The goal of gender-free parenting is not to paint the parenting landscape with a wide brush of androgyny or even create a genderless society but rather to create a ‘genderfull’ one. Challenging accepted norms and breaking traditional moulds, today’s father takes on roles outside of the confines of the married, sole provider and patriarchal head of the household stereotype. He can be single, in a partnership or married; employed externally, work-from-home or stay-at-home; gay or straight; an adoptive or step-parent; and a more than capable caregiver to the children. Extensive research suggests that a father’s affection and increased family involvement aids in the promotion of children’s social and emotional development.
A few centuries ago the role of the father was primarily to serve as the provider, the custodian of the moral values of the family, with active involvement only with the discipline and religious instruction of the children. With industrialisation and urbanisation, industry emerged the major source of employment and fathers began to work way from their homes, resulting in a distancing from the household and their families. Abandonment and illegitimacy became commonplace with necessitation by women to either become dependent on welfare to support their children or to exchange services for food and shelter. By the late 19th century and early 20th century the traditional role of both the patriarch and matriarch had begun to change.
Between 1948 and 2007, the percentage of women working in South Africa increased significantly from 27 per cent in 1948, primarily in the informal sector, to the female share in the formal sector in 2007 being 40 per cent and in the informal sector 55 per cent.
An increase in economic activity and financial independence reduced the need for paternal support. This, combined with the growing autonomy of women, saw related trends: Declining fertility, increasing rates of divorce and remarriage and childbirth outside marriage, all of which have impacted the transition from traditional to open, undefined roles for many fathers.
By the start of the 21st century the role of fathers had become vastly different from that of fathers of previous generations. In the USA currently, there are a record number of female breadwinners with four in 10 households having a mother who is the ‘breadwinner’ for the family. In South Africa, there is very little data available in terms of stay-at-home dads, but experts acknowledge that it’s a growing trend.
Historically research on children’s development has focused more on mothers filling children’s needs; however, in the last 20 years research has become more focused on fathers, due to the changing and growing role that fathers play in caregiving,
A study by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, found that fathers tended to be more involved in caregiving when:
They worked fewer hours than other fathers;
They had positive psychological adjustment characteristics (e.g., high self-esteem, lower levels of depression and hostility and coped well with the major tasks of adulthood);
Mothers worked more hours than other mothers;
When children were boys.
Recent research on the role of fathers suggests that the influence of father love on children’s development is as great as the influence of a mother’s love. Fatherly love helps children develop a sense of their place in the world, which helps their social, emotional and cognitive development and functioning.
Divorced and step fathers
In the case of a divorce, the father’s relationship with his child’s mother serves an important influence on the father’s involvement with his children. It is often difficult, if not impossible, for fathers to maintain the same types of parenting roles with their biological children. Most divorced fathers do not receive full custody of their children. As a result, maintaining their roles as parents can be difficult due to the reduction in time spent with their children. Fortunately, visitation of fathers post-divorce has increased over the past two decades. However, it should be kept in mind that it is not the frequency of contact between father and child, but rather the quality of the visits that contributes to the child’s overall well-being.
Key factors that contribute to healthy adjustment for children post-divorce include:
Appropriate parenting (providing emotional support, active involvement of children’s activities, disciplining authoritatively and maintaining realistic expectations of the child);
Enough access to the non-residential parent;
Suitable custody arrangements (joint legal custody often results in shared decision making, more father-child visits, timeous payment of maintenance and well-adjusted children);
Low parental conflict and
Parents who are psychologically healthy.
Step-fathers can encounter many difficulties in their new parenting roles. They must strike a balance between maintaining healthy relationships with their ex-spouses in order to benefit their biological children without alienating their new partners. In addition, it may take years before they are accepted as ‘real’ parents by their step-children.
Research has found that the type of step-family with best outcomes for children consists of parents who form a solid, committed partnership with each other so they can not only nurture their own relationship but also leverage the stability of a healthy relationship to raise their children effectively within a blended family. These parents don’t generally support traditional norms of what a family should be; they allow the family to merge and blend into a form which offers the best for the parents, step-parents and the children
As more and more gay men are able to live their lives openly and to establish long-term, supportive and loving relationships like heterosexual couples, they are beginning to start families. With the growing numbers of gay fathers in our society, research suggests that they are likely to divide the work involved in child care relatively evenly and that they are happy with their couple relationships. In fact, research findings suggest that gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive home environments for children.
Research has found no evidence to support the following concerns with regard to foster care and adoption by gay fathers:
The belief that gay men are mentally unstable;
The belief that gay men’s relationships with sexual partners leave little time for ongoing parent-child interactions.
Extensive research over the last three decades shows that homosexuality is not a mental disorder; there is no reliable evidence that it impairs psychological functioning, although the discrimination and prejudice gay men face can often cause acute distress. Likewise, beliefs that gay men are not fit parents have no empirical foundation.
There are no reliable statistics available of the number of ‘stay-at-home dads’ (SAHDs) in South Africa and there is all indication that the percentile of South African SAHDs is still a relatively small proportion of all fathers. The emergence of the SAHD, however, demonstrates a new type of patriarch who is primarily responsible for caregiving in the context of his family. In fact, the number of stay-at-home dads is growing rapidly. For many fathers, the decision to stay home with their children stems from:
Their spouse’s strong earning potential;
Retrenchment and the inability to find suitable employment;
Choice – their own desire to serve as the primary caregiver; and
A shared reluctance along with their spouse to allow someone else to raise their children.
Stay-at-home fathers are routinely confronted with criticism due to their reversal of the traditional social norms. Most of these fathers do not feel bound to these norms and are comfortable being masculine whilst adopting a nurturing, caregiving role with their children, traditionally thought of as the feminine role. In addition, despite their increasing numbers, they are still relatively rare and are often viewed with suspicion and shunned in playgroups and on the playgrounds by stay-at-home mothers and female caregivers.
The role of the father in a child’s life is a critical factor in how they will develop and engage with relationships of their own and coping mechanisms they develop in finding their way in the world. The modern father can positively impact and contribute to his children’s ongoing development and well-being by maintaining a healthy relationship with the other parent (even in cases of divorce); providing emotional and physical support, appropriate monitoring and administering healthy discipline; and, most importantly, being a permanent and loving presence in the lives of their children.
Being present is imperative, truly embracing the role of being a father is something very special.
This article was inspired by all of the incredible fathers I know and love, the men that shattered the mould and who tirelessly and lovingly embraced the role of fatherhood as both caregiver and provider. “I see You!” Ed.