The concept of parenting has been explored frequently. The focus has been on child attachment, parental roles and identities, and parenting styles. However, much of this research concentrates on the typical nuclear family and the mother’s involvement, leaving fathers in all family styles overlooked. University of Derby graduate Crystal Fletcher examines the stereotype of the ‘doofus dad’.
In the UK, only 1 out of 10 lone parent families are headed by fathers, according to the charity Gingerbread. Consequently, caregiving fathers have generally gone unnoticed.
Fathers in traditional nuclear families are continuously depicted as the ‘breadwinners’ in the media and social structures, rather than the caregivers. The mother becomes the go-to parent for children when it comes to nurturing and attachment. The term ‘doofus dad’ (think Homer Simpson) has repeatedly been used in literature to describe the married, working father. This perpetuates the harmful stereotype that dads are more useful in providing financial stability than caregiving towards children.
For unmarried and co-habiting fathers, child custody laws make it a battle for them to become the primary caregiver as mothers (in many cases) are granted custody by law by default. To change this involves court orders and parental agreements from the mother. This process is so extensive and biased that many dads decide not to challenge it. This encourages the ‘deadbeat dad’ stigma, leading to stereotypes portraying fathers as absent and uncommitted.
Where does this leave lone custodial fathers?
Recent research covering the experiences of lone fathers (those who have sole custody of their children) has presented mixed findings. Some researchers found lone fathers cling to the breadwinner identity through remaining employed. They leave less time for stereotypical ‘mum jobs’ such as maintaining the house and caregiving. Other research suggests fathers dive into all aspects of the role. They adjust well to parenting demands, and develop strong attachment bonds with their children.
So, what do fathers’ experiences tell us?
I have conducted research into this field, exploring lone fathers’ experiences of parenting. My study considered their perspectives on their ability to adjust to the solo parenting role, their father-child relationship and their experiences as a solo father socially.
I interviewed three lone, custodial fathers and analysed the data collected. The similarities in their experiences were grouped into two overarching themes: ‘Silent Parenting’ and ‘Completing the Puzzle’.
‘Silent Parenting’ highlighted how the fathers felt within their social worlds. Each father reported feeling judged in the school playground when carrying out the school run. One described the mothers as “instinctively suspicious” of his presence. Their male identities invoked a sense of isolation, preventing them from developing a sense of belonging in such female/mother-dominated environments.
Professionals also overlooked the fathers as competent caregivers. One participant recalled a doctor asking if the children’s mother knew he was bringing them in for an appointment. This gendered parenting stereotype perpetuated the mother as the more important caregiver.
‘Completing the Puzzle’ focused on changes over time regarding the fathers’ struggles and successes with solo parenting. For all, there were practical and psychological challenges with initially taking on the role. One participant described having to leave his daughter to attend work as a ‘wrench’. This shows his struggle to manage his ‘breadwinner’ identity and the nurturing of his daughter. The challenge of balancing both parental roles provoked an underlying feeling of guilt and anxiety for each father.
However, these anxieties were short lived as they reported an increase in confidence and comfort over time with childrearing as the primary caregiver. With the children developing more independence, the fathers described a sense of teamwork and mutual respect within the home, and felt rewarded by the father-child relationships that had formed.
What can we learn from their experiences?
The successful involvement of fathers in childrearing in my research contrasts with the stereotypes often presented. This suggests that resilient lone fathers adapt well to caregiving and develop meaningful relationships with their children. However, role ambiguity remains while gendered parenting roles are continuously depicted in the media and within families. This creates some of the many challenges mentioned for men who take on the lone parenting role.
How can this be changed?
To challenge role ambiguity, it is vital we encourage the inclusion of all fathers (married, custodial and non-custodial) within children’s activities to promote equality across genders. We should rethink the ‘mothers and tots’ titles and include more images of fathers in the promotion of parenting groups, ensuring all language used is inclusive. A change to child custody policies would also be beneficial in promoting equal chances of caregiving between unmarried mothers and fathers, so that the gender of the parent is not the default that operates.
Overall, there is much that can be done to promote the inclusion of fathers as caregivers. However, the way society currently views the involved father is damaging to their efforts and sense of belonging and equality. A vital change to parenting prejudices and an increase in awareness of male parenting is required so that fathers everywhere can receive the recognition they deserve.