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Equal and Primary Carer Fathers and Early Years Parenting

Drawing on detailed qualitative research, this timely study explores the experiences of fathers who take on equal or primary care responsibilities for young children.

The authors examine what prompts these arrangements, how fathers adjust to their caregiving roles over time, and what challenges they face along the way.

The book asks what would encourage more fathers to become primary or equal caregivers, and how we can make things easier for those who do. Offering new academic insight and practical recommendations, this will be key reading for those interested in parenting, families and gender, including researchers, policymakers, practitioners and students.

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This chapter outlines the development of the author’s relationship with sociology, from early first points of contact with the subject, through emerging interests and identity as a student and the development of his academic career. The chapter dwells on questions about disciplinary overlap and blurriness and the eventual cementing of the author’s self-understanding and orientation as a sociologist. It also engages with a range of practical difficulties and dilemmas encountered during his career, dwelling on lessons learned and offering advice for those entering the field.

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His relationship always had been ‘50/50’, Scott says, and his unusual level of involvement in the care of his one-year-old child – which contrasts with the more traditional arrangements taken up by most of his friends – feels like an extension of that, though it was also enabled by other factors, including parity of earnings between him and his partner. Following a year of parental leave that was split between them, they both now work flexibly in order to enable each to have weekday time alone with their one-year-old and limit their use of day care. They also share childcare tasks as evenly as they can in the evenings and on weekends and, although he works longer hours than her overall, he is also the one more likely to take time off if their son is sick because his work offers greater holiday entitlements. He is proud and happy about the arrangement, and his boss – a mother herself – has been supportive, even if colleagues occasionally quip about his ‘days off’ or ‘babysitting’. Sharing care has not been all plain sailing. Scott’s partner struggled emotionally on her initial return to work after seven months and found it difficult to hand over a significant portion of daytime care duties, which also led to feelings of guilt for Scott himself. Meanwhile, although she had established valuable relationships with other mothers, he has often felt isolated when caring on weekdays, with ventures out into daytime public spaces punctuated by insecurities about how he might be judged by others and envy of the apparent camaraderie of groups of mums he encounters.

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This chapter provides a critical examination of what we already know about fathers’ involvement in the care of their children. It is structured in two parts. Part I focuses on the now quite extensive literature on fatherly involvement in general, exploring the extent to which approaches and understandings have changed over recent years. We start by outlining the emergence of a pervasive cultural ideal of the ‘involved father’, associated with a shift away from seeing fathers as primarily breadwinners and towards an understanding of fatherhood that is based instead on emotional closeness and a greater sharing of caregiving. We then show how such ideals are not always played out in practice, and explore some of the reasons why, within many families with heterosexual parents, mothers continue to bear the primary responsibility for childcare, and devote considerably more time to care than their male partners. Here we consider: the pull of paid work for fathers; the pressures associated with ‘intensive parenting’ and retaining ‘executive responsibility’ that fall particularly heavily on mothers; and the positioning of fathers as ‘supporters’ or ‘secondary parents’ by healthcare professionals and others. Underpinning all these areas is the operation of traditional gender ideologies, which we consider in the final part of this section. Part II shifts the focus to the minority of fathers whose practices go beyond what might be expected of a secondary caregiver or supporter, considering the growing literature on stay-at-home dads, fathers who take extended periods of parental leave (some of it caring alone), and those who share care more or less equally with their partners.

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Providing a substantive examination of the context in which unusually care-centred fathers operate, this chapter focuses on developments in family policy that relate to fatherly caregiving. We focus on policy, specifically, because it provides an important backdrop to the chapters that follow. Our discussion in Chapter 4 of the reasons why the fathers in our sample took on equal or primary responsibility for the care of their young children indicates that practical circumstances often were key, though longer-term orientations could also play an important role. The impact of policy levers may only have been directly visible for those who had taken parental leave, but others had likely benefited more indirectly from the statutory right to request to work flexibly introduced in the UK in 2003 and/or the broader cultural impact of the shift in UK family policy over the last decade. More importantly, throughout the coming chapters we show how the accounts of these unusual fathers draw attention, alongside international evidence, to the ways policy might be leveraged to encourage greater numbers of men in a broader range of circumstances to become more involved in caregiving and how it might render such experiences easier and longer-lasting. This informs some of the policy recommendations that we outline in Chapter 7, the Conclusion. While some scholars have argued that social policy often lags behind social change because the assumptions that underpin specific policy measures are based on previous rather than current time periods (Newsome, 2017), others have maintained that policy can affect significant change – through both incentivising (usually economically) specific types of behaviour, and helping to establish particular cultural norms and dominant discourses (Milner, 2010).

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What kind of arrangements does care-sharing entail for fathers, and what prompts fathers and their families to take on their unusual approaches to early years care? To what extent does the adoption of such arrangements represent a transformation of roles and orientations and how do fathers and their partners transition into them? In this chapter, we begin our examination of the experiences of the fathers within the Sharing Care study by outlining the range of different care and work arrangements they had taken on, before going on to explore the circumstances and motivations that had precipitated these and the nature of the process through which they became a reality. The study’s inclusive approach to the notion of fatherly care-sharing enabled insight into a striking range of approaches fathers were taking to the adoption of either primary or equal care roles within the early years of their children’s lives. In the pages that follow we show how, while a minority of those in the study had taken parental leave, most were currently in the midst of longer-term post-maternity-leave arrangements in co-ordination with different sorts of permanent or semi-permanent adjustments to work. We outline a range of approaches with respect to the division of caring and breadwinning between partners and to the balance of parental versus non-parental care. Notwithstanding the qualitative, non-representative nature of the study, such a diversity of approaches, we suggest, highlights a need to broaden our understandings of what some term ‘involved’ fathering in order to better understand the range of temporary and more permanent care-sharing arrangements it might involve.

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In this chapter we turn to the detail of how the sharing of care by fathers was working out in practice and the significance of this for their caregiving approaches, identities and horizons. In particular, we explore how roles and responsibilities were divided between the fathers and their partners, examine similarities and differences in their styles of parenting and outline how the fathers had come to view themselves and their roles. We already have established in Chapter 4 that, through taking on their unusually involved caregiving roles in the first place, the fathers had taken a substantial step outside of dominant understandings of early fatherhood and, often, one that also represented a turning point from their own early practices and expectations. In the coming pages, we ask what happened next, and how far the fathers’ challenge to dominant ways of ‘doing gender’ in early parenthood went. Against the context of somewhat contrasting arguments in existing literature, we ask how comprehensive their caregiving responsibilities had become and the extent to which their identities and practices demonstrated a movement towards gender-neutral approaches to parenting. We also identify some barriers that sometimes placed limits on the scope of the fathers’ caregiving roles and the transformations of their identities and horizons. As outlined in Chapter 2, indications from existing research on primary carer fathers are somewhat inconsistent when it comes to the extent to which their fatherly approaches and identities come to resemble those normally associated with mothers. For Andrea Doucet (2009), the ongoing significance of long-term gendered habitus prompts even those fathers who have taken on the most extensive practical caring responsibilities to reject the notion that their roles or identities resemble those of mothers (see also Doucet, 2006a).

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Interactions with other parents have long comprised a core part of the daily routine of many mothers who are primary caregivers for young children (Doucet, 2006a). Attendance at organised parent and infant events, children’s activities and a range of more informal gatherings in parks, shopping centres, cafes and in one another’s houses forms a key element of what Doucet (2006a) refers to as ‘community responsibility’ for the upbringing of children, while also offering crucial sources of company and support, not least in the first year of babies’ lives (Mulcahy et al., 2010). Indeed, such activities and connections, argues Doucet, can form a key facet of contemporary mothering (Doucet, 2006a). As we have outlined in Chapter 2, however, research has suggested that fathers who care for children alone on weekdays may engage less with such spaces and networks and that, when they do, reactions to them can be less than positive (Doucet, 2006a; Merla, 2008; Snitker, 2018) – with potential implications for the extent of the parental responsibilities they are taking on, their own wellbeing and comfort within their role, and the prospects of longer-term commitment to it. In the previous chapter, we argued that networking with other parents was one area in which differences between mothers and fathers continued to be played out among our sample of men who, in many other respects, had embraced interchangeable approaches to parenting. In this final empirical chapter, we examine the challenges fathers faced in these respects in greater detail, outlining how they often felt out of place within daytime spaces, their difficulties interacting with other parents, and the apparent isolation many were subject to on the days they cared for their children alone.

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Our premise for much of this book is that, when fathers share care for young children, this has the potential to be beneficial for them, their partners and families and, on a broader scale, for the alleviation of longstanding gender inequalities. Yet, in spite of gradual transformations in popular understandings of fathers as caregivers, the time mothers typically spend on periods of leave and juggling full- or part-time work with primary care responsibilities continues to generate disproportionate burdens on them and hamper the development of their working selves. While external forms of childcare can partially alleviate this, greater maternal participation in the workforce without reciprocal movement of men towards caregiving moves us towards a ‘universal breadwinner’ approach (Fraser, 1996) that embraces traditionally masculine understandings of career intensity and the ‘ideal worker’, while devaluing caregiving and, ultimately, leaving much of the burden for it with women anyway (Hochschild, 1989). In contrast, movement towards a ‘universal carer model’ (Fraser, 1996) characterised by greater sharing of both care and paid work by men and women has the potential to alleviate this maternal care burden while also addressing difficulties with high intensity work cultures and opening up possibilities for men to move beyond the shackles of dominant masculinities (Elliott, 2016). It is against such a context that this book has engaged with the journeys of heterosexual fathers who already have broken with established practice to take on an equal or greater share of early years caregiving for young children. Having carried out a detailed examination of existing literature on both fathering in general and ‘involved’ fathers, and explored the impact and significance of different policy approaches to paternal early years involvement, we went on to delve deeply into the experiences of a sample of UK fathers with a range of different approaches and arrangements to the sharing of care.

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This article explores the daytime social interactions of fathers in heterosexual households who have assumed primary or equal responsibility for the care of their young children. It outlines how, for most such fathers in our sample, contact with other parents during their day-to-day care was minimal. Many initially rationalised their isolation as a personal preference rooted in their own ‘introverted’ nature, but such individualised narratives underplayed how various systemic factors worked against their integration into parent networks. While these may include, we suggest, less intense pressures than mothers to engage with such groups in the first place, our primary findings concern barriers they faced, including: feeling ‘out-of-place’ in many daytime public spaces; a specific fear of being judged because of their gender; and the difficulty of meeting other fathers with responsibility for day-to-day care. The operation of these factors, we argue, provides evidence of the enduring nature of gender differences with respect to early years parenting and in particular, of the gendering of daytime public parenting spaces – something that may represent a barrier to the extent and longevity of fathers’ caregiving roles.

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