Fatherhood and Fatherlessness

Note: The following is a summary of Michael Flood's report for The Australia Institute, titled Fatherhood and Fatherlessness (2003). For the full 90-page report, in PDF, please click here.


A national debate about families and parenting is gathering momentum in Australia, with fathers and fathering at its centre. Fatherhood is changing as the social, economic and cultural conditions which sustained traditional meanings of fatherhood have shifted or been challenged, and in recent decades debates over fathers, mothers and family life have been a staple feature of the news. This debate has intensified in 2003, due to the Howard Government’s consideration of the introduction of a rebuttable presumption of joint custody following family breakdown.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have reached a pivotal moment in terms of fathers’ roles in families and communities. There is, at present, a significant opportunity for fathers to develop stronger, more intimate bonds with their children and to enhance their roles within their families. Indeed a growing number of fathers are embracing this situation. But the opportunity is in danger of being lost. The unhelpful agendas of some participants in fatherhood debates, and continuing economic and cultural obstacles to paternal involvement in child-rearing, threaten to limit men’s positive involvement in parenting.

Fathers, and mothers, are important to the well-being of children, families and communities. Supporting fathers’ positive involvement in their children’s lives is a vital element in the maintenance of healthy families and communities. However, current proposals to change family law do not represent either an appropriate or effective means to enhance fathers’ positive involvement in families.

A rebuttable presumption of joint custody would apply to the five per cent of divorcing couples with children whose cases are decided in the Family Court. The Family Court would assume that children will physically reside with both separated parents for equal periods, living one week with the mother and the next with the father for example, unless there were good reasons to do otherwise. Changing family law in this way will not enhance shared parenting. Instead, it has the potential to diminish the well-being of children. Furthermore, it is a far less effective way to encourage paternal involvement than other measures which address the real obstacles to active fathering both in couple families and after divorce or separation.

The best and worst of times

Fatherhood in Australia has been undergoing contradictory trends in recent years with growing numbers of fathers becoming actively involved with their children and growing numbers withdrawing or being excluded from paternal involvement.

Over the past century, fatherhood has been shaped by profound shifts in family structure, the circumstances and timing of fertility, norms regarding marriage, childbearing, sexuality and gender, and images of fathering. There has been an overall tendency for fatherhood to move out of the domain of stable marriage, with a decline in rates of marriage, an increase in non-marital cohabitation, an increase in divorce, and an increase in non-marital childbearing.

Of children aged 0 to 17 years, just under four-fifths live in two parent families. One in six children live in one-parent families, mostly headed by mothers. After separation and divorce, more than one-third of Australian children have no face-to-face contact with their fathers, and one in six children has contact only during the day.

Perceptions of fathering have shifted, and the image of the nurturant and involved father now exerts a powerful influence on popular perceptions. However, the culture of fatherhood has changed much faster than the conduct. Fathers share physical care of children equally in only 1-2 per cent of families, and are highly involved in day-to-day care in only 5-10 per cent of families. Many fathers aspire to do more fathering than they actually perform, yet they face important economic, policy and cultural constraints to their involvement.

Fatherlessness and divorce

Fathers’ absence from families is said to cause a wide range of social problems, from crime and delinquency to poor school achievement. The research evidence shows that, in general, children raised in two-parent families do better on measures of educational achievement and psychological adjustment than children raised in single-parent families. But the research also shows that neither fatherlessness nor divorce by themselves determine children’s well-being. The quality of parenting and the nature of parents’ relationships with each other and their children are the critical factors in shaping the impact of father absence upon children.

One of the most significant influences on children’s well-being, whether in dual-parent or single-parent families, is the quality of parenting and family relationships. Conflictual and unhappy relationships are damaging to children, in both ‘intact’ marriages and between separated parents. In situations where children do not live with their fathers, paternal contact is not by itself a good predictor of their well-being. Instead, the most consistent predictor is fathers’ ‘authoritative’ parenting – that is, parental encouragement and support and non-coercive rule-setting and monitoring.

Selection effects also help explain negative outcomes among children who grow up without their fathers or after divorce. Some families are characterised by parental conflict, drug abuse, mental illness or violence. Couples in these circumstances are more likely to divorce, and their children are more likely to show behaviour problems, both before and after divorce. The association between father absence and poor outcomes among children is shaped by the changes which accompany divorce or separation, particularly economic insecurity and loss of access to social networks and communities. Poverty is both a cause and an effect of single parenthood, and post-divorce economic hardship is associated with negative outcomes among children. While children experience their parents’ separation and divorce as traumatic, three-quarters of children show no resulting negative effects or long-term problems in adjustment.

Fathers’ presence has diverse effects on children, and in some cases these are negative. Because of drug abuse, violence, crime, and other forms of anti-social behaviour, a minority of fathers are not in a position to engage in positive ways with their families or provide authoritative parenting. When fathers are abusive, dishonest, or irresponsible, and reside with their children, their children suffer. Fathers dealing with such issues must be supported, but not at the expense of children or mothers.

Public claims that fatherlessness causes a host of social problems have sometimes been based on a confusion of correlation and causation, the selective use of research evidence, and even the repetition of fictional statistics. For example, the claim that ‘Boys from a fatherless home are 14 times more likely to commit rape’ received widespread coverage when it was released in the National Fatherhood Forum’s ‘12 Point Plan’ in June 2003, yet investigation of the origins of the statistic reveals that this ‘fact’ is both misleading and invented.

Fatherlessness and male role models

A second common argument in contemporary debates about fatherlessness is that children, and boys in particular, require male role models in the form of a biological father to ensure their healthy development. While there is no doubt that boys, and girls, benefit from the presence in their lives of positive and involved fathers, the research evidence again tells a more complicated story than that allowed by simplistic assumptions about male role models.

Positive and nurturant parenting by mothers or fathers (and ideally both) makes more difference to children’s outcomes than the simple presence of a father per se. In terms of boys learning ‘how to be men’ from their fathers, the research finds that fathers’ masculinity and other individual characteristics are far less important formatively than the warmth and closeness of their relationships with their sons. The characteristics of fathers as parents, rather than their characteristics as men, influence children’s development, and there is no evidence that fathers’ involvement is more beneficial for boys than it is for girls.

Boys (and girls) raised only by women, whether single mothers or lesbian couples, are no more likely than other children to adopt an unconventional gender identity or homosexual sexual orientation. Mothers have long been blamed for outcomes among children, from schizophrenia in the 1950s to boys’ emasculation in the 1990s, but mother-blaming is both inaccurate and unhelpful.

Fathers’ involvement in families is highly desirable. When fathers are actively involved, they expand the practical, emotional and social resources available for parenting. With two parents rather than one, children are likely to receive more emotional support, supervision, and to have greater access to wider networks and material resources. Fathers’ involvement is also important because of the distinctive, but not unique, contribution to parenting made by male parents. Mothers and fathers typically interact with children in different, although overlapping, ways. Gender differences in parenting can be positive, exposing children to the richness and complexity of gender diversity. But stereotypes of mothering and fathering also constrain women’s and men’s parenting. Fathers and mothers are equally capable of parenting: highly involved fathers become sensitive to, and in tune with, their children, just as involved mothers do.

Fathering politics

Fatherhood is now very much on the mainstream political agenda. Important shifts in men’s gender roles, and growing policy attention to men’s issues, are generating new possibilities for men’s parenting. However, some of the most vocal advocates for fathers seem to wish to turn back the clock, reasserting men’s traditional paternal authority rather than fostering shared and positive parenting.

There have been profound shifts in gender relations in every sphere of society, from the bedroom to the boardroom. Many men are flourishing because of the opening up of gender roles, enjoying egalitarian relations with women and being involved fathers to their new babies and children. Yet other men are struggling. Separation and divorce represent key times of crisis, and one response among men to personal crises or wider changes in gender relations is ‘fathers’ rights’.

Fathers’ rights groups typically represent an anti-feminist backlash, focused on men as victims of injustice in family law, education, health, and other realms. Such groups overlap with ‘men’s rights’ groups, and they have worked in alliance with conservative Christian organisations to lobby for changes in child custody and child support policies. Fathers’ rights groups have achieved significant changes in both the practice and popular perceptions of family law over the last eight years. Yet there has been no increase in shared parenting among separated partners. The widespread assumption that children must have contact with both their parents has meant in practice that children’s best interests at times have been compromised through heightened exposure to violence and parental conflict.

A rebuttable presumption of joint custody following family breakdown, a long-standing goal of fathers’ rights groups in Australia, is now on the policy agenda. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs is conducting an inquiry into ‘child custody’ arrangements in the event of family separation, including the question of ‘whether there should be a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent and, if so, in what circumstances such a presumption could be rebutted’. The proposed presumption of joint residence will, ostensibly, enhance shared parenting of children after divorce and separation, a goal with which few could argue. However, in practice it is likely that the changes will do little to encourage shared parenting. There are at least five problems with the presumption.

First, the proposed rebuttable presumption of joint custody is unnecessary: there are no formal legal obstacles to parents sharing the care of children after separation and divorce. Family law already endorses the principle of shared parenting, stressing that children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents and that parents are jointly responsible for their children. Separating parents can make arrangements for shared residence, and small numbers do.

Second, the parents to whom this legal change would apply are those least able to set up shared parenting. The small minority of separating parents who reach the courtroom are often experiencing the most intractable and bitter conflicts, face issues of violence and abuse, and are the least likely to be in a position to share residence and parenting of their children.

Third, one size does not fit all. The best interests of the child, a key principle in family law, would be compromised by any presumption of a specific type of custody arrangement. The proposed law would undermine the ability and flexibility families need in order to develop parenting arrangements which best fit their children.

Fourth, the introduction of a presumption of joint custody is likely to increase the use of litigation to rebut the presumption, stretching the resources of the Courts and government.

Finally, a legal presumption of joint custody is likely to expose women, children and men to higher levels of violence. This prospect is particularly troubling given that there are already cases where the practice of family law privileges parental contact with children over children’s safety.

While there is positive potential in contemporary discussions of fatherlessness, it is currently a long way from being realised. Promoting fathers’ positive involvement with children is a laudable goal. But it will not be achieved by ill-considered changes in family law. If a rebuttable presumption of joint custody is neither an appropriate nor an effective way to effect this goal, what is?

Promoting the positive role of fathers

The most important obstacle to fathers’ parenting after separation is the absence of fathers’ parenting before separation. Workplace relations, policy barriers, practical disincentives and social obstacles limit men’s involvement in parenting, both before and after separation and divorce.

To promote fathers’ involvements with their children, five strategies are vital.

First, establishing father-friendly (parent-friendly) workplace practices and cultures will make the most difference to men’s opportunities for fathering. Fathers perceive the major barrier to their involvement in parenting to be their involvement in paid work, and their patterns of working make it difficult to be involved parents. In a labour market characterised by gender inequality, many couples make pragmatic decisions that the mother will work part-time or take time off while the father will continue to do paid work. Two institutional strategies have the potential to make a significant difference to men’s parenting opportunities. Employers, with governmental support, must create more flexible workplaces free of penalties for involved parents of either sex, and must promote equal economic opportunities for women.

The second strategy is to remove policy barriers to shared care. Family policy in Australia currently discourages shared care of children, both in couple families and between separated parents, by rewarding a homemaker/breadwinner split in couple families and penalising single-parent families which share care of the child with the other parent.

The third strategy is to support fathers through family and parenting services. Family-related services, including antenatal and postnatal services, community-based services for families with children, and early childhood education services, have an important role to play in fostering fathers’ involvement in families. Family-related services require dedicated funding and policy support for this goal. In addition, the activities, atmosphere and staffing of family-related agencies must be father-friendly, and family-related services should develop forms of service delivery which are effective in engaging fathers.

The fourth strategy addresses the cultural obstacles to paternal involvement. Common cultural norms in Australian society, including a culture of work and materialism, the absence of a culture of fatherhood, a culture of maternalism, and suspicion towards fathers, are unsupportive of men as parents. At the same time, many men have managed, despite these obstacles, to create and sustain an experience of involved fathering.

The final strategy in this five-point plan is the most general yet it will have practical impacts on men’s involvement in parenting. Fostering fathers’ active involvement with children requires cultural change in gender norms, particularly those norms which define manhood as non-nurturant and unemotional and which stifle boys’ and men’s parenting and relationship skills and commitments.

Men’s positive involvement with children will also be fostered by improving men’s relations with women. Non-conflictual and cooperative relationships between parents, whether in relationships or separated, are the bedrock of their positive involvements with children. When men share equally in the care of children with women, their marriages and relationships also improve. Thus both men and women benefit from men’s involvement in parenting.

Fathers in Australia face a real moment of opportunity. Shifting social and economic conditions have both intensified the obstacles to, and created new possibilities for, involved fathering. In order to capitalise on this opportunity, however, both the Government and the community must adopt a much more sophisticated approach to analysing the causes and consequences of fatherlessness. Australian fathers need policies that help them connect with their children at all stages of life, not simplistic laws that fail to address the real obstacles to involved fathering.

Citation: Flood, Michael. (2003). Fatherhood and Fatherlessness. Canberra: The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper No. 59, November.