The Uncertain Father:

Exploring Modern Fatherhood


Richard Seel


First published in 1987 by Gateway Books, 19 Circus Place, Bath BA1 2PW.

Distributed in the USA by Slawson Communications, 3719 Sixth Avenue, San Diego CA 92183


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data:

Seel, Richard

The uncertain father: exploring modern fatherhood

1. Fathers

1. Title

306.8’742 HQ756

ISBN: 0.946551.26.X









To Shirley, Mark, Adam & Rebecca—

Who have shown me the joy of fatherhood and dispelled my own uncertainties.







Writing is a lonely occupation, and self-confidence rapidly ebbs. At such times any spark of help or encouragement is eagerly accepted. I am particularly grateful to John, Andy, Chris, Ian, Stuart, Gary, Martin, Robert, Mick, Alistair, Jeff, Rob, David, Sid, and all the other men whose stories and experiences are told in these pages. Their willingness to share with me their experiences and expectations of fatherhood was crucial to the content and argument of the book.

I also want to thank the many women who showed an interest in the book and who spoke frankly of their feelings about parenthood. Many of my contacts were made as a result of my work with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) whose magazine New Generation I was privileged to edit for the first three years of its life. I would not wish to commit the NCT to any of the opinions expressed in this book, but there is no doubt that I could not have written it without the invaluable help and encouragement I have received from many NCT members. I am also grateful to Dr Bill Hague, who helped me with the biological portions of chapters three and eleven—although of course he is not responsible for any errors.

Finally, and most importantly, I owe a special debt of gratitude to John Biggs, and to Judy and Tony Priest, who all spent many hours reading my turgid drafts and making detailed comments. Their help and support was invaluable and although they can accept no blame for any remaining inadequacies in the book, they must take much credit for any positive qualities it might have.

Richard Seel, October 1986 






What is a Father?

In English, the verb ‘to mother’ means to comfort, nurture, love. It implies a continuity of relationship, requiring effort and commitment over a period of time.

In English, the verb ‘to father’ means to sire, to be the producer of the spermatazoon which fertilises the egg which becomes the child. It implies a single act requiring little effort and absolutely no commitment over a period of time.

I have been a father for thirteen years and I find it impossible to accept such a crude distinction between mothers and fathers. So do most other men I know. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that circumstances led me to consider fatherhood more deeply; asking questions and thinking about it in ways which had never occurred to me before.

In the course of my work with the National Childbirth Trust, which is Britain’s premier organization for antenatal education, breastfeeding counselling, and postnatal support, I discovered that many parents seem to be unsure about what it means to be a father today. They have a general agreement that the nature of fatherhood has changed over the course of the last generation, but no clear idea of the way a ‘modern father’ is supposed to behave.

I began to ask myself some questions: “What is the father’s role today?” “How is he different from his own father?” As I talked and read more, it became clear that there were many conflicts and contradictions lurking just below the surface. Everyone accepts that modern fathers are more involved with their children, but strangely, most of the research suggests that there has actually been little change in the amount of childcare work done by fathers. Today’s men are certainly more involved in pregnancy and birth than the previous generation, but it is unclear whether this pattern continues as the babies grow up.

Mothers were ambivalent too. On the surface they seemed to welcome and encourage the changes. Indeed, it is often the mothers who are pushing their partners into involved fatherhood. But I also became aware of resentments and resistance, which were seldom openly articulated, but which came out more strongly as we talked.

Different styles and approaches to fatherhood became clear. Many men are uncertain about the best approach to adopt—and even less clear whether their personal circumstances will allow them to follow through with their chosen style. Old certainties seem to have disappeared—to be replaced with a bewildering freedom of choice; a freedom which often proves to be illusory when the new father tries to put it into practice.

I also began to realise that it wasn’t just our ideas about the father’s role which needed to be clarified. We are also beginning to change our ideas about the very definition of fatherhood itself. Higher divorce rates, and the fact that women are usually given custody of children, have led to a situation where many men no longer spend all their lives looking after one set of children. Instead they spend more time and attention with step-children than with their natural children.

The ties of biology are further weakened by practices such as artificial insemination by donor (AID). The husband of a woman who has AID almost invariably acts as father to the child, and since the fact of the artificial insemination is usually unknown to friends and neighbours he is treated just like any other father, even though he is not biologically related to the child.

I came to realise that here was another question which needs to be answered: “What is it that makes someone a father?” It turns out that different societies throughout the world have very different, and sometimes surprising, answers. But until we know just what it means to be a father it is hard to discover how a father ought to behave. The two questions are inevitably linked.

This book is the fruit of my attempt to explore some of the complexities of fatherhood. It is the result of a personal journey which has covered a lot of ground. In order to come to terms with the subject I have felt it necessary to adopt two very different perspectives. Sometimes I have relied on the results of academic research, especially in the fields of psychology, biology and anthropology. At other times I have found more enlightenment from my personal contacts with other parents and from accounts of their individual experiences.

And also, because I am a father and so part of the field of study, I have not hesitated to include my own experiences where they can help me to understand better. But there are no grand conclusions; it is very much ‘work in progress’.

One thing which has struck me most forcibly is that there is now no obviously ‘right’ way to be a father. Sometimes a society expects a man to be active in the upbringing of his children; committed to their care. Sometimes he will be expected to spend most of his time doing other things; a distant figure rarely seen. There is no one pattern of fatherhood which has been universally accepted throughout history; there is no one pattern of fatherhood which is accepted throughout the world today.

There are some societies where there is a consensus about the proper way to father; in others there is no general agreement. We are now in the latter position: looking round for new ways to father, examining the old ways critically. Some people today—mainly women, it has to be admitted—are self-conscious about fatherhood. They want to talk about it, think about it, worry about it. Indeed the ‘modern father’ has become quite fashionable, especially in women’s magazines! These now tell us of the ‘new breed of father’ who looks after the children while his wife works, and who has thrown aside all the trappings of traditional Victorian fatherhood. The implication is that all fathers should be like this—and that soon they will be.

There is an element of truth in these sensational and sentimental fantasies. Only one generation ago we did have a set of generally accepted rules. Now the values of this traditional fatherhood are being questioned and gradually overturned. In their place new definitions are slowly emerging. Perhaps in the future we will again enjoy the comfort of an accepted set of rules about fatherhood. But in the meantime we are in a state of flux, drawing both from the values of traditional fatherhood and also from some of the newer ideas.

This comes home to me most strongly when I give talks or run study days on parenting. I often use a questionnaire to get the discussion going, asking the participants to fill it in, not as a piece of scientific research but rather as an aid to thought and discussion. Many people find it rather infuriating—they don’t like the way the questions are framed—but that too is part of the design, to help them consider more closely some aspects of parenting that they may take for granted. It is designed to find out what people think an ideal father or mother should be like, rather than to test their own experience or performance—although of course the two are closely connected.

How important are these to fatherhood?

(On a scale of 1-5; where 5 is very important, and 1 unimportant)

1.        Good at mending things; from broken toys to blocked toilets

2.        Being tender; able to wipe away tears and kiss it better

3.        Playful; everything from rough and tumble to doll’s tea parties

4.        Keeping discipline; making sure children are obedient

5.        Good provider; able to fork out for things they want

6.        Good at housework; from cooking to dusting

7.        Being cuddly; just for the pleasure of it

8.        Ensuring that boys don’t become too effeminate or girls too tomboyish

9.        Tough; physically strong, not making a fuss about pain or discomfort

10.    Able to take principle responsibility for child’s welfare 11) Taking a pride in child’s appearance and cleanliness

11.    Clever; able to help with homework and TV quizzes

Now, in your own words, answer the final question, “What is the difference between a mother and a father?”

Both men and women have completed the forms, and I have also asked some women to score the same questions, but instead to relate their importance to motherhood. In this way I have been able to get some indication of what they think are the differences between motherhood and fatherhood. There are two main conclusions which come from the discussions and analysis of the forms.

Firstly, ideas about fatherhood have changed dramatically from the stereotype of the Victorian father with which most of us are familiar. Secondly, many people now see very little difference between the ideal mother and the ideal father.

This can be illustrated by looking at a few of the findings. For instance, take the three topics which the traditional father might have scored very low, and which are traditionally associated with motherhood: tenderness, housework, and cuddliness. Nearly all the men I spoke to said that ‘being tender’ is very important and three quarters of them felt the same way about ‘being cuddly’. Interestingly, no-one was as keen on ‘good at housework’; forty per cent of them scoring it low—in this respect at least things don’t seem to have changed so much.

The same trend can be seen if we look at the things which the traditional father might think most important—such as ‘being a good provider’, ‘keeping discipline’, ‘ensuring that the differences between males and females were properly observed’. Very few of the fathers thought that this latter role was at all relevant (one scored it as -10,000!), and most claimed that being a good provider was not now an important part of being a good father. Feelings about discipline were more mixed: equally divided as to whether discipline was crucial or irrelevant.

The stereotype of the traditional mother seems to have changed as well, although not so much. The biggest differences seem to be that women today don’t see housework as a crucial part of mothering, and there is more emphasis on toughness, ability to mend things, and keeping discipline than one might have expected.

It was also very clear that many people did not want to make clear distinctions between male and female parents. This conclusion is backed up by the discussions and by the other comments people put on their forms. The following are typical of the answers people gave to the question, “What is the difference between a mother and a father?”:

Little or none. Either should be able to turn their hand to all aspects of child care and home making should the need arise. (mother)

Negligible in themselves. Different where they have been taught so. None of these things are vital/irrelevant—so being incapable of many of them does not make anyone a bad father/mother—especially if the one partner complements the other. (father)

This depends so much on their personalities. I believe there should be a muddying of roles. Unsuccessful fathers are those who are always strong-willed and insist on macho boys, and girly girls. Unsuccessful mothers are those who do everything for their children and bring up boys and girls to believe this is what wives should do. (mother)

Very few. Father marginally more good at mending things. (father)

Both are of prime importance to the child. Whoever is the main caretaker obviously has differences in role. These roles should be interchangeable with no adverse effects on the child, and this can be achieved. Mothers may be closer to baby whilst breastfeeding than fathers? (mother)

None essentially, each should complement the other. (father)

Once upon a time there were two separate stereotypes of father and mother, but now we have moved to a combined one which describes either. In this process, the stereotype of the mother has changed far less than that of the father. Those items which the traditional father might have scored highly are now scored very low. Those items which the traditional mother might have scored highly are still scored high.

We seem to have arrived at a position where fatherhood has become a sort of male motherhood! Although motherhood as a role has changed and evolved it is still recognisable, whereas fatherhood as a role has changed so much that for some parents it has almost been eliminated as a separate entity.‚ What we are left with is parenthood—an activity which in theory can be undertaken by either men or women without distinction.

Amongst the parents I have spoken to the most common idea is that although there are no intrinsic differences between fathers and mothers, they should be complementary to each other in a particular relationship. It is tempting to conclude that the traditional values of very separate roles for fathers and mothers have been swept aside and replaced by this new ideology of sharing and co-operation. This is what many of the popular books and magazine articles suggest—but it is quite wrong.

For a start, several parents acknowledged that, although they wished that there were no differences, in practice it is still women who usually do more child care, and so are closer to their children. Women tend to stress the importance of men’s working patterns as the key factor in distinguishing between mothers and fathers, while men are more likely to appeal to biology as the root of the differences:

Cultural: Mother, foreground—warmth, tenderness, continuities of home life. Father, background—provider, voice of discipline. Social: two halves of family team. Mother: routine, values for life, thoughts and opinions. Father: more time for play, creativity, experience outside the home. Mother: the home, family caring. Father: the world, work, etc. I think these are some ‘differences’, I don’t mean to imply I agree with them! (mother)

Conventionally, the mother makes all main decisions on child’s welfare—but this should change. Obviously main links in early days via breastfeeding—mother’s greater opportunity for bonding. Mother having to handle shift of emphasis from partner to child; conventional father feeling left out. (New style father being equally involved and very understanding, gives and receives affection equally...) (father)

Mother carries baby antenatally. Mother generally has no choice but to take responsibility for child. Father generally has outside interest but also therefore has to cope with leaving child etc. Father is often excluded from day-time child activities, e.g. toddler group. If mother needs/wants to work she must find adequate care for child—also needs to cope with pressure about working instead of being home. Mother at home may be isolated. (mother).

Although the majority of the middle class committed parents I speak to are in favour of the ‘new father’, there are some who are still attached to traditional values. They believe that there are some natural differences between men and women and that these are reflected in different styles of parenthood:

Motherly        Fatherly

Ordinary        Able

Tender          Tireless

Helper          Helper

Effeminate    Ensuring

Responsive    Responsible (expectant father)

In any standard relationship, father is absent for a good two thirds of a child’s day—mothers therefore have a better understanding of their own child’s needs and temperament. On a personal level, while my husband loves our children and is perfectly capable of caring for them, he resents their presence if he has something ‘better’ to do. Mothers tend to be less self-centred through necessity. (mother)

Mother gains her authority over the children from the father. Father has ultimate responsibility for the education and upbringing of children (discipline, welfare, etc.) (father)

Fathers like to see children achieve, want their sons particularly to do as well as or better than themselves. Mothers provide the ‘homely’ atmosphere. More likely to show concern over minor illness. Differences very variable depending on cultural/geographical/social class backgrounds. (female health worker)

The ideals which the Victorian father epitomised have not vanished. It is simply that they are now being strongly challenged. We live in an era when different and apparently contradictory ideologies are being used at the same time. This may be a bit confusing as far as modern fatherhood is concerned, but it is not the first time it has happened with regard to parenthood. Charlie Lewis suggests that, at least since the 1920s, there has always been a belief that the current generation of parents were more involved with their children than their own parents were. Hand in hand with this has gone the feeling that the marriage patterns of the day had become more ‘companionate’; less dependent on separate and highly differentiated roles for husband and wife, and with more emphasis on mutual affection and companionship. Although there may have been some real changes over the last thirty years, it also seems that these changes are not as radical as we sometimes think.

Some writers have suggested that cultures often have different sets of ideologies ‘lying around’ so that they can be used when they are needed. Sometimes the social and environmental conditions will favour the adoption of one set of ideals, sometimes another. But even when one ideology is dominant, the others will still be in the background; perhaps upheld only by a few eccentrics, until they are needed again.

An example of this was to be found in the prophets of ancient Israel. During times of peace and plenty they were largely ignored. Whatever the truth and importance of their message, they had little influence. The establishment, made up of the priests and royal court, led the people in a secular way of life. But when enemies threatened or the state collapsed, the people turned to the prophetic tradition to provide them with a sense of national identity and purpose. At such times the prophets became very powerful, almost national heroes, and their way was followed.[1]

I find this idea helpful when I try to come to terms with what is happening to fatherhood at present. We have, in our culture at the moment, some very different views of what fatherhood should be. Although there are people who subscribe enthusiastically to one type or another, most oscillate somewhere between the extremes. There are some who enjoy the freedom offered by the present situation. They are able to appeal to one or another extreme to justify their behaviour or to guide them along the path they think they ought to follow.

Sometimes this is done quite deliberately—almost cynically—but most are usually unaware of the way they give their allegiance to different ideologies in different circumstances. There are many others for whom the present uncertainty is distressing. They find life easier if they have obvious and accepted guidelines, and are often anxious and unsure of themselves when a role is not clearly defined. Most of us want to have out cake and eat it—we enjoy the freedom, but wish we could have the stability as well.

The relationship between people’s ideals and the way they actually behave is not a simple one. Sometimes the ideology is fitted to the behaviour, as suggested above, but the opposite is also possible. For instance, Mormons believe that a father should adopt a very patriarchal position in the home. This is a matter of religious duty and belief. But a study carried out during the 1950s showed them to be affected by the general trend towards more power sharing between husband and wife.[2] The ideal of the all-powerful father was kept, but in practice he was now much more likely to take the opinions of the rest of the family into account before making decisions.

The lack of correspondence between ideals and behaviour is one of the reasons why it is so hard to answer questions like, ‘Are fathers really more involved now than they used to be?’ Many men have adopted an ideology which maintains that a father ought to be involved with his children, but for one reason or another they actually do little more at home than the traditional father.

The wide range of attitudes towards fathering makes it almost impossible to generalise about the modern father. In an attempt to make some sense out of this diversity I have found it useful to look at fathers in two different ways: according to the amount of commitment they have to fatherhood, and according to the kind of fatherhood they think appropriate. This can be illustrated by looking at the extremes of each.

There seem to be two particularly important qualities connected with the kind of fathering a man adopts: one relates to the way authority is exercised within the home and the other to the amount of involvement in the home which the father ought to have. At the one extreme is the traditional father. He is the man who is still in thrall to the values of Victorian fatherhood. He may love his children deeply, but doesn’t see any need to express his concern in practical childcare. Rather, his role is that of bread winner, ultimate authority, and stable foundation upon which the rest of the household is built. Despite many reports of his demise the traditional father is still common and shows no sign of dying out as quickly as some people wish.

The active father has adopted the other ideological extreme from the traditional father. He wants to take genuine responsibility for the care of his children and gives his home life a higher priority than his work. He does not see his role as one of ‘helping out’; rather that childcare tasks and decisions should be shared equally by parents. He sees no reason why men shouldn’t parent just as well as women, and believes that some men make better parents than some women.

The other way of looking at fatherhood involves asking how committed a father is. At one end of the commitment spectrum is the uncommitted father. He takes little or no interest in parenthood. Children are a nuisance: a constant source of irritation and distraction from which he must try to escape as often as possible. He has never been able to cope with the demands they make upon him, and may consider that any involvement with them is ‘unmanly’.

At the other end is the over-committed father. He is so keen on parenthood that he tries to ‘take over’ from the mother, denying her any say in pregnancy, birth or child rearing. He is frankly envious of women’s ability to bear children and unable to come to terms with the fact that there are differences between mothers and fathers—even the obvious biological ones.

The amount of commitment and kind of fatherhood a man adopts are not just the result of his personal decision. Attitudes are not formed in a vacuum, but are very susceptible to social pressures. A completely uninvolved approach towards fatherhood is not usually very acceptable. Although uncommitted fathers do exist, they tend to justify and explain their behaviour by reference to traditional values: ‘I’d spend more time with my children if I could, but my job is so demanding that it just isn’t possible.’ It is not always easy to distinguish between the man who really subscribes to the values of traditional fatherhood and the uncommitted father who uses these values as an acceptable mask for his own attitudes.

It is also worth remembering that a man will change his degree of commitment to fatherhood during the course of his life. The attitudes of society at large may change as well. Some ages seem to have a greater commitment to the notion of father than others. Today there is certainly a greater readiness to talk about fatherhood than there has been for many years.

Most of the men I meet display a fair degree of explicit commitment towards fatherhood. This book is about them and their problems—about the modern father or committed father who takes his fatherhood seriously, and wants to ‘do it properly’. He is full of contradictions and uncertainties; his undoubted enthusiasm for family life can be coupled with moments of total indifference to them. He is indeed the uncertain father.

Women are keen on the committed father—or at least they think they are, although in practice he rarely measures up to their expectations. The committed father can sometimes discover a style of parenting which suits him, his family, and his personal circumstances; but more often he is forced into making a series of compromises which leave everyone feeling dissatisfied. What I want to find out is how we got into this uncomfortable position, why it is so unsatisfactory, and whether anything can be done to improve things.  [Next]

[1] The example of the Old Testament prophets comes from Salzman. For an example of a society in Burma which swings between two completely different kinds of political organization, see Leach 1954. He describes the Kachin tribes as oscillating between democratic and autocratic extremes. In practice, most tribes operate a kind of compromise system which varies in its distance from the two extremes according to local circumstances.

[2] The Mormon studies were conducted by Victor Christopherson and are reported in Benson 1968:144.