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Available and Involved

How Fatherhood Changes in Russia

Today's middle-class* men tend to spend more time with their children than their fathers did at the same age. In Russia, however, this trend may be due to economic necessity rather than increasing gender equality. Usually, both spouses work to support the family, and husbands take on some of the childcare responsibilities in order to enable their wives to work outside of home, according to Alexandra Lipasova's paper Fatherhood Models in the Middle Class of Contemporary Russia. Lipasova's study of fatherhood models will be part of her Ph.D. thesis.

According to the traditional understanding of gender roles, the father is the breadwinner whose business is to earn money while the mother takes care of the children. In contrast, a new understanding of masculinity creates more opportunities for both parents: the husband can find self-actualisation both at work and in the family, while the wife can have a career alongside rearing children.

However, the traditionally patriarchal image of a father holds strong in the mass consciousness and includes roles such as breadwinner, head of the family, disciplinarian and role model, particularly for sons. In the world of traditional masculinity, a man is expected to be strict and emotionally reserved with children and have limited involvement in the family's day-to-day living and household chores.

 There are historical reasons why fathers in Russia have often been absent from their children’s lives, as wars, revolutions and reprisals have frequently separated them from their family.

 Many men had to work hard to support the family, with little time to spend with their children. Even today, such circumstances are fairly common.

 A popular stereotype that childrearing is "not a man's business" also serves to perpetuate fathers' lack of involvement with their families' daily lives.

Having conducted in-depth interview with 45 men aged 25 to 45, Lipasova has found that the patriarchal model persists in Russian society. Describing himself as a 'Sunday Dad', one respondent admitted that he had only weekends to spend with his children. "I go to work in the morning when my son is still asleep and come home late in the evening when he is already asleep," he said.

But a new type of masculinity has emerged recently, in which fathers are not afraid to show warm feelings towards their children and seek to earn their trust and be involved with their lives. Within this type, Lipasova has identified two models: 'available father' and 'involved father'.

Sunday Dad: Focus on Feeding Family

Describing the 'old' approach to fatherhood, a respondent says, "We have made a strict arrangement that the mother's job is to care for the child and my job is to make money."  There is an explicit gender-based distribution of responsibilities in the family; the father's role in childrearing is limited to leisure activities and play, in which the mother is almost always involved as well. Routine chores, such as washing, cooking, and helping the child with homework, are the wife's responsibilities, and she is often a full-time homemaker.

According to Lipasova, this model persists for many reasons, including a lack of policy response to gender inequality in the labour market (see Employers Don't Favour Mothers and Pregnant Women,Why Women Executives Are Rare,Why Combining Career and Family is Hard for Women), wage imbalances in favour of men and a shortage of kindergartens and other childcare services.

Men often have access to more resources, including those contributing to their human capital, such as knowledge, skills and work experience. There is a widespread stereotype that women on a maternity leave often lose their qualifications and skills (see Female Employees with Children Pay 'Motherhood Penalty'). Since men do not usually stay out of work for long, they are perceived as having superior resources and thus greater negotiating power in deciding on the division of responsibilities in the family. "My wife tried to start a discussion [concerning a division of family responsibilities], but I set out [my conditions] upfront," a respondent said. "It's useless to argue with me on this – I have enough problems to deal with at work." 

Interestingly, respondents in this category rarely mention any "feeling of guilt about not being great fathers." Being employed and making a good income remains the most socially approved form of successful masculinity. Should a man cease to be the breadwinner, he needs to reaffirm his status as head of the family. This was a common situation in the 1990s in Russia, when women found it easier than men to adapt to the market economy and find work.

Available Father: Between Responsibility and Doubts

"To be a good father in my own eyes, I often play with my child and choose useful games," one respondent says. “I try to engage him in activities which can contribute to his development."

Fathers in this category tend to reflect more on their role in the family and take on some of the traditionally 'female' responsibilities. They strive to be responsible and active parents, but sometimes either doubt their own competence or find themselves unprepared for being continuously involved in childcare.

In this group, both parents or just the father can be breadwinners. Even in the latter case, men spend a lot of time with children – playing, teaching, helping with homework, reading to them – and contribute to day-to-day childcare, such as feeding, bathing, or putting the child to bed. This type of involvement is characteristic of younger and more educated men.

However, according to the author, fathers in this situation often find themselves "in a subordinate position relative to the mother who watches over to make sure they do everything right." Some parents compete between themselves for who is more competent in terms of childrearing.

Quite often, women oppose men's involvement in family matters, protecting their privilege as mothers to know better what is good for the child, "I'm her mum and I know better what's good for the baby." Fathers in this situation face discrimination as 'second-class parents' and can find it harder to learn how to care for the child. 

Involved Father: Real Help

One respondent told a story of how he had helped his child to do better at school, "I spent quite some time with [the child] teaching the subjects he was not so good at. He finished school with a gold medal, and I believe I should take some credit for that."

Fathers in this category are actively involved with their children's day-to-day care and education. Husband and wife share parental responsibilities equally and are both happy with the arrangement. Quite often in such families, it is the woman who pursues a career; she is the breadwinner, and her husband is helping her out. "Over the years, we have changed our roles in the family's economy. So the mum has more authority now," notes a respondent. "I have learned to live with it, as I have nothing to pit against it but my ambition." In this situation, the husband has lost his breadwinner status alongside his former authority in the family and has not been able to regain it so far. Yet some families in this category successfully accommodate both spouses' careers.

In addition to spending time with children and engaging them in various activities, involved parenting is also about emotional closeness, when the father monitors the child's development and contributes to important decisions about his or her future. "My daughter is artistic and creative; I can see that she does not like mathematics too much," a respondent says. "So I'm planning to talk to my former primary school teacher and ask her if there are any psychological techniques to help me motivate Lisa [daughter] to sit down and do her maths homework."

Involved fathers are "as confident as mothers in caring for their children, including 'solo childrearing' when the mother is absent," Lipasova explains. "When she [wife] needs to go somewhere, I care for our daughter, and when I need to go away, she does it," according to a respondent. "There's equality between us as parents."

Ironically, involved fathers do not necessarily share egalitarian ideas about women's roles in the family and society. New fatherhood practices and attitudes towards mothers' employment can be fairy independent from the rest of these men's worldview, the researcher notes.

'New' Fathers Support Old Family Patterns

Half of the survey respondents who appeared to be responsible and involved fathers were also religious believers and proponents of traditional female roles for their daughters, convinced that "being married and having children are the most important things for a woman," Lipasova writes. According to some researchers, childrearing for many religious fathers is not so much about self-actualisation as it is about promoting family values. "Such fathers' active involvement in their children's lives does not reflect egalitarianism, but rather a desire to strengthen certain family patterns," the paper says.

Whereas in the West, the 'new' type of fatherhood has emerged as a liberal phenomenon (see Fatherhood in Gender Regimes of the Developed Countries), in Russia it feeds mainly on tradition. Russian fathers' ostensibly egalitarian attitudes "have more to do with the need for two incomes than with a recognition of the mother's right to a career and self-actualisation," according to the author.

'New' Fatherhood Hampered by Economic Realities

Dismissing former approaches to fathering as out-dated, many respondents mentioned their own parents for whom fathering as intensive day-to-day involvement in childrearing did not make much sense. According to many respondents, their fathers did not pay much attention to them as children or, perhaps following the older generation's advice, were too distant and emotionally cold.

If the father was absent from their family, boys normally referred to a grandfather, stepfather or older brother as a role model; still, theirs was often a childhood "without a consistent father figure." In this largely 'fatherless' society, "Soviet men were unable to establish warm relations with their sons," according to  Lipasova.

Today's fathers often wish to bridge this gap and learn to relate emotionally to their children, but are often hindered by overwork, the struggle to earn enough money and gender role stereotypes.  

Battle on Family Front

Egalitarian and patriarchal tendencies coexist in Russian society, and old gender stereotypes die hard. The family today is a field for all kinds of battles, be it for survival or power, for egalitarian gender relations or against treating men as 'second-class parents', and for or against traditional approaches to fatherhood or motherhood," Lipasova concludes.

The following are seven papers on fatherhood and gender:

Lipasova A. Fatherhood in Gender Regimes of the Developed Countries.

Chernova Zh., Shpakovskaya L. Discursive Models of Contemporary Russian Parenthood.

Lezhnina U. Family as Institution in Russia: on the Path of Transformation.

Avdeeva A. 'Involved Fatherhood' in Modern Russia: Strategies for Taking Part in Childcare.

Zdravomyslov E., Temkina A. Sociology of Gender Relations and Gender Approach in Sociology.

Gurko T. Marriage and Parenthood in Russia.

Educational project Gender for Dummies (videotalks given by gender studies experts).


*The author's definition of the middle class includes managers, entrepreneurs, self-employed individuals, highly qualified professionals, office workers and service employees.


Alexandra Lipasova, Doctoral Student, Analysis of Social Institutions Department, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences.
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 26, 2017