The disproportionate COVID-19 childcare burden currently being endured by women constitutes a concentration of existing family divisions that reflect enduring gendered structures of work and care. Such divisions are often established in the early years of parenting, with mothers even in otherwise equal families typically taking far more parental leave and, subsequently, making greater adjustment to working hours than do fathers, or fitting the role of primary carer around full-time work.
Yet, in a minority of families, fathers do take on an equal or greater share of caregiving. Our new book, Sharing Care, provides a detailed exploration of the experiences of a group of such fathers, including the development of their outlooks as carers and the extent and durability of their responsibilities.
In this article we offer a taste of some of the key findings from the book before going on to ask what our conclusions might suggest about the prospects for fathers doing an equal or greater share of care amidst the sudden lockdown of both partners (in many cases) and children within the home.
Our book asks what prompts fathers with primary or equal responsibility for childcare to take on their unusual roles and how these play themselves out, with particular focus on challenges that are faced inside and outside the home. We develop the term ‘fatherly care horizons’ to help make sense of fathers’ shifting view of what is feasible or appropriate for them as carers, and highlight the role played by structures, values and shifting circumstances in enabling or constraining the expansion of such horizons.
The fathers’ arrangements for sharing care were varied, with some taking on the role of primary carer but most sharing (more or less) equally with their partner. In both cases there was variety in terms of the split between care and work, and between parental and outside care. While existing ideals or dispositions could be important, it was often the development of unusual circumstances (including differences in earnings, childcare practicalities and career difficulties) that had been the most direct prompt for fathers to take on equal or primary care responsibilities. Only a minority of the fathers had taken extended paternity leave and, in most cases, early postnatal arrangements had been relatively unremarkable, with mothers taking on significant periods of leave alone. When fathers took on a greater role later, this represented a significant transfer of responsibilities and a sharp turning point – which sometimes led to acute challenges.
As a result of the regularity with which they cared for their children alone, fathers had often developed a sense of themselves as interchangeable with their partners as carers, and usually seemed to have become comfortable embracing a wide range of different facets of parenting. Yet we also identified some limits to the scope and durability of fathers’ responsibilities and constraints on their developing horizons. Notably, mothers, having established routines during maternity leave and subject to ongoing pressures of intensive mothering, had sometimes retained responsibility for the organisation of care, including aspects of decision making and the managing of connections with institutions, professionals and other parents. While this partly reflected internal family dynamics, it was reinforced by the gendered orientation of discourse, institutions and cultures outside the home. In particular, fathers felt badly out of place among local mothers’ networks and baby/toddler events, and often reported feeling ignored in favour of the child’s mother by health visitors, doctors, nurseries and others.
The distance that many of the fathers had travelled was striking, with respect to their development of caregiving skills, bonds, responsibilities and, normally, the expectation their caregiving roles would continue. Nevertheless, an ideology of default maternal responsibility tended to linger within their horizons, too. That is, mothers could still be regarded as having ‘first preference’ on caregiving: the person likely to be more responsible for care should they wish to and if all other things were equal.
The prospects for fathers discharging equal or greater care roles amidst a set of practical transformations as substantial and sudden as COVID-19 lockdown remain unclear. In the development of fuller explorations, though, some themes from our book are worthy of consideration.
Given the importance of caring for their children alone to the development of caregiving practice, identities and horizons of the fathers in our study, the sudden presence of both parents at home all week, amid expanded responsibilities for care and learning, may make it difficult for them to sustain an equal or greater share. Enduring notions of default maternal responsibility, and the tendency for mothers to retain executive or organisational responsibilities even where caring is split progressively, could prompt fathers to drift towards roles that are more secondary in some respects, even if many tasks are shared.
Fathers may have found themselves bypassed by vital channels of communication during lockdown. Although playgroups and other face-to-face events have not been viable, the enhanced importance of online networks of parents, such as WhatsApp groups, may mitigate against the equal or greater sharing of responsibilities during lockdown because such groups are typically centred on mothers. Similarly, communications from nurseries, schools and other institutions may not always be sent to fathers. Meanwhile, although few of the fathers in our study had significant difficulties with employer flexibility, it will be important to ask whether in the circumstance of COVID-19, leeway for childcare responsibilities is offered more fulsomely to women with childcare responsibilities than to men.
Nevertheless, our evidence of how far fathers’ skill sets, identities and horizons had shifted towards notions of parental interchangeability through the living out of primary/equal roles provides hope that, in some cases at least, these roles had become sufficiently established to be able to develop further during COVID-19 and beyond. Moreover, notwithstanding the overall burden on women, it remains possible that, for some families, the circumstance of the lockdown might have created opportunities for fathers to extend their childcare involvement, particularly if work demands on their partner (whether within or outside the home) are more intense than those on themselves during the period.
Such possibilities and questions, along with the longer-term impact of COVID-19 measures on unusually egalitarian families, form part of our future research plans. In the meantime, Sharing Care offers a valuable exploration of how caresharing can work in more ‘normal’ times, with substantial lessons of importance for researchers and policy makers alike.
Paul Hodkinson is Reader in Sociology at the University of Surrey. Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey.
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