How to balance the conflicting demands of home and work has been a debate that has tended to focus upon women’s lives. The debate challenges traditional male and female roles at a time when women are demanding equality.
The recent Mori Social Research Institute report Dads on Dads argues that fathers’ roles have been neglected in this debate, and that “a more equal balance in family responsibilities is key to greater equality between women and men in all spheres”.1
The research explores the needs and expectations of fathers both at home and at work. Albeit modest, the research project set out to explore:
- How involved fathers are in the lives of their families.
- Men’s attitudes towards what it means to be a “father” and how fatherhood relates to the reality of men’s lives who are in employment.
- The barriers faced by men who wish to balance their work and family life.
- Why men do not demand more access to, and use of, family-friendly policies and practices.
Between April and June 2002, 61 qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with fathers, with some follow-up interviews with partners, and some focus groups with fathers of young children.
As with so much research, caution must be applied to findings. The report acknowledges that “fathers are not a homogeneous group, and there is a wide variety in the roles they play”. Four parent-types are identified:
- The “enforcer dad” who takes an overview role in the family and has prime responsibility for discipline.
- “Entertainer dad” who is involved with their children mostly in terms of play and leisure activities.
- “Useful dad” who performs many child care tasks but generally as a helper to their partner.
- “Fully-involved dad” who takes the lead in child care and the tasks associated with it for substantial parts of the week.
The report look at the tensions between the breadwinner role and the desire to “be there for their children”, tensions that are exacerbated by the “long-hours workplace cultures”. There is evidence of a reluctance to challenge inflexible work patterns, and an absence of family-friendly policies in their organisations. Many men in the survey were asking for greater flexibility and understanding from their employers, to enable them to be more confident in being there for their children at short notice. There was a broad welcome for statutory paternity leave, but a complaint that a level set at £100 is prohibitive for fathers who cannot afford a drop in income.
The social policy and practice implications for social work are considerable. This report encourages us to apply the holistic approach to the whole family. Although the report focuses on “intact” families -Êwhere both parents are in their first marriage -Êthere are also wide implications for “reconstituted” families – where parents have remarried and children have step-parents -Êand the ways in which fathers’ roles are understood and assessed during the divorce process.
The report also highlights how the high cost of child care makes it uneconomic in many families for both parents to work and so reinforces the men at work and women at home divide. So, one of the most important factors in increasing choice of roles for mothers and fathers is the gender gap in pay, which “encourages the traditional parenting roles of mother as carer and father as breadwinner to be the norm”. There is still a long way to go.
Bernard Moss is a principal lecturer in social work and applied social studies, and a learning and teaching fellow at Staffordshire University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 W Hatten, L Vintner and R Williams, Dads on Dads: Needs and Expectations at Home and at Work, Equal Opportunities Commission, 2002. Go to www.eoc.org.uk/research