Provision and Protection: Pressures of Fatherhood
As a new father I’ve become, amongst other things, a regular reader of NCT Matters, the quarterly magazine of the National Childbirth Trust. The most recent edition was a Father’s Day special, celebrating the ‘active and important’ role of dads bringing up their children. This might suggest a welcome progression from earlier perceptions of fatherhood. Indeed, the government’s recent policy shift towards ‘shared parental leave’ has seen a gendered rebalancing of an old law, which prioritised mothers as primary caregivers regardless of the family’s situation. However, reading about new dads’ experiences, I was more struck by how little has changed over the course of the last couple of hundred years. The hangover of previous government guidelines, together with employer attitudes and the enduring social stigma of male domesticity, continues to reinforce the longstanding cultural stricture of dad as breadwinner, mum as caregiver. When one new NCT father articulated concerns about ‘providing for [and] protecting your family’, he spoke to a legacy of masculine anxiety stretching back generations.
The model of father-breadwinner has always sat weightily and sometimes uneasily within the architecture of masculine identity. In patriarchal societies throughout history – notwithstanding important variances in relation to race, class and sexuality – men have tended to occupy positions of economic and social privilege. It is, of course, correct to challenge these structural imbalances of power, but in doing so it is helpful to consider their impact on men as well as women. For fathers, the duty of provision has been a burden as well as a privilege. Labour invariably involved long periods away from the home and family, and though the social freedoms associated with work in the public sphere have rightly come under scrutiny in the historiography on gender, emotional impacts are more often overlooked.
Recent work by Julie-Marie Strange has encouraged us to think about fatherly absence in different ways, at times neglectful but at times devotional, when men’s familial love was abstracted through their labour; provision had affective as well as practical importance. This was borne out by the emotionally crippling effect of unemployment. The failure to put food on the table would lead to a stigmatisation that was felt especially keenly by men. Dereliction of this peculiarly masculine duty produced, in turn, stinging feelings of emasculation. We might use this history to reflect sadly on the feelings of shame and guilt felt by fathers required to visit food banks today.
Alongside provision, the NCT father was concerned with the protection of his family. Thankfully, the need to physically safeguard one’s family from harm is not as commonplace now as in earlier periods. However, as Strange and Laura King have shown us, the urge to protect has remained prominent in the psyche of fathers throughout the modern epoch. Examples include the feeling of safety and security felt by a 1930s child after her dad tucked her up in bed one night, or the decision by fathers to leave out the more harrowing details of conflict, when writing home from the battle-front. Indeed, images of men’s families were frequently used in conscription campaigns during the Second World War, as protection of family and nation were conflated in a very masculine call-to-arms.
None of this is to deny the mother’s instinct to provide for or protect her children, nor indeed to overlook the many examples of these instincts in practice. Rather, it is to suggest that the socio-cultural inscriptions of these modes of parenting have tended to be masculinised. The NCT father, like many before him, faces a long future negotiating pressures of protection and provision. While these concerns may take him away from his family physically, they may still contribute to an intimate devotional relationship with his family.