views updated May 17 2018







Issues of fatherhood have received considerable attention since the 1990s in academic, practice, and policy discussions as well as in the public domain. This focus on fatherhood, which subsequently came to address responsible fathering, reflects an assumption: that the meaning and enactment of responsible parenting are at the heart of social and cultural debates about the individual and combined roles of families and society in ensuring the health and well-being of children. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s most of the cultural debate about mothers highlighted the question: What, if anything, should mothers do outside the family? By the end of 1990s the debate about fathers had refocused the question to: What should fathers do inside the family (see Doherty, Kouneski, and Erickson 1998)? Several related questions were posed: What role should fathers play in the everyday lives of their children, that is, beyond the traditional breadwinner role? How much should they emulate the traditional nurturing activities of mothers, and how much should they represent a masculine sex-role model to their children? Advocacy organizations and those in the public domain asked: Is fatherhood in a unique crisis? The discussion that follows provides an overview of the background and context of these questions, the resulting effort, and the current status of discussions in the field.


Prior to the 1960s research and policy on family development were dominated by intact or nuclear family models. The role of fathers was framed within a decidedly Euro-American interpretation of family functioning in which fathers provided for the economic well-being of their children and mothers ensured their childrens developmental progress (see Coltrane and Parke 1998; Gottman and Katz 1989; Parke 1996; Pruett and Pruett 1998). Much of family research through the 1970s also focused on the degree to which ethnically diverse families, particularly African American families, adhered to this model (see Coleman et al. 1966; Katz 1993; McDaniel 1994; Moynihan 1965, 1987). Not until the resurgence of interest in family studies in the 1990s did research or policy highlight the diversity of family functioning, interactions, and expectations embedded in the cultural and ethnic histories of families and communities in the United States (see Anderson 1990, 1999; McDaniel 1994; Zuberi 1998).

Much of the visibility of fatherhood can be traced to the passage of the 1988 Family Support Act, which called attention to the failure of many nonresidential, noncustodial parents, mostly fathers, to contribute to the financial support of their children. However, the act did not distinguish among different types of fathers and appeared to assume that all fathers shared a common experience in terms of their marital status at the birth of their children, employment and employability, ability to contribute financially, reasons for absence, and the quality of their relationship with their children, families, and communities. Divorced, middle-class, educated, nonresidential fathers were grouped alongside low-income, unemployed, poorly educated fathers. Issues of class, race, and cultural practices were relatively unexamined except in noting the disproportionate numbers of single, African American, low-income mothers raising their children as well as low-income fathers who neither had custody of their children (noncustodial) nor resided with them (nonresidential).

Despite its limitations, the act was effective in generating interest about nonresidential fathers and acknowledging the growing numbers of fathers who lived apart from their children. It also prompted researchers and practitioners to raise critical issues about the failure of policies in general to address the diversity of fathers and the disparities in their circumstances. The complexity of a changing society was evident in the struggles being experienced by large numbers of children and families. However, it was clear that to understand the causes and effects of father absence, the field also needed to address the causes and effects of father presence, expanding the apparent urgency to examine all types of fathers, irrespective of their coresidence with their children and families, social class, race, and family ties. The discussions that ensued positioned, as a priority, the common problems of father absence; its effects on children, families, communities, and society; and the downward spiraling of two-parent families, father presence, and marriage. They pointed to the need to uncover and understand how men enact their roles as fathers, (re)negotiate gendered and social expectations, and (re)engage with their children and families over the short and long term.


Since the mid-1990s researchers have distinguished various types of father involvement; however, the resulting literature defines and describes father-child presence with increased, though still inexact, precision. The use of the concept responsible fathering reflects a relatively recent shift among academics and professionals away from value-free language toward a more explicit value-advocacy approach (see Doherty et al. 1998; Gadsden 2002; Gadsden and Hall, 1996). Responsible suggests an ought, a set of desired norms for evaluating fathers behavior. The term also conveys a moral meaning (right and wrong), since it suggests that some fathering could be judged irresponsible or nonresponsible. Michael Lamb and his colleagues (1985) offered the most influential scheme to organize the concept: (1) responsibility, the role that fathers take in ascertaining that their children are cared for and arranging for the availability of resources; (2) availability, fathers potential for interaction by virtue of being present or being accessible to their children (whether or not direct interaction is occurring); and (3) engagement, fathers direct interaction or contact with their children through caregiving and shared activities.

Several categorizing frameworks and measurement tools have been created since the mid-1990s, among them Vivian Gadsden and colleagues (1999) Fathering Indicators Framework (National Center on Fathers and Families), Rob Palkovitzs (1997) list of 119 ways to be involved in parenting, Alan Hawkins and colleagues (2002) Inventory of Father Involvement, and the Lewin Groups Evaluability Assessment of Responsible Fatherhood Programs (1997).


The study of fatherhood has progressed significantly as a field from the early 1990s to the early twenty-first century. In 1994 the National Center on Fathers and Families (NCOFF) was established at the University of Pennsylvania to create and implement a research agenda that took seriously the issues of practice, including a research database, the Fatherlit Research Database. The center and the resulting activities in the field demonstrated a consistent shift. For example, in fields such as developmental psychology, once characterized by a singular focus on motherchild relationships, the significance of the father in the daily routines of child support and nurturance was increasingly discussed. The implication of this work was that the role of fathers, and the family itself, was seen as contributing to the affective development of children; to the shaping of personality; and eventually to a sense of belonging, meaning, and socioemotional stability.

One might well ask, What has really changed in the field since the 1990s? Any review of data from the field reveals the measured but significant increase in focus and reach to multiple audiences. Through tracking of the FatherLit Database, NCOFF has systematically collected data on the number of refereed research articles and other research publications on fathers, including the creation of a journal, Fathering, in 2003. Although much of the discussion still dichotomizes the issues into father presence and absence and their effects, it also addresses specific questions such as fathers relationships with their children, the effect of father presence on young children, the role of fathers in homes, and the effects of father engagement on mothers.

Outside the United States the focus on fatherhood has been equally compelling. However, a persistent problem centers on the degree to which and the way research, practice, and policy are constructed and implemented across cultural and national borders. As is true in the United States, questions about where and how to situate fatherhood and fathering are a critical focus of discussion. For example, should fathering be aligned with child well-being? Is it more appropriately studied as an issue of family development and family functioning? How should it be examined within economic and legal considerations? What is the role of fathers in childrens lives?

In various parts of Africa (most notably South Africa) an increasing body of research and new programs have been initiated. Support for these efforts often began as grassroots initiatives but subsequently have been examined in relationship to family life, economic stressors, and the meaning of father presence and engagement. In Baba: Men and Fatherhood in South Africa (2006), edited by Linda Richter and Robert Morrell, chapters take up several of the concerns, questions, and problems that have been examined in the United States but with particular currency for explicating and understanding the cultural contexts in South Africa, such as migrancy, the experience of gold mine workers, Zulu-speaking men and fatherhood, and HIV/AIDS, to name a few (see also Madhaven et al. 2006 for a discussion of father presence in rural South Africa).

A. Bame Namenang (2000), in addressing related issues in Cameroon, similarly calls attention to the construction of father images, cultural practices, kin networks, and the ways fatherhood is situated within these larger familial and community contexts. Efforts throughout Europe, Australia, and the Caribbean reinforce the need to examine critically the cross-cultural and cross-national domains of fatherhood. Among the most well-known research is that of Margaret OBrien (2004) in England, in which she takes up research and policy questions and the difficult intersections between programs and policies. Drawing upon work from large datasets in the United States, Alison Smith (2007) has used the European Community Household Panel to identify several trends throughout European countries, for example, cross-national differences in fathers participation in child care, in employment and pay for fathers versus nonfathers, and in the amount of time spent working (see also Jaipaul Roopnarine and Janet Browns [1997] work on Caribbean families).

At the same time programmatic efforts have increased and become better organized. A range of programs has emergedfrom small, grassroots efforts to educational efforts to work affiliated with federally funded organizations. The National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families; the National Fatherhood Initiative, which houses a federally funded clearinghouse; and the National Center on Fathering represent a few of these efforts, as does a group of experts representing different focuses research, practice, and advocacyand the National Fatherhood Leaders Group. Similar work is taking place throughout parts of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Caribbean, much of it building upon practitioner efforts and cross-collaborations between the United States and groups abroad and supported by a range of foundations and governmental initiatives, including regional meetings in England, Jamaica, South Africa, and Australia. One example from England is Father Direct, the national information center that publishes guides and provides training, conferences, and briefings on fatherhood.

The interest in responsible fatherhood has both heightened and precipitated change. Work on fathers invariably points to the deleterious effects of father absence for children, families, communities, and society, including a focus on fragile families (see publications of the Center on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University; Garfinkel and McLanahan 2003; McLanahan 2006; McLanahan and Carlson 2004) and families experiencing hardship absent the supports necessary for optimal healthy development, with children thought to be especially at risk for poor academic achievement, juvenile delinquency and incarceration, victimization by violence and exploitation, and unmarried adolescent parenting (see also Shannon et al. 2002; Cabrera and Garcia-Coll 2004).

Finally, policy efforts have grown at all levels of government, though the question of what constitutes a good father persists (see Rosenberg and Wilcox 2006), as do issues related to father absence. For example, in a request for proposals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2006), the writers noted that in approximately 84 percent of cases where a parent is absent, that parent is the father and that if the trends continue, half of all children born in the early twenty-first century will live apart from one of their parents, usually their father, at some point before they turn eighteen. They also indicate that where families (whether intact or with a parent absent) are living in poverty, a significant factor is the fathers lack of job skills. An estimated 19,400,000 children (27 percent) live apart from their biological fathers. Of children under age eighteen not living with their biological fathers, 40 percent had not seen their fathers even once in the last twelve months.


It is no surprise that the field of fatherhood and the larger field of family studies grapple with an array of difficult questions and uncharted terrain. What is needed in this still growing field are deepened analyses that reflect the ways fathers, children, and families shape and revise their identities within families and respond to the social and cultural expectations of home and society. Several issues are still relatively unexamined, among them the diversity of fathers, both middle-income and low-income men and families; families of color and immigrant families; the cultural and social factors that influence fathering practices and community expectations; children of incarcerated fathers; the engagement of fathers and mothers as parents and in relationship to their children; the effects of racial stratification on fathers engagement; preparation (through schooling and work) to assume the financial and emotional roles of fathering; issues of mens health; and social vulnerability. In order for change to occur, a conceptual framework is criticalone that reflects a deep understanding of the multifaceted issues and possibilities to effect change in all communities where there are fathers and children.

SEE ALSO Child Development; Family; Family Structure; Masculinity; Men; Motherhood; Moynihan Report; ParentChild Relationships; Public Policy; Role Theory; Unemployment


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Anderson, Elijah. 1999. The Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: Norton.

Cabrera, Natasha, and Cynthia Garcia-Coll. 2004. Latino Fathers: Uncharted Territory in Much Need of Exploration. In The Role of the Father in Child Developmen t, 4th ed., ed. Michael E. Lamb, 98120. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Coleman, James S., Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, et al. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Coltrane, Scott, and Ross D. Parke. 1998. Reinventing Fatherhood: Toward an Historical Understanding of Continuity and Change in Mens Family Lives. Philadelphia: National Center on Fathers and Families, University of Pennsylvania.

Doherty, William J., Edward F. Kouneski, and Martha F. Erickson. 1998. Responsible Fathering: An Overview and Conceptual Framework. Journal of Marriage and the Family 60: 277292.

Gadsden, Vivian L., and Marcia Hall. 1996. Intergenerational Learning: A Review of the Literature. Philadelphia: National Center on Fathers and Families, University of Pennsylvania.

Gadsden, Vivian L. 2002. Fathering Research and Policy. Keynote address. National Family Research Consortium. Lake Tahoe, CA.

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McLanahan, Sara, and Marcia Carlson. 2004. Fathers in Fragile Families. In Conceptualizing and Measuring Father Involvement, ed. Randal Day and Michael E. Lamb, 241271. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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OBrien, Margaret. 2004. Social Science and Public Policy Perspectives on Fatherhood in Europe. In The Role of the Father in Child Development, 4th ed., ed. Michael E. Lamb, 98120. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Palkovitz, Rob. 1997. Reconstructing Involvement: Expanding Conceptualizations of Mens Caring in Contemporary Families. In Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perpsectives, ed. Alan Hawkins and David Dollahite, 200216. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Richter, Linda, and Robert Morrell, eds. 2006. Baba: Men and Fatherhood in South Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council.

Roopnarine, Jaipaul, and Janet Brown. 1997. Caribbean Families: Diversity among Ethnic Groups. Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 14. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Rosenberg, Jeffery, and W. Bradford Wilcox. 2006. The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children. Child Abuse and Neglect User Manual Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Shannon, Jacqueline, Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Kevin London, and Natasha Cabrera. 2002. Beyond Rough and Tumble: Low-Income Fathers Interactions and Childrens Cognitive Development at 24 Months. Parenting: Science and Practice 2 (2): 77104.

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2006. National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers. Requests for Proposals. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/grants/open/HHS-2006-ACF-ACYF-CO-0142.html.

Zuberi, Tukufu. 1998. African American Men, Inequality, and Family Structure: A Research Note. Philadelphia: National Center on Fathers and Families, University of Pennsylvania.

Vivian L. Gadsden


views updated May 18 2018


Father is derived from the Latin word pater: a man who has engendered a child, a male parent, or a person who takes responsibility for protecting, caring, and rearing. It is only since the early 1980s that there has been a public and professional focus on the more affective use of the term father—to protect, care for, and nurture children.

Historical Perspectives

During the seventeenth century, in many Western countries, such as England, France, and the United States, fathers were all-powerful and served as the family's unquestioned ruler (Lamb 1987). Their source of power and authority was the ownership and control of all family property, including land, wives, and children. Men were also charged with the moral and spiritual growth of their children and thus with disciplining them. This early father-child relationship has been described as distant, morally instructive, and condescending, as too much affection was believed to lead to parental indulgence, ruining the character of children (Pleck and Pleck 1997).

In Europe and the United States, the patriarchal style of fathering continued until the mid-eighteenth-century, when a new concept of parenting from England and France began to influence U.S. fathers as well. In this new view, fathers no longer acted as strict authority figures, but increased their roles as moral teachers. Family life continued to shift during the nineteenth century, influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the progressive urbanization of the population. Men went to work in factories, whereas women were stayed at home during the day, in charge of the children and household. The emergence of modern fatherhood began when mothers became the stable core of families, taking over the role as moral teacher and disciplinarian. Despite the decline of patriarchy and the expanded importance of mothers in nineteenth-century family life, middle-class fathers still played a significant role. More than ever before, men were providers for the family, reinforcing their status as heads of households and retaining their place as ultimate disciplinarians of families, but they remained outside the strongest currents of feelings and emotions that flowed within and between family members.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the rise of industrialism and urbanization in Western Europe and North America helped spread the middle-class phenomenon of emerging modern fatherhood. The separation of the workplace from home life continued to undermine the traditional authority of fathers and spawned two opposing trends: father-absence and father-involvement (Rotundo 1993). For some men, the lack of a commanding paternal role in modern families made it possible for them to withdraw psychologically and/or physically from their families without immediate disaster. For other men, however, the traditional formality of patriarchy gave way to the enjoyment of more warmth, play, and intimacy with children.

Scholars assert that the interest in fathering roles since 1900 fluctuated between fathers as providers (instrumental role) and fathers as nurturers (expressive role) (Parke and Stearns 1993). There is a relationship between fertility and the definition of fathering and this is tied to economic conditions. In good economic times, when fathers are able to meet the provider role ideal, fertility increases and fathers' provider roles are emphasized. In nonfavorable economic climates, the alternative definition of fathers as nurturers is more prevalent.

Modern fatherhood lies between these two sets of opposite poles: father-absence versus father-involvement and father as provider (fatherprovider) versus father as nurturer (fathernurturer). The modern trend of androgynous fatherhood, which includes both feminine and masculine aspects in the father role, is a result of the women's movement and the subsequent reshaping of gender roles. As part of this movement, more fathers became active participants in everyday childcare and were more expressive and nuturant with children. The blurring of the distinction between fatherhood and motherhood has led to a reexamination of manhood, womanhood, and family. Finally, the level of father-involvement with children has changed since the 1960s. According to a nationally representative study of two-parent families in the United States, there has been an increase in the level of father-involvement between the 1960s and the late 1990s. Although fathers are still not as involved as mothers, father-involvement (measured in time spent with the family) had increased to 67 percent of the time mothers spent with the family on weekdays and 87 percent of the time mothers spent with the family on weekends in the late 1990s (Yeung et al. 2001). Father-involvement is a hallmark of modern fatherhood, not only in North America, but in Europe, Australia, and the Middle East as well (Lamb 1987). Not all countries have shown a similar increase; fathers in Japan, for example, have increased their involvement more slowly (Ishi-Kuntz 1994).

Fathers Across the Life Span

There is considerable knowledge about the transition to parenthood, which occurs during pregnancy and the birth of the child (Cowan and Cowan 2000). Most information on men's transition to parenthood is derived from middle-class white men, but prenatal involvement is also becoming more commonplace among other socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Participating in childbirth education classes is not only found to be supportive for pregnant women, but it also enhances men's knowledge of pregnancy and birth, increases their understanding of the father's role, and elevates their self-confidence and self-esteem relative to carrying out the parental role (Parke 1996). Although the short-term effects of this participation are known, the long-term effects of prenatal and perinatal involvement on marital relationships and fathering behaviors are less clear.

The next phase of fathering, infancy, is well researched. Mothers are more involved in caregiving than fathers, but in contrast to commonly held myths, fathers are competent caregivers—even with infants (Parke 1996). Fathers spend a larger proportion of their time in play, whereas mothers tend to divide their time equally between caregiving and play. The styles of play differ for mothers and fathers. Fathers' play is more physically arousing and unpredictable than mothers', who are more verbal, didactic, and use toys in their play interactions (Parke 1996). In spite of these stylistic differences, infants develop attachments to fathers as well as mothers (Lamb 1997).

Is there a universal father play style? Some cross-cultural studies support the assumption of mother-father differences in play style (e.g., England, Australia), but in other cultures (e.g., Sweden, Israel) there are few sex-of-parent differences in level or type of play. Moreover, Chinese, Thai, and Aka pygmy mothers and fathers reported that they rarely engage in physical play with their children. These findings suggest that culture may shape fathers' style of interacting with their children.

There is less knowledge about fathers and their school-age children. Mothers continue to spend more time (and more time alone) with children than fathers. However, when both parents and child are together, the interactions initiated by mothers and fathers occur with the same frequency. Studies of Australian school-age children found that a greater proportion of fathers' time is spent in a playful manner whereas mothers' time more often involves caregiving (Russell and Russell 1989). Moreover, fathers participate in instrumental activities, such as scouting and sports, more frequently with sons than with daughters. Relationships with daughters during this period are often less close, ostensibly because of the increased difficulty men have identifying with the special needs of their daughters (Biller and Klimpton 1997).

In adolescence, parents of both sexes spend less time with children than during earlier developmental periods. Moreover, adolescents continue the trend of spending less time with their fathers than with their mothers. This is qualified by the child's gender, in that adolescents report spending more time alone with their same-sex parent than with the opposite sex parent. Additionally, adolescents are likely to spend more of their free time with fathers, and more work and organized leisure time with mothers (Larson and Richards 1994). During the adolescence phase of the family cycle, the essence of the father-child relationship centers around identity issues in which adolescents struggle with the difficulties of their emergent identity (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Landsdale 1995).

Little research has focused on the father-child relationship during the postparental transition when children leave home to begin their lives as independent adults. Fathers gradually develop collegiality and mutuality with their children, are less authoritarian and directive, and children are more receptive to their father's suggestions. Sharing and negotiating emerge as the primary characteristics of their relationship.

Relatively little research has been conducted on the last stage of fathering, grandfatherhood. A crucial element of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is that the children's parents—the "inbetween" generation—mediate it. Parents determine the frequency of interactions between grandparent and grandchild, and may even determine the quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. If parents have negative feelings toward their own fathers, the grandfather-grandchild relationship may be discouraged. The majority of grandfathers derive satisfaction from being a grandfather, and they indulge their grandchildren, because they do not feel they carry the primary responsibility for their grandchildren becoming socially acceptable adults (Smith 1995). Although the strongest bond with grandchildren is likely to be with sons of a son, as men's roles become more androgynous, involving both feminine and masculine qualities, and men's and women's roles become more egalitarian, grandfathers in the future may not make such clear gender distinctions, and granddaughters may receive more of their grandfather's attention.

Determinants of Father-Involvement

Father-involvement is highly variable and determined by a variety of factors including biological, individual, family, and societal influences (Parke 1996). It is not just females who undergo hormonal changes in preparation for parenthood. Human fathers, too undergo hormonal changes during pregnancy and childbirth. In a study men experienced significant prenatal and postnatal changes in several hormones (prolactin, cortisol, and testosterone)—a pattern which was similar to women. Testosterone levels, for example, were lower in the early prenatal period, which may increase paternal responsiveness to infants, in part, by reducing competitive, nonnurturing behaviors (Storey et al. 2000).

There are individual differences in men's attitudes toward fathering, including the motivation, knowledge, and skill to become involved in child-rearing. Men who are more motivated, who value the paternal role, and view themselves as capable are likely to be more involved fathers, not only with infants, but with older children as well.

Family factors are important, and fathers are best understood from a family systems perspective. Mothers can either facilitate or inhibit fathers' involvement in their role of gatekeepers in both intact families and postdivorce contexts (Parke 1996). The quality of the marital relationship is a further determinant: when the marital relationship is positive, the level of father-involvement is higher.

A variety of societal and occupational changes have altered father-involvement. Two shifts will be explored: the timing of fatherhood and shifts in patterns of maternal employment.

Men are becoming fathers at earlier and later ages than in earlier eras. Findings show that most teenage males are unprepared to assume the role of parent and provider. Compared to more mature fathers, teenage fathers have unrealistic expectations, lack of knowledge about child development, and are more likely to be abusive. Adolescent fathers often have problems fulfilling their paternal responsibilities as they are unprepared financially and emotionally to undertake the responsibilities of fatherhood. Many leave school, assume lowpaying jobs, and live a marginal existence. The detrimental effects of early fatherhood seem less problematic for African-American males even though there is a higher incidence of young, unwed fathers among African-American than Euro-American men.

The stereotypic notion that all teenage fathers are irresponsible, uncaring, and unconcerned about the mother or the infant is incorrect. Many young fathers are deeply involved in the lives of their partners and their babies (Marsiglio and Cohan 1997). Data suggests that half of unwed young fathers visit their children at least once a week and a quarter almost daily. Only 13 percent are reported as never visiting. However, other studies also reveal that as children develop, this contact is likely to decrease. Historically, teenage fathers had no legal rights regarding the children they fathered, but the availability of legal recourse is changing. As rates of adolescent fathering have increased, the social stigma has decreased, paving the way for more social services designed to promote positive father-involvement.

In contrast, men who delay their entry into the fatherhood role until their thirties or forties are more involved with their children than "on time" fathers and contribute more to indirect aspects of childcare such as cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. Moreover, the style of interaction varies with timing. As fathers age, they are less physically playful and more likely to engage in cognitive stimulatory activities (e.g., reading, verbal games).

One of the major determinants of father-involvement is the shift toward the dual career family. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, over 70 percent of mothers are employed outside the home. Fathers are more likely to increase their level of involvement when mothers' work, a finding that holds for Euro-American, African-American, and Mexican-American fathers. However, this link is complex and may depend on whether mothers work full- or part-time and whether fathers hold traditional or nontraditional views of parenting. When mothers work part-time, fathers increase their involvement only when they hold egalitarian beliefs. Father beliefs are a less important determinant when women work full-time. However, fathers, regardless of maternal employment, still do less than mothers (Pleck 1997).

It is not only maternal employment that influences father-involvement, but the nature of the father's job characteristics as well. The demands and the nature of the fathers' occupations (e.g., travel, hours of work, or proximity to workplace) can facilitate or prohibit their daily involvement in childcare, as can workplace policies for families (e.g., flextime or paternity leaves.) (Parke and Brott 1999). Moreover, aspects of the work environment may carry over into the family environment and influence the quality, as well as the amount, of father-child interaction. For example, Rena Repetti (1994) found that men with high-stress jobs tended to be more withdrawn from their children after returning home from a high-stress shift at work. On the other hand, positive work experiences can enhance the quality of father-involvement.

Divorced and Single Fathers

Fathering occurs not only in nuclear family contexts but when single custodial fathers serve as primary caregivers for their children following divorce or widowhood. Research on this family form indicates that these men and their families function fairly well. Adaptation to the role of primary parent is initially difficult, but once fathers develop routines and children adjust to their fathers being the sole parent, family life usually proceeds smoothly. Initially after divorce or death, children—especially boys—experience adjustment difficulties, such as diminished school performance or behavior problems.

Quality of involvement is critical and not all paternal involvement is good. Some research indicates that involvement with a noncustodial father is associated with positive outcomes for children, whereas other research indicates that there is no association with child outcomes. The parents' relationship is a critical mediating factor. If the parental relationship is conflict-ridden, frequent visitation will be problematic. Many fathers reduce the amount of visitation in order to reduce the amount of conflict with the former spouse. In fact, relationship with the former spouse is the most significant factor in visitation. If the court proceedings are stressful and the relationship with the former spouse is conflictual, then fathers are less likely to remain involved or to provide child support. Moreover, maternal anger or conflict may cause the mother to restrict the amount and type of involvement by fathers as well. There is consistent evidence of maternal gatekeeping in divorced families. However, long-term effects of maternal gatekeeping on children's adjustment are not well understood.

Culture and Fatherhood

Cultural variations and constraints that promote or inhibit men's involvement with families are a relatively new focus of research. Father-involvement is often determined by differences in ethnicity, nationality, occupation, religion, and social class. (see Bozett and Hanson 1991; Lamb 1987 for cross-cultural and international perspectives). To illustrate the impact of culture on fathering, two ethnic groups, African-American and Latino, will be examined.

The persistent image of African-American fathers is one of an invisible figure that is absent from or, at best, peripheral to day-to-day family functioning. This view is challenged by research that finds that African-American fathers are neither absent nor uninvolved in family life, but play essential roles within families (Yeung et al. 2001). What distinguishes the emerging scholarship on African-American families is its emphasis on family unity, stability, and adaptability. Middle-class African-American fathers are involved in the rearing of their children; maintain warm, interpersonal relations with them; and their children are well-adjusted and motivated. A national survey found few differences in the level of father-involvement in intact families or the type of involvement (play versus caregiving) between African-American fathers and fathers of other ethnic groups (Yeung et al. 2001). Clearly, many African-American fathers play an integral role in the family contrary to earlier stereotypes.

Hispanic or Latino men have been depicted as visible, dominant, authoritarian figures who rule their families with an iron hand (Mirande 1991). Research calls into question the notion of Latino fathers as cold, distant authority figures. In the traditional view, fathers made all major decisions and were masters of the household. Fathers were thought to avoid family intimacy, maintain respect by instilling fear in their wives and children, and punish their children severely. Research suggests that the power of males may be less absolute than once believed and that Latino families are not as rigidly structured along age and gender lines as had previously been thought. Latino fathers are found to be warm and affectionate with children and to have significant influence on their children's development (Coltrane 1996). Hence, Hispanic fathers do not conform to the stereotypical portrayals commonly found in the literature.

Although these ethnic families and fathers do not deviate much from Anglo-American families and fathers, they still should not be judged by white middle-class standards. Ethnic minority families are diverse, and there is no single monolithic ethnic family structure among or within them. Internal variation within major ethnic groups prohibits generalization.

Consequences of Fathers for Men Themselves and Their Children

Becoming a father impacts a man's own psychological development and well-being. One avenue of interest is the impact of fatherhood on men's self-identity. Fatherhood is positively related to men's ability to understand themselves, and to understand others sympathetically. In addition, John Snarey (1993) has found that fathers who are highly involved with their children were higher in societal generativity (i.e., serving as a mentor, providing leadership in the community, or caring for other younger adults). Fathering may be an important contribution to men's development as adults.

Fathers have an impact on their children as well. In the case of nonresident fathers, there are modest but positive links between fathers' contact with their children and academic success on the one hand and negative links with internalizing problems on the other. Quality matters, too: Adolescents who reported a strong attachment with their nonresidential fathers and whose fathers used authoritative parenting had higher educational attainment, were less depressed, and were less likely to be imprisoned (Amato and Gilbreth 1999). In intact families, similar findings were evident: there is a moderate negative association between authoritative fathering and internalizing and externalizing problems. Moreover, the positive influence of fathers on children's behavior was evident for Euro-American, African-American, and Latino fathers (Marsiglio et al. 2000).

Future of Fatherhood

Fatherhood is changing. However, two distinct bipolar trends—father-absence versus father-involvement and father-provider versus father-nurturer—are still evident in modern fatherhood in many different countries throughout the world. An extreme form of father-absence, resulting from divorce and abandonment, has become such a problem that governments in many Western countries are intervening through child support enforcement agencies to force men to provide financially for their children. On the other hand, there are increased numbers of younger middle-class men moving in the direction of more involvement and nurturance in childcare and family life, as found in family forms such as househusband fathers and single adoptive fathers. This androgynous style fits the emerging broader economic and social realities better than older styles of fatherhood. It is believed that these trends will continue despite some people's resistance to the blurring of gender roles. The future will offer fathers multiple options rather than stereotypic roles. With fewer parental prescriptions, modern men are—and will continue to be—freer to choose their own degree of involvement in child rearing and family life. Men will have a broader range of parenthood possibilities from which they can choose the fatherhood model most appropriate for themselves and their circumstances.

The majority of father research has focused on the early part of the family life cycle—pregnancy, birth, and infancy. There needs to be further investigation of the other developmental periods. It is also important to study fatherhood in different social contexts. Scholars need to make finer distinctions between male and female parenting roles and the impact of each gender on the growth and development of children. Examples of questions that need to be answered are: If society values males as parents, how can males be socialized earlier in life to become more nurturing and caregiving with children? What changes are needed in social, economic, legal, educational, and healthcare systems that would enhance men's effective parenting and positive family relationships? Finally, policies and practices need to be placed in international perspective by cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons. Addressing these issues will advance the understanding of fatherhood.

See also:Adolescent Parenthood; Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Childcare; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Dual-Earner Families; Family Life Education; Family Roles; Fertility; Gay Parents; Grandparenthood; Husband; Motherhood; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles; Separation-Individuation; Single-Parent Families; Stress; Stepfamilies;Substitute Caregivers; Surrogacy; Transition to Parenthood; Work and Family


Amato, P. A., and Gilbreth, J. G. (1999). "Nonresident Fathers and Children's Well-Being: Media Analysis." Journal of Marriage and the Family 61:15–73.

Biller, H. B., and Kimpton, J. L. (1997). "The Father and the School-Aged Child." In The Role of the Father in Child Development, ed. M. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Bozett, F. W., and Hanson, S. M. H. (1991). Fatherhood and Families in Cultural Context. New York: Springer.

Brooks-Gunn, J., and Chase-Lansdale, L. (1995) "Adolescent Parenthood." In Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 2, ed. M. Bornstein. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Coltrane, S. (1996). Family Man. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cowan, C. P., and Cowan, P. A. (2000). When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ishi-Kuntz, M. (1994). "The Japanese Father: Work Demands and Family Roles." In Men, Work, and Family, ed. J. C. Hood. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lamb, M. E. (1987). The Father's Role: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lamb, M. E. (1997). "The Development of Father-Infant Relationships." In The Role of the Father in Child Development, ed. M. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Larson, R., and Richards, M. (1994) Divergent Realities. New York: Basic Books.

Marsiglio, W.; Amato, P.; Day, R. D.; and Lamb, M. E. (2000). "Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and Beyond." Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:1173–1191.

Marsiglio, W., and Cohan, M. (1997). "Young Fathers and Child Development." In The Role of the Father in Child Development, ed. M. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Mirande, A. (1991). "Ethnicity and Fatherhood." In Fatherhood and Families in Cultural Context, ed. F. W. Bozett and S. M. Hanson. New York: Springer.

Parke, R. D. (1996). Fatherhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parke, R. D., and Brott, A. (1999) Throwaway Dads. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Parke, R. D., and Stearns, P. N. (1993). "Fathers and Child Rearing." In Children in Time and Place, ed. G. H. Elder, J. Modell, and R. D. Parke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pleck, E. H., and Pleck, J. H. (1997). "Fatherhood Ideals in the United States: Historical Dimensions." In The Role of the Father in Child Development, ed. M. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Pleck, J. H. (1997). "Paternal Involvement: Levels, Sources, and Consequences." In The Role of the Father in Child Development, ed. M. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Repetti, R. L. (1994). "Short-Term and Long-Term Processes Linking Job Stressors to Father-Child Interaction." Social Development 3:1–15.

Rotundo, E. A. (1993). American Manhood. New York: Basic Books.

Russell, A., and Russell, G. (1989). "Warmth in Mother-Child and Father-Child Relationships in Middle Childhood." British Journal of Developmental Psychology 7:219–235.

Smith, P. K. (1995). "Grandparenthood." In Handbook ofParenting, Vol. 2, ed. M. Bornstein. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Snarey, J. (1993). How Fathers Care for the Next Generation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Storey, A. E.; Walsh, C. J.; Quinton, R. L.; and Wynne-Edwards, K. E. (2000). "Hormonal Correlates of Paternal Responsiveness in New and Expectant Fathers." Evolution and Human Behavior 21:79–95.

Yeung, W. J.; Sandberg, J. F.; David-Kean, P. E.; and Hofferth, S. L. (2001). "Children's Time with Fathers in Intact Families." Journal of Marriage and Family 63:136–154.

ross d. parke david j. mcdowell


views updated May 23 2018


The language of fatherhood became central to the ideological debate over slavery in the United States, while biological paternity and the contested power dynamics of parenthood were defining features of American slavery.

For their most persistent defense of legal bondage, proslavery ideologues in the antebellum South argued that the relationship of master to slave was analogous to that of husband to wife or father to child. The argument was grounded in the belief that a patriarchal model of family was sanctioned by the Christian Bible and constituted the basic unit of all government. According to this model, the male served as the head of household—as did the Old Testament patriarchs—whereas wives and children were his subordinate dependents. By arguing that slaves constituted part of the master's extended household, slaveholders and politicians, wrote historian Stephanie McCurry, "attempted to endow slavery with the legitimacy of family" (1992, p. 1251). Indeed slaveholders frequently employed the term "our family, white and black," to suggest an ideology of slaveholding paternalism so pervasive that nineteenth-century legal codes concerning masters and slaves were grouped under the category of "domestic relations" along with the legal headings of "husband and wife," "parent and child," and "guardian and ward" (Genovese 1991, p. 69; Bardaglio 1995, p. xi).

The term "our family, white and black" and the analogy of slaves as children served as political propaganda that concealed the violence and power dynamics inherent to the master-slave relationship. But it also resonated literally in the biological paternity of children conceived through slaveholders' sexual exploitation of slave women. As abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass wrote, the slaveholder "may be and often is master and father to the same child … thousands [of slaves] are ushered into the world annually, who—like myself—owe their existence to white fathers, and most frequently, to their masters" (2003 [1855], pp. 18-19).

In the American colonial period, colonists initially followed English tradition by which a child born of a slave parent and a free parent inherited the status of the father. But beginning with a 1662 Virginia law, children of slave women followed the condition of their mother. The law addressed the increasing difficulty of determining the children's paternity; it also reinforced the power and property rights of the master by assuring him chattel ownership of his slave descendants. In addition, slaveholders' estates were shielded from any legal claims by slave mothers or their children. "This arrangement," wrote Douglass in his 1855 autobiography, "admits the greatest license to brutal slaveholders, and their profligate sons, brothers, relations, and friends, and gives to the pleasure of sin, the additional attraction of profit" (2003 [1855], p. 18).

Moreover, the arrangement mystified the parentage of slave children such as Douglass. Though his master was rumored to have been Douglass's father, his actual paternity remained his entire life "shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate" (2003 [1855], p. 14). Slave mothers were often forbidden to name their baby's fathers or feared the repercussions of doing so. This could include sale or reprisals from jealous mistresses who misdirected their wrath over their husbands' infidelities to the slave women on whom the slaveholders forced intercourse. Children were taught not to inquire about their paternity or told incredible stories to account for human reproduction. When a planter's son was introduced as her father, one child replied, "I ain' got no father … buzzards laid me an' de sun hatch me; an' she [mother] came' long an' pick me up" (Schwartz 2000, p. 100).

Annie Burton knew of her father, a neighbor of her master and mistress, though she only saw him about a dozen times around the age of four when he was driving by her master's. Whenever Burton's mistress saw the man going by, she would take the child's hand, run to the piazza and shout, "Stop there, I say! Don't you want to see and speak to and caress your darling child? She often speaks of you and wants to embrace her dear father. See what a bright and beautiful daughter she is, a perfect picture of yourself. Well, I declare, you are an affectionate father." Years later in her autobiography, Burton recalled, "I well remember that whenever my mistress would speak thus and upbraid him, he would whip up his horse and get out of sight and hearing as quickly as possible. My mistress's action was, of course, intended to humble and shame my father. I never spoke to him, and cannot remember that he ever noticed me, or in any way acknowledged me to be his child" (1909, p. 8).

Burton's recollection of her father demonstrates the unwillingness of white fathers to acknowledge slave children. According to historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz, slave-owning fathers rarely favored their multiracial children. To the abhorrence of slaves, who believed fathers should take responsibility for their children, most slaveholders sold or simply ignored their slave progeny.

Depending on whether slave family relationships had been disrupted by sale or whether slave couples had chosen partners who lived abroad or who were owned by the same slaveholder, enslaved fathers might or might not live in the same household as their children. Those who lived at home shared family responsibilities with their partners. Fathers might supplement the family's rations by fishing. Because mothers could only breastfeed infants during scheduled rest periods from their field labor, fathers shared in the child care by bringing water to their nursing partners. Facing the threat of family separation, slave fathers might run away and send word to their masters that they would return if the threat abated. In this way, slave fathers used their own labor to negotiate the preservation of families.

Elijah Knox was the enslaved father of John and Harriet Jacobs, both of whom published slave narratives in 1861. Knox was a skilled carpenter, and though owned by a different slaveholder than his wife and children, he was allowed to hire out his time and live in the same household as his family. But that arrangement changed with the capriciousness of the family's owners. The children's mistress took Harriet into her lodgings and sent John to work in the office of her son-in-law. Harriet was nine; John was ten. Three months later, Knox was forced to move from his home in Edenton when his mistress married a man who forbade him to hire out his time. John Jacobs later recalled of Knox, "The knowledge that he was a slave himself, and that his children were also slaves, embittered his life, but made him love us the more" (1861, pp. 85-86).

Not only could families be separated at the slaveholder's whim, but the power of the slaveholder and the authority of enslaved parents held competing claims over the loyalties of enslaved children. Harriet Jacobs recalled a childhood incident in which John (called William in her narrative) was summoned simultaneously by his mistress and the children's father: "[H]e hesitated between the two; being perplexed to know which had the strongest claim upon his obedience." When he was reproved by his father for answering the call of his mistress, the boy replied, "You both called me, and I didn't know which I ought to go to first" (1987 [1861], p. 9).

Slave parents such as Elijah Knox had to walk a fine line between teaching children to privilege their mother's and father's authority without drawing the ire of their master or mistress. The complicated reality that probably contributed to John Jacobs's confusion was that slave children were subject to the punishment of slaveholders with little ability of parents to intervene. Henry Bibb recounted how, as an enslaved father, he was unable to shield his infant daughter from the cruelties of their mistress, in whose care the child was necessarily left while her parents performed the master's labor. When he recalled seeing the mark of his mistress' hand on his daughter's cheek, Bibb lamented, "Who can imagine what could be the feelings of a father and mother, when looking upon their infant child whipped and tortured with impunity, and they placed in a situation where they could afford it no protection. But we were all claimed and held as property" (1849, p. 49).

When he published his own autobiography in 1861, John Jacobs did not recount the childhood incident of confused allegiances recorded in his sister's narrative. But the politics represented by that incident were reflected in his conception of slavery. In his first chapter, Jacobs provided an indictment of slavery based on the same patriarchal model of family invoked by slavery apologists. Yet Jacobs rebutted the proslavery paternalism by implicitly arguing that the institution of slavery, along with the power of the slaveholder, obliterated for slaves the very model of family on which rests the notion "our family, white and black":

To be a man, and not to be a man—a father without authority—a husband and no protector—is the darkest of fates. Such was the condition of my father, and such is the condition of every slave throughout the United States: he owns nothing, he can claim nothing. His wife is not his: his children are not his; they can be taken from him, and sold at any minute, as far away from each other as the human fleshmonger may see fit to carry them. Slaves are recognized as property by the law, and can own nothing except by the consent of their masters. A slave's wife or daughter may be insulted before his eyes with impunity. He himself may be called on to torture them, and dare not refuse. To raise his hand in their defense is death by the law (1861, p. 85).

Jacobs defined fatherhood in terms of one's ability to wield authority and protection over one's family, in whom he must possess some figurative sense of belonging. And he literally must be able to own property and to be autonomous. "To be a man, and not to be a man" suggests that a bondman is biologically male but cannot conform to the definitions of manhood and fatherhood outlined here because slavery and the master's power deprives them of parental authority. Like the pro-slavery argument Jacobs intended to refute, this indictment of slavery rests on an adherence to gendered power relations within the family. Together, these arguments illustrate how the rhetoric of paternalism and fatherhood were employed and contested in the ideological debates over antebellum slavery.


Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York, 1849. "Documenting the American South." University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu.

Bardaglio, Peter. Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Burton, Annie. Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days Boston: Ross Publishing Company, 1909. "Documenting the American South." University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu.

Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Clinton, Catherine. "Southern Dishonor: Flesh, Blood, Race and Bondage." In Joy and Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South, ed. Carol Bleser. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom [1855]. Reprint with notes by John Stauffer. New York: Random House, 2003.

Genovese, Eugene. "'Our Family, White and Black': Family and Household in the Southern Slaveholder's Worldview." In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South, ed. Carol Bleser. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861], Jean Fagan Yellin, ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Jacobs, John S. "A True Tale of Slavery." Published serially in The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, February 7, 14, 21, and 28, 1861, (nos. 476-479), pp. 85-87, 108-110, 125-127, 139-141. "Documenting the American South." University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu.

McCurry, Stephanie. "The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in Antebellum South Carolina." Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1245-1264.

Schwartz, Mary Jenkins. Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004.

                                        Christina Adkins


views updated May 29 2018


Fatherhood is the state of being a father. That state can be defined as a biological function, a legal classification, an emotional connection, a social role, a symbol of authority, or even a philosophical position. Fathers in all those guises have constituted a central part of the social, cultural, and religious life of most cultures. Many societies are patriarchies, organized around the father as the dominant figure in an extended family. The roles of fathers have changed in the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. The familial roles of individual fathers have become more nurturing at the same time that biological science has made the identities of fathers more certain.


Biologically, a father is the male individual who has contributed to half of a child's genetic material. The father's genes may be contributed in several ways. Males may inseminate females through sexual intercourse or may contribute sperm to a sperm bank. The father may be married to the woman he impregnates and continue to live with her and their child as a nuclear family. The father may have contributed genetic material as a part of a more casual sexual encounter and have either no relationship or only a legal relationship with his child. Women may be inseminated with sperm from a sperm-donor bank so that the identity of the father is unknown. Occasionally males contribute sperm to women who wish to have children but to whom they are not married.

Only recently has it become possible to determine with certainty the identity of a biological father. Before scientists developed the ability to sequence and read DNA, the identity of a biological father could be presumed only through circumstances. Blood typing, which was invented in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, could indicate with any certainty only males who could not possibly be the father of a child. The need to guarantee that a husband was the father of his wife's children produced many legal and social constraints on the activities of women. Endowing the wife's offspring with the name of her husband—the patronym—constituted an attempt to make the father's link to his wife's children more certain. Because in many societies a family's wealth was passed through male children, it was important to try to assure that those children were indeed from the father's bloodline. Even in an era when it is possible to discern who a child's father is with overwhelming probability through DNA tests, the law still presumes that the husband of a woman who bears a child is the child's father unless circumstances suggest otherwise.

Before the advent of DNA technologies, many laws were passed to protect the assumption of paternity and the rights of fathers, though it also was presumed that mothers had more responsibility and greater capabilities with younger children. If a married couple wished to divorce, the law presumed that the mother had a stronger claim to the custody of younger children (the tender-age presumption). At the same time it was much more difficult for unmarried males to claim paternity or for unmarried women to prove that a specific man was the father of her child. More recently family law has acknowledged that fathers have more than legal ties to their children and has begun to even out the rights of both parents in relation to their children. More unmarried fathers take, or are forced to take, legal responsibility for their offspring because their relationship to children can be proved.


Over the generations, fatherhood has become a more emotional, caring, nurturing relationship. Fathers often share child-care responsibilities, bonding with their children as caretakers and contributing members of the family unit. In the traditional European and North American bourgeois nuclear family, the father was understood as the source of authority, rule making, financial security, and discipline, mostly because he tended to be the parent who worked and had only limited responsibilities in caring for the children. In cultures in which both parents work or the mother is a major source of family income, fathers have become more involved with their children's daily care. They thus have become more intimately involved in their children's emotional lives and development. There are many cultures in which fathers still are patriarchal authority figures governing the family. However in many European and North American cultures, fathers have become coparents, sharing decision making and having more multifaceted and enriched relations with their children.

Many nuclear families include fathers who are not the biological fathers of the children. Second marriages and stepchildren point to a more social function for fathers. Fathers need not have a biological relation to children. They may have important legal and social relations with them as stepfathers or adoptive parents or in other relationships in which males take the role of protector and nurturer.

One result of changes in the family has been a growing fathers' rights movement. This movement attempts to balance family laws that favor the mother and make it difficult for fathers to have rights in relation to their children, especially when they are no longer or never have been married to the children's mothers.


The role of the father as authority figure in and protector of the traditional patriarchal nuclear family has long served as a model for a more figurative understanding of the father as a powerful person who oversees the welfare of a group of people. In societies organized around the prohibitive powers of males, the father becomes symbolic. The father is one who has the power to prohibit certain desires and activities, not as an individual prohibition, but as a social rule. In this sense all governments act as figurative fathers when they pass and enforce legislation. The symbol of the powerful but beneficent father is employed as a metaphor to characterize important cultural figures. The founders of nations, such as George Washington in the United States, are the fathers of the country. Inventors become the metaphorical fathers of entire technologies. Henry Ford is the father of the modern assembly line, and Alexander Graham Bell is the father of modern communications. The heads of religious groups, such as priests, often are referred to as Father. Deities have paternal attributes.

In the end the notion of fatherhood is a philosophical position in which an individual assumes an ethical responsibility for the care of a group. People's comprehension of this position is premised on the image of the father as the powerful one in whose name they live but whose prohibitions also foment desires and rebellions. A central myth of European and North American culture, the myth of Oedipus, is centered on respect for and defiance of the fathers' prohibitions. The figure of the ethical presence of the father governing people's lives penetrates many religions, social organizations, literary traditions, and psychoanalytic conceptions of the ways in which people become conscious individuals.

see also Family; Motherhood; Patriarchy; Patrilineality.


Biaggi, Cristina, ed. 2006. The Rule of Mars: Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy. Manchester, CT: Knowledge, Ideas & Trends.

Coltrane, Scott. 1997. Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dowd, Nancy E. 2000. Redefining Fatherhood. New York: New York University Press.

Gavanas, Anna. 2004. Fatherhood Politics in the United States: Masculinity, Sexuality, Race and Marriage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. 2004. The Evolution of Fatherhood: A Celebration of Animal and Human Families. New York: Ballantine.

                                                   Judith Roof


views updated May 08 2018


Fatherhood has been described as the cause and fulfillment of the father's creative, protective, and organizing power in his child. As a physical and symbolic bond between generations, fatherhood implies the authority of the father over the child, expressed through the transmission of the name. The sons use this aspect of paternity in the construction of their own individual and social identities, and in their respect for the law. Father-hood is the basis of all thought.

Discovering in his self-analysis, through his dreams, that fatherhood satisfied both his desire for immortality, through his children, as well as his ambivalence toward his own dead father, Sigmund Freud fathered psychoanalysis when he published The Interpretation of Dreams, and established that the desire of Oedipus to sleep with his mother and kill his father is universal.

Fatherhood is an organizing system indissociable from the Oedipus complex. It links the law to desire and to castration. It structures and restrains sexuality, through the father, who is simultaneously loved, protective, and feared. It condenses conflicts of ambivalence and the castration anxiety. Fatherhood induces repression and prompts progress: It is an inevitable and indestructible origin and obstacle that unites the scattered ego, while showing how to overcome ambivalence through identification with the father. Its dynamic potential is anchored in the father-mother-child triangle it structures, not in the person of the father who supports the paternal function. Hans (1909b), in the throes of an oedipal crisis at four years of age, introjects the cultural treasure linked to fatherhood into the mythical power of language and knowledge. He is ignorant of the procreative function: Paternity, as the hidden cause for the production of children, confutes childhood trust, obstructs independent thought, and betrays the subject's expectation of protection. A child affected by nostalgia for the father will displace it onto God.

Fatherhood was considered to have had a phylogenetic origin, recapitulated by ontogenesis (1912-13a). Having murdered the violent and jealous primal father, the sons discover the symbolic paternity of the father in the work of mourning, made up of ambivalence, guilt, and idealization. Retrospective obedience and the renunciation of the father's omnipotence are at the origin of the social contract and the law. For Freud fatherhood also occupies a central place in the subject's genital organization through the father complex. Linked to death and sexuality, which it transcends, and serving as an atemporal and structuring reference point, it channels through its incarnated generating power the diphasic sexual development of the child-become-adolescent, opening him up to the effects of Nachträglichkeit, sublimation, and the wish to become a father in his turn.

Identification is the prototype of this operation; first, the human subject constitutes itself through "primal" identification with the "father of personal prehistory" (1923b), an incorporation of paternity that includes the mother. Fatherhood then, logically, enables the subject's separation from the mother and authorizes relations of generation, dramatized as arising from a primal triangle, with differentiated parental imagos. Secondly, the oedipal crisis ends, with the installation of the impersonal superego.

The bond with the father is essential for a daughter (1933a). Involved in an intense pregenital relation to her mother, she enters late into the Oedipus complex, turning her outwardly directed libido inwards. She displaces her love onto her father, from whom she wants a child-penis. Her major anxiety, that of being no longer loved, often keeps her dependent on her bond with the father. As a mother she offers fatherhood to the man who is substituting for her father, if she has transcended her own claim to the phallus.

The bond of fatherhood is connected for the child with the desire that links the mother to the father. Paternity exerts itself when the child induces a "foreigner" (1939a) who is the father to adoption. For Jacques Lacan, a failure of this metaphorizing recognition is responsible for the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father, which leads to psychosis. Melanie Klein prefigured the oedipal complex through the nipple-object guiding the child's access to the breast, a paternity incarnated at the very heart of maternity.

Fatherhood can be considered as a development when becoming a father leads to psychic restructuring.

Ann Aubert-Godard

See also: Abandonment; Adolescence; Animus-Anima; Bisexuality; Castration complex; Counter-Oedipus; Criminology and psychoanalysis; "Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, A "; "Dostoevsky and Parricide"; Erotogenic masochism; Ethics; Family; Family romance; Father complex; Freud, Jakob Kolloman (or Keleman or Kallamon); Future of an Illusion, The ; Homosexuality; Idealization; Identification; Infantile neurosis; Law and psychoanalysis; Law of the father; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood ; Myth of origins; Myth of the Birth of the Hero ; Neurotica; Object; Object, change of/choice of; Oedipus complex; Otherness; Parenthood; Parricide, murder of the father; Penis envy; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Primal scene; Primary identification; Primitive horde; Scenes of seduction; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes"; Superego; Totem and Taboo ; Totem/totemism; Wish for a baby.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I. SE, 4: 1-338; Part II. SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1939a ). Moses and monotheism: three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Lacan, Jacques (1958). The signification of the phallus. In Alan Sheridan (Trans.),Écrits: a selection (pp. 281-291). New York: Tavistock Publications.


views updated May 18 2018

254. Fatherhood

  1. Abraham progenitor of a host of nations. [O.T.: Genesis 17:36]
  2. Adam first man and progenitor of humanity. [O.T.: Genesis 5:15]
  3. Dag(h)da great god of Celts; father of Danu. [Celtic Myth.: Parrinder, 68; Jobes, 405]
  4. Dombey, Mr. embittered by the death of his young son, neglects his daughter. [Br. Lit.: Dombey and Son ]
  5. Goriot, Père deprives himself of his wealth in order to ensure good marriages for his two daughters. [Fr. Lit.: Balzac Pere Goriot in Magill I, 271]
  6. Liliom dead for sixteen years, he is allowed to return from Heaven for a day, and attempts to please the daughter he had never seen. [Hung. Drama: Molnar Liliom in Magill I, 511]
  7. Priam, King of Troy fathered fifty children, among them Hector, Paris, Troilus, and Cassandra. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad ]
  8. Tevye pious dairyman concerned with marrying off his seven beautiful daughters. [Yid. Lit.: Tevyes Daughters ; Am. Musical: Fiddler on the Roof in On Stage, 468]
  9. Vatea the first man; the father of mankind. [Polynesian Legend: How the People Sang the Mountains Up, 85]
  10. Zeus (Jupiter, Jove) Father of the gods and men; had many legitimate and illegitimate children. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Benét, 1115; Bulfinch, Ch. I]


views updated May 18 2018

fatherhood An apparently commonsense concept, but one which is too often used loosely by sociologists, since it could mean: a man through whom ties of filiation (‘being the child of’) are traced; a man through whom property rights are traced; a man whose acknowledged (not necessarily genetic) relationship to the child establishes its full social membership within the society; a man whose acknowledged relationship to the child establishes its social group membership within a society; or any combination of these. Different societies, with different systems of descent and transmission of rights, employ the term differently.