Earning mothers or caring fathers? Why convergent gender roles are best for families.

Author: Adrienne Burgess / 15 June 2013

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)


  1. Posted by andy / June 19th, 2013

    I agree with most of your argument Adrienne. Thank you for providing the evidence and support for mothers and fathers to share the parenting of their children. Prime Minister Cameron is verbally supportive of “the family” and in an ideal world this should be enough to ensure the shared parenting arrangements that exist pre-separation to continue for a lifetime. We know the system is failing not least because of recent information from the Centre for Social Justice Report on Fatherlessness. Talk is of fatherless Ghettos where up to 50% of fathers are missing from neighbourhoods. The problem seems to be getting worse, not better. I am left wondering why we treat our Fathers, an essential ingredient to the healthy family, with such disdain. What exactly happens to parents when they split up? If one has the children, how can the other maintain a relationship with them? We need to take off the rose tinted spectacles and take a serious look at why, for example do our Instituions quote literature stating it is not necessary to have two parents, as if one parent (single parent) is a life choice rather than something a parent is forced into through the bereavement of the former partner……….

    kind regards

  2. Posted by Dickon Moon / August 27th, 2013

    A good solution to overcoming today’s tough economic challenges could be to make the most of the successful work from home trend and find a comfortable means to extend their finances without compromising on their commitment to family. The government’s proposed changes to the childcare policy might force many stay at home mums to have a rethink on whether they should get back to work in order to be able to claim benefits. There is a widespread feeling among stay at home mums about their role as a nurturer having being undermined as they express discontent at being discriminated against by a policy that seems to be blatantly in favour of working mothers. Considering the pressing economic conditions prevailing currently, many apprehend that this may create a situation where it makes it imperative for every woman to return to work after motherhood whether or not she feels inclined to. This situation only serves to highlight the relevance of homeworking in the current scenario. It can provide stay at home mums/dads with the opportunity to add to the family income without having to compromise on their decision to play the role of being a more active, hands-on parent to their young children. Here’s why homeworking can be the perfect solution in today’s recessionary times – http://blog.arise.com/uk/independent-business-owners/homeworking-%E2%80%93-the-way-to-look-beyond-coalition-policy-changes/

  3. Posted by Allan Lawson / November 18th, 2013

    Once partners split up the non resident parent usually the father has virtually no rights the resident parent usually the mother can stop all access to the children as and when she/he sees fit for any reason they can ignore all attempts at mediation even after mediation all recommendations/agreement’s can be ignored as they are not legally binding. The law need’s to be changed to make agreements at mediation a legally binding contract this would stop most cases going to court for residency orders and visitation rights. The mistrust that causes the divorce/split up normally will cause mistrust in unsupervised visits by the non resident parent. The resident parent fearing the child/children not being returned after a visit forcing the resident parent to want a court order for residency. Thus forcing the non resident parent to go to court for visitation rights. All this does is make a bad situation worse and financially ruinous with solicitors/barristers fees court fees time off work etc. The law as it stand’s is an absolute disgrace and need’s to be changed MAKE MEDIATION LEGALLY BINDING it wouldn’t be that hard to do and would make a bad situation a bit easier to get through. Encourage supervised visits at child care centers when a relationship has broken down and emotions are running high so the child/children do not lose touch with the non resident parent for week’s/month’s waiting for court hearings. Use cafcass more to get assessment’s done a.s.a.p. and mediation agreement’s sorted and signed up, keep the child/children in touch with the non resident parent as much as possible. Stop thing’s getting out of hand when emotion’s are running high. The quicker it’s all sorted out the quicker everyone can get used to their new lives and routine.

Leave a Reply