Food for thought for Father’s Day

Esther McDermott

Esther Dermott

Esther Dermott (University of Bristol) and Tina Miller (Oxford Brookes University) are the guest editors of a forthcoming special issue on contemporary fatherhood for Families, Relationships and Societies. A number of the articles from the issue have been made free in the lead up to Father’s Day in the UK.

From personalised beer to racing driver experiences – a full range of gender stereotypical presents are available branded as perfect for Father’s Day. So, it might be tempting to see the growth of Father’s Day in the UK (June 21st this year) as little more than another marketing opportunity; one that doesn’t say much about everyday fathering and certainly doesn’t give the impression that we have radically changed our ideas about fathers.

“men who are doing things differently have a higher profile”

Looking back over the last 40 years of research on fatherhood, there is evidence that things are different now. We can point out generational shifts in how men ‘do’ fatherhood; dads have substantially increased the amount of time they spend with their children and almost all now attend births and take time off work when a baby is born. It is also the case that men who are doing things differently have a higher profile, witness for example of blogs of stay-at-home dads and single fathers. And these changes are reflected (to some extent) in policy as well. In April 2015, shared parental leave was introduced in the UK, signalling the possibility of greater father involvement in the immediate post-birth period. It also ensured that fathers have the right to time off work to attend antenatal appointments.

“We have not reached a state of gender neutral parenting”

Still, there is a sense that these might only be baby steps (pun intended) towards a reconfiguration of the father role. We have not reached a state of gender neutral parenting since expectations of mothers and fathers are very different; breadwinning and financial responsibility still loom large for men, and the gendered division of paid and unpaid work remains. And looking towards Scandinavia can give the impression that the UK has a long way to travel even to catch up with some near neighbours. Perhaps it is the case that we continue to talk about ‘new fathers’ more than seeing them.

Even so, small changes can be more than the sum of their parts. Having a greater range of fathering practices deemed socially acceptable is important because it means ‘caring masculinities’ can co-exist alongside more traditional models. That greater level of diversity should, in turn, mean greater awareness of different fatherhood options among more men. In other words, if we adopt a ‘fatherhood lens’ then incremental change can be seen as genuinely transformative. And, for researchers, examining what is going on ‘at the margins’ can give us insights into alternative ways to think about care and work.

Of course none of this may help with the Father’s Day purchasing dilemma; all I can offer for that is a nice bunch of flowers or perhaps these:

The special issue of Families, Relationships and Societies on Contemporary Fatherhood (available free in the week leading up to Father’s Day) brings together authors reflecting and discussing contemporary fatherhood and fathering in the UK, France, Italy, Sweden and Denmark. This week also marks the launch of the ‘State of the World’s Fathers‘ report, launching on Thursday at the House of Commons (free to attend – tickets here).

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