When the Fatherhood Institute was founded in 1999 (under its original name ‘Fathers Direct’) central to its mission were two interdependent goals: to support high quality and substantial father-child relationships; and to support both mothers and fathers as earners and carers.
These goals remain unchanged, as does the Institute’s uncompromising belief that family resilience rests on both parents’ substantial participation at home and both parents’ substantial participation in paid employment.
The evidence is clear: overall, full-time mothers are not a happy bunch. Their rates of anxiety and depression are way higher than those of employed mothers. They are poorer when they are raising their children, poorer in old age and particularly poor when they tumble through the ‘trap door to poverty’ occasioned by family breakdown or by the death or unemployment of their breadwinning spouse.
Sole breadwinner fathers don’t fare any better. They work longer hours than men with employed partners and spend less time interacting with their children. This correlates with substantial work/family conflict which in turn is linked with anxiety and depression; and also with poor health outcomes. Fathers’ worries about their relationships with their adolescent children, for instance, are strongly correlated with the dads’ poor physical health. Fathers who take little parenting leave are less involved with their children and feel less confident in those relationships; adopt less healthy life-styles; live shorter lives than other fathers and experience less satisfying and less stable relationships with their children’s mothers. Wwhen family breakdown looms fathers who have developed their skills and self-confidence primarily through paid employment, may lack the where-with-all to maintain substantial relationships with their children and suffer extreme distress.
What about the children? One of the most important roles parents play is to support them financially. But there is nothing special or magical about this financial support being provided by their father. Mothers’ earnings are just as relevant. Furthermore, in a substantial number of families, mothers’ earnings raise their families out of poverty. This trend is likely to accelerate as women’s earnings equalise or outstrip men’s. There is already no gender pay gap in low income families; and research from California finds that when expectant and new parents in such families are helped to think about gender roles, including the value of father involvement, they are less likely to sleep-walk into the traditional mother cares/ father earns pattern – and family income increases.
As for children’s socio-educational development and wellbeing, there is clear evidence that ‘leaving it to mum’ won’t wash. Not only does fathers’ participation at home take pressure off mothers (which a robust body of research now shows helps them parent more positively) but substantial father-child relationships correlate with a host of positive outcomes for children: better educational achievement, lower criminality and substance misuse, higher social mobility relative to parents’, more satisfying adult sexual partnerships, and so on. ‘Co-parenting’ – the extent to which both parents participate in the day to day raising of children, feel confident in caring roles, and support each other’s parenting – has a powerful impact on children. When one parent earns and the other cares, positive co-parenting is less likely.
Someone (I think it was Freud) said that human happiness depends on our capacity and opportunity to ‘love’ and to ‘work’. To devise social policies that challenge gender norms are the policies we need today. Fifty-two weeks’ maternity leave v. two weeks’ paternity leave is a nonsense which the Coalition’s proposals to water-down by allowing maternity leave to be transferred to fathers in a minority of ‘eligible’ families will do little to challenge We have to stop the social engineering that convinces mothers they should be carers and fathers they should be earners. Caring-and-earning fathers and mothers – that’s what families need.
Adrienne Burgess is joint CEO of the Fatherhood Institute, and the author of FATHERHOOD RECLAIMED – THE MAKING OF THE MODERN FATHER (Vermilion, 1997, 1998)