A strict, reserved and distant father is turning into a soft, empathic and attentive dad. The husband helps his wife with housework. She goes to work easily, since she knows that the husband will take care of the children in her absence. Increasingly often this gender fairy-tale is the reality. The question is, is it possible to generalize? Are men in families ready to be not only breadwinners, but childhood experts? Are wives willing to delegate some of the routine household tasks to their husbands? And isn’t society putting too much pressure on men, demanding them to be successful in everything – career, finances and raising kids? IQ.HSE decided to reflect on these issues in reference to sociologist Elena Rozhdestvenskaya’s paper ‘Involved Fatherhood. Caring Masculinity’.
In the 20th century, the concept of fatherhood as a social institution was obvious and, not uncommonly, repressive. Fathers ruled their families (but not on the inside), were unreachable as the Wizard of Oz and sometimes played the role of thunder god Zeus. They had to discipline the kids somehow after all!
Joking aside, the history of the century forced fathers to be away from their families more often than with them. Wars, revolutions, repressions and hard work from dawn till dusk deprived wives and kids of their husbands and fathers. Inevitably, women had the power in the family. And taking into account the Soviet working woman’s contract (here, contract means roles, responsibilities, relations, etc), the mother suffered a double burden – in the family and at work. In most cases, she continues to experience this to this day. Fathers were de facto excluded from family routines. In this sense, many fathers were ‘Sunday dads’, able to spend time with their kids only on weekends.
Family roles were clear. The father was the breadwinner, the order keeper, and the strategic planner in the family. The mother, often in a tandem with the grandmother, was the tactical planner, the householder, but at the same time, had a full-time job.
A Soviet dad in some way resembled the British monarchy: respected and loved, he was a bright symbol, part of a tradition, who is honoured, but can’t be described in a meaningful way.
Partly due to social pressure, women’s emancipation and their willingness to pursue careers and hobbies, and partly due to child-centrism (increased value of kids in the society), contemporary fathers are no longer ready to be just a symbol. They actually want to be involved in family life.
Contemporary fathers are prepared to be less concerned about work and endure the jokes of colleagues who still believe in the context of ‘real men’, dominating masculinity as well as stereotypical ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ roles. But these sacrifices are not vain: fathers are finally closer to their children. A new pater familias (father of the family) can see how his heirs grow and contributes ever more to their development. He is coming back to the family and trading distance for participation.
This kind of fatherhood — proactive and conscious — is not an ‘innate’ thing. It is something people come to. They perceive the changes in family life and try to remodel it on new principles that are acceptable for both the husband and the wife.
Fatherhood has been liberalized globally for over half a century: fathers are becoming dads. In the 1960s, Western countries saw an evolving phenomena of ‘new’ fatherhood, with husbands and wives agreeing to be equally and actively responsible for raising their kids. Then, fathers declared their readiness to balance work and family life, and to let their wives do the same.
Similar trends have been evolving in Russia, although they are still more characteristic of the urban educated middle class. That said, researchers are observing a trend toward involved fatherhood in other demographics as well, such as the working class. For example, in one study, a 34-year-old respondent emphasized: ‘The more you talk to them, the more you know about your kids. You have to ask questions and to give answers. Now is a time when my children need me.’
This approach is often resisted by the environment and comes with a ‘non-masculine’ stigma.
Elena Rozhdestvenskaya, an expert who took part in the project ‘Nordic Dads. Stories of fathers from Nordic countries and Russia,’ analysed the case of Alexei, 38, an IT specialist. He spoke about his path to conscious fatherhood and the things he had to resist.
While Alexei had only one child in the family, he was able to stay the breadwinner only, to ‘work fingers to the bone from dawn to dusk,’ while his wife stayed with their daughter. But with the second kid, everything changed: it became hard for the woman to handle the kids on her own, and the spouses began fighting. The old model wasn’t working any longer. ‘This situation was the start of a change that happened inside me later,’ Alexei admits. ‘The main thing was that I started to need to spend more time with my kids.’
As a result, he shocked the community by going on paternity leave. How did the others react? Quite predictably. ‘Most colleagues didn’t understand me,’ Alexei recalls. ‘They kept asking: “Where are you going, bro? You have three kids! You need to provide for them!” But I already made my decision and left.’
Intentionally or not, the respondent then spoke the words creating the slogan of involved fatherhood: ‘You can’t push the woman away from earning money, and the man away from his kids. The main thing is to be close to each other.’ In the end, it is a win-win situation. Alexei doesn’t have to sacrifice his self-fulfilment. ‘What I love most is involving kids in our hobbies: if we travel, we take them with us, if we ride bikes, we do it together,’ he emphasized.
Alexei’s situation has all the signs of involved fatherhood: availability to their children, interaction (teaching and caring), and responsibility. But how widespread is this pattern? And is the patriarchal distribution of roles — breadwinner and householder — finally yielding ground?
Patriarchal gender roles are still there. The idea of the breadwinning father is still influential. Many fathers focus on their ability to support their families financially. Women, on the other hand, remain experts in childcare and the family’s emotional managers. The old power balance — ‘dad used to work, while mom did something at home’ (according to a middle-aged respondent) — is still relevant.
Fathers consumed by work are supported by the job market, which is often imbalanced in gender terms. Widespread stereotypes about ‘male’ and ‘female’ family roles are also still there. In this sense, fathers are under a high degree of social pressure: they are ‘prescribed’ to work hard to provide for their families. This potentially decreases their role in socialization and childcare.
There is also family pressure: wives expect their husbands to help around the house more – even more so that children are increasingly perceived as the most important life project, which demands considerable effort and money to be invested by both parents. But such consciousness has yet to be reached.
Sergey, a 42-year-old engineer, talked about his experience in the project ‘Nordic Dads. Stories of fathers from Nordic countries and Russia’. He has also revisited his values. He used to work actively and was building his career, but he suddenly realized that his life was ‘kind of empty’. He started feeling sorry that he ‘missed how his daughter had been growing up’.
‘Her [daughter’s] hobbies, her activities — I missed all these, since I was in work up to my eyebrows,’ the respondent said. ‘That’s why I decided to go on paternity leave when our son was born.’
This was followed by a standard scenario in which colleagues ‘met him with pokes about the paternity leave’ and were ‘a little shocked’ with his choice. Fortunately, Sergey is not confused. He is confident in his decision.
However, as we try to define what a contemporary father looks like, we’ll see that it is an umbrella term. Or a multiple reality. Fatherhood is so varied that any categorizations are conditional. For example, there is this one:
Some researchers further specify this typology. For example, they describe the following types:
Modern breadwinner, who, while working a lot, also participates in children’s everyday lives;
Reflexive father, who is particularly worried about his children’s future;
Active father, for whom parenting is a biography-defining project, up to interchangeability with the mother;
Egalitarian father, who is similar with the active one, but whose responsibilities are equally shared with the mother;
Generative father, for whom social and mental care about the next generation is particularly important;
Absent father, who is divorced and does not care about his children (also known as ‘bad dads’);
Sufficiently good father, who maintains a balance between the inevitable breadwinner role and the family demand for higher involvement.
The concept of ‘father’ has become a complicated mosaic. The phenomenon needs to be redefined. However, this is not the main goal; the important thing is that serious reflection of this topic has begun. The phenomenon of ‘caring masculinity’ (a term introduced by Australian gender researcher, Karla Elliott) has become visible. It accompanies the new type of conscious fathering.
Involved fathering and caring masculinity hardly co-exist with dominating masculinity. The latter means focusing on employment, avoiding emotions, and dominance, which is clearly contradictory to care and empathy.
Fathers are facing a conflict between masculine and fathering identities. This leads to contradictions in gender identity and may lead to an illusion that ‘caring masculinity’ is not masculine enough. This illusion can be quite powerful and stress-inducing.
Although fatherhood is supported in many countries, as paternity leave and flexible schedules are popularized, employees with families oftenmiss these opportunities. In Russia, paternity leave is extremely rare.
On the other hand, if the dad stays with his kids, this means that the mom must ‘provide a financial prop’ and work as the breadwinner. At the same time, she is expected to delegate part of the ‘household authority’ to her husband, for example, trusting him with the kids’ school activities, which has traditionally been the mother’s prerogative. And it does happen this way. For example, the respondents surveyed by IQ.HSE said that they are trying to ‘tutor’ their kids in school subjects.
Vladimir P., a 43-year-old father of three, recalls, ‘I used to help my oldest with physics a lot. With the other two, it was math. How can I not help? This is not someone else’s responsibility, but mine.’
Oleg I., 36, father of two, emphasized, ‘Some people say that they are too lazy to tutor their kids. They say, they have to do it on their own. But it’s clear that kids need support. I sometimes ask for leave simply to pick my kid up from the kindergarten, to walk, run, and read books with him’.
Are all these functions a new thing? It turns out that they are good old things ‘in terms of practices, but not ideology,’ said Elena Rozhdestvenskaya. Her study (200 family cases, interviews with representatives of three generations: grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons) specifically looked at the paternal side of the family. Young males shared their stories of communication with fathers. ‘I always had problems with math, and in my sixth and seven grades, dad checked my homework and explained the things that were unclear,’ a young male respondent said. ‘My dad had certain housework responsibilities, and he performed them regularly.’
A middle-aged man recalled, ‘In my university years, I had to pass a very complicated history exam, and I loved history <…> but was very anxious, so I talked to my dad, and he would occasionally ask me or tell me something on the subject, sometimes as a joke, but sometimes seriously.’ The respondent said that ‘sometimes, we would just sit and talk about it until late night.’ As a result, he received an excellent grade.
And even in the grandfather’s generation, fathers behaved in very different ways. A respondent remembers, ‘Our father was rather hard on me and my brother’. An extremely authoritarian version was also described: ‘Father’s upbringing did not allow for tiniest protests on my behalf; otherwise, the problem was solved with severe methods. I also was under the strictest control.’
On the other hand, some patterns demonstrated trust and emotional closeness. ‘If he wanted to put some sense into our heads, it was talking that he used, not moral preaching, but talking,’ a respondent said. ‘Sometimes, we would discuss something that had happened and analysed it, or we would sit and talk about how best to do something.’
Fathers’ attitudes mentioned by the respondents offer great variety:
‘Minimal restrictions and limits’.
‘Didn’t think hitting his son with a newspaper was a bad thing’.
‘Demonstrates his authority and lets me know my place’.
‘Always and indisputably right; children don’t have an opinion’.
‘Tried to never punish his kids for trifling matters’.
‘Never beat us and never put us in the corner; persuaded and taught us mostly with words’.
‘This can only be done through personal example’.
Fathers used to participate in various areas of their kids’ lives: from studies and leisure to moral teaching. There were ‘absent’ fathers, but precursors of involved fatherhood also existed. A respondent recalls, ‘Dad always tried to humour me <…>, we often had heart-to-heart talks, and he always praised me for my achievements.’ This response echoes another one by Sergey, 42, engineer: ‘It is important for me that my kids trust me.’
But back to the conflict of masculinities, we need to understand how to remodel the concepts based on such ideas, so that they are compatible with fatherhood. This issue can probably be addressed by a more extensive study of the concept of care.
The theoretical framework can be the idea of resonance by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa and the understanding of care as a complicated phenomenon. In the case of care, the frame can be taken from the concept by American sociologist Joan Tronto, author of many papers about care at different levels, from the family to the state.
As we analyse care, we see that it includes a kind of dominance, since we take on the responsibility to care for someone. There is also a certain hierarchy that includes ‘authority’ over those who can’t be independent agents. This means that care and masculinity still have much in common.
But there is another important issue described in Hartmut Rosa’s theory. In particular, care in one sphere also resonates in other spheres. Someone who cares about their family frequently cares about the community, the environment, and socially vulnerable people as well. This is a kind of father-like care in action. In fact, care as modus of action for the male gender is rehabilitated. In this logic, the new fatherhood is not less masculine. And it is certainly responsible.
Research work in this field that legitimizes the new fatherhood are indicative. For example, a European project, Fostering Caring Masculinities, focuses on work-life balance for women and men. Maintaining such a balance helps men become part of the family life more easily. There is also an idea by German sociologist Markus Theunert about masculine care, which involves innovative components of care for the environment, nature and the community. A formula suggested by German sociologist Michael Meuser is eloquent: masculine care not only about the family, but inside the family.
Karla Elliott, in turn, suggests the following solution, which admittedly is a radical one: men must avoid dominance, but ‘include’ caring value relations. Their prize will be positive emotions, both with their partners and with their kids.
Dads can also ‘come back’ to families simply because they need social recognition. This is a common and natural motivation. German social philosopher Axel Honneth developed the social recognition theory and emphasized that it provides a person with the necessary external confirmation of their ‘I’ and helps in developing a positive attitude towards oneself. Honneth outlines three aspects of recognition:
Love (by family and friends; it provides basic confidence);
Rights (moral responsibility in our relations with others; one learns to see oneself from the partner’s perspective);
Solidarity (acknowledgement of one’s features and abilities in a certain complementary social environment).
In essence, social recognition is a willingness to recognize those participating in communication as capable and negotiable individuals. In practice, this means that the husband and the wife sit at a negotiating and divide their responsibilities. In the new role, which is characterized by greater activity and responsibility, fathers are recognized by their families and the community. Demand for such recognition certainly exists, as does fathers’ willingness to stop being ‘eternal interns’ and finally become childcare ‘professionals’.
In his talk with IQ.HSE, one such father, Andrey K, 37, two kids, said: ‘Of course, I won’t compete with my wife in terms of knowledge about kids, but I can do a lot. Not only cook and spend time with my boys, but support them morally and motivate them.’ Vladimir P, a father of three, speculates, ‘Is there any particular father’s competency? Yes, I think there is. I would say it is to support children and to be able to foster their dignity. The father should teach his kids not to back down from challenges. If I’m able to do this, I succeed as a father’. Oleg I., 36, father of two, said, ‘I am tough, although I show my compassion and I’m always near them. My father didn’t live with us, and I missed him. I want my kids to feel my love for them. I’m trying to understand them.’
‘Alienation’ from kids is not an option for such fathers. ‘Men are often blamed for being cold and self-centred,’ Oleg I. said, ‘but if you’re a father, you can be completely different. You can be open and show your emotions!’
Involved fatherhood is not very widespread yet, but it is growing. Importantly, fathers are formulating a new role for themselves. ‘One not only has to provide for, but to know everything about their family,’ Vladimir P. said, ‘and to participate in all activities, whether a school excursion or a doctor visit.’
The father’s stories are starting to feature a theme of thorough preparation for parenting as well. ‘They are my kids, and I came a long way to this,’ said Andrey K. ‘My wife and I had been planning everything in order to provide all the best for our kids. I didn’t attend a young father school, but I had read a lot and talked to peers. Because one should prepare for parenting.’ Being ‘just a father’ is not enough, the IQ.HSE respondent said. One has to be ‘the father — good, loved and remarkable.’