Policy Papers

Supporting Active Fatherhood in Britain

Dr Laura King |

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Executive Summary

  • It is often assumed that there has been a dramatic change in fathers' involvement with their children in the last twenty or thirty years. Whilst there has been some increase in time men spend with their children, their participation in housework and child-related chores has not changed dramatically. The idea that fathers are important, on the other hand, has been constantly reiterated over many centuries.
  • There is a much longer history of paternity leave than has been realised - throughout the twentieth century fathers took time off work to support their wives around the time of birth, although official paternity leave was not introduced until 2003.
  • The emphasis on equality between mothers and fathers in child custody is also not new - this premise was crucial in debates surrounding the 1925 Guardianship Act.
  • The cultural and historical assumptions surrounding fatherhood have a tangible impact on the attitudes towards and experiences of homosexual fathers, adoptive fathers and single fathers, with clear implications for policies relating to child custody and paternity leave.
  • The inaccurate assumption that there was a lack of paternal involvement in the past colours our interpretation of fatherhood today: if previous generations of fathers were largely absent, even a small amount of participation by modern fathers is seen as 'good progress'.
  • The celebration of close father-child relationships is certainly positive, but we must reject suggestions that this has only developed since the 1970s or even 1990s.
  • Policies today should be designed to ensure all parents, regardless of sex or form of family, can exercise choice to be active parents

Introduction: assumptions about history

Many policy-makers, journalists and social commentators suggest that in previous decades, fathers were distant family members and did not have close relationships with their children. In June 2011 in The Independent, journalist Terence Blacker stated that 'The generation of men who fought in the Second World War and their immediate successors had many great virtues... But they were not good at fatherhood'. In the 2011 controversy surrounding the birth of actor Hugh Grant's baby, Hugo Schwyzer, writer and historian, suggested in The Guardian that Grant's obvious joy on becoming a father was a modern phenomenon, marking 'Grant once again not only as essentially decent, but as a most representative modern man'.

It is often assumed that in the past fathers' roles were clearly defined, whereas their duties and place in the family are much more confused and complex today. Many perceived problems in today's society are attributed to a lack of strong male figures in the lives of young people. Discussing the riots of August 2011, for example, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggested that 'constructive fatherhood' had too often disappeared. Acting as a role model has long been seen as a key duty for fathers, yet there has always been a diversity of experience. Fears about the absence of fathers causing rebellion among young people have a long history and were particularly prominent during and after the two world wars. Assumptions about what fathers did in the past are not borne out in historical evidence.

Fatherhood in the twentieth century

Historians, such as John Tosh and Joanne Bailey, have uncovered much evidence of very involved fathers, who spent a lot of time with their children in the home and had close emotional relationships with sons and daughters throughout past centuries. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 'tenderness' was understood by social commentators and individual parents as a crucial quality for fathers. In the nineteenth century, the stereotype of the distant and tyrannical Victorian patriarch conceals substantial evidence of fathers who cared greatly for their children and played with them, educated them, and even nursed them. In the early part of the twentieth century, the stern Victorian stereotype was itself held up in contrast to the supposed contemporary reality of less distant men. By the 1930s and 1940s, it was frequently asserted that fathers were forming genuine friendships with their children and taking an active role at the heart of family life. In the post-Second World War era, it was said that many men were determined to cultivate much closer relationships with their children than they had experienced with their own fathers.

This was reinforced by important social trends. The reduction in average family size meant that many parents could devote more time to each of their children. The emphasis on the small, nuclear family as a self-sufficient entity gave fathers a place at the heart of the family. A decrease in working hours and increased holiday time meant that men had more time available to spend with their families. After the Second World War, increased living standards for many working-class families meant that homes became more pleasant places to spend leisure time, due to better housing, private gardens and affordable commodities, from refrigerators to televisions.

The emphasis on the nuclear family was reinforced after 1945 by the expansion of state welfare and psychological thinking about the family. Policy-makers often assumed that a 'family' meant a man working full time, a woman primarily occupied in the home or working part-time, if at all, with two or three children of nursery or school age. This was reflected in legislation, such as the introduction in 1945 of family allowances, which were paid directly to mothers at the insistence of feminist campaigners, who called for the greater recognition of motherhood as a vocation and the importance to the economy of domestic work. These sentiments were reflected in William Beveridge's proposals for the post-war welfare state. Influential psychologists such as John Bowlby suggested that children needed almost constant attention from a mother-figure, which further encouraged housewifery and motherhood as women's main roles and discouraged female employment. Ideas about the 'normal family' could also be seen in the design of new housing, with a proliferation of modestly-sized semi-detached houses with three bedrooms and a private garden. The conception of the small, nuclear family as 'normal' thus pervaded society, though many families did not fit this model.

This focus on the nuclear family, the high marriage rate and the early average age of marriage, was particular to this period. This was challenged in the 1960s and 1970s by the rise of second-wave feminism, a revolution in attitudes towards sexuality and the increase in the divorce rate following changes in the law from 1969. An influx of migrants, particularly from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, also produced a greater diversity of family forms. From 1973, men and women were given equal rights regarding the guardianship of children in the event of separation. Then, in the 1970s, fathers' groups were rapidly established to promote fathers' rights, perceiving a need to reassert the significance of fathers now that mothers' rights were more firmly entrenched in law.

Over the last century, there has been some increase in men's participation in childcare, but this has not been as rapid and dramatic as is often assumed. John and Elizabeth Newson, social researchers working in Nottingham in 1963, found that 78 per cent of men fed their one-year-old infants 'often' or 'sometimes', 80 per cent took part in the bedtime ritual, and 99 per cent played with their children. However, the majority of fathers did not bathe their baby or attend to him or her in the night, and 43 per cent never changed a nappy. In 1982, this research was repeated. Charlie Lewis found that around one third of men took little or no responsibility for feeding. Men's involvement in putting the child to bed was slightly lower than in Newson and Newson's study: 74 per cent had some or a lot of involvement, and 26 per cent, 'little or none'. Again, the majority of men had little or no involvement in bathing their child, and 40 per cent rarely changed a nappy, though many more (87 per cent) attended to their baby when he or she woke in the night.

Contemporary research, such as a recent study entitled ''Family Man': British Fathers' Journey to the Centre of the Kitchen' conducted by the Fatherhood Institute in 2011, suggests that men now spend more time interacting with their children. It is argued that this is a wholly positive development for the happiness and wellbeing of those children as they grow older. By re-examining the historical record, however, it is evident that fathers have been much more involved in family life in the past than is generally recognised. To support families' choices about the division of domestic labour, childcare duties and paid work, it is necessary to move on from the notion that fathers are inferior as parents in comparison to mothers, and that they have only recently become fully involved in their children's lives. This is particularly so given the rise in divorces and separations. For single fathers, these assumptions can hamper men's chances to gain custody of their children and consequently their ability to care for and develop relationships with them as they grow older. Changes in both policy and related social attitudes will be necessary if further developments in fathers' involvement are to be supported.

Paternity and Parental Leave

Paternity leave was introduced in April 2003 by the Labour government. Fathers were given two weeks' leave to be taken within 56 days of the baby's birth, in one single block, paid initially at £100 per week or 90 per cent of earnings, whichever was lower. This changed in April 2011, when a scheme of Additional Paternity Leave was introduced. This is more flexible, and enables fathers to take the equivalent of any maternity leave that is not used by the mother, after the first 26 weeks, if she has returned to work.

Again, the history of paternity leave is more complex than has been assumed. Men in the past frequently took time off work to be with their wives or partners and babies around the time of birth. This could take the form of unpaid leave, annual holiday, sick or compassionate leave - indeed doctors were often willing to sign sick notes to facilitate this. In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers found that it was not uncommon for factory workers to take a week off work when a baby was born. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small number of employers, such as the Greater London Council and British Rail, had limited paternity leave schemes as an additional employer benefit. In the 1980s, one study found that only 18 per cent of men did not take any time off work, and 30 per cent took eight or more days' leave. Another research project published by the Equalities Commission in 1983 suggested that only around five per cent of employed fathers took no time off, and over 70 per cent took more than one week. Over 90 per cent of fathers supported the idea of an official scheme of paternity leave. According to research by the Fatherhood Institute, over 90 per cent of men currently take some leave after the birth of their child, with around 60 per cent taking official paternity leave. Many men prefer to take annual leave because it is paid at a higher rate.

The implications of the new flexible rules regarding parental leave remain to be seen. It is clear that, like active fatherhood, informal paternity leave has a much longer history than tends to be assumed. Throughout the twentieth century, fathers have found a variety of ways to help their wives during the important period around and just after a baby's birth. As the number of families who employed domestic servants decreased, and some working-class families relocated to areas away from relatives, the support and help of a husband has become increasingly necessary. It is clear that many fathers want to, and do, help a great deal during this period, and have managed to do so through both official and unofficial channels. Supporting men in this way through flexible parental leave schemes reinforces a long trend of men's choice at this key time.

A final issue to consider is the rapid and dramatic transformation in men's attendance at childbirth over the last fifty years. Until the 1950s, very few men were present when their child was born, as both men and women thought this to be an invasion on the woman's privacy and 'unmanly' on the part of the father. One exception was upper-class fathers - there is evidence that in aristocratic families, fathers did sometime attend the birth. Indeed, Prince Albert was present when Queen Victoria gave birth to several of their children.

By 1960, around one in ten of all men attended their child's birth and this increased through the latter half of the twentieth century as more hospitals allowed fathers into delivery rooms. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, around 80 to 90 per cent of men were present during at least part of the labour. Since the 1990s, over 90 per cent are present, though no exact statistics are available throughout this period, as hospitals do not generally record them. This major shift reflects changes both in relationships between couples and in fatherhood. The opportunity to cut the umbilical cord gives fathers a symbolic role in the process of birth, and fathers are encouraged to provide the first skin-to-skin contact with the baby if the mother cannot, such as during instrumental and Caesarean deliveries. The presence and participation of men in this event is connected to their bonding with the baby afterwards. In a 1992 study, for example, 92 per cent of men stated that they felt closer to their child because of their presence at the birth. If there is a desire to encourage strong involvement of fathers with their babies, hospitals and midwives should be supporting the active participation of fathers in the labour process, when both partners want this. Research by the National Childbirth Trust in 2000 suggests that this is not always happening; around a quarter of men felt they were not always informed or included, and many more feel they do not know how to best support their partner.

Different family types and child custody

Key developments in the recent history of fatherhood include the increase in the numbers of single-parent families, the rise in adoption and fostering by homosexual individuals and couples, and the progress of reproductive technologies around IVF, opening the possibility for parenting for different groups of people. These changes reinforce the importance of recognising that 'the family' can refer to a range of different groupings, not just the stereotypical nuclear family.

Contemporary commentators often assume that women always had priority for the custody of children. In fact, this is a relatively new development, because in law men had ultimate authority over their children's lives until 1973. Until 1839, women could under no conditions apply for custody of their children; this was granted to men alone. Under the 1886 Guardianship of Infants Act, the welfare of the child was prioritised, which increased the likelihood of a mother winning custody. The Guardianship of Infants Act, 1925, was a crucial moment in a gradual shift towards equality, intending to provide custody rights to both men and women on equal terms when married couples separated. Until then, women had only been able to apply for custody of children under seven years of age. Mothers were not granted fully equal child custody rights with fathers until the Guardianship Act of 1973, which gave women independent authority over their children. Today, however, it is men who frequently have to fight for custody rights, as both the legal framework and cultural mores assume that women have a greater natural ability to parent. Fathers' rights campaigners have criticised the final report (November 2011) of the Family Justice Review, which was appointed to review the whole family justice system in England and Wales. Many argued that the report should have recommended that the rights of both parents should be enshrined in law, as many fathers have little power to insist on contact with their child if the mother does not support this.

A change in the law is called for by many organisations, such as Families Need Fathers and Fathers For Justice, who campaign for an assumption of shared parenting in custody cases. Whilst this may not be appropriate in all circumstances, such a change would emphasise the benefit of engaged relationships with both parents. Indeed, research conducted by the Fatherhood Institute and by sociologists Eirini Flouri and Ann Buchanan has found that secure and close relationships with more than one adult figure in a child's life is beneficial. Policies to support the presumption of shared parenting in the event of separation are reportedly being developed by the current government, and are said to be supported by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. However, as such a move would contradict the recommendations of the Family Justice Review, it is yet to be seen as to whether this will result in legislation.

Two key ideas are inherent in this debate and have a long history. Firstly, it is consistently argued that both parents should have equal rights to custody of their child. This is accepted by most involved, but opinions differ about how best to ensure this. Secondly, whilst the law places an absolute priority on the child's rights and wellbeing, and most involved in the system agree with this, the balance between the child's and parents' rights continues to provoke controversy. These two key aspects of the current debate have been present for decades; both, for example, were at the forefront of discussions about the Guardianship Act of 1925, in parliament and in the press.

The importance of cultural attitudes alongside policy

A crucial point here is that both government policies and social and cultural attitudes have lasting effects on individual lives, both positive and negative. The key aims of legislators have not changed dramatically in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The paramount importance of the child's welfare and the equal rights of parents have usually been at the forefront of debate. Examining the historical record can reveal a lot about the interaction between legislation and cultural norms. Mothers were for decades in an inferior position, even when the law was designed to secure equality, because of long-held attitudes about the inherent authority of the father. Now, the balance has shifted, but due to society's belief in the superior innate parental instincts and abilities of mothers, they are more likely to be given primary custody rights, particularly as they are more likely to be the resident parent at the time of a legal hearing.

Only around one in ten 'single parents' - i.e. those caring solely or primarily for their children - are men. Statistics on the outcomes of court cases relating to child custody are often misused, contradictory and confusing, but it seems clear that mothers are more likely to be seen as primary carers for children, often, but not always in accordance with the wishes of both parents. Indeed, research by the Family Rights Group in 2010 found that fathers are often overlooked by social workers. It is important to note that the vast majority of divorces and separations result in informal and usually amicable agreements regarding the custody of children - around 90 per cent of cases never go to court. Again, ensuring choice for parents is crucial, and cultural attitudes are very important in influencing this, to ensure that support is equally available to mothers and fathers. An insistence on the equality of parents from a social and cultural point of view is needed alongside policy and legislation.

Similarly, these same attitudes about the relative abilities of fathers and mothers, have an important impact on paternity leave. If employers and male workers believe fathers are inferior and less significant as parents, paternity leave will remain under-used and even stigmatised. Though most fathers take time off after their children are born, many continue to use annual leave rather than official paternity or parental leave schemes. The continuing impact of traditional gender stereotyping can be seen in the resistance to move towards fully shared parental leave by employers' groups, who cite the costs involved. However, if every couple has one year's shared leave available on the same financial basis as maternity leave, only minimal further costs would be incurred, as research by the Tavistock Institute revealed in 2011. The reluctance to welcome this change reflects wider social attitudes about the relative importance of fatherhood in comparison to motherhood. Other EU states have made further progress in this area; the EU Work-Care Synergies project has found that the increased numbers of men taking extended periods of time off work in countries such as Sweden and Denmark are due to better financial compensation and 'use it or lose it' schemes.


If policy-makers and others want to support more active fatherhood in Britain, to support the greater well-being and happiness of children, and positive male role models who fully embrace domestic responsibility, history can provide a useful tool. Three key points need to be conveyed to policy-makers:

Firstly, through an awareness of the varied and active roles fathers have played in the past, we can better judge, and support, the involvement of fathers in family life today. By recognising the long history of active fatherhood, it is clear that men have not suddenly started engaging with their children in meaningful ways.

Secondly, policies should be designed to ensure parental choice. Throughout the twentieth century, fathers have used a variety of means to spend time with their babies and support their partners, and facilitating this through flexible policies should be a key aim for the future. Furthermore, supporting a wide range of family forms and both parents (whether they are adoptive parents, homosexual, biological or otherwise) is crucial. Policies relating to family separation and child custody should be designed with such flexibility in mind. An assumption of shared parenting in custody cases may be one solution, and more transparency in terms of the family courts would also be beneficial.

Thirdly, both social and cultural norms and policy have made and continue to make a difference. Whilst equality between parents has been a central aim for policy-makers for decades, beliefs about mothers and fathers, and powerful gender stereotypes in society, continue to influence those who make and carry out legislation. Encouraging more flexible and open ideas about social roles would help ensure the wellbeing and happiness of families, children and individuals.

Further Reading

John and Elizabeth Newson, Patterns of Infant Care in an Urban Community (Harmondsworth, 1963)

Colin Bell, Lorna McKee and Karen Priestley, Fathers, Childbirth and Work: A Report of a Study (Equal Opportunities Commission, 1983)

Charlie Lewis, Becoming a Father (Milton Keynes, 1986)

Adrienne Burgess, Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father (London, 1987)

Leonore Davidoff, Megan Doolittle, Janet Fink and Katherine Holden, The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy 1830-1939 (London, 1999)

John Tosh, A Man's Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven, Connecticut, and London, 1999)

Brid Featherstone, Claire Fraser, Bridget Lindley, and Cathy Ashley, 'Fathers Matter: Resources for Social Work Educators' (2010)

Adrienne Burgess/The Fatherhood Institute, ''Family Man': British Fathers' Journey to the Centre of the Kitchen' (London, 2011)

Family Justice Review Final Report (London, November 2011)

Joanne Bailey, Parenting in England c.1760-1830: emotions, self-identities and generations (Oxford, 2012)

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