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Fatherhood Reclaimed - the making of the modern father (book review)

Adrienne Burgess (1997)

Vermilion [Random House, London] 1997, ISBN 0 09 179020 4, 249pp, £ 9.99

This excellent book is a well-researched attempt to examine the ways in which fatherhood has been distorted and disrupted by the social and cultural constraints placed upon it. We are taken on a tour of images of the father from the last few centuries, including the distant, godly patriarch of pre-enlightenment times, the distant, rational patriarch of the enlightenment, and the gradual emergence of the new dad, from the playful post-war father to the co-parent of the nineties.

Cultural imagery is one thing, but real life was often different. Burgess uses excerpts from fathers' diaries to give an intimate history of men's passionate concern for their children. It seems there has always been a great diversity in private experiences of fatherhood which both confirms and contradicts the established images of the times.

As the effects of the Industrial Revolution have progressively removed men from their homes, they have become more detached from their children and less skilled in parenting. At the same time, paradoxically, the public image of fatherhood has changed from the distant to the intimate. This goes some way towards explaining the current confusion over the role and responsibilities of a father.

Burgess' attempt to define 'natural' fatherhood is disappointing. Anthropologists have long rejected the notion that studying tribal societies can uncover 'natural humanity', and looking at primates, as she does, is a strange idea to say the least.

She argues that men are naturally inclined to fatherhood, but emphasises their rights without addressing the difficult issue of their responsibilities. This is a weakness: if we affirm the rights of a father to be with his children and we challenge the structures that stand in his way, surely we also need to ask what society can expect from him?

The second half of the book examines how men are kept away from their children by the social organisation of the birth process, the pattern of their working lives, and by divorce. This is a story of exclusion, in which fathers are uninvolved, unskilled, distanced from their children and then accused of not taking enough interest.

While many men seek close relationships with their children, antenatal services are almost always mother-centred, so that fathers are unprepared for parenting. Long working hours and high levels of stress conspire to rob them of time with their children, and the outcome of divorce is often that they are almost completely shut out.

It may seem surprising to find a feminist challenging fatherhood, but the corollary of removing the obstacles to women's participation in the workplace is the need to break down the barriers which prevent men being involved in the home. Otherwise women are overstretched and unsupported. This book is a valuable analysis of some of those barriers, and should help to revise popular misconceptions of the history of the father's role in the family.

Tom Beardshaw (in Third Way - March 1997)
with permission

From the cover:

A ground breaking, radical and sympathetic book which challenges assumptions about men as fathers, revealing that parenting behaviour is shaped less by biology than by social conditioning. Men's fathering instincts, strong and inate, are often sabotaged by cultural and social expectations.

Attempts to answer a number of questions:

Miriam Stoppard:
What a book! ...I could hardly put it down once I'd started to read it... The content is important and useful and the arguments inexorably mounted.

Tony Robinson:
The concept of fatherhood is surrounded by so many prejudices and myths. Even though I've been a parent for 20 years, I'd only the vaguest notion of what fatherhood is supposed to be. This book helped me to clear away the debris.

David Cannon

Last updated - 17 March 1997

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