From divorced dads and older dads to gay dads and stepdads, the number of ‘alternadads’ is evolving rapidly. So too, it seems, are society’s expectations of what being a father means. In honour of all the wonderful fathers out there, we take a look at fatherhood through the ages to see just what those changes are and what they mean for family life.
We can’t, of course, know exactly what primitive fatherhood meant, but it does seem likely that many fathers and grandfathers would have had to be away from home hunting for long periods of time while women foraged locally and looked after the children. However, large extended families and tribes generally lived in very close proximity to one another and fathers, when they were at home, were probably quite closely involved in the lives and care of their children.
Even in wealthy families, children still generally slept with their parents – the ‘nursery’ didn’t appear in architecture until the late nineteenth century. The majority of children didn’t yet attend school, and many families worked together in the fields, meaning fathers were very much part of their children’s lives and education. Since a relatively high number of women died in childbirth, Pre-industrial Dad had to be able to take on the responsibilities of rearing children. However, there was also an increasing expectation that a father should focus on being the strong detached leader and disciplinarian of the family.
The most significant thing that happened to fathers was that they started working away from home – often far away. Women began to take over traditional ‘father’ tasks like educating the children, so that not only were fathers spending less time with their children, they were also becoming ‘de-skilled.’ Increasingly, a father’s role was to serve as the breadwinner and the conveyer of moral values and religious education to his children. Imperialism and on-going wars, especially the two world wars, meant that men had to be ready to leave their families at a moment’s notice. Many children lost their fathers, and fathers who returned generally kept silent about their experiences, affecting their communication and relationships with their children.
Fathers in this era demonstrated their caring for their families by the long hours they worked on their careers and by how well they could provide financially for their wives and children. The entire family came to accept that what was good for Dad’s job was good for them all, regardless of any sacrifices that might have to be made. Fathers spent very little time at home, and their involvement with their children tended to be through structured activities like sport and occasional recreation. The home was the domain of women and children; a father’s main role, in most families, was as the family disciplinarian, and he was not expected (nor really ‘allowed’) to have much emotional connection with his children.
The changing economic roles of women and the increasing array of choices open to them have had a significant impact on the role of fathers. With more women working and earning well, the need for paternal financial support has diminished. Related trends such as declining fertility, increasing rates of divorce and remarriage and numbers of single parents, have brought about a major transition, while less-rigid gender roles have allowed men to become more involved in household and childcare tasks. Today’s father comes in many forms. He can be single or married; externally-employed or stay-at-home; gay or straight; an adoptive or step-parent – and he’s recognised as a more-than-capable caregiver. Even in homes where biological fathers are completely absent, maternal partners, stepfathers, grandparents, or other relatives can serve as valuable father figures.
Studies show that the influence of father-love – from whatever source it comes – is as significant for children’s development as mother-love. Fatherly love helps children develop a sense of their place in the world, which enhances their social, emotional, and cognitive development and functioning. The modern-day father contributes to his children’s health and wellbeing by maintaining a positive relationship with the other parent (even in cases of divorce); by providing emotional as well as financial support, along with appropriate monitoring and disciplining; and, most importantly, by remaining an active, permanent and loving presence in his children’s lives.