The Making of the Modern Father

In the last chapter I came to some tentative conclusions about different ways of looking at fatherhood. I suggested that one of these, the traditional model—exemplified by the Victorian father—used to be dominant, but is now being challenged by other ways of looking at parenthood. In this chapter I want to look briefly at the rise of the Victorian father to discover in more detail what the traditional ideology actually is, and then go on to suggest some of the influences which have caused this view to be dethroned from its past pre-eminence.

Traditional fatherhood, with its emphasis on the authority of the father and a pronounced division of labour between father at work and mother at home, seems to have had its heyday in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. Until then the distinction between home and work was not so finely drawn as it is now. Much work was done at home or based in the home, and the family often worked together as an economic unit. The introduction of the factories changed things. Work had to done away from the home. The nature of work also changed, making it less appropriate for the family to work together as an economic unit. Because the workplace was unsuitable for babies and young children, childcare became a problem.

The industrial revolution also increased the earning power of many people—especially men. A man could now be able to earn enough to support a family on his own, and this became a mark of status. If a man was a ‘success’ then his wife didn’t need to go to work as well. An ideology gradually developed which claimed that men should work and women should stay at home to solve the childcare problem.

Instead of being a worker a woman should now to aspire to motherhood. The invention of motherhood as a separate role, complete and sufficient unto itself, was underway. The converse of this was that ‘fatherhood’ as a separate role was also being emphasised. Stress was laid on the differences between men and women, and these became increasingly exaggerated by the spokesmen of the emerging middle classes.

The man’s power is the active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender....But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle—and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. (John Ruskin).

This new division of labour was enthusiastically taken up by the prosperous Victorian middle classes. It became the basis of a whole new way of looking at men and women. Feminist writers have pointed out how this demeaned and diminished women, but the effect on men has not been so frequently noticed.

While it would be a mistake to idealise the pre-industrial family, it does seem to have been a more integrated unit than in industrial times. By locking women inside the home the Victorians effectively locked men out. Just as women were deprived of experiences relating to production—such as power, creativity, adventure; so men were excluded from areas relating to reproduction—such as nurturing, caring, encouraging, supporting.

There were five qualities which, to a greater or lesser extent, characterised the ideal of the traditional father which the Victorians promoted:

Firstly, and most importantly, he should provide money for the home and family. It was the father’s job to work; mother’s to look after the family. The successful father provided well for his family, the unsuccessful did not. Indeed, if a woman had to work as well then her husband’s emasculation was proclaimed to the world—he was clearly incompetent as a man as well as a father. A good father did not keep his money to himself but was generous to his children—indeed, this was one of the features of upper class Victorian fathers most remembered by their children.

This emphasis on material success required many men to spend long hours at work. Inevitably, they had little or no time for their families. It became increasingly difficult for a man to build a personal relationship with his children. Instead, his fatherhood had to be experienced at second hand, through his wife.

The father was also the mediator between the domestic and public domains. It was he who ventured out to become wise in the ways of the world. The home was insulated from the rude tumults outside, a haven of peace and delight; so the father became the only reliable channel of information about the wider world. He decided what the rest of the family should know and when they should remain ignorant.

The father was not only better informed than the mother, he also tended to be better educated and so could lay down standards of behaviour appropriate to the outside world. He took the responsibility for intellectual attainment and career success. The mother was responsible for more ethereal things:

Woman, above all other educators, educates humanely. Man is the brain, but woman is the heart of humanity; he its judgement, she its feeling; he its strength, she its grace, ornament, and solace. (Samuel Smiles)

It was the father’s job, too, to make sure that moral standards were kept. This was more true of the man who had been affected by the evangelical Christian revival than the man who embraced a traditional and conventional Anglicanism. The new piety led to an increased concern with the moral development of children. The father began to feel that it was his duty to make sure his children grew up with a proper sense of right and wrong. It was his job to be ultimately responsible for discipline.

Women were thought to be soft, gentle creatures who could not be expected to resort to harsh measures, should they become necessary. So, reluctantly but nobly, the father was forced to ‘do the dirty work’. ‘This will hurt me more than it will hurt you’ has become a cliché‚ but perhaps there was an element of truth in it. The Victorian father, a model of propriety, was unable to see much of his children. When he did, he often had to stifle his natural affection in order to enforce compliance with this same propriety. It was not necessarily easy, nor did he necessarily enjoy it. But duty weighed very heavily with the Victorian father.

Finally, the Victorian father was concerned with preserving tradition and the existing social order. An important part of this was the upholding of appropriate gender behaviour. Boys should behave like young gentlemen, and girls like young ladies. The differences were quite clear and essential both to the orderly maintenance of society and to the personal well-being of the individual’s concerns.

David Roberts has characterised the Victorian upper class father as being remote, sovereign, and benevolent. But if fatherhood was marked by its outward-looking, and authoritarian aspects, motherhood was just the opposite. It was the mother’s job to run the home and take responsibility for the care and upbringing of the children.

The home is the woman’s domain—her kingdom, where she exercises entire control. Her power over the little subjects she rules there is absolute. They look up to her for everything. She is the example and model constantly before their eyes, whom they unconsciously observe and imitate. (Samuel Smiles).

The mother’s responsibility was not something to be taken lightly. If she was the cause of success then she could also be the root of all developmental evil. The idea that motherhood is a holy vocation managed to oppress women by its impossible demands and unwarranted assumptions about femininity; but it also oppressed men by excluding them from the home and consigning them to a life of work, conflict and politics.

Even though the Victorian ideal was very influential, it was probably only put into practice in relatively few homes. But these were the homes of the wealthy middle classes who usually tend to be the major opinion formers in Western society. Furthermore, it was supported by the establishment in the form of both Church and State. The traditional model is hierarchical: the father has authority over the mother, and the mother has authority over the children. Because of this it is very congenial to those who favour such a division of authority in political or religious life.

The influence of the Victorian model continued long after the social system which gave it its prominence. But it was transformed in subtle ways in the generations which followed. The father’s distance from the home was given even more emphasis, as was the mother’s role within it. The consequence was that the father became to be viewed as almost irrelevant to his children.[1] His own parental role was ignored in favour of the part he could play in supporting his wife’s parenting. So much so that in 1964 a prominent psychoanalyst could write that:

...father is needed at home to help mother to feel well in her body and happy in her mind....father is needed to give mother moral support, to be the backing for her authority, to be the human being who stands for the law and order which mother plants in the life of the child. (Winnicott pp. 114-115).

This writer, D. W. Winnicott, also sees the father as having a more sinister role to play:

Besides, it is much easier for the children to be able to have two parents; one parent can be felt to remain loving while the other is being hated, and this in itself has a stabilising influence....Every now and again the child is going to hate someone, and if father is not there to tell him where to get off, he will hate his mother and this will make him confused, because it is his mother that he loves most fundamentally. (p.114)

But even as this pronouncement was being made, the model of fatherhood which it presented was being seriously challenged. Indeed, these criticisms gained momentum to such an extent that in the course of just one generation we have witnessed a remarkable transformation of attitudes. The old attitudes have been undermined and, in some cases, swept away altogether.

One of the most important factors underpinning this change has been economic. You don’t have to be an orthodox Marxist (which I’m not) to recognise that a change in economic circumstances often has a profound influence on social institutions. I have already suggested that it was essentially just such a change—the Industrial Revolution—which led to the pre-eminence of what we call ‘the traditional father’. His primary duty was to provide for his family; today a different set of economic conditions mean that this is no longer such a priority for many fathers.

It is now easier to provide. The great wealth of the developed nations means that few fathers have the sole task of keeping their children from poverty. A father may be absent or incompetent, and his family will still survive. Welfare payments will ensure that even if they are relatively poor they will not starve or go without shelter.

We used to be in a situation where a man’s success as a father was measured primarily by his ability to keep his family from the breadline. Is it now true that a good father provides more goods for his family than a bad father? Some parents seem to think so, and do all they can to keep up with the Joneses by providing their children with everything they ask for—and most children have asked for the earth (at least) by the time they have started school!

Even if you don’t think it good for children to have all they want, the pressures get stronger as the children get older. ‘Charlie gets twice as much pocket money as me, Dad.’ You know that Charlie isn’t typical; he has the biggest allowance of anyone in the class, but this is little consolation. Not that you approve of the amount of money that Charlie has to spend—you certainly wouldn’t let your child have as much. But if you were as well-off as Charlie’s dad then you could make that choice; as things are, you can’t afford any more and the choice is removed from you. You don’t believe that money can buy happiness, but even so you can’t help feeling a little inadequate and guilty.

The fact that the father is no longer the sole provider may be a relief to some men, but it also undermines one of the pillars of traditional fatherhood. In addition it makes it harder to tell how ‘good’ a father a man is. If he provides adequately, he does no more than everyone expects of him. But the amount of his provision does not distinguish the adequate father from the inadequate father. If he gives his children lots of material goods, he is made to feel guilty by society because he is ‘spoiling’ them. If he withholds material goods he is made to feel guilty by his children for being ‘mean’. Money has become part of the Catch-22 of modern fatherhood.

But apart from the general increase in material goods, other economic factors have been at work. Changing patterns of employment have also had a dramatic effect on the old division between the female world of the home and the male world of work. More and more women are entering the market place and there is a constant upward trend of female employment. Increasingly, women don’t need men to provide for them. If being able to provide for the family is a crucial part of the definition of fatherhood, then in this respect at least a woman can be as good a father as a man.

In fact, the picture is even bleaker for the traditional father. Not only is the rate of female employment increasing, but the rate of male unemployment is also increasing. In more and more households the mother is showing not just that she can be as good a provider as the father, but that she can do it better. If a good father is one who provides, then an unemployed father is in danger of being a failed father.

The traditional model of fatherhood can be oppressive at times. Enforced unemployment is never pleasant, but the unemployed man who identifies himself as a traditional father cannot but come to feel himself a failure and a source of disappointment to both himself and his wife.

In many households where a man is unemployed, his partner is more able to get work than he—especially part-time work. If this happens, he will find himself at home looking after the children. He is likely, at least initially, to see this as compounding his defeat and humiliation. This is not helped by the attitudes displayed by officialdom—which often pretends that the traditional Victorian family patterns still exist after a century of social change. For instance, in Britain a family on a low income is entitled to a benefit payment called Family Income Supplement. However, in the case of a couple, “it must be the man who is in full-time work”. Thus does the State compound the disadvantage felt by the father who is forced to stay at home.

In time such a man may come to discover delight and even fulfilment in his situation. Studies have shown that many unemployed men feel they have a closer relationship with their children because of the extra time they can spend with them, and some men I know would not go back to work if you paid them! But it is probably true to say that many men lose faith in themselves as fathers, at least initially.

A third employment-related factor has been a trend towards more flexible working patterns and a shorter working week. It is, I think, a mistake to assume that the only reason the traditional father saw little of his children was because he didn’t want to, or thought it was unmanly. Often he simply didn’t have the time. More free time has given many men the chance to get to know their children better; the chance to get home from work before the children have gone to bed.

The traditional division of labour has not only been affected by new economic circumstances. The ideology which used to underpin it has also been vigorously challenged from many quarters, of which one of the most influential has been the women’s movement.

Those of us who grew up soon after the Second World War had very clear notions of what a father should do. We were brought up to believe that men and women had separate and clearly defined roles, and we accepted this without question. It all seemed to be perfectly simple.

We, as husbands and fathers (the two were inevitably supposed to go together), would go out into the hostile world, risk the rat race and accept its pressures so that we could earn bread for the family. Our wives (and mothers of our children) would stay at home, safe and protected from all the vicissitudes of the cruel world. They would care for all of us, happily doing those little tasks which turned a house into a home.

But even though our primary work was outside the home, there was a role we could play in bringing up our children. Indeed, a lot of us felt that our own fathers—many of them still emotionally scarred by the war—were too distant and uncaring. We would be around the house a bit more often and would make a real effort to be friends with our children. Yet even so, we basically saw fathering as a rather low-key affair. We learned most of what we knew from the movies; and there a father’s main function seemed to be to vet his daughter’s boyfriends when she brought them home (and to worry like mad when she didn’t), and to play suitably manly rough-and-tumble games with our sons (so that they wouldn’t get too attached to their mothers and grow up ‘queer’).

Most of us saw fatherhood only in terms of such peripheral activities. We didn’t think of it as a proper job or a fulfilling state; for many it was a word with no real meaning. When a woman had a baby, she became a mother; when a man had a baby, he became the husband of a mother.

We never really questioned this Victorian division of labour—largely because it seemed essentially fair; though if we were pressed, we would have had to admit that women got the better of the bargain. It was clear that there were heavy penalties attached to being male—women lived longer, for one thing. And also it was easier for a woman: all she had to do was find some man to provide for her. This extra responsibility was a heavy burden, but—noblesse oblige—most of us were prepared to shoulder it manfully. And then a funny thing happened. Some women, just a few at first, started to say that it was women who had the raw end of the deal.

Men reacted in a variety of ways. There was, and still is, reactionary prejudice. There was, and still is, a desire to keep the privileges of power. There was, and still is, an inability to accept women as equals. But there was also surprise; the beginnings of understanding; and guilt. Many men had genuinely not realised that being at home with children was such a terrible thing as the feminists proclaimed it to be. But if it was so, then no man with a conscience could allow his wife to continue to suffer alone. So, out of a sense of duty, or simply to keep the peace and have a quiet life, some men started to do more around the house and to spend more time with the children.

They quickly realised that there were certain activities which had a great symbolic importance for women—changing nappies (diapers) was a prime example. So men started to change nappies. Being present at birth was another; so men started to be present at birth (though there was more to it than that, as we will see in chapters five and six). Guilt became the driving force which propelled men towards involvement in the home and family.

When they got there they discovered two things: firstly, that babies and children can be fun, and secondly that it is hard to be authoritarian when the baby has just puked all over you and you don’t know where the clean baby clothes are! Because women were generally more skilled at childcare than men, it was almost impossible for the man to make decisions or take charge. The patterns of power and authority in the traditional family depend in part on the father being able to keep away from housework. Inevitably, when the man gets his hands dirty too, family life becomes more egalitarian.

Other changes have also contributed towards the establishment of new power relations within the home. Some research suggests that fathers are more authoritarian in large families than in small ones. He is more likely to be the final arbiter in disciplinary matters and will also tend to speak for the family when they are dealing with outsiders. In part this is simply because it is easier to treat a large family as a coherent group rather than as a collection of different individuals. (Benson p. 96).

This still seems to be the experience of those with larger families today. I have spoken to parents with five or more children and they frequently say that the more children you have, the more important discipline becomes. One mother put it this way:

With one child, you can try to avoid confrontation, you can work round a problem, negotiate with them. There’s no time to do that with five so you just end up being stricter.[2]

In fact, it is generally true that the larger any group becomes the more likely it is to develop centralised and formal authority structures. It is in just such situations that men seem more inclined than women to try to dominate the group. In chapter eleven we will see that some writers think that is part of men’s biological make-up. So the trend towards smaller families may have played a part in the decline in openly authoritarian and patriarchal behaviour by many modern fathers.

Changing attitudes towards masculinity and femininity have also been very influential—again due largely to the influence of the women’s movement. An increasing number of men have begun to question some of the more extreme masculine stereotypes that they grew up with. Tenderness and caring are not seen as necessarily ‘effeminate’. These changes have made it easier for some men to become emotionally involved with their children—and willing to express their involvement openly.

There have been many strands in the cord which has led us through the maze from past certainty to present uncertainty. Women have achieved the potential for economic independence; men have more time to spend with their children; the old bargain between the sexes is now seen as based on exploitation rather than reciprocity; power relations within the family have altered; and men are able to develop and express the tender nurturing side of their natures.

But a word of caution is needed. Much has indeed changed, but much has also remained the same. It is worth taking another look, but this time with a rather more jaundiced eye.

For instance, although work patterns have changed, and more women are at work, the picture is still overwhelmingly traditional. Roughly equal numbers of men and women are in full-time employment before marriage, but a lot of women still give up work when they marry. Even more stop work in their first pregnancy and do not return until their youngest child reaches school age. Between a half and two-thirds of families with young children are still operating with the traditional division of labour.[3]

The women’s movement may have affected some men, but there are many others who remain almost entirely untouched by it. They do not accept that society is patriarchal nor do they see any reason to feel guilt. On the contrary, they consider that women have always tried to have their cake and eat it. Now the women’s movement wants a bigger cake! Such men see no reason to revise their opinions about sex roles or childcare. The traditional values suit them and they will continue to uphold them.

Other men go further, to become part of what Barbara Ehrenreich has called the “Flight from Commitment”. She has suggested that running parallel to the women’s movement, and even perhaps ahead of it, was an ad hoc and uncoordinated men’s movement whose central battle cry was the rejection of ‘the breadwinner ethic’. She argues that in the 1950s there was a firm expectation that a man should marry and support his wife. Anything else was immature and unmanly. But, starting in the mid-1950s, there was a revolt against conformism led by such diverse forces as Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, Playboy magazine, cardiologists who warned of the dangers of ‘stress’, and gurus of the sixties who preached the virtues of personal growth. All of these influences tended to work against the values of commitment and selflessness which made up the breadwinner ethic. The men who were touched by this movement were not likely to be enamoured of the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Many men have more free time nowadays, but this does not mean that they automatically spend more time with their families. Increased leisure has been accompanied by increased spending power. There is plenty of temptation to go to the pub after work, or to play squash or bridge, or to spend the evening in the club. Several studies have claimed to show that men still spend very little time with their children. One of the most famous—and most often cited—was that conducted by Freda Rebelsky and Cheryl Hanks. They attached a microphone to the baby’s clothes and recorded the length of time when child and father were making noises to each other. This was done for 24 hours once a fortnight for the first three months of the child’s life. The average came out as a mere 37.7 seconds a day! This figure is exceptionally low, and other American studies have shown a higher degree of involvement.[4]

Brian Jackson estimated that in 1975, “...half the fathers in Britain seldom see their young child, except over a busy breakfast, a complicated weekend or a welcome holiday.” (p23).

The reality of modern fatherhood is complex and often paradoxical. All generalisations are doomed to failure. In the rest of the book I shall look at little more closely at what it means to be a father today. Although I am concerned with all kinds of father I shall pay particular attention to the committed father—the man who wants to do his best as a father, but who may be uncertain about exactly what he is supposed to do. I will also concentrate most closely on the period from conception to the first few months after birth because it is this time which shows most clearly the nature of modern fatherhood and the pitfalls the modern father can encounter. [Next]


[1] For John Bowlby, the psychologist who invented the term maternal deprivation, the father was of very little direct importance to the child:

In the young child’s eyes father plays second fiddle and his value increases only as the child becomes more able to stand alone. Nevertheless, as the illegitimate child knows, fathers have their uses even in infancy. Not only do they provide for their wives to enable them to devote themselves unrestrictedly to the care of infant and toddler, but, by providing love and companionship, they support the mother emotionally and help her maintain that harmonious contented mood in the atmosphere of which her infant thrives. (p.15)

[2] The quotation is from The First Years of Life, to be published by the Community Education Department of the Open University in 1987.

[3] In the US in 1984, 51.8% of married women with children under six were in some kind of employment. (In 1960 the comparable figure was only 18.6%). (Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985. Washington DC: Bureau of the Census 1984.)

In the UK in 1983 24% of women whose youngest child was in the age range 0-4 were in some kind of employment (18% part time, 5% full time). The comparable figure for women with no dependent children was 65% (46% full time, 18% part time). (Source: General Household Survey 1983. Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1985.)

[4] The Rebelsky & Hanks study has been sometimes cited by writers in order to show how uninvolved fathers really are. But before throwing up our hands in despair it is worth noting that other researchers have pointed out that vocalization may not be a particularly good indicator of a father’s involvement with such young children (mothers seem to talk more to their children). Also, there were only ten fathers in the sample so it is dangerous to draw wide-ranging conclusions.

Other studies have come up with less spectacular findings. For instance, Frank Pederson and Kenneth Robson, using mothers’ accounts, found that fathers spent between forty-five minutes and twenty-six hours a week playing with their nine-month-old children.

Charlie Lewis found that only 4% of the fathers in his sample played with their one-year-olds less than ten minutes a day. Two-thirds spent between thirty minutes and two hours a day, and 12% spent more than two hours a day playing with their children. (1986 p.119)