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Fatherhood as a social construction: Mapping the challenges to promoting good fatherhood

by Iva Šmídová, Ph.D.

January 17th 2007
last updated January 17th 2007

The work to promote good fatherhood must always take into consideration the plurality and diversity of fatherhood models arising from a set of historical, cultural and social conditions, processes and developments.

Men can and will adopt different models of fatherhood during their parental life, depending on their social environment and expectations. In fact, normative models of appropriate and expected behaviour define both men’s and women’s roles and actions within the family. Changes in these models can only happen, if they can be legitimised.

Changes in models of fatherhood are also always contingent on social structures and institutions, which can both further and hinder new models of fatherhood.

It is also important to keep in mind that the role of fatherhood does not stand in opposition to the role of motherhood. The roles can change and sometime blend, regardless of the sex of the nurturer.

Since division of labour, power relations and language work to reproduce and maintain existing gender relations and models of fatherhood, they must also be taken into consideration when working to promote good fatherhood.

Social Constructions of Fatherhood and Gender



The “traditional” father is often defined by characteristics like authority, the breadwinner-role and emotional distance. The “modern” father is a friend to his kids and shares nurturing and housework with his spouse. But there are many other models of fatherhood: “absent fathers”, “divorced fathers”, “new fathers”, “active fathers” etc., all described by various attributes. By “good” fatherhood practice, we thus mean a wide pool of fatherhood models centring on closely involved father/child relationships both at the emotional and the practical level, and since the father/child dyad is incomplete to describe heterosexual relationships, mothers are not left out. Thus “good” fatherhood involves gender-sensitive relationships within the couple when it comes to the just and fair distribution between both parents not only of domestic tasks, but also of access to pursuing a career and other aspects of the public sphere.

Of course our approach is not limited to the nuclear family and/or double-parent families, nor is parents’ sexual orientation considered an exclusive factor.

It is also important to consider the relationship of fatherhood to motherhood. Gendered expectations, such as –in some cases- the exclusive maternal right to priceless “instinctive love” have been challenged by images of motherhood and fatherhood in other cultures, different periods in history and even by the plurality of its forms within different social strata of a single society. Issues such as breastfeeding and pregnancy (with delivery) are sometimes used to legitimize the unique mother/child bond, on the other hand such approaches and public discursive representations are exclusionist to fathers and other performances of parental activity.

In this respect our site is intended to highlight a plurality and diversity of fatherhood models and their re/constructions and representations in the context of a wider-ranging debate concerning parent/child relationships and interactions all without discounting the relevance of motherhood.

Different Analyses of Fathers: “men who mother”; individual parents and concepts of fatherhood; motherhood; parenthood as a culturally, historically and socially changing model:

Although we encounter people who are easily identifiable as men and women in the streets and elsewhere, this does not mean that this dualistic division describes specific personality traits. Rather there are models of appropriate and expected behaviour, practices and actions, and a pool of sanctions, both positive and negative guarding these normative models.

From the concept of “models of fatherhood” mentioned above, the argument now follows that each individual man can – and will - adopt various types of fatherhood throughout his parental life, depending on his social environment, expectations etc.

The expectation to perform satisfactorily as a father is not simply the result of men’s own free will or of a dialogue between both parents, it is a part of a much broader context - the (gendered) structure of society and its processes for social reproduction.

Our theoretical approach was inspired by three main conceptualisations concerning male involvement in families and childcare and the masculinities that might be considered relevant in this respect. These are critical studies on men and masculinities: first, the (pro)feminist approach (Connell, Kimmell, Hearn etc.); secondly, a critical (de)constructivist approach to masculinities and femininities, fatherhood and motherhood, enabling a grasp of changes and trends in social gender-identities and gender-relations; thirdly, a belief in the fundamental instability of any single, dominant pattern of masculinity - assuming the existence of alternative forms of masculinities on an equal level with so-called “real men”.

Both women’s and men’s roles and actions within the family follow patterns of expectations and stereotypes associated with social gender roles. It is necessary for those wishing to move beyond mainstream patterns to legitimise, e.g. to offer acceptable explanations for their choices. This was also one of the core topics of our analysis. Another aspect of our work concerned the nature of the relationship between the spouses and specific changes in their individual gender-relation patterns as well as their strategies for “managing/coping with” family life (Hølter 2003). The third aspect of our analysis concentrated on aspects of the gendered structure of society in its three realms according to Sandra Harding (1983, 1993) – e.g. individual life trajectories, the division of labour and the symbolic realm, as well as on the basic dichotomy between the public and private spheres (Bourdieu 2002, Elshtain 1999).

Traits of Individual Fathers – Institutional Influences

When we consider that expectations concerning fatherhood are internalized during the socialisation process, it becomes clear that parents come from widely differing backgrounds with respect to gender-roles within the family. While this may actually stimulate change in favour of a more gender-sensitive and “child-friendly” model of fatherhood, the reverse may also be the case.

Normally, individual parents have a number of options available to them depending on their specific conditions. It necessary, however, to realize that while some actions/practices will be approved by mainstream society, making them easy to adopt at a personal level, others are much more difficult to carry out. Here it is important to gain an understanding of societal structures and realize that while these can act as agents of change, they also have the ability to define and reproduce limiting categories of class, ethnicity and gender. These categories are of crucial importance for the choices made in adopting different models of fatherhood.

So in fact, there is some basis for laying blame on absent fathers while praising those who are more involved. At the same time, however, historical background, cultural climate and societal structures with the current political strategies of the day all play an equally important role in the process of change or resistance to change. Fathers as individuals do not live in vacuum, nor are personal actions entirely determined by societal patterns– the two aspects merge to create specific, individual strategies incorporating “societal patterns” while promoting active agency (Pierre Bourdieu refers to “habitus” here).

A Polarised, Essentialist, Ontic Approach to Gender Confronted with (De)constructionism

While the concept of fatherhood has many forms and the ability to change over time, it may also be variably performed even in the span of a single individual’s parental life-phase. Furthermore, it is important not to perceive fatherhood in opposition to the different forms of motherhood.

This is not to say that motherhood(s) and (fatherhood(s) take identical forms, rather that there are overlaps in the actions and relationships associated with being a parent - father or mother - and that the two sometimes “blend” regardless of the sex of the nurturer.
This may be illustrated by an analytical example from our recent study of family arrangements. This was aimed at contributing to the wide-ranging field of interpretations of meanings associated with contemporary changes in societal parenthood-practices within the broader context of processes like individualisation, globalisation etc. (Beck 1992, Giddens 1998, Bauman 2002, 2004).
In our study wefound (among other things) a major analytical challenge arising from inconsistencies concerning rigid and/or blending gender. This dilemma raises the question of whether there are in fact already new roles/patterns in existence that “good fathers” and their spouses (and many others) adopt or whether these actions are in fact themselves the process of change. Images of “active fathers” and “good fathers” have had a strong voice politically in recent years in the context of “equal opportunities“ or even “gender mainstreaming”. However, the example set by these new role models may be adopted in quite a rigid way when it comes to gender relations: Child-rearing is a temporary state and childcare may be sharply distinguished from all other types of domestic chores. On the other hand, these couples are entering “terra incognita” and their descriptions of everyday actions indicate the process of “gender blending” or “doing gender” (Šmausová 2002, West, Zimmermann 1991), e.g. it is the everyday (routine) activity that modifies actions and attitudes, not the other way around. This ability for constant interchange depending on the context indicates a significant shift in gender relations.

Individual Gender Roles as Part of a System (Harding)
The Gendered Division of Labour and a Symbolic/Gendered Universe, Changes and Reproductions of the Status Quo of Gendered Structures and Individual Roles (Bourdieu):
Mechanisms reproducing existing structures of masculine domination which harm certain types of men as well as women

The interaction of individual men and women within the context of societal structures does not take place only at the institutional level described. Other core concepts are the division of labour and power-relations. Bourdieu, Connell and others describe contemporary European societies as “masculine dominations”, ruled by “hegemonic masculinity” giving all men the “patriarchal dividend” and causing serious “gender harm” to many people (Bourdieu 2000, Connell 1995). Sandra Harding structures her three-tier system of gender relations by adding the traditional, so-called “natural” division of labour between women and men (whose influences are also strongly felt in the labour market) to individual life trajectories. But there is still the third layer she argues, the most important and powerful one – the level of the symbolic universe. The symbols we use are gendered and work to sustain the status quo. The key symbol-system here is language

When promoting beneficial forms of fatherhood, it is interesting to note the ambiguous relationship between the symbolic and the practical levels. Again based on recorded parental experiences from families where men have a nurturing status, there was a distinct clash between the presentation of dual family roles, their “nature” (internalised rhetoric acquired during the socialisation process), and the specific actions described by participants as their daily chores. At a rhetorical level, they described a complementary polarity of fathers´ and mothers´ duties; but when describing the actual praxis of their individual families, this was not in keeping with the previously detailed stereotypes. Thus - regardless of the declared expressive role of mothers and instrumental role of fathers (Parsons 1951, 1955) – fathers´ actions were nurturing while mothers acted as breadwinners. The interesting thing was that this was not reflected or considered problematic in their narratives. This might be interpreted using the concept offered, for example, by Pierre Bourdieu (2002) who describes the existence of dominant language structures within the social structures of masculine domination, where all actors (both dominating and dominated) have to use the same language codes, i.e. the codes of those in power, since there are no alternatives available to reflect individual experiences.
The last notable point concerning the importance of symbolic representations and their power concerns the different evaluation of the “new” family roles of fathers and mothers. Fathers described their experience as a success; they were heroes who had proven an ability to overcome so-called “biological unsuitability”. Their spouses appeared much more quiet in this respect. Even though they take the same share of success, they are not publicly celebrated, and sometimes this is felt as a loss. As these women opened their traditional domain to their partners, they sometimes felt ignored by the media and the research-community. They do not make their family arrangements public – for fear of being labelled “bad mothers”. Nevertheless, they have offered re-definitions of motherhood, modifying the existing stereotype of the “Super Mom” and “Super Woman” to their condition of a (sort of) private equality and public silence.

This may lead to a more general statement (not a new one): Do nurturing fathers have “the best of both worlds” (Hochschild; Machung 1990)? Having fun with their kids and enjoying public respect? Experiences described by spouses, and a few isolated points from fathers´ own narratives indicate that this might be a legitimate conclusion. On the other hand the plurality of family forms in “Families Where Fathers Nurture” presents a challenge to this unoptimistic conclusion. Although these men’s status as caregivers in the private sphere does not automatically change the gender-relations setting described as a masculine domination, in many respects and in many actions these families do change the status quo. It is necessary to approach their practices and narratives with caution, critically evaluating the influences of social politics on face value because there may be substantial changes taking place under the surface at the level of individual family lives. These changes do take place despite the persistent manner in which societal structures continue to safeguard the status quo of gender-relations.


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