A while ago now I mentioned to an acquaintance – a woman in her 40’s – I was researching the topic of absent fathers for my Masters Dissertation topic. She said she would describe her father as absent even though she had known him growing up – before and after the parental separation; now they have little contact and I had the impression this was her choice. Her intuition was that father absence was very common. But is is?
In a series of related posts I am sharing what I have found in published academic studies from a range of disciplines (psychotherapy, sociology, psychology, nursing, ethnography). The content will outline the position of fathers now in the UK, the complexity of what the term ‘father absence’ means from a cross-cultural perspective, the importance of fathers for daughters (a relationship that is not as frequently studied as the father-son) and the impacts of father absence for daughters.
Biological father substitutes – or social fathers – raise the question as to how a father is defined in the first place and leads me to ponder on the implications of the biological asymmetry of conception and pregnancy. Throughout history men have always had a choice after biological conception about whether to be a father. For women it was not until the Abortion Act of 1967 was passed, specifying certain medical circumstances, and with approval from two doctors, that a woman had any kind of choice after conception. Of course, dangerous backstreet abortions and abandonment were possible ways out of motherhood.
The Modern Father
In the last few decades there has been much academic and popular culture discussion about the ‘new man’ and fathering. Media debates and images – cultural communication – now commonly depict men either as new fathers, a representation summed up in frequent images of a father holding or playing with a baby or young child, or as absent fathers shirking their financial and moral responsibilities. It was because of the latter situation that the Child Support Agency, now called the Child Maintenance Service, was establishment in 1993. However, these portrayals, simplified as they are, hint at the ways in which fatherhood and fathering now inhabit contradictory and contested cultural expressions, and they are not unimportant. While relationships and parenting may well be shaped significantly by emotional attachment patterns and personal history, cultural representations also show us what is possible and tolerable. Culture flows through individuals.
As the patriarchal structure is no longer the norm, where a man is considered the sole provider and a woman the main carer and keeper of the house and home, and the nuclear family is less of a reality than it was when the phrase was coined in the first part of the 20thcentury, the modern father comes in many different forms. He may cohabit, be a divorced father, a step-father, a gay father, or a sperm-donor. He may also be a lone parent or a primary care-giver. In the UK the Fatherhood Institute is a charity that focuses on policy, research and practice to capture this diversity (fatherhoodinstitute.org), and Goldman & Burgess (2018) argue for the Fatherhood Institute that the UK Government should review its data collection on families to capture the diversity.
Despite this Meah & Jackson (2016) say that Census Data (2014) in the UK highlight an increasingly complex landscape of contemporary parenting in the UK, where family relationships may take place across a number of households, with men adopting the role of social parents, in addition to – or instead of – fathering biological children of their own. Using ethnographic observation and narrative interviews with three case-study fathers, their research demonstrates how contemporary fathering practices in Britain are far more complex than is allowed for within conventional definitions of fatherhood. The participants in their study confound the stereotype of the father as breadwinner and a secondary parent vis-à-vis a mother, particularly in the context of direct caregiving. It is clear that the paternal bond and role is very important to some – perhaps many – men.
But what does the term ‘absent father’ mean? I will return to this in my next post: Fathers – Part 2.
Categories: Research on Fathers