Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Esther Dermott (2003) 'The 'Intimate Father': Defining Paternal Involvement'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 18/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


Fathering is alleged to have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades with proclamations of 'new fathering' dominating the literature. However, it is not always obvious what this new and 'involved' fathering entails. This paper aims to bring greater clarity to the nebulous concept of the involved father. While acknowledging the recession of traditional fatherhood centred on breadwinning, the argument looks beyond this oft-identified process. Instead the focus is on elucidating the elements viewed as the essential components of the father-child relationship. For the fathers in this study, the concept of intimacy seems to encapsulate ideas about good fathering. The idea of 'intimate fathering' encompasses, but goes beyond an emotional connection, and prioritises the quality of the parent-child relationship. This definition has implications for the analysis and understanding of fathering behaviour. In particular, such intimacy may be disassociated from a time commitment.

Fatherhood; Generations; Intimacy; Involvement


Recently, fathers and fatherhood have received increasing attention, to the extent that between the 1980s and 1990s researchers moved from declaring that fathers had been neglected (Jackson, 1983) to announcing that they were now the subject of significant research and comment (Deinhart, 1998). It has become widely accepted that fatherhood has undergone significant changes and that 'new fathering' has replaced more traditional versions. However, although caricatures of the 'traditional' fathers of earlier times have been challenged (e.g. Tosh, 1996) the 'new father' remains rather opaque.

Much of the discussion on fatherhood has concentrated on documenting the demise of the breadwinner father. With labour market changes, especially higher baseline levels of unemployment and the increased participation of women in paid employment, men's role as financial providers for the family has been challenged and no longer appears prominently in accounts of good fatherhood. Men and women tend to reject statements that suggest fathers should concentrate on the economic role while the mother's job is to take care of the home and children (Scott, 1997). Yet it seems easier to define what new fathering is not, rather than what it is. Based on accounts given by fathers, this paper attempts to discuss elements that are viewed as intrinsic to a modern conceptualisations of 'good' fathering.

Despite radical transformations to the idea of fatherhood some aspects of fathering have changed much less. A continuing problem is trying to explain why cultural images of fatherhood have altered more than the conduct of fathers' child-related activities, leaving a disparity between ideas of fathering and the measurable reality (La Rossa, 1988; 1997). This paper is concerned mainly with ideas rather than behaviour, but through exploring the former it addresses why this situation may not be as contradictory as has previously been implied.

* Methods

This paper draws on 25 interviews conducted with fathers as part of a research project that examined how fathers combine paid employment and family life. The principal research questions explored how the men managed the roles of workers and fathers and the benefits and constraints they felt existed. The study focused on fathers who were living in heterosexual relationships and in the same households as their young children. By virtue of their occupations, these fathers were relatively advantaged, in financial terms. The particular characteristics of the interviewees should be borne in mind and any generalising from these fathers' definitions of fathering involvement to the views of the wider population needs to be circumspect.

The interviewees were all cohabiting with a female partner and, as the focus was on co-residency, the legal status of their relationship was not taken into account. The definition of 'father' was the subjective description used by the men themselves and was therefore not necessarily based on either a biological or a legal definition. [1]

The men interviewed were all currently in paid employment and held professional/managerial positions. A number of factors led to this sampling decision. One reason was that speaking to fathers who were relatively advantaged economically makes it possible to explore motives other than money that influence the organisation of family tasks, as higher earnings mean more options are available to fathers in choosing how to balance home life and employment.

Fathers in the study had at least one child of primary school age. A great deal of qualitative research on fathers has concentrated on the fathers of young children (Morgan, 2002) and even more specifically on the period surrounding the birth of a child and the nature of the transition from non-parent to parent (e.g. Jacobs, 1995; Lupton & Barclay, 1997). Views of fatherhood as well as actual fathering behaviour are likely to alter, depending on the age of children, and therefore the intention was to fill a gap in existing literature by speaking to the fathers of slightly older children. This, in turn, influenced the age of the participants. Most commonly, they tended to be in their early 40s, but ranged from the ages of 27 to 56.

Two of the fathers were Asian and one interviewee had a Middle-Eastern background. The remainder were of White British/European/American descent. It is worth noting that the ethnic background of the fathers was not always the same as that of their partner, and therefore their children; at least one of the White British men's partners was Afro-Caribbean. Different responses based on ethnic divisions were not apparent.

Fathers might, initially, be considered an easily accessible group. However, they are relatively invisible (especially those who are living with a partner) and are therefore less captive to researchers (McKee & O'Brien, 1983). To avoid a mother-based approach the majority of fathers were accessed through a primary school in South London and contacted by letter, which was accompanied by a covering note from the school principal. While in the process of carrying out these interviews other opportunities occasionally arose. Informants suggested someone who they thought would agree to be interviewed or the name of someone who fulfilled the criteria was suggested through a personal contact. All of these further interviewees were either living or working in the Greater London area. Despite differing in style and level of formality, these diverse approaches to contacting fathers did not seem to affect the interview responses.

An initial questionnaire collected relevant background information on the subjects, while the interviews themselves were semi-structured, allowing participants to interpret and talk about the issues according to their own concerns. Interviews were conducted either in places of work or homes (according to their preference) and lasted between one and two hours. They were fully transcribed and analysed according to emergent themes. Pseudonyms have been used when quoting participants.

* Involved Fathering - 'whatever that may mean'

The majority of interviewees were able to reflect, at some length, on fatherhood. This capacity for reflection on the topic is one indication of the existence of various fathering models that can be compared and contrasted. That the topic of fatherhood can be discussed and debated extensively suggests that, at least to some degree, its 'taken-for-granted' state has disappeared. The ability to reflect on ideas of fatherhood indicates the extent to which various cultural images of fathering abound and may itself be taken as an indication of 'new fatherhood'. However, while various social and technological changes have prompted dialogues on the meaning of fatherhood, the recognition of potential approaches to male parenthood marks only the starting point of analysis. Accounts given by individual fathers offer an insight into how these men recognise and interpret possible ways of 'doing fatherhood' and how they apply them to their own circumstances.

Most of the fathers interviewed could, and did, comment on the type of father they wanted to be. Often the aim was initially expressed in general and brief terms and mentioned the word 'involvement'.
'When the kids came along it was just, I am a modern father, I want to be involved with my kids.' (Jack)
'I wanted to be really involved in what they do and kind of, really, to enjoy seeing them growing up.' (Gareth)

Involvement is advocated because it provides personal satisfaction and, perhaps mundanely, is regarded as normal. That fatherhood today simply is involved fatherhood is related in Jack's comment: 'it was just, I am a modern father'. He recognises the existence of a societal default position with which he complies. Despite this idea of acquiescing to societal norms, there is no indication that doing so involves any imposition on fathers against their wishes. Indeed buying into what is regarded as typical coincides with their own perception that involvement is also pleasurable, and therefore desired- 'to enjoy seeing them [children] growing up'.

If these, or similar, comments are repeated frequently, it is easy to see how they would provide a basis for assertions about the existence of the 'involved father'. The attitudes expressed by the interviewees could be interpreted as a rejection of more traditional (or less modern) images of fathering. In trying to characterise the demise of one notion of fatherhood and the rise of another in its place, the counterpoising of 'new' and 'traditional' is often transposed to 'involved' versus 'breadwinner', thereby implying that involvement is something distinct from the role of economic provisioning. This choice of language, leading to the exclusion of financial providing from involved fathering, would be strongly contested by those fathers whose principal responsibility within the family is performing this role.

The main problem with this terminology is that the word 'involved' is synonymous with concerned and engaged, which are positive attributes, while the opposite expression 'uninvolved' (detached, indifferent) is inherently bad. Therefore, a breadwinning role immediately has associations with negligent or insufficient forms of parenting. Breadwinners begin to appear similar to the uninvolved 'dead-beat dad', that is, to those who absent themselves - for whatever reasons - from any association with their children. Avoiding such a priori assumptions is necessary in attempting to understand what is both included and excluded in the term 'involvement'. Breadwinning is better considered as simply one of a number of potential ways of 'doing' fathering involvement.

So, although the fathers clearly assert that they want to be involved with their children, their statements lack clarity over what an 'involved' role actually constitutes. Involvement, itself, is certainly fuzzy enough to incorporate the model of father as breadwinner and the extent to which the financial is an actual component of involvement for this group of fathers is a matter for inquiry. That the term 'involved' is used in many different contexts is acknowledged by one of the fathers, who recognises the existence of various interpretations, adding to his comment about wanting to be involved with his children, 'Whatever that may mean.'

* Breadwinning

One of the major arguments for the existence of a 'new' form of fathering is the assertion that the idea of father as breadwinner - dominant in the past - is no longer considered either necessary or sufficient to fulfil the requirements of good fathering. It appears to have become accepted knowledge that breadwinning, as the defining aspect of fathering identity, has been consigned to history (Pleck, 1987). In documenting changes in the views of fatherhood, Lamb (1986) equates the breadwinner ideology with a period encompassing the Industrial Revolution to the Second World War, while Griswold (1993), in his history of fatherhood in America, posits that the mid-sixties marked the end of the association between the image of fatherhood and breadwinning. Relatively sparse mentions of the provider identity in current empirically based accounts of fatherhood have been used as evidence to support this contention. Cohen (1993: 19), noting the absence of breadwinning imagery among his sample of fathers of young children, argues that, 'traditional work- centred definitions of "fathering" are inadequate for characterizing... informants' beliefs about fathering.'

A similar dearth of mentioning financial provision is evident among the interviewees here. Hugh provided an exception; when asked about how he saw himself as a father he explained how his identity is firmly located in the world of paid employment:
'I had always seen myself as a Flintstone type father, you know, out to work, out to the office, while mother stays at home and looks after the children.' (Hugh)

In comparing his familial identity to characters in The Flintstones- the 'modern Stone Age family'- he acknowledges that his viewpoint, if not quite belonging to a bygone age, is a stance he regards as predominantly associated with an earlier period and one that is relatively unusual in contemporary society. Another interviewee responded to the same question by characterising his role solely in terms that he also claimed as 'traditional':
'Not too interested in the domestic day-to-day stuff. He [the father] is the provider, he is the breadwinner.' (Bill)

Although Bill's response accords with research suggesting that providing money to support children does remain central to expectations of fatherhood (Warin et al., 1999; Weiss, 1990) this was not the dominant response among interviewees. While breadwinning does still exist as one expression of fathering commitment on which men can draw, it commanded only a small minority position among this group of fathers. Except for the two responses printed above, references to earning money as a significant aspect of fathering were conspicuous only by their absence.

* New Fathering?

With confirmation that images of fathering presented by the interviewees minimise the importance of income generation, it is incumbent to explore what does comprise the idea of good fatherhood. Cohen (1993) embraces the few citations of breadwinning he finds among his sample of fathers as indicating changes taking place in the meanings attached to fatherhood, and of a fundamental shift in fathers' psychological involvement with their children. His proposal is that fathers' emotional response to children has taken the place of a provider role and he quotes one of his respondents as saying, 'It changes your relationship to everybody and everything' (Cohen, 1993:5). He therefore concludes (1993: 6) that, 'Contrary to what traditional thinking about fatherhood would lead one to expect, becoming fathers had a dramatic impact on informants' lives, extending far beyond the economic implications of this transition.' However, this conclusion looks flawed due to the assumption made about traditional fatherhood. While becoming a father is a critical transition in the lives of his interviewees, it does not necessarily follow that this contradicts, or constitutes a dramatic break from previous conceptualisations of fatherhood.

Historical research has questioned the assumption that all fathers in previous generations adhered to the stereotype of limited emotional attachment. While the term 'Victorian fatherhood' may conjure up images of distance and inaccessibility, Davidoff and Hall (1987:329) comment that the records of 19th century middle-class fathers they studied indicate, 'an intense involvement of men with their families, and a loving interest in their children's lives.' Meanwhile, Lummis (1982), in his study of East Anglian fishermen at the turn of the twentieth century, has challenged the idea that until very recently working class fathers tended to be brutal, drunken and aloof. Referring to the 1930s, Griswold (1993) notes how experts on parenting declared that love and involvement, not discipline and authority, were the hallmarks of the modern father. Therefore, the assertion that an emotional response by fathers to their children is something entirely new seems hard to justify.

From the respondents' comments in this study it can be seen how emotional attachment is not incompatible with a breadwinning identity and that the two do coexist. Both Bill and Hugh, who were quoted above emphasising the centrality of economic provisioning to their identity as fathers, also commented upon the effect that fatherhood had on them:
'I think it had a very dramatic effect...the relationship with your own child is so different from anything else you can possibly experience.' (Hugh)
'I'm a broader, more rounded individual as a result of having children.' (Bill)

Using similar language to that of Cohen's respondent these remarks indicate how recognising the magnitude of becoming a parent does not preclude the acceptance of a fathering identity based on providing. Thus, positing that an emotional connection exists between father and child does not necessarily mean that this is a new phenomenon, one that replaces a preceding notion of fatherhood centred on breadwinning.

Since ideas of breadwinning and emotional attachment occur together both in current accounts of fatherhood and in the past, the belief that fathers and affection for children come together only in recent history is most likely to be the result of greater academic attention on the issue. Research on men has increasingly focused on private relationships, including those between parents and children, whereas previously researchers tended to concentrate more attention on the public aspect of men's lives. Comparisons between attitudes of fathers to their paternal roles in the past and present may be problematic because of methodological difficulties (Lewis, 1986). It is difficult to assess the degree to which relationships with children have actually altered, and to what extent cultural change has simply prompted more public discussion of these emotions. However, it does seem that the existence of some kind of emotional attachment between fathers and children may be novel only to social researchers.

Despite the recognition that emotional responses by fathers to their children are not a recent development, this does necessarily undermine the argument that the emotional relationship is indicative of 'new' fathering. It might be posited that the alteration in contemporary society is that the emotional relationship between father and child now functions as the basis of a model for fathering. The argument would follow that as breadwinning no longer commands this position, the emotional connection has been transformed from an accepted, but unremarkable, fact to operate as the central component of fathering identity. In this situation, the nature of the significant relationship, the 'emotional connection' to which fathers refer, requires a more exact examination.

* Reflections on Fatherhood

When comments about fathering were elicited from my subjects it was unsurprising to find that, in the majority of cases, it was the interviewees' experiences of fathering when they were children that provides the basis of their reflections. The biographies of the fathers indicate how, as children, the men had experienced a broad sweep of fathering; from absent fathers to fathers who had taken sole responsibility for childcare as single parents. Interviewees frequently assessed their fathers as parents and highlighted aspects of the relationship with their own father that they wanted to reproduce with their own offspring, along with elements which showed up contrasts between their actions and views on fatherhood with those they had experienced as a child.

In studies of fathering, a recurrent theme is men's assertion that they have a higher commitment to, and involvement with, their children than did their own fathers. 'Results indicate that most men today desire and seem to have a closer relationship with their children than did their fathers' (Van Dongen, 1995: 91). In fact, men's claims that they have greater involvement with their children than their fathers did with them as children is present in literature from the 1950s through to the 1990s (Lewis, 1995). Although this accelerating trend has provided another basis for proposing the reality of the 'new father', extreme caution must be taken in making definitive statements about changes in fathering from such reflections. Asking men to compare themselves with their fathers perhaps inevitably leads interviewees into the response that they are somehow doing things 'better'. In analysing this interview material, evidence for new fathering was not assumed simply on the grounds that 'positive' changes between the generations were often mentioned. Instead, these generational comparisons proved useful as a foil to draw out the facets regarded as most (and least) significant to the men's conception of 'good fathering'.

* Close Relationships

In comparing parenting experienced from both sides - as a father and son - the interviewees emphasised the importance of a close relationship between father and child. This was viewed as constituting the positive model for their fathering, whether or not they had experienced it themselves as a child. A number of interviewees articulated how they felt that their own fathers had been distant and remote, in order to draw attention to how they wanted to establish a different kind of father-child relationship:
'I didn't want to be like my own dad. No, he's a nice guy and everything, but he's a little bit distant with small children. He's a kind of intellectual, kind of academic guy and if people can't talk to him in long sentences with lots of subordinate clauses he doesn't tend to be that interested in them. So that excludes, obviously, children. I didn't want to be like that, I wanted to try and relate to kids on their own level.' (Phil)
'My father was very remote to me when I was very little... when I was starting to get stroppy [as a teenager]. I suppose, I was just, not wanting to be like that, not wanting to be reactive.... My perception of him was that he was the one who stopped me doing things and then gave up on me.' (Simon)

Detailing what 'distant' means, Phil explains that, in his view, his father was not really interested in him as a child and that this indifference was because he [Phil] could not provide the type of company his father enjoyed. In contrast, Phil stresses that he wants to engage with his daughter 'on her level' rather than imposing adult standards of communication. Simon did not have a good relationship with his own father either, and wants to ensure that he does not replicate the problems with his children. The same terminology of distance is encountered here - his father was 'very remote'- but he also spells out the consequences of his father's remoteness. On the occasions when his father did become involved in his upbringing, Simon viewed it as being restrictive and lacking in understanding. With his own parenting, he is anxious to build a bond so that any influence he exerts on his children originates within what he regards as a more positive context.

Another interviewee also focuses on the contrast between his father's parenting and his own:
'I mean, I saw with my father, he was, sort of, very dedicated to his family but quite distant as well.... So I would say that he was close to me, but not in the way of showing emotions or talking about things, or like necessarily being very open about things. And so, I suppose, I always aspired to try to be more open with my children. I mean, I'm not saying he was uninvolved or didn't care, but I would, well, I wanted to be really involved in what they do.' (Gareth)

The difference between Gareth's account and that of previous interviewees lies not in what they want to do as parents, but in how they have arrived at their conclusions. Unlike the previous two quotations, Gareth's statement does not present any specific problems in the relationship he experienced with his father. Nor does he profess any negative feelings towards him. In fact, Gareth's recollections use a number of extremely complimentary terms to describe his father; he was very dedicated to his family, close to his child, involved and caring. Yet, overall, his father is still categorised as 'quite distant'- with an obvious contradiction in using the antonyms 'distant' and 'close' to describe his father in consecutive sentences. This confusion of language occurs because, in contrast to Phil and Simon, Gareth is categorical in stating that the parenting he received was 'good' and he is anxious not to give the impression, inadvertently, of being overly critical. He knows that his father did feel emotion towards him, but being 'really involved' and complying with contemporary ideas of fatherhood means that Gareth wants to do things differently as a father.

Very few interviewees mentioned the extent of their participation in activities with their children as marking a significant difference between generations of parenting. One interviewee said that his father's disability had limited his participation in some of the physical aspects of fathering:
'My father was disabled, so he couldn't play that sort of active role which he would have wanted to have played - as he could see fathers of my friends [playing]. I thought I would be like them.' (George)

Another talked about how his own fathering role is strikingly dissimilar to how his father had behaved. But although Jack mentions specific play activities here, these are just one aspect of an entirely different view of fatherhood:
'In my own family my father was very dictatorial, to my mother and towards us as kids. He wasn't a fraction as involved with us as I have been with my children. He worked, he came home late from work, he went to sleep on the couch. Weekends we were out doing things with our friends and stuff....I didn't have that playing time with my father so much....I had things that I saw in my father's relationships that I didn't want to repeat.' (Jack)

The impression given here is that the behaviour concentrated upon - play - is actually representative of a more essential difference in the kind of relationship that Jack claims exists between himself and his children. What Jack indicates is not only a greater participation in activities with his children, but also a less hierarchical relationship with them. He starts by talking about the 'dictatorial' nature of his father and then uses the issue of play as a way of conveying how this translates into practice. Jack's comments indicate how he views father-child relationships as based in something fundamentally different to the authoritarian paternalism he once experienced.

The style of fatherhood that all these men reject resonates with the imagery of the paterfamilias who is one step removed from the experiences and emotions of their child and reticent about expressing their own feelings. The men's fathers are typically characterised as failing to epitomise a more 'modern' form of fatherhood - one that the interviewees are aiming for themselves - that is based upon both the verbal and physical expression of feeling. On the whole, the existence of some kind of emotional connection between father and child that is regarded as absolutely necessary, is assumed to be present. It is the demonstration of emotion, through 'openness', that is seen as the key in both fostering and demonstrating a good relationship between father and child. When activities with children were mentioned by today's fathers, they were utilised in a wider sense as a way of illustrating the existence - or non-existence - of this highly prized form of relationship.

Most of the interviewees did discuss alterations in the model of fathering between their own generation and the one before, but not all of the men interviewed suggested that they wanted to break with the practice of their fathers. When interviewees indicated that they wanted to follow the example of their father's parenting, it was still the establishment of a close relationship that was viewed as central. For those fathers hoping to replicate the parenting they had experienced as a child, the emphasis on the distance between father and son (mentioned in previous quotations) were replaced by references to good relationships based on closeness:
'I wanted to be like the memory I had of my father because we had a very good relationship.' (Greg)
'I am very close to my father and I think he's a wonderful man.' (Hugh)

* Fatherhood as Intimacy

To a degree, the interviewees' responses replicate the findings of some previous studies in emphasising the existence and expression of the emotional connection between fathers and children (e.g. Cohen, 1993; Warin et al., 1999). In a study of young people and family life, Brannen et al. (1994) found that all the parents interviewed emphasised how close they were to their children. This highly valued, 'good' relationship with children placed great prominence on the importance of disclosure and was based on the ability of parents and children to communicate - talking, listening and understanding. In similar fashion, Furstenberg (1995) found among his sample of American inner city fathers, that emotional involvement was seen as crucial to fulfilling the idea of being a 'good father'. By focussing on the interviewees' ideas of fatherhood it is possible to specify the components of this emotional connection. The fathers in the current study made the association between 'good fathering' and 'involved fathering' that replicates common usage. The salient dimensions of this involvement can be distinguished more precisely; it encompasses an openness of emotions, the expression of affection, and the building of a close relationship - a description that corresponds closely to definitions of intimacy.

Initially, it might appear that the concept of intimacy has little significance in any consideration of parent-child relationships, since, in everyday language, the term is usually associated with adult-adult interactions and often implies a sexual dimension to a relationship. However, using a sociological definition this is not necessarily implied. Giddens (1992) argues that intimacy is about rights, responsibilities and trust and what Jamieson (1998) terms 'disclosing intimacy' is primarily an intimacy of the self, not of the body. She defines 'disclosing intimacy' as necessarily including 'close association, privileged knowledge, deep knowing and understanding and some form of love' (p13). These elements correspond closely to the descriptions of 'involved' fatherhood outlined by the interviewees. The material suggests it is an intimate personal relationship with children that is held up as an aim and ideal by the fathers. The interviewees here seem be striving towards a close father-child relationship in this form of 'intimate fathering' and with the prioritising of intimacy 'it is the quality of the relationship between parent and child which comes to the fore' (Giddens, 1992:98).

* Culture versus Conduct

The idea of 'intimate fathering' gives a clearer definition of what involved fathering means to this group of men; how these fathers view the idea of good fatherhood. However, interest in fatherhood also addresses the topic of parenting behaviour. Researchers who have drawn attention to the emotional connection between fathers and children are, in the most part, also keen to examine the practical implications of such perspectives and to make the connection with measurable involvement in childcare. Cohen (1993: 19), having documented how some fathers talk about fathering, links the psychological with a physical involvement in his statement that, 'traditional work-centred definitions of "fathering" are inadequate for characterizing either informants' beliefs about fathering or their behaviour as parents' (my italics), although this article makes little reference to actual practices. Joining attitudes and behaviour in this way allows statements to be made which automatically translate the desire to 'do' intimate fathering into greater participation in parenting tasks than has previously been documented (and perhaps even to suggest a burgeoning equality with mothers over childcare).

This version of equating attitudes and behaviour has led to fatherhood debates concentrating on the attempt to reconcile the contradiction between, what La Rossa ( 1988; 1997) has labelled, the 'culture' and 'conduct' of fatherhood. While the 'culture' presents images of fathering that suggest radical change, repeated studies of the 'conduct' of fatherhood indicate only small-scale alterations in behaviour. As La Rossa emphasises, many of the recent accounts of transformed fatherhood (e.g. Pleck, 1987; Rotundo, 1985) are concerned with images of fatherhood and the ideological shifts of men in relation to parenthood, while measurements of the extent of fathers' participation in childcare tasks tend to give a different perspective.

This position then leads to the search for explanations of why fathers' practices do not currently match their ideological position. One response is to assert that a greater psychological attachment will lead to an increase in fathers' familial roles in the future (Cohen, 1993; Pleck, 1987) and that currently we are in a period of transition- similar to the 'lagged adaptation' envisaged by Gershuny et al. (1994) with respect to the domestic division of labour. The apparent disparity in the attitudes and behaviour of fathers is often seen as an expression of the ideal versus the possible, or personal desire countered by societal constraint because, 'choice for fathers is severely limited' (Burgess, 1997:214). Different writers may attribute this: to mothers who are reluctant to give up their jurisdiction over children; to the unyielding position of employers, who refuse to make the combining of paid employment and family life easier and punish men who do not adhere to labour market expectations; or even to the legal and social security system which continues to assume that it is mothers who should (and do) take primary responsibility for children and that fathers are therefore relatively marginal. Whatever the supposed cause, the consequence is that attention is transferred to challenging these restrictions.

* Lack of Contradiction

While accepting that these boundaries do exist, it is important to recognise that there is a flawed logic in presuming that 'intimate fathering' should necessarily translate into specific behaviours. An alternative suggestion is that the implied contemporary contradiction does not really exist at all and, instead, intimate fathering is compatible with a restricted investment in caring labour.

The finding that those who share parenting tasks with their partners also express a 'hunger for intimacy' (Ehrensaft, 1987) is accepted as working in reverse - those who express the desire for intimacy will, necessarily, be involved in parenting activities. Not only does this argument display questionable internal logic, but there are indications that the association does not hold up in practice. Ehrensaft (1987) notes that fathers who use 'romantic' language to talk about their children do not necessarily try to take an equal share in the practicalities of caring for their children with their partner. Therefore the extent of fathers' practical involvement in childcare should not simply be assumed from statements of a desire for intimacy.

Accepting that the contradiction between ideas and actions lies at the heart of any analysis of modern fatherhood necessitates first acceding that involved fathering should correspond with spending more time with children. Jamieson (1998) says that a separation between knowing and understanding on the one hand (intimacy), and practical caring (activity) on the other, seems unlikely as a relationship takes time to develop. The link between intimacy and a time commitment initially may seem too much of a truism to be worthy of comment. On further examination, this is not so obviously the case and the interviewees do not make the association, in any simple way, between the intimate fathering they extol and the time they spend with children.

Greg commented that the quality of the relationship he had with his father was 'very good' and that he wanted to reproduce this with his own children. However, Greg goes on to say that his father worked in the same industry as he now does - which means Greg had also come to recognise that the time he would be able to spend with his own family would actually be limited:
'I knew that it was unlikely that I would be around all day, but I knew that at the end of the day, I should put work behind me and should throw myself into whatever is left of the day for the children...given that I have a long journey home from work.' (Greg)

The interviewee does two things with this comment: he is referencing the restrictions which a full-time and demanding job place on him; but is also stating that spending long amounts of time with children is not, in his view, necessary in order for a male parent to be classed as an involved, intimate father. The assertion that whatever time is available is directed towards his children emphasises his commitment to family life, but also strongly implies that the quality of fathering cannot be read off from some simple measurement of father-child time.

Hugh, who had also commented on the 'closeness' of his relationship with his father, goes on to raise the issue of time, but this time in a rather more problematic fashion:
'I don't see, in any sense, that I did not have time with my father. You know if I think back to my childhood, I have what seems a lot of time with my father. But I'm sure it can't have been [true] because I was at boarding school, apart from anything else, and he was in the Navy. Yet I don't feel any lack of involvement from him as a child.' (Hugh)

Hugh recognises that the time he spent with his father must have been quite restricted, but he is equally adamant that his father did fulfil his [Hugh's] expectations of a good father. The apparent contradiction is reconciled through emphasising the centrality of how he perceived the situation to be - that he felt that his father was involved, whatever any more objective measures of 'commitment' might seem to demonstrate. The problem arises because he begins by implicitly asserting that time can be taken as a key indicator in defining whether a father is involved with his child: more time spent with his son is unproblematically read as more involvement. Yet his personal experience does not support using time as a proxy measure in this way. These comments suggest that the desired father-child relationship - one based on a notion of 'intimate fathering' - can be achieved with a relatively small amount of time being spent together.

If more committed, intimate fathering does not necessarily have to correspond with a desire to spend more time with children then this can provide an alternative explanation for the disparity between men's views on fatherhood and their own behaviour as fathers. It need not be the case that structural elements are entirely responsible for barring fathers from their desired behaviour, nor that the discrepancy between actions and behaviour is a temporary phenomenon, and one that is in the process of being diminished. Instead, the apparent gulf between culture and conduct may not exist at all, or may exist in a much more marginal way than has previously been accepted. Fathers may view themselves as aiming towards 'intimate fathering' and as being able to achieve it through the relationships they have with their children, even while they still spend a very large portion of their time away from home, in paid employment. Rather than fathers having an idea of intimacy which is impossible for them to achieve in reality, they may be satisfied that their behaviour does adequately express their deep attachment to their children. Men, it seems, can reason that they are extremely committed to their children, irrespective of the hours they 'put in'. While ideas of 'intimate fathering' may mean that fathers play with their children, read them bedtime stories and attend school plays, the theoretical link between expressions of intimacy and practical caring, as previously conceptualised, is exposed as a tenuous one - at least for these fathers.

* Conclusions

The image of 'new fatherhood' has been perpetuated, both by academics and lay sources, to the extent that it is accepted as having something of a real-life existence (La Rossa, 1988). But 'new fatherhood' has, nevertheless, managed to remain a rather obscure concept. Defining new fatherhood as 'being involved' has done little to clarify the situation, as involvement itself can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. The ambiguity and lack of specificity of the term 'involvement' allows almost all fathers to be described in this way, despite their widely contrasting situations.

The fathers interviewed for this study were all in paid employment, and so were involved in economic provisioning for the family, but they did not make statements based around finance when asked about their experience of fathering. While earning money is a significant activity and work is important for their sense of self-identity (Dermott, 2002) paid work was not viewed as central to their role as fathers. Instead, among these interviewees, 'intimate fathering', which included ideas of emotional openness, communication and a close relationship to children, was the dominant expression of involved (good) fathering.

While the focus in this paper has been on describing idealised versions and aims rather than the reality of fathering practice, this research also suggests that 'intimate fathering' is not linked, in any simple fashion, to parenting tasks and a large time commitment to children. This version of modern fatherhood retains fluidity, at least with regard to the requirements of practical labour. The assumption that a link exists between intimacy and time has led to attempts to explain inconsistencies between ideas and behaviour, which may actually be less pronounced than has previously been imagined.

* Notes

1 One of the fathers had adopted children and another commented in the interview that he was not the biological father of all the children in the household.


A version of this paper was presented at the BSA Annual Conference 'Reshaping the Social' University of Leicester, 25-27th March 2002. It is based on doctoral research that was funded by the ESRC.


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