The changing face of fatherhood

At a family gathering last weekend, it was interesting to see how the older generation heaped praise on my son-in-law for changing my 9-week-old grandson’s nappy, taking him for a walk in the pram, and soothing him on the rare occasion that he cried. He is really good at it. But so is my daughter. And she received no such praise.

As we celebrate Father’s Day in many parts of the world, and launch the third State of the World’s Fathers report in a number of countries, I have been reflecting on what has changed in relation to fatherhood in many parts of the world.

Data from the International Labour Organization, also featured in our report, shows that, despite dads being much more visible looking after their babies, things haven’t actually shifted very much. Between 1997 and 2012, the gap between women and men in terms of who does the unpaid care work declined by only seven minutes, according to data on 23 middle- and high-income countries.

This means women and girls are still doing the bulk of the caring for children and the elderly, and the domestic work, often on top of paid work. This varies from 25 percent more than men in some more progressive countries, to nine times more in others.

Kathy Jones, from the UK’s Fatherhood Institute, calls this unpaid care and domestic work: ‘The wonderfulness of fine detail and the tediousness of daily interaction’. And how it is shared between parents and in families – and we recognize that families are hugely diverse –  is one of the things holding back gender equality.

But the State of the World’s Fathers report is clear that this is not just about individual fathers stepping up, and mothers letting go a little, but about changing laws and policies as well as deeply entrenched social and gender norms.

A father plays with his daughter
© Dove/AllenBeing a parent is the most important job in the world. But many fathers and other caregivers don’t get the time and support they need to be with their children. Family-friendly policies – such as paid parental leave, paid breastfeeding breaks and childcare – are not a reality for most new parents around the world.

The report — made in partnership with Dove Men+Care, a brand that is championing paternity leave for men everywhere — has a major focus on parental leave. It calls for adequately paid, non-transferable leave for fathers as well as mothers. But we also looked at other family-friendly policies, as UNICEF has done in its latest report on policies in the world’s richest countries, including childcare, social protection and other structural and institutional changes.

We know that attitudes and behaviours also need to shift. At the launch of the State of the World’s Fathers report, it was clear that it is still hard, even in countries like the UK, for fathers to stay at home to look after a child. They are still often the only dad at ‘mother and baby’ groups. They face scepticism if not ridicule from other men. Part of the research for the report conducted by Plan International in their Fathers’ Clubs, included interviews in Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria, and Ghana. And they found that this was universal. One father in Ghana said:

“Initially, some friends of mine did not understand the reason for my change and tried to mock me. But I rather explained to them, and now they understand the reason for the change, and I have their support.”

Neuroscientific research has shown that fathers are as biologically equipped as mothers to look after their children

Dads are not just providers and financial supporters. Nor are they ‘helpers’ and ‘babysitters’ for their own children. They are just as responsible as mothers for the physical and emotional support of their children. This means cleaning the toilets as well as looking after the baby, clearing up vomit and doing the laundry as well as the fun stuff – and sharing the enormous amount of planning that goes into daily tasks and interactions.

But we also need to recognize that although neuroscientific research has shown that fathers are as biologically equipped as mothers to look after their children, both mothers and fathers need support to do this. Seeing my daughter and son-in-law with my grandson, I remember the joys of looking after babies and small children, but I also remember the hard work, sleepless nights, and how there is so much to learn. We need to teach the value of care, and the skills involved to both boys and girls from a very young age.

A father sitting besides railway tracks holds an infant
© UNICEF/UN0315744/SokolDieu-Merci Matala, 44, holds his infant daughter, Grace, 7 months, for a portrait near the Transnet harbor facility where he works in Cape Town, South Africa. H volunteers with Sonke Gender Justice, an NGO partnered with UNICEF where, as a participant in Sonke’s MenCare program, he has received extensive training on how to be an involved, nonviolent father and caregiver.

All this is possible. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s Father, who wrote the foreword to our report, explained:

“I encourage my children to aim high — and every day they make me proud. I learn from them. And now my daughter isn’t just experiencing the world, she’s changing it. In one generation we transformed our family from a patriarchal one to an egalitarian one. My hope is that all fathers reading this report will question their privilege, care about equality and contribute to our shared future. “

I hope that when my grandson grows up — and if he has a family himself — gender inequalities in the home and in the workplace will have become a thing of the past. And at family gatherings, it will be the norm to see a dad change a diaper or soothe his child. Because that is what fatherhood is all about.

 

Nikki van der Gaag, reflecting here on just how much fatherhood has changed, is lead author of the ‘State of the World’s Fathers’ 2019 report.


Being a parent is the most important job in the world. But many fathers and other caregivers don’t get the time and support they need to be with their children. Family-friendly policies – such as paid parental leave, paid breastfeeding breaks and childcare – could change that. What policies would make a difference to your family life? Take the parenting poll and have your say!

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Comments:

  1. This is wonderful work. We really need to work more towards empowering and encouraging Dads (Men & Boys) to be more involved in family work/care/kids. The more men and boys see other men and boys getting doing these things, the more they will be encouraged and motivated towards doing it and living it. AND they will learn and enjoy involved in doing it.

  2. Great post about father- Being a parent is the most important job in the world is true.

    And yes appreciate that “fathers are as biologically equipped as mothers”.Thanks for sharing.