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New fatherhood: work in progress?

20 March 2007

Exploring the relationship between fatherhood and employment.

There is a tension in our current understanding about fatherhood. The social expectation that men will provide for their family is exemplified in the legal requirement that a father continues to be financially responsible for his children after divorce or separation. Furthermore, recent studies have concluded that breadwinning is still men’s main form of commitment to family life and an important component of men’s fathering identity. On the other hand, behaviour that is not work-centred seems to be an increasingly important aspect of what fathers do. There has been an increase in men’s contributions to domestic work and involvement in childcare activities alongside a spectacular shift in involvement with particular child-related events, most notably attendance at births. Over 90 per cent of married or cohabiting fathers are now present at the birth of their child, compared with a mere 8.5 per cent of fathers in the 1950s. This kind of evidence has led some to argue that the ideology of the breadwinner has been replaced with a nurturing father model, and that it is the quality of the father–child relationship that is increasingly prioritised by men.

Exploring the relationship between fatherhood and employment is one way to examine this conundrum. If breadwinning is connected with a fathering role, it is reasonable to expect men with children to work longer hours than their childless colleagues. In contrast, if the advent of ‘new’ fatherhood is correct, with fathers moving towards more family centred activities, then we should expect to see fathers spending less time in employment than non-fathers.

Men's working preferences do not change when they become fathers

Or could there be a third option? Could it be that fatherhood simply tends to coincide with a time in men’s lives that is critical to the development of their careers? In which case, previous research on fatherhood may be overplaying the influence of parenthood in relation to men’s experience in the labour market. For example, higher levels of engagement in family care by men may be attributed to alterations in our ideas about fathering, when they are really the result of limited employment opportunities in particular labour market sectors. Thus, argues, Dermott, by assuming at the outset that the categories ‘father’ and ‘non-father’ have an intrinsic salience, researchers may produce spurious findings.

Initially, when fathers are compared with non-fathers the results seem to indicate that fathers do work longer hours (and are also more likely than non-fathers to be working extremely long hours). But once other variables are considered this difference disappears. Dermott’s analysis shows that men’s preferences about working time do not change when men become fathers – around a quarter of men wanted to work fewer hours; less than one per cent wanted to increase their hours; and the remainder wished to maintain the status quo. These findings challenge the orthodoxy of fatherhood as breadwinning – men’s engagement with the labour market exists irrespective of their parental status. But it also calls into question assumptions about the arrival of fathers who are adopting a ‘female model’ of parenting. Although the idea of involved, caring fathers may have become culturally embedded, the suspicion is that stories of fathers working on a part-time basis or men reducing their hours of employment as a consequence of parenthood are exceptional cases rather than substantial movements – despite their frequent media attention.

Fathers don't want to work less, they want to work differently

The findings reassert that the relationship between paid work and parenthood is very different for mothers and fathers in the UK since mothers and non-mothers do differ significantly in terms of their hours of work. This ties in with other recent research on gender differences conducted by Dr Sarah Childs, from the Department of Politics. She was the co-ordinator of a study specially commissioned by Woman’s Hour for the programme’s 60th anniversary, which suggested that both men and women are still much more likely to view the stay-at-home mother as a parenting ideal than the stay-at-home father. The survey also found that women are twice as likely as men to feel guilty about placing their pre-school children in childcare, suggesting that the obligations of motherhood and fatherhood have not yet converged.

Men may find other ways of achieving involvement in family life that do not mean a reduction in full-time contracted hours. The period around the first year after a birth is associated with some decrease in working hours so, while fathers may not be taking on the bulk of childcare duties or substantially altering their working hours in a permanent way, there is some short-term adjustment. This may be in line with the idea of good ‘new’ fatherhood, which promotes men’s presence at the birth of a child and a general sense of ‘being there’ but does not undermine a strong attachment to the labour market. In practice, ‘new fatherhood’ is not a revolutionary transformation but a moderate accommodation. If family-friendly policies are going to be successful, they will need to take account of how fathers want to adapt their routines to fit in with family life. ‘While fathers don’t want to work less they may want to work differently,’ says Dermott. ‘Speaking to fathers it was evident that what they considered most valuable in a job was flexibility over their working hours, so that they could leave early to go to school sports day or make sure they were home in time to read a bedtime story’.

Dr Esther Dermott / Department of Sociology

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