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Authors Thompson R, Lee C, Adams, J
Review Date August 2014
Citation International Journal of Men’s Health 2013; 12(2): 150-165
Little research has been conducted on men’s attitudes and expectations for having children and being parents, particularly for young men. Several factors have contributed to this including the widespread belief that children are the primary concern of the mother while the fathers’ contribution is predominantly financial. This exclusion from research has led to an incomplete understanding of men’s perspectives on having children and being parents, and it perpetuates stereotypes of men’s roles in families while overemphasising women’s roles in childrearing and demographic change (e.g., average family size, maternal age with first baby).
The authors aimed to understand the subjective meaning of having children and of fatherhood to male university students, and to explore the social and political context within which these young men spoke about fatherhood.
Participants were recruited from an undergraduate psychology research participant scheme at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Eligibility criteria included men who were 18 to 25 years old, single (not married or cohabitating), and who were not fathers. To minimise self-selection due to interest in fatherhood the study was advertised as a ‘Men’s Attitudes Study.’ Semi-structured interviews were used to elicit men’s views on having children and fatherhood; all interviews began with the question, ‘Can you describe how you would like your life to be like when you are 40 years old?’ The interviews were transcribed and analysed thematically.
Sixteen men aged 18 to 22 years, enrolled in a variety of degree programs, comprised the final sample. Participants predominantly identified as Australian; two added that they had Indian and Sri Lankan ethnicity and one identified as New Zealander.
Fulfilment and contentment: Most men first spoke of their career intentions when asked about how they imagined their life at 40. While some described work as a source of personal fulfilment others spoke of it as a means to financially provide for other goals such as having a family. Many men appeared to regard having a family as a fundamental source of happiness. Some men’s comments suggested that they had never considered not having children, and some constructed childlessness as abnormal and unfulfilling.
Traditional and new fatherhood: Almost all the men expressed the view that fathers should be the main financial providers and that a “good” father is involved in the lives of his children. Many comments indicated awareness of structural barriers that may make it difficult to be both the main financial provider (traditional role) and an involved father (modern role). While most appeared hesitant to voice an expectation that their partner would stay home to look after the children, none stated that they would take responsibility for this.
Time of preparation: Most men exhibited the belief that their twenties was a time of preparation for successful adulthood. Almost all of the men believed that to have children their career must first be established, they should have financial security, and a high level of personal maturity; only some realised such circumstances may not be possible to achieve by their ‘right’ age to have children. These men wanted to ‘set themselves up’ in their twenties not only to be the main financial provider but also to have more flexibility in their work to provide more time for involvement in their children’s lives. This flexibility appeared to be something the men thought they needed to earn rather than have a right to as fathers. Many of the men assumed they would be married to their partner prior to having children.
Models of family and fatherhood: The models of family and fatherhood the men were exposed to influenced their own plans for fatherhood. The men who noted exposure to a negative model focused on their father’s overemphasis on the breadwinner role and their lack of involvement with the family.
Contrary to gender stereotypes, the men in this study imagined their families in some detail and considered fatherhood as being fundamental to their future happiness. The findings of this study suggest that research and policy needs to include the perspectives of men rather than focusing on women as the sole drivers of family and birth trends. Further, government policy and organisational practice needs to recognise men’s role in the family and acknowledge the tensions they face in fulfilling the roles of breadwinner and involved father.
Points to Note
- There is very little research on men’s perceptions and intentions for fatherhood, and an overemphasis on women’s roles in childrearing and demographic change.
- Semi-structured interviews were conducted with young university men about their perceptions of, and attitudes towards, having children and being a parent.
- Participants were mostly white young (presumably heterosexual) men that attended a prestigious university. Future research should explore the views of men from a wider range of backgrounds in terms of socioeconomic status, cultural and ethnic background, and sexuality.
- The interviews were conducted by a young female postgraduate student attending the same university. Participants may have adapted their responses to what they perceived to be socially acceptable to a young woman.
- Government policy and organisational practice needs to recognise men’s role in the family, and the issues they face in being both a financial provider and involved father.