“Home alone” Fathers

The radical changes in the Norwegian parental leave system that have taken place during the last 10 years, have also included giving fathers exclusive rights to parental leave. The father’s quota of the parental leave has been considered a success since 80 percent of fathers who have earned the right to parental benefits, utilize this right. But the intention of the fathers’ quota, which was to strengthen the contact between child and father, seems mainly to be achieved when the father is “home alone” with the child.

The possibility of spending time with infants may prove to be one of the most radical breaks with traditional father roles, and may have long-term implications for the values and practices of fathers. The book Fleksible Fedre [Flexible Fathers] (Brandth, Kvande 2003) studies the significance of the Norwegian parental leave reform of the 1990’s for the care practices of men. The reform extended the leave to a total of 52 weeks with 80 percent pay, and gave special rights to fathers. The fathers’ quota is four weeks of leave solely reserved for fathers and it cannot be transferred to the mother. It is based on the idea that fathers are obliged to take leave from work to care for the child. In addition to exclusive rights, both mothers and fathers have joint rights which they may decide to share. The intention of granting fathers extensive rights to parental leave is to encourage their contact with and care for children, and to label working men as fathers. This way the state is acting on the behalf of small children.

The mother’s model power

Up until now, research has focused on the consequences of parental leave for the adults (mothers, fathers, parents), especially on the extent to which the parental leave schemes have changed the participation patterns of fathers and resulted in more equal sharing of family and work time between mothers and fathers. Generally speaking, research on fathers and care has studied how the care practices of the father have been shaped by the mother. Due to her activ­ities in the labour market, she has opened the door to the father’s entitle­ment to paid parental leave, and her negotiative strength has been considered decisive for the father’s degree of partic­ipation in the family (Brandth and Kvande 1998). Moreover, it has been pointed out that the mother’s model power, i.e. her standards for care and housework, is also required of the father’s efforts (Holter and Aarseth 1993), and that this has been a severe hindrance for fathers’ participation.

The great silence

In the research on fathers and father­hood there has been little focus on fathers’ own stories about fathering,especially stories about what fathers actually do and how they talk about their fatherhood. We are therefore con­fronted with a silent field (Morgan 1997). In the book we focus on the father’s own voices about practices as fathers. One of the main perspectives in the book is that fathers can not be stud­ied only as fathers. In order to under­stand how fatherhood is constructed today, one has to have as a term of ref­erence what can seem rather obvious: namely that fathers are men and must be understood from a gender perspec­tive. By having an explicit gender focus on fathers, the perspective widens and changes. We are witnessing a great vari­ation and flexibility in the meanings of gender to day. The categories of gender are dissolved and the meanings of mas­culinity are negotiated and practised differently.

Fathers also become flexible because of the different contexts of work they encounter in the post-modern working life. Even though men no longer need to have the sole responsibility as breadwin­ner, there are signs of workplace demands on men today no less hard than they have been earlier. The work­ing conditions men experience can therefore lead to absent fathers.

Relational care and the child’s influence

A paradox within much of the research on families and the previous research on fathers is that it is often forgotten what influence the child has on the parent’s care. In research where the perspective of gender equality is highlighted, there is a comparison between the mother and the father. The child often becomes a passive victim of the adults’ molding. In the book we look at the child’s inter­action with the father and the conse­quences this has on the formation of fatherhood.

In Flexible fathers an interesting point is on the relationship between fathers and children, and how children influence their fathers’ care practice. Theoretically, this implies seeing chil­dren as active agents who contribute to the production of the adult world and their own place in it. Seeing children as social agents is in contrast to traditional socialisation theory where the idea is that children are formed by forces exter­nal to themselves in order to adapt to society (Corsaro 1997). Even though the study deals with very young chil­dren, they still exercise some influence on their interaction with their fathers.

Regarding care as a relational prac­tice means that care can be learned and developed if and when the situation invites or demands it. This in turn means that care ability is not something fixed, but rather a potential that may be formed and developed differently depending on the relations and situa­tions in which it is practised. Hence, care is situation-dependent. In this way care also becomes more ambiguous and more open to variations. Seeing care as relational enables us to study how chil­dren influence the father’s practice.

It is not only important for children that their fathers are home on leave, but the ways in which they are at home also influence their care practices. Fathers may follow the intention of the quota and stay completely away from work for four weeks or more. Then they have been “home alone”, i.e. the mother has not been at home at the same time. What we wanted to study is what care practices are developed and how the child influences these practices.

Home alone

A common characteristic of the histories of these fathers is the experience that care work signifies using time on their children. Time permeates fathers’ narra­tives about care. The point is not only that they have understood that it is vital to spend time with their children, most fathers would agree with them on this, but that these fathers actually have given time to their children by taking leave and thus gained the experience that spending time on their children is important. When we consider what they do with their children while on leave, it is obvious that they are on the track of what we may call “slow time” (Hylland Eriksen, 2001). This means that the children’s needs are the centre of their attention. It is the child that makes the time slow. The time is not spent running from one thing to anoth­er, trying to squeeze as much as possible into the shortest possible time. Care is about time.

The fathers describe days that are not filled with numerous events and things to do. Basically there are very few tasks on the agenda. The time is spent doing such things as getting dressed, brushing teeth and going to the shop. There is no impression here of a busy daily life. Rather the slow rhythm of care decides. It is the child’s needs to sleep and eat that regulate it. The chil­dren get the father up in the morning and determine his time. Their activities give him the “perception of slow time”.

Need-oriented care practice

There is also a development of compe­tence as the fathers get to know their child by having the main responsibility and spending a great deal of time with him or her. It becomes easier for them to develop an understanding of the child’s needs. One of the fathers inter­viewed tells us about having responsibil­ities and using time:

Sure, I believe that when you have so much time with your kids, you virtu­ally learn how to read them, how they tell you stuff which you maybe would have lost if you didn’t have so much time. … if you spend a whole day with them, then you sort of see the totality of their days, and understand why they are cross and cranky.

Having the total responsibility is what makes him see how demanding care work is and makes him feel close to his children. He also claims that he has a learning experience when he points out that he is learning to “read” his chil­dren. By spending a great deal of time with them, the day-to-day affairs of his children become a whole, making it eas­ier for him to understand why, for example, they are grumpy and cross. He then avoids being the type of father who comes home from work and disciplines his children. Again we see how the chil­dren influence the father’s care practice in this situation.

Quantity time, not quality time

These fathers learn to practise what we may call a rationality of care. Rationality of care implies spending a great deal of time with the children. Fathers describe that the children have initiated a process in them where focus is on quantitative time, that they spend extensive amounts of time with their children. They have experienced that care cannot be carried out in a few intensive hours, and some of them have become strongly critical of all mention of intensive ‘quality time’. Rather, they have realised that it is important to be there for the child. This consciousness becomes clear through their answers to various questions, both regarding what they believe a good father must be, and when we ask what they feel they are especially good at with their children.

With mother at home

The importance of being home alone becomes significant in contrast to men who did not use their fathers’ quota to have the sole responsibility for the child while the mother went back to work. They either took their quota while the mother was still at home, or continued to work part time. In such a context, the processes described above are not initi­ated. The mother’s main responsibility for the child is not interrupted, and the father becomes a supporting player for the mother. The mother continues her close relationship with the child, read­ing and translating the child’s needs for the father. Consequently the child has no independent influence on the father’s care practices. It is the mother and not the child who mostly interacts with the father in these cases. The father will therefore not get to know his child in the same way, and care practices based on knowing the child well are not developed. As a result, he feels more comfortable with the older children.

Thus we see that the different con­texts result in quite different conditions for the development of fathers’ care practices. If we return to one of the intentions of the fathers’ quota, which was to strengthen the contact between child and father, we see that this prima­rily occurs in the context we have called “home alone”. To the question of whether the fathers’ quota has any sig­nificance for fatherhood, and conse­quently for the desired transformation of men, the answer will be ‘not neces­sarily’. It depends on the way it is used. If it is used in a way, which leads to the development of a rationality of care, it may have important consequences for the meaning of men and masculinity.

Work constructs absent fathers

Research has shown that masculinity is constructed in relation to other men through comparisons and achievements, primarily at the work place. Particularly this is so in western societies where hege­monic masculinity is tied to income-generating work. This may appear a paradox since men and women to a large extent share bread-winning, and dual-earner families have become the most common­ly occurring. It is therefore an underlying question how masculinity expressed through father practices relates to hege­monic masculinity as expressed through professional work.

Our study confirms other research findings, that men’s relationship to work produces what we may call ’absent’ father practices. ‘Absent’ father practices wrestle with the ’home alone’ father practices which, as we have seen, can be created by means of the father’s quota. For, despite the fact that fathers use the leave, they continue to work a lot. Only 5 percent of the fathers work part-time, while more than 40 percent of the mothers do so. Most commonly, moth­ers reduce their working hours when they have children, but fathers do not. More than a third of the fathers in the study work more than 40 hours a week. And, when fathers work such long hours, mothers work less. Fathers work­ing overtime have, in other words, part­ners who work normal hours or part-time.

However, if we look at the mothers who work a lot, we see that the same applies to their partners. When mothers have high work- and educational-status and work a lot, fathers do not reduce their working time in order to increase family time with children. From the perspective of the child, this is not a positive result. These parents have very little time left to care for and to be with their children.

The main characteristics of contem­porary changes in working life with increasing demands on the employees’ time, can be seen as a counter force against a change towards a close and more caring father. A greedy working life where fathers’ and men’s gender identity is connected to what they do at work maintains the status quo. It is within these two contexts, work and welfare state policies, that today’s father practices take place and are formed. Our research shows that while work life is the strongest hindrance for fathers, the welfare state policies are the most important door openers.

“Fleksible fedre” is based on data from a large study on fathers’ use of the parental leave schemes. The study includ­ed a questionnaire that was sent to all men who became fathers in the period May 1994 to April 1995 in two munici­palities in central Norway. A total of 2194 questionnaires were mailed and the response rate was 62 per cent. From this same sample we have interviewed thirty couples that used the parental leave sys­tem in various ways. The interviews took place when the child was from 1-2 years old.

By Berit Brandth and Elin Kvande


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First published in NIKK magasin 3 2003 © NIKK

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