories, which stated that infants come to prefer specific adults, namely the mother. His thoughts and considerations were based on the idea that a mother is biologically equipped to respond to an infant’s needs. As a result, Bowlby left the fathers out of the essential equation when it came to child rearing. Fathers, therefore, were seen as secondary and only required as a provider of the mothers needs.
In fact, Bawlby and his research in my opinion, were and are deeply flawed and as a result threw a spanner in the fatherhood works (so to speak). The paper was certainly used for political purposes to claim any separation from the mother was harmful. It was also intended to discourage women from working and leaving their children in day-care. The government at the time, were concerned about maximising employment for returned and returning servicemen after the Second World War. In 1962 The World Health Organisation (WHO) published ‘Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of its Effects’ to which Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s close colleague, contributed with his approval, to present the recent research and developments and to address misapprehensions. This publication also attempted to address the previous lack of evidence on the effects of paternal deprivation.
This narrow (and in my opinion, wrong) view of parenting came to dominate Western cultures. However, a small group of cultures divide the role of child rearing equally. For example, the Trobrianders of Melanesia and the Aka Pygmies of Africa (to name just two examples) have adopted this equal sharing role. As a result, it would be fair to argue that the biological argument of parenting does not stand up to scrutiny. Animal studies have also shown that parenting is not just a female privilege. Marmosets and Tamarin monkeys are well known for playing a very active role of parenting from an early age. This is also seen in other monkey specimens such as Barbary Macaques of Asia and Rhesus monkeys (mainly native to South, Central and Southeast Asia).
A reason to exclude
In the space of forty years or so the acceptance of fatherhood has moved from being inept and incapable to one whereby there is no reason to exclude. This is evident when today the father can be in the delivery suite whereas before, they only saw their new born behind a glass screen. This new approach, of course, flies in the still present (and convenient view for some) view that men are aggressors and violent and the mother is always soft and caring. Men, or to be specific, fathers, are not dangerous and incapable of rearing a child. In fact, the historical exclusion ensured that fathers were kept at an unjustifiable distance to feed a flawed research paper.
In 1982 J.H. Pleck in Husbands and Wives: Paid Work, Family Work and Adjustment, carried out research based on mothers attitudes to fathers. Interestingly it discovered that mothers did not want their husbands to be more involved with their children than they were. At the same time of this publication it was suggested that about 40% of fathers indicated that they would have liked to spend more time with their children than they were currently able to do so. Indeed, it has been suggested by social theorist such as M.E Lamb in ‘The changing role of fathers’ when he stated that it was the mothers who played a gatekeeping role by either supporting or inhibiting a fathers’ involvement with their children.
For me to draw up an accurate number with regards to relationship breakdowns, I can only consider divorce rates. Co-habiting couples, by their very nature are difficult to assess and so as a result the figures of actual relationship breakdowns may be much higher than actually recorded. However, it cannot be denied that divorce rates are increasing. According to C. Sorrentino, ‘The Changing Family in International Perspective’, 1990, the divorce rate in the USA doubled between 1960 and 1986 and half of all marriages today will end in divorce. In the UK the rates of marital break-ups have increased six fold (with 62% of second marriages also failing). Unfortunately, 60% of US divorces and 75% in the UK involve children. However, the final act of divorce may be the end of a disruptive line of events that not only disrupts the family home but can also have an impact upon the children.
Due to erroneous studies carried out by Bowlby et al, the children tend to be left in the physical care of the mother by default. As a result, many of the researches carried out about the effects on children following a divorce will and have been influenced by the mother. Moreover, as a result, many fathers contact with their children decreases over time. A mother will always be a mother yet an absent father seems to hold the title of ‘father’ by a licence allowed by the mother -ie if he remains in the relationship or if the mother allows access. The pain of not seeing a child is like mourning a death without a body or grave and this pain is often unbearable. It is not simply indifference or lack of interest on the part of fathers that accounts for a diminishing visitation pattern. The custodial parent’s attitude is often a factor. Between 25 and 50% of mother may interfere with or make visitation more difficult. Just as we have seen in ‘stable’ relationships, the mothers are often seen as the gatekeepers in deciding the role of the father. As I have seen in so many cases the mother often decided to move on and sees the biological father as an inconvenience to their new plans. This results in a plan to keep the father at an uncompromised distance.
An exception, not the rule
On rare occasions fathers do gain residential custody of their children. This of course is the exception and not the rule and is only granted when the mother is proven to be unfit. The term of the ‘best interest’ of the child is nothing more than lip service and there is a generalisation that the child will always live better with the mother unless proven otherwise. However, I would like you to consider the legal opinion from a New York Judge in the Levine v Levine case (pg45 of the transcript) in the 1970s;
The simple fact of being a mother does not by itself indicate a capacity or willingness to render a quality of care different from that which a father can provide… the best interest of the child doctrine [is] out of touch with contemporary thought about child development and male and female stereotypes.
For those fathers who gained custody it is often found that they are both older and come from a more secure financial back ground than their other male counterparts. J. Haskey (One Parent Families and their Dependent Children in Great Britain – 1998) pointed out that lone fathers tend to be older than lone mothers. The peak age for lone mothers sits in the early 30s range whereas lone fathers are found to be in their early 40s. This may be due to a majority of fathers finding themselves to be widowers or divorcees.
Access beyond poverty
The loss of legal aid for family matters is certainly a contributory factor to fathers being excluded from the equal parenting role. In effect state sponsored poverty may in fact be an aspect for paternal alienation. By putting the financial issue aside, the increasing role of the single father flies in the face of the bubbling idiot who has no idea what to do. In fact, many lone fathers are seen as hero like unlike single mothers who are expected to be able to carry out such duties. And this is wrong. Interestingly, a study carried out by Alison Clarke-Stewart and Craig Hayward (Advantages of Father Custody and Contact for the Psychological well-being of School-Age Children – 1994) found that a substantial sample of 187 five to thirteen year old children, 72 in their fathers care and 115 in their mother’s care that the children in paternal care were doing better than those in a maternal home. These said children had higher self-esteem, less anxiety and depression and fewer ‘difficult’ behaviours. Furthermore, and interestingly, Clarke-Stewart and Hayward found that children did best when they were in paternal care and unexpectedly, the custodial parent was happier.
Home rights and work rights
As a father and recent grandfather, I am glad to see that certain things have changed. My son does not experience the discrimination that I faced when taking his son out. However, we are still living in a period of uncertainty when it comes to how much a father is allowed to do. As stated, I raised my children alone for many years and they turned out to be okay even without the easy access of support groups and lack of both physical presence and financial support from their mother (she never paid a penny and the Child Support Agency openly admitted to not being able to chase absent mothers). With the rise of equal equality in the workplace the home cannot and should not be overlooked. It is wrong to claim that a mothers love is more important than a fathers equally as it is to say that a woman cannot do the same work as a man. Both are wrong but the discrimination of fathers still exists and does not seem to want to go away.