Making Men into Fathers

by Kimberly on March 31, 2005

While people often view the work-family question through the lens of women’s equality and employment, in some European countries the focus is on how to get men to do more housework and child care. This is nothing new in Scandinavian countries, many of which replaced their maternity leave programs in the 1970s with gender-neutral parental leaves. As sociologist Barbara Hobson details in her edited volume, Making Men into Fathers, the Swedish government also developed an informational campaign in the 1970s to encourage men to be more active in parenting. One of the most famous images from the campaign featured the well-known Swedish weight lifter, Hoa-Hoa Dahlgren, cradling an infant. More recently, the Dutch government ran a similar television ad campaign, showing a father and his children sitting around a table when the mother appears and hands her husband a plate of meat. A voice meant to be that of the son then says, “Who is this man cutting the meat?” as text flashes that says, “Men are as indispensable at home as they are at work.”

Increasing men’s parenting time also has informed Dutch policies that give all workers the right to request part-time hours from their employers. One goal of the policy is to encourage both parents to work part-time and split caregiving duties at home. So far, few parents are actually living this model; in 2003, only six percent of couples with young children had both parents working part-time. Nearly 75 percent of employed Dutch women work part-time — the highest rate of part-time work in the western world. Still, the ideal is out there.

Ultimately, the focus on men is an attempt to maintain the lengthy leaves and flexible work-time that parents cherish while mitigating the disproportionate effects of these policies on women. These efforts are not only revealing of the gender egalitarian discourse around parenting in many European countries, but also of the importance parents place on having time to care for their own children. Few policy-makers advocate cutting parental leave or the availability of part time work. Instead, they have adopted the goal — rhetorically if not substantively — of making men into fathers.



Terry 03.31.05 at 10:51 pm

Here is the link to Jane Galt’s website.
Please answer it. You don’t want to be a hypocrite now do you.


Steve LaBonne 03.31.05 at 11:24 pm

I’m always amused by these discussions of “making” men into fathers, since I’m the single father of a 12 year old daughter, and my soon-to-be-ex-wife has always been pretty nearly useless in the parenting department- now that we’ve been separated for a while it’s all I can do to get her to keep our daughter overnight once every couple of weeks or so. I’d sure love to be able to work part-time, but oddly enough nobody seems to be interested in paying me enough to support the kid (_and_ give spousal support to the lazy screwed-up stbxw, such is our supposedly unfair-to-women family law, another idea that makes me laugh) in return for part-time work. At least I have the next best thing, a decently paid public-employee gig with very regular hours and ample sick leave. There’s no way I could be a good parent while working the insane hours that private employers in my field would expect. To drift into the topic of another post, I guess I shouldn’t have been so self-indulgent as to equip myself with such a luxury good as a child. ;)


Matt 04.01.05 at 1:40 am

I’m in favor of more equal sharing of parenting. I’m also in favor of governments doing more to make this a real posibility w/ equal leave time provisions and other incentives to allow people to choose this without hurting themselves. I’m less sure that it’s a good idea for the government to actually promote it via commercials and the like. To my mind that comes too close to an official endorcement of a particular conception of the good, and that seems like something to be avoided in a pluralistic state.


ingrid robeyns 04.01.05 at 3:02 am

Just a side-remark: In this debate about parents working part-time or full-time, it is very important to say how many hours we understand under PT and FT. In the Netherlands (where I live) FT means 38 hours. Isn’t it the case that FT in Sweden means something like 36 hours? Obviously that makes a big differences with places where FT de facto means 40-45+ hours. If you work 50 hours (except if you work at night and sleep only a few hours), how can you spend enough time with your children?


Andrew Boucher 04.01.05 at 4:18 am

I don’t think the appropriate title is “Making men into fathers.” It’s more, “Making fathers into homemakers.” Which I guess is fine, but it is not the same thing.


james 04.01.05 at 8:56 am

“Nearly 75 percent of employed Dutch women work part-time—the highest rate of part-time work in the western world. Still, the ideal is out there.” What is the implied ideal?


y81 04.01.05 at 9:15 am

But when you look at the out-of-wedlock birthrate in these European countries, it is clear that, on average, paternal involvement in children’s lives has declined over the past 50 years. (It may be that there is more dispersion than there was 50 years ago.)


Laura 04.01.05 at 9:32 am

If we really valued family life and raising children with examples set by parents of both sexes, we would look around and see that there are numerous opportunities to do that if we had the poltiical will. Parental leave policies, work from home, part-time work, job-sharing, office-based childcare, flex-time, etc. The crux of the problem is a primarily a cultural one, but also fed by economic factors.
We value having more money and more things. Even if our basic needs are met, we want more. This ethic is at odds with the values of family in the sense that the more you have to share with children, aging parents, and god-forbid siblings and cousins, the less you have as an individual. In the United States today, this results in a serious questioning of each sharing-person’s value. Is it any wonder that the family shrinks in size and importance at the same time that our homes grow in size, our cars multiply, and our closets and rented storage space for things overflow?
So far, rather than address the cultural impetus for irrational consumption, we’d far rather work that 50-80 hour week to meet cultural expectations.
I don’t know what hope we have of changing father’s attitudes on this when we’ve been busy making sure that mothers adopt the same values and meet the same expectations.


Brendan 04.01.05 at 10:36 am

y81 points to the growth in out-of-wedlock birth rates — this has little to do with reduced parental involvement, as nearly all of the growth is due to cohabitation. This is certainly the case in the UK (see for instance, Fig 2.17 in Social Trends 35, available at ). Single parent families are mostly created by divorce, which has also risen enormously.


Brendan 04.01.05 at 10:37 am

The location for Social Trends was stripped from my initial comment:


mw 04.01.05 at 11:56 am

I find it very strange that the general consensus is that the U.S. should be looking to the northern European model for answers when it seems to be doing worse than the U.S. with respect to the criteria under discussion. So, the northern European approach produces:

– High rates of part-time work by women in segregated, female-dominated professions.

– High rates of out of wedlock childbirth (and, as a result, lower rates of parental involvement with their children), and

– Low birth rates.

And then when the social policies produce the opposite of the intended results, the response is committees and comically ineffectual advertising campaigns.

In the U.S., in constrast, there is a strong argument to be made that it is precisely the materialism and the fact that there are economic pressures associated with parenthood that are leading to the kinds of social changes that don’t seem to be happening in the EU.

In the U.S. there is no 18-month, paid maternity leave benefit that will allow women to step painlessly out of the workforce–which means they generally don’t. Which means, out of necessity greater sharing of childcare responsibilities by fathers. And, in those families I know (and know of) where the father has cut back on work to be the primary caregiver of preschool children, the decision has been an economic one–the mother earned most of the family income and so having the father cut back made the most sense (and in some cases, was the only real option). Now most couple don’t do this, but enough do that pretty much nobody thinks its a weird thing to do–and that acceptance, combined with rising female levels of education and income are likely to lead to it happening more often.

Want men to be more involved with their families and children? Want more equal sex roles in both employment and family relationships? Then don’t create perverse incentives–don’t enact policies that are effectively in loco paternis for new mothers.


Raimo 04.01.05 at 12:36 pm

“I don’t think the appropriate title is “Making men into fathers.” It’s more, “Making fathers into homemakers.””

No, Kimberly has the title right. It IS about making men into fathers, a reasonable request.

But asking men to be ‘homemakers’ is, well… asking quite a lot of the average guy.


Dan Simon 04.01.05 at 12:40 pm

Gee, I’m sure glad that the open-minded, non-judgmental, tolerant left isn’t going to tell anybody how they should arrange their personal lives. Don’t you hate it when those fanatical, moralizing right-wingers claim that the only decent way to structure your family and raise your children is their way, and that anyone who doesn’t live by their values is just plain wrong? Heck, they even try to get the government to favor their own narrow-minded life choices over everybody else’s! Thank goodness there’s none of that nonsense over here at Crooked Timber….


Tom 04.01.05 at 12:55 pm

Is this the same Scandinavia that requires men to sit down to urinate? As they mock manliness, so too would I expect them to mock fatherliness.


Raimo 04.01.05 at 12:57 pm

A society that doesn’t trust its government is exceptionally poor, imho.

A habitual lack of trust in government indicates… well, what do the experts say?

I would have said it means they live in Russia, but it seems the West doesn’t trust its own people either.


mpowell 04.01.05 at 2:04 pm

A society that doesn’t trust its government is just clued into the nature of government: people who attain powerful positions attain them b/c they desire power. The only thing you can trust them to do is to try and acquire more power.


mq 04.01.05 at 2:15 pm

I’d agree with mpowell in general, except that I’m betting like most conservatives he has a curious blind spot when it comes to abuses of power by the wealthy in a market system.


Steve LaBonne 04.01.05 at 2:31 pm

It IS about making men into fathers, a reasonable request.

Funny, sounds to me more like an arrogant, ignorant piece of presumption. Without exception every man with dependent kids that I know- and as a Ph.D. working in forensic science my acquaintances span all the social distance from academic types to the blue-collar world of law enforcement- is a very active, involved father. My own experience I have already outlined.


y81 04.01.05 at 3:03 pm

Well, okay, Brendan, then rephrase my comment to read that examination of out-of-wedlock AND DIVORCE figures in Western Europe suggests that levels of paternal involvement are declining. The basic point, that these initiatives are a bunch of left-liberal cant, bearing no relationship to life as it is actually lived in the countries under discussion, still stands.


chips 04.01.05 at 3:13 pm

The “me and my buddies are all good dads” argument is beside the point. The point is that studies consistently show that overall, women still do more than 70% of house and carework, even in dual income households. The government advertising campaigns obviously do not force anyone to change their behavior. These are tv spots, not laws. They are efforts to change societal norms about what it means to be a father.


hinglemar 04.01.05 at 4:49 pm

This is news? In Canada we’ve had maternity and parental benefits for a while. The birth mother can take up to 15 weeks (maternity) and the parents can divy up 35 weeks (parental) however they want. The employer has no say in the matter and is obligated to keep them.

BTW “child rearing” and “homemaking” are only loosely related. Doesn’t coaching or scout leading count for anything?


Steve LaBonne 04.01.05 at 5:49 pm

Hey chips, didn’t raimo, to whom I was replying, specifically say the issue was “making” men FATHERS, not housekeepers (I’m both, of course?) Maybe all you people who like to deliver moralistic lectures about this stuff need to huddle until you’ve got your story straight. Or else get off your high horses.


Jim 04.01.05 at 6:24 pm

When there is a policy push to equalize custody judgements the angst about getting fathers to do more parenting or housework or whatever will look more like a serious position.

The remark about coaching is very much to the point. likewise time spent in car maintnence seldom gets counted as housework. Stats that sya women do whatever, 70% of the housework, are also suspect, in other words, how much of this housework is discretionary – who gets to decide what does and doesn’t need to be done, or is that just a woman’s purview?


mw 04.01.05 at 7:17 pm

Stats that sya women do whatever, 70% of the housework, are also suspect, in other words, how much of this housework is discretionary – who gets to decide what does and doesn’t need to be done, or is that just a woman’s purview?

Heh. That was the source of a few arguments early in my marriage. In response to, “Honey will you do x?” my answer was “Sure I’ll be in charge of that”. And then a while later, I’d get, “I thought you said you’d do x?” To which, I’d say, “Nope, I said I’d be in charge of it–and being in charge means deciding when to do it, and how to do it, and how often to do it. It’s my job now, you don’t need to worry about it.” Then the next response would typically be, “Well, then forget it, I’ll do it myself”. And I’d have to say, “No, sorry, that’s my job now.” It only took a few of those before we reached an understanding. I’m happy to take my share of the responsibilities, but I don’t take direction.


European 04.02.05 at 6:09 am

As somebody has already said above, the high rates of out-of-wedlock births in Europe are in fact a cultural thing, and do not imply any lack of parental involvement. The most devoted father I know has cohabited with his partner since before the birth of their 12-year-old, but they regard marriage as an outdated institution.

The legalisation of abortion has caused out-of-wedlock births to lose their former stigma (very strong until the early nineteen-sixties), to the point where some people do not marry because this way they receive more benefits; besides the mother is in a stronger position to keep the children if they do separate, then if they got divorced. When you think about it, unless the prospective spouse is wealthy, there is really not much point to getting married these days, rather than just cohabit.


y81 04.02.05 at 10:25 am

Well, April, the social science literature on American families shows pretty clearly that married fathers are more involved with their children than unmarried fathers. I am not familiar with any European literature on this topic. Can you point me to some peer-reviewed literature showing that European men are totally different, that unmarried fathers are just as involved with their children as married ones? It really doesn’t count as knowledge or a sound guide to policy to point to two or three of your friends. It’s like pointing to your 90-year-old great aunt who smokes and ignoring the actual epidemiological evidence.


Brendan 04.02.05 at 1:20 pm

y81, as has been repeated, out of wedlock births are largely due to growth in cohabitation, which does not at all imply less involvement. In fact, a very common tendency is for marriage to follow cohabitation, so many of these out-of-wedlock births end up in married families sooner or later.

And as for divorce, you surely realise the US is the world leader in this field! Off the top of my head, the UK is pretty high, but not anything like the US, and the rest of western Europe lags substantially.

From a western European perspective, the US seems a pretty weird place, with high rates of marriage, low average ages at marriage, and huge rates of divorce. And as you’ll surely acknowledge, divorce has a really bad effect on fathers’ involvement, on average.


monica 04.02.05 at 1:25 pm

y81, it’s really not that hard to see or understand. Cohabiting without being married is the same as being married, except you’re not formally married. The formal status of marriage alone doesn’t change the parental involvement for a couple in a stable relationship and living together, in a house they bought together or are paying rent or mortgage for together. Cohabitation for couples is seen as a full commitment, like marriage. Especially now with new laws for recognising partnerships outside of marriage.

Unmarried cohabited couples with children is a much more widespread situation in Europe than unmarried single parent with children with absent parent.

It’s not anecdotical evidence from two or three friends. Just do a quick search for “statistics on cohabitation in europe”, you’d find stuff like this:

Cohabitiation in Western Europe
Investigating changes in patterns of forming partnerships. (1999)

Cohabitation is strikingly most common in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and France also has relatively high proportions cohabiting. For example, in these four countries around 30 per cent of women aged 25-29 years were cohabiting.

Key findings ● In most West and Northern European countries cohabitation has eclipsed marriage as the marker for first partnership whereas in Southern Europe it continues to be marriage. ● In many Western and Northern European countries, with Britain being one of the exceptions, there is little evidence that the propensity to become a couple has declined, as cohabitation has simply replaced some of the marriages of yesteryear.

(1) Countries where cohabitation established itself as socially accepted behaviour are Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. In the other Scandinavian or Nordic countries Norway and Finland the number of cohabiting couples has reached a high level. (…) The majority of children today are no longer born within marriage in these countries, but in cohabitation.

(2) The second group of countries where cohabitation slowly emerges as a form of living arrangement includes Austria, Finland, Norway, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Within this group two subgroups can be distinguished. The rate of children born out-of-wedlock is high in (a) Austria, Finland, France, Great Britain and Norway, but rather low in (b) the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. These observations suggest the following interpretation: in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany cohabitation means that childless partners live together and marry when children arrive. This is not true for Austria, Finland, Germany, Great Britain and Norway; in any case, births of children occur much more frequently within cohabitation, although the cohabiting couples often marry afterwards (see also Haskey 1992).

In some Nordic countries the number of children born outside marriage has risen tremendously. The share of births out-of-wedlock (in % of all live births) is particularly high in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, but it is also remarkable in France, Finland, Great Britain and Austria (Graph 2). (…) In the Nordic countries most of the children born outside marriage are born within cohabitation and not, for example, to a “single” mother.

The notion of “born out of wedlock” as some negative thing has become outdated because there is no longer such a negative connotation to the word “unmarried”. Children born from cohabiting couples are considered exactly like children born from married couples. Even aside from the cultural and social aspect, in most places as far as I know the father still has legal duties to do his part to provide for the children who are legally recognised as his own, even if the couple split up. So there isn’t really that much of a difference with marriage.


monica 04.02.05 at 1:28 pm

In other words, it’s not about “european men” being different, it’s about the whole married-unmarried distinction being different…


y81 04.02.05 at 8:40 pm

Interesting, Monica, and I will check out your links, although I would prefer footnotes to published articles. You do win a prize for actually providing citations, although I remain skeptical of arguments that include the phrase “as far as I know,” which seems to exalt anecdote over data, and of references to “legal duties,” which seem to suggest that men aren’t behaving the way the governing elite wants them to.


y81 04.02.05 at 8:43 pm

Actually, Monica, having checked out your links, this is pretty superficial stuff. I remain unconvinced that your fantasy about how new European men behave bears any relationship to reality.


monica 04.03.05 at 3:47 am

y81, this is getting surreal. The “as far as I know” refers to the fact that I know for sure it’s like that – ie. fathers have legal duties towards their children, whether born in a marriage or not – in European countries I know of. It’s not a point about how “men are behaving” because there is not a single behaviour from a collective entity called “men” or “europeans” for that matter, if you want to turn this into a contest between American men and European men, I don’t know what to say, it just makes me laugh.

The point of that mention of legal duties is, even from the legal point of view alone, nevermind the cultural and social aspects that have been already discussed, marriage alone doesn’t make a father automatically more responsible for his kids. Child support after separation is based on recognising children legally, not on being married. Biological paternity aknowledgement, birth certificates, that’s what establishes paternity, not marriage. So it applies even to unmarried couples. There may be a different legal system where fathers have no legal responsibilities whatsoever towards the children registered as theirs, but if there is I haven’t heard of that — besides, there also EU-wide laws (and a specific Convention on the legal status of children born out of wedlock, dating 1975…) as well as international laws on human rights.

On the general point – are you seriously telling me you need a bunch of articles in academic journals to even begin to acknowledge that cohabitation is widespread in Europe and many children “born out of wedlock” are born from parents living together? This is a trend that’s been going on for decades, and you make it sound like someone’s claiming there’s scientific proof that a statue of the Virgin Mary started weeping?

No offence, but if you really know so little of what you’re discussing, try looking up things for yourself first, without relying on others to provide links for you.

It also feels surreal to have to read some of the comments here. People who think tv ads equal legal intervention and that men are emasculated by Turkish toilets, are they even serious or not? What is so offensive about promoting more responsibility towards children?


monica 04.03.05 at 4:00 am

Besides, y81, care to tell us why you think what you read is “superficial”? What are your standards of reality and accuracy? You have a problem with a simple “as far as I know” about actual existing legislation, yet you make categorical statements of your own to dismiss facts without even bothering to explain why you’d reach that conclusion it’s all “fantasy”.

You seem to think this is about proving how enligthened European men are, when it’s just about the fact marriage is being increasingly paralleled by cohabitation as a family context in which children are born, to the extent several countries are indeed adopting laws to formally recognise cohabitation and civil partnerships (such as the French PACS). It’s really as simple as that.

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