A man's place...? Reconstructing family realities


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1992


The authors discuss the impact of recent social change on men, and question the continued existence of the supposedly 'invisible father'. They argue that Australian research suggests a less bleak, less stereotyped view of where fathers fit into family life. Moreover, it indicates that caution is needed in attributing resistance to change only to fathers. It is suggested that the real problem is that there has been little concomitant change in the structures of work, education, the law and community support services and until there is, the goals of equal opportunity and shared parenting will remain elusive. Furthermore, there has been more real change in family behaviour than there has been in associated institutions. Australian Institute of Family Studies research is drawn upon to examine shifts in attitude, division of household tasks, caring for sick children, work-family stress, and shared familial responsibility after divorce. The conclusion reached is that while there is cause for optimism amid the confusion about, and resistance to, change, society still has a long way to go.

Changes in the structures and processes of family life have been more dramatic for Australian women than for men. While the changes affect both sexes, the reality shifts for women have meant a new consciousness of their capabilities and rights as well as wider options for behaviour. They have also provided some structural supports (though still imperfect) for those who choose to exercise those options.

Men, as husbands and fathers, are gradually coming to grips with the new reality, but many male lives are still more set, more standard, and less subject to change and new possibilities. Moreover, since men have more power to lose and prevailing ideologies of home-making and parenting are still undervalued, men have less incentive than women to accept a reconstruction of reality. There is, however, cause for optimism amid the confusion about, and resistance to, change.

The Pace of Change

In Australia, as in most Western societies, family structures and processes have changed markedly in recent decades. The post-World War II era saw women move out of the labour force to become the mothers of the Baby Boom generation. Early marriage, early childbearing, devotion to house and family became almost universal, and the ideological norms of the nuclear family the breadwinnerhousewife model were the reality. Post-war growth and relative affluence meant one wage was adequate to raise a family and buy one's own house. The migration wave brought new experiences of earning income for many ethnic women, but within an even stronger family ideology.

The story of change in more recent decades is familiar. Better education for girls opened up new choices. The oral contraceptive pill and abortion legislation freed women from the constraints of their bodies. Affluence brought a desire for better living standards, a higher level of 'investment' in fewer children, the option for young adults to delay marriage while exploring careers and sexual partners, and a lessening of the expectation that everyone would marry and 'settle down'.

Married women and mothers of young children increasingly wanted to and did return to the paid labour force, though their preference is still for part-time work (Glezer 1988). Rising costs and housing interest rates meant one wage was no longer enough. Separation and divorce brought poverty to many women and children but government pensions for sole parents meant women no longer had to stay in a violent or unsatisfactory marriage.

In one sense, Australia has done fairly well in offering structural supports for family change. Equal opportunity laws were passed in the 1960s and 70s, with the 1974 equal pay provision representing at least a symbolic move away from the concept of the male breadwinner. Maternity leave provisions, though largely unpaid, were extended to the private sector in 1979 and to parental leave opportunities in 1991. The supporting mother's benefit was introduced in 1973, later becoming the Supporting Parents' Benefit in 1978. (Before the supporting mothers' benefit, deserted, but not deserting, wives could claim a benefit.) Government subsidies for child care have been extended.

But these measures have not gone far enough to reduce the pressures on families and they have, as yet, affected women more than men. It is women who are forcing the pace of change inside the family because their options outside the home have expanded so rapidly. But until we achieve real workplace reform that affects men as well as women, many men will continue to define the situation as a nuisance to be accommodated lightly in the home rather than as a new structural reality requiring an entirely different attitude.

The 'Invisible Father'

Inevitably, the changes have had a profound impact on men. Their control of family finances is under challenge. Their assumed right to dominate family decision-making, where to work and live, is being undermined. Children see mothers making new roles, behaving more independently and confidently, being successful in careers as well as home- making. There is less time for cooking and cleaning, and fathers are pushed into more active participation in child care. Sexual experience and expectations have increased and the male macho is less attractive, less confident. The fragility of the male ego, their confusion about their role, their dismay at being left behind both physically and mentally tempts us to describe men as 'The Fragile Sex'.

But we want in this paper to paint a more careful picture of the supposedly 'invisible father'. Australian research suggests a less bleak, less stereotyped view of where fathers fit into family life. Moreover, it indicates that caution is needed in attributing resistance to change only to fathers. The real problem is that there has been little concomitant change in the structures of work, education, the law and community support services. Until there is, the goals of equal opportunity and shared parenting will remain elusive. In our view, there has been more real change in family behaviour than there has been in associated institutions.

Brian Jackson (1984) called the father 'a double engine behind the child's potentiality'. We have neglected half the potential for positive child development because we downplay the role of men. The Institute looked at the role of both parents in its 198283 Children in Families Study (Amato 1987; Edgar 1985; Ochiltree 1990). Children were very honest in their comments about parents, saying that most of the time fathers sleep, watch television, 'sit around', fix things, garden, as well as doing a lot of 'yelling and drinking'.

But children are also very affectionate about their fathers, who are seen in terms of their work but also as sources of fun and play. When we correlate self-esteem scores with measures of how much each parent talks to their children and offers help, there is a stronger correlation with fathers' interaction than with mothers'. The same pattern holds for children's reading comprehension scores. Add to this the finding that family conflict damages child competence and family cohesion improves these outcome measures, and the potential of the father's role becomes very clear.

A Shift in Attitude

Another Institute study, the Australian Family Formation Project, reveals further interesting facts about men. This longitudinal study began with a national sample of 1834 year olds in 198182, who were followed up a decade later, aged 2743. This is the cohort born after the Second World War which experienced most of the structural changes affecting women's lives described above.

Comparing results from the 1971 Australian Family Formation Project, Melbourne Survey, conducted by the Australian National University, with both the 1981 and 1991 waves of the Institute's Family Formation Project, it can be seen that married women have progressively backed away from agreeing with the propositions that motherhood is their most important role in life and that important family decisions should be made by the husband.

In 1971, 78 per cent of respondents agreed that whatever a woman's career, motherhood was their most important role in life. By 1981, support was down to 46 per cent and in 1991 was just 31 per cent. Similarly for the second proposition that husbands should make important family decisions, 44 per cent agreed in 1971, 16 per cent in 1981 and 8 per cent in 1991.

The Family Formation study enabled us to compare male and female attitudes from 1981 to 1991 in relation to marriage and family roles. On the two items already mentioned, men also rejected their validity. But men were more likely than women to define the husband's role as providing protection to the wife, and were more inclined to believe that the needs of their spouse and children should come before their own.

Division in the Household

The Family Formation study also asked about the division of household tasks (Glezer 1991a). Not surprisingly, men in 199091 still took out the rubbish and mowed the lawn, while their wives did the cooking, cleaning and most of the shopping and dishwashing. But as our more detailed breakdowns show, there is a more equal sharing of shopping, cooking, dishwashing and even cleaning the bathroom when the wife works full-time.


More interesting, however, are the results for fathers' involvement with children. Where the wife is not working, or works only part-time, she takes children to appointments such as the dentist or doctor. When she works full-time, the husband shares this duty much more frequently. 'Playing with the children' is also much more equally shared. Moreover, there is little discrepancy between men and women on the sharing of household tasks overall, and 'both do the same amount' is more common than 'wife does more'.


There is certainly strong agreement in value terms about equal parental responsibilities. Comparing married men with married women, there is an interesting increase in agreement from the structural level ('both should contribute to household income'), to an acceptance of its effect on internal family processes. Men are still a bit unsure about the effect of paid work on a mother's relationship with her children, but more than three-quarters of both husbands and wives agree that 'the man should be prepared to stay home with a sick child', and close to 90 per cent agree the 'man should share equally in child care'. There is very little variation by mother's work status.

In a regression analysis to identify factors affecting the shift towards more liberal family values, we found quite weak effects for men apart from their own education level, their secularity or lack of them, and an early age at leaving home.

For women the effects are much stronger. The education level of their father and the women's secularity are associated with more liberal family values. These women also tended to feel less accepted at home as young adults. The stronger shift for females reflects the marked structural changes affecting the lives of this cohort of Australian women.

Care of a Sick Child

In the Institute's Early Childhood Study, mothers were asked if they agreed with the statement: 'If a child gets sick and both parents are working, the man should be just as willing as his wife to stay home from work and take care of the child.' Only 11 per cent of all mothers disagreed, with working mothers more likely to agree strongly. But when asked who did stay at home, mothers were still more likely to take time off work to care for a sick child.

This apparent discrepancy between attitudes and actual behaviour has been found worldwide (for example: Northcott 1983; Lupri 1991; Lamb et al, 1976), but it is, as Ochiltree and Greenblat (1991) point out, more likely to have as much to do with the realities of the workplace as with fathers' willingness. As Kahn and Kamerman (1987:190) put it, 'for many parents, an ill child means that whichever parent has the ''less important job'', or the more flexible job, or the more sympathetic boss or supervisor, will stay home'.

In Australia, as elsewhere, the father is more likely to be working full-time and to earn higher wages; the mother is more likely to be in part-time or casual employment (60 per cent) and to earn less. Our studies of employer attitudes also show they are more likely to reflect traditional sex role divisions and accept mothers caring for sick children rather than fathers taking time off work (Wolcott 1987, 1991).

In fact, we would argue, the gap between attitude and behaviour is closing. With our national Family Formation sample, we found that 16 per cent of fathers (compared with 20 per cent of mothers) had actually taken one or two days off to care for sick children in the last 12 months. Seven per cent of men had taken three to five days off, and 3 per cent had taken six to ten days off, still lower than the figures for women, but indicative of a willingness to adjust to the dual-earner family reality and share such caring duties (Glezer 1991a).

In the child care study mentioned above, where both partners worked, fathers 'usually' took time off to look after sick children in some 7 per cent of cases. When the child started going to school and mothers were employed, the study found the care arrangements even more shared. Mothers stayed home most (28 per cent), but fathers did so in 8 per cent of cases. They shared the responsibility in 14 per cent of families and they shared it with others in another 7 per cent of cases. That is, nearly a third of fathers took time off work at some time to care for a child too sick to attend school.

From a reality constructionist perspective, it stands to reason that if both partners recognise the economic necessity for wives to work as well as husbands, they will also be more likely to acknowledge the necessity to share household chores, child care and other joint family responsibilities. Reality testing shows the lack of validity of attitudes that no longer fit.

Work-Family Stress

How does the workplace affect family life and vice versa? Do the conflicting demands of work and family responsibilities create feelings of stress? Small and Riley (1990) developed a multi-dimensional measure of work spillover into family life, and some of their items were included in the Family Formation Project (Glezer 1991b).

As the table below illustrates, it appears a majority of both men and women agree that work interferes with their leisure time, their energy to see friends, and their activities around the home. Irrespective of whether or not their wives are employed, men find juggling work and family responsibilities a problem. Fathers more than mothers say work interferes with the time spent with children, and having the energy to be a good parent is lacking for quite a lot of parents. Job interference with the quality of a couple's relationship is less pressing but is still a worry for between a fifth and a third.

Work and family stress among marrried men and women
 per cent agree
Time I spend working interferes with free time6758
Often tired so don't see friends as much as would like to5457
Spend so much time at work, am unable to do much at home4135
When get home from work, no energy to do work around house3947
Worry about job interfering with relationship with partner189
After work, often too tired to do things with partner2931
Working hours interfere with time spent with children5741
After work, often don't have energy to be a good parent2930

Preliminary modelling of factors associated with workfamily stress, or the spillover of work into family life, indicates that for employed women, it appears that working long hours, low job satisfaction in low status occupations and feeling financially vulnerable are associated with high workfamily stress. But the analysis also shows that women in high status occupations who are working long hours are also likely to feel high workfamily stress.

Among men, the factors that contribute to workfamily stress are very similar. Men who feel financially vulnerable, who have little sense of control over their lives, who work long hours and have low job satisfaction feel high workfamily stress. Also men in high status occupations who work long hours and are more work-centred than family-centred feel high levels of stress.

The impact of work spillover into family life therefore occurs at both the lower and upper ends of the social spectrum.

This is not a picture, then, of males rejecting a sharing role. It is, rather, a picture of couples struggling with the demands of earning an income, within a system that obviously leaves little time for home-building but which also produces stress as they try to meet their family obligations. If men still believed their role was solely to be the breadwinner, guilt-producing stress would be lower or non- existent.

This of course means that work structures will need to change more rapidly to match new family processes. Companies offering family-related benefits have recently begun to document the cost-effectiveness of being more responsive, with the rewards lying in reduced worker turnover and absenteeism, lower recruitment and retraining costs and improved morale and on-the-job productivity.

Unfortunately the cutting edge employers are just that; the majority are very blunt, dull and unable to respond (Adie and Carmody 1991). No matter how much fathers want to accept a bigger role in child care and home-making, they will be unable to do so until work structures change.

Shared Responsibility after Divorce

There is, of course, another area where shared familial responsibility is even more difficult to achieve. That is when a marriage has ended and children still have to be supported and cared for.

Though the new divorce laws assert the primacy of 'the best interests of children' and the joint responsibility of parents for dependent children, they contain contradictions and often fail to enforce those principles in practice. Men whose wives have left them (60 per cent in Australian divorce cases [McDonald 1986]) often feel resentment and in some cases refuse to pay child support because they regard it as paying their ex-wife.

Moreover, access to children for fathers is fraught with problems and the language of the law reinforces the imagery of 'winners' (custody) versus 'losers' (access only) despite the ostensible 'no-fault' approach to divorce. One might well ask how easy it could ever be to transfer from shared partnership in an intact family to the notion of shared parenting once the family is split, the property divided, children in the custody of one parent and repartnering a possibility or reality for both parents.

Despite concern (and some evidence) for the emotional damage to children caused by conflict and separation, the foremost outcome of divorce remains poverty, for women and children. The Institute's studies of the economic consequences of marriage breakdown demonstrate not only how important is the loss of a father to sole mothers and children, but also how repartnering seems to be one way to increase living standards (see Ruth Weston's article elsewhere in this edition of Family Matters).

Such findings led the Australian Government to reassert the basic principle of the Family Law Act that both parents continue to carry responsibility for the support of children after divorce. The failure of judges to award adequate child support payments, the failure of the court to enforce even these, and the consequent rise in sole-parent pension costs to the State could no longer be tolerated. This represented a significant shift from accepting the public consequences of private decisions and the notion of autonomy and choice in personal/family relationships towards the State reasserting its role as moral arbiter (Funder et al, forthcoming).

Many separated and divorced men in Australia are most unhappy that the State asserts financial parenting roles but is less assertive about equal participation in the socio- emotional side of parenting. Our studies show that maternal custody of the children often leads to a reduction over time in the father's contact with children. Remarriage further reduces the father's contact, while for women it means taking her children into a stepfamily.

Again, the structural change implies different outcomes for men and women. For women, divorce can bring poverty but it also brings independence and new options where children have to follow along but remain a commitment. For men, career interruption is minimal, housing may change, access to children becomes a problem and remarriage further reduces commitment to the original parenting partnership.

That many men express regret and anger at the loss of their original 'family', and that many of them form new partnerships where the previous gender differentiation is broken down and they become more equal partners and more sharing parents, both suggest that men are moving gradually to a more shared partnership model of marriage. That the divorce rate for second and subsequent marriages is higher than for first marriages is, however, an indication that society still has a long way to go.


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This article is adapted from a keynote paper presented by Don Edgar to the International Council of Women's International Conference, 'Changing Families in Changing Societies', held in Brussels 810 February 1992. The full paper, 'Reconstructing family realities: men do matter', is available in the Institute's Family Information Centre. Don Edgar reports on the conference elsewhere in this edition of Family Matters.