Men too are competent caregivers
by Svend Aage Madsen, Ph.D. (Head of project)
January 17th 2007
last updated January 17th 2007
The historical and mythological image of the father as distant and absent and of men as unwilling or unable to care for their children is false. Current research has shown men to be just as capable as women at building close affectionate bonds with their infantsand in providing the care needed for healthy psychological and social development in the child. Men's potential as caregivers is strong, and studies have shown that infants' attachment to a primary caregiver is gender neutral. However, the barriers against developing this potential are multiple and are economic, cultural and psychological in nature. Changes are required, both in the culture of masculinity, workplace culture and in the organising of health services. Of even greater urgency is to create better opportunities for men to take time out for parental leave and to work part-time during the child's early years.
State-of-the-art Knowledge on Fathers’ Relations with their Infants and Children:
1. Historical Development: Men as Fathers
Until recently, men’s image as fathers was that of a parent with no close relationship to his children, particularly not if they were newborn or very young.
Nowhere, either in the history of European civilization or in ‘traditional’ cultures around the world do we find close bonds between men and their infants and small children.
The image of a father passed down through the mythological fathers like Odysseus, Abraham, or Oedipus’s father is the father who leaves or is even ready to kill or sacrifice his own child in order to do his thing in the world.
Even in tales for children we see Cinderella’s, Snow White’s, and Hansel and Gretel’s fathers as parents who are unable to take care of their children.
In research on fathers in history we find ‘Der Hausvater’, the authoritarian master of the household in agricultural societies, and the distant and absent ’Breadwinner’ of the industrial age. In both cases the rule is that there are no close relationships between the father and his infant or small child.
In modern history we find the concept of the ’Dad’, especially in American research; a new type of father who is engaged in his children’s lives in an emotional and caring way but still not on an equal basis, especially not when it concerns infants and small children.
The question is if a New Father is emerging, one who engages in childrearing on an equal basis, and if so whether men are capable of developing such close relations to young children.
In current research on human relationships attachment theory is prevalent as one of the best empirically grounded frameworks. A comprehensive clinical literature building upon highly creative research has appeared over the last 30 years and even research on neurobiology has largely supported the basic ideas of attachment theory.
Attachment theory builds on the assumption that there is a universal human need to build close affectional bonds to others. The infant is not born with the capacity to regulate its own emotional reactions or to interpret the physical and social environment. A caregiver is needed to secure a healthy development. The attachment theory underlines the dominating effects of early attachment on self-perception and personality development in life.
While the psychological processes of motherhood and early mother/infant relations have been widely described in theory and research, many questions about fathers’ relations to their infants still remain unanswered. Since the emergence of attachment research mother/child-relations have been in focus. In recent decades more and more studies on father/child-relations have been conducted. Despite many allegations to the contrary results from this research show that attachment theory is gender-neutral. This means that children can be as strongly attached to their fathers as to their mothers. Men and women seem to possess the same potentials for being secure bases for their children. Research however also shows that a child in af family might have different attachment patterns with its father and its mother, i.a. one of the parents is a secure base for the child while the other is not.
b. Fathers’ Potential for Caregiving
Studies on attachment have shown that there are no differences between fathers' and mothers' potential abilities to develop an attachment to their children. It has been shown that fathers and mothers in a representative population are equally able to form a secure base for their children. Around 65 % of both men and women belong to the category »Secure/ Autonomous« when tested with the Adult Attachment Interview. This category indicates with strong predictability that the adult as a parent will have a child securely attached to him or her. This means that men are able to reflect their infants’ state of mind. This is one of the essential aspects of a ‘fatherhood constellation’, an expression referring to Daniel Stern’s seminal book: “The Motherhood Constellation”, in which men are denied the potential to sufficiently care for an infant.
The ability to be a sensitive caregiver for a baby is not linked to gender, but rather to experiences with a caring and sensitive parent. A Danish study on fathers' attachment to their infants shows that men's working models of caregiving for their infants emerge from their relations with their own mothers.
Fathers and mothers have almost identical practices and interactions with infants – with small deviations.
Furthermore, attachment research has shown that children display similar attachment behaviours toward both parents independently of the sex of that parent; however, they display more affection and security-seeking behaviour towards the primary caregiver.
Gender stereotypes regarding parent/child-relations, differences in men’s and women’s abilities to nurture children as well as men’s (and their partners’) wishes for equality play a central role in the inequalities affecting men in this area: interaction with labour-market obstacles and the ways health systems and -professionals serve men as fathers, the ways economic and structural conditions hinder men’s engagements in family life as well as the ways cultural practices and traditions prevent men’s from changing.
c. Fathers as Caregivers
Studies on the ability of fathers to take care of newborns and infants have shown that the fathers in these studies were fully capable of doing so and that the care they provided for their infants was similar to the mothers’. Fathers can be just as loving, caring, and effective parents as mothers. This is the conclusion reached by the naturalistic behavioural observations of fathers' and mothers' interactions with their children. Primary-caregiver fathers are as affectionate with their children and are just as much in tune with them as are primary-caregiver mothers.
This knowledge stands in opposition to the view that mothers are better at parenting and more skilled in caregiving than are fathers. The results also indicated that the attachment-theory concept of children bonding with their mother first and most strongly is false. When in a stressful situation, infants showed preference for the primary caregiver, regardless of the gender.
The implications of these results are that all fathers may benefit from being recognized as being capable of attachment and of loving and effectively caring for their children.
Being distant, unemotional and a bad caregiver in relationships with children is not associated with the male gender.
3. Fathers’ involvement
Male participation in prenatal consultations and the presence of fathers at delivery represent great changes in behavioural patterns and not least in the relational world of men. But there are barriers here too: The main obstacles to men’s participation in these activities are: the workplace culture, which often excludes these sides of men’s lives; the general lack of fatherhood-related health-service courses; and the impractical opening hours of the options few that do exist.
However these activities take up only a small amount of time. When it comes to long-term involvement in the lives of their children, men are confronted with the same contradictions between the demands of work and family life as women – men, however come at this issue “from the other side” so to speak, approaching the family from the perspective of the workplace.
Here the man is met with a multitude of barriers: from society, from their workplace culture, and from traditional masculine culture. These obstacles are of an economic, cultural, and psychological nature. Consequently changes in this area are much slower to take effect than those concerning activities surrounding the actual birth of the child.
While many families appear to be ready for new developments in men’s participation in and responsibility for parenting – especially when it comes to small children - rules and regulations concerning parental leave and part-time jobs for fathers seem to be a key point. When special allowances are made for fathers to enable them to take leave from work, men actually do take advantage of them– see the sections on parental leave.
Time is a Vital in Building Relationships
All research on creating secure attachments and strong bonds between parents and children makes it clear, that time is a crucial prerequisite. Strong bonds and secure attachments and, later, compassion and closeness between parent and child are dependent on and emerge from the parent’s ability to function as a secure base.
To be a secure base requires certain psychological abilities on behalf of the parents. The majority of men meet these prerequisites. This brings into focus the issue of time i.e. spending enough time with the child to realize this potential.
4. Supporting and Increasing Men’s Involvement as Fathers
Supporting and increasing men’s paternal involvement requires the men works with themselves at a psychological and cultural level. In fact the whole family must put in some work, especially when it comes to defining roles and promoting understanding of each other’s family backgrounds.
Besides it is crucial that the institutions surrounding the family recognize these men as fathers, inviting them and providing them with equal conditions. The whole family should be given the possibility to remain together after delivery and for a good while afterwards. Furthermore the man must be given opportunities both for parental leave and part-time work.
Besides these organisational and economic needs, the professionals surrounding families and fathers must acquire fatherhood-related qualifications.
Cath, S., Gurwitt, A. & Gunsburg, L. (eds.) (1989). Fathers and Their Families. Hillsdale: Analytic Press.
Lamb, M. (ed.). (1986). The Father’s Role: Applied Perspectives. New York: Wiley.
Shapiro, J., Diamond, M. & Greenberg, M. (eds). (1995) Becoming a Father. New York: Springer
Trowell, J. & Etchegoyen, A. (eds.) (2001) The Importance of Fathers:A Psychoanalytic Re-Evaluation. London: Taylor & Francis Group
On attachment theory and research:
Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P. (eds.) (2002) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press
Geiger, B. (1996). Fathers as Primary Caregivers. New York: Greenwood Press.