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Historical Perspectives

During the seventeenth century, in many Western countries, such as England, France, and the United States, fathers were all-powerful and served as the family's unquestioned ruler (Lamb 1987). Their source of power and authority was the ownership and control of all family property, including land, wives, and children. Men were also charged with the moral and spiritual growth of their children and thus with disciplining them. This early father-child relationship has been described as distant, morally instructive, and condescending, as too much affection was believed to lead to parental indulgence, ruining the character of children (Pleck and Pleck 1997).

In Europe and the United States, the patriarchal style of fathering continued until the mid-eighteenth-century, when a new concept of parenting from England and France began to influence U.S. fathers as well. In this new view, fathers no longer acted as strict authority figures, but increased their roles as moral teachers. Family life continued to shift during the nineteenth century, influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the progressive urbanization of the population. Men went to work in factories, whereas women were stayed at home during the day, in charge of the children and household. The emergence of modern fatherhood began when mothers became the stable core of families, taking over the role as moral teacher and disciplinarian. Despite the decline of patriarchy and the expanded importance of mothers in nineteenth-century family life, middle-class fathers still played a significant role. More than ever before, men were providers for the family, reinforcing their status as heads of households and retaining their place as ultimate disciplinarians of families, but they remained outside the strongest currents of feelings and emotions that flowed within and between family members.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the rise of industrialism and urbanization in Western Europe and North America helped spread the middle-class phenomenon of emerging modern fatherhood. The separation of the workplace from home life continued to undermine the traditional authority of fathers and spawned two opposing trends: father-absence and father-involvement (Rotundo 1993). For some men, the lack of a commanding paternal role in modern families made it possible for them to withdraw psychologically and/or physically from their families without immediate disaster. For other men, however, the traditional formality of patriarchy gave way to the enjoyment of more warmth, play, and intimacy with children.

Scholars assert that the interest in fathering roles since 1900 fluctuated between fathers as providers (instrumental role) and fathers as nurturers (expressive role) (Parke and Stearns 1993). There is a relationship between fertility and the definition of fathering and this is tied to economic conditions. In good economic times, when fathers are able to meet the provider role ideal, fertility increases and fathers' provider roles are emphasized. In nonfavorable economic climates, the alternative definition of fathers as nurturers is more prevalent.

Modern fatherhood lies between these two sets of opposite poles: father-absence versus father-involvement and father as provider (fatherprovider) versus father as nurturer (fathernurturer). The modern trend of androgynous fatherhood, which includes both feminine and masculine aspects in the father role, is a result of the women's movement and the subsequent reshaping of gender roles. As part of this movement, more fathers became active participants in everyday childcare and were more expressive and nuturant with children. The blurring of the distinction between fatherhood and motherhood has led to a reexamination of manhood, womanhood, and family. Finally, the level of father-involvement with children has changed since the 1960s. According to a nationally representative study of two-parent families in the United States, there has been an increase in the level of father-involvement between the 1960s and the late 1990s. Although fathers are still not as involved as mothers, father-involvement (measured in time spent with the family) had increased to 67 percent of the time mothers spent with the family on weekdays and 87 percent of the time mothers spent with the family on weekends in the late 1990s (Yeung et al. 2001). Father-involvement is a hallmark of modern fatherhood, not only in North America, but in Europe, Australia, and the Middle East as well (Lamb 1987). Not all countries have shown a similar increase; fathers in Japan, for example, have increased their involvement more slowly (Ishi-Kuntz 1994).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodFatherhood - Historical Perspectives, Fathers Across The Life Span, Determinants Of Father-involvement, Divorced And Single Fathers