Resisting fatherhood

Well, that’s a weird statement, isn’t it? I mean, I’m undoubtedly a father and whether I like it or not, I’m going to carry on being one. Resistance, one might say, is futile by definition.

Yes and no. Becoming a father is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Becoming a ‘father’ or a ‘daddy’ in a public, socialised sense is more of a mixed blessing.

‘Dads’ are expected to behave in a certain way to a far greater extent than men who aren’t fathers. Men in general have had their options opened considerably over the last ten years. We can use cosmetics without being laughed at (mostly), cry, express feelings, be vegetarians, artists and many other things without even the Daily Mail raising much of an eyebrow. Sometimes, we’re even allowed to be gay without it being tattooed across our foreheads. Most spectacularly of all, men are even allowed to be intelligent and thoughtful in public with a lynch mob gathering. You can even do some of the former and like sport (easy, now).

Where things still need a little work are the expectations ascribed to ‘dads’ which have remained tied to as similarly rigid a social discourse as that mothers or ‘mummies’ are fastened to. Or fasten themselves to (that’s another story but I commented the other day on Noble Savage’s blog on the infantilisation inherent in the ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ blogging).

I just used the word ‘discourse’ didn’t I? And a blizzard of knowing quote marks.

Lets get the quote marks out of the way first. If I put ‘daddy’ in quote marks, I’m not trying to be sarcastic or ironic. My point is always that you personally might read ‘daddy’ one way but society normally reads it another. And the norm exerts a kind of gravitational pull over you, whether you like it or not. That’s where discourse comes in.

Anything could be considered a discourse: clothes, newspapers, a TV programme, a tattoo, names, laws, forms and corporate policies – they’re all discourses. The one thing they have in common is that in some way they express an ideology, generally the prevailing one. Most perniciously, they often express it most stridently when seemingly in opposition to the ‘normal’ way of seeing things.

Lets take an example. Go to the Times Online. Put ‘Fatherhood’ into their search box. The first link that comes up is a sponsored one for Sainsbury’s parenting club – “Join Our Baby Club for Articles & Advice + a Free Mum & Baby Pack!” That’s the first lesson the discourse of the norm of fatherhood has to teach us – fathers are invisible to most retailers. ‘Mums’ are targeted.  Bit tricky if you’re a single parent and still a bit irritating if you’re part of a couple. The ideological campaign to keep you separate from the business of parenting until the ‘mans’ stuff like football and punching each other comes up has already begun.

The first search return proper is for Damian Whitworth’s article about the Evolution of Fatherhood. “We look at the evoloution of fatherhood and ask if guys are really ready for it.” Note the term ‘guy’ and how embedded in the article’s related links we find ‘Why fathers don’t need a day of gratitude.‘ It’s a thoughtful article but at every point it reinforces the idea that change is ‘thirty years away’. Our children might one day be fathers who can act like…well, mothers, apparently. One writer interviewed describes being ‘crucified’ on Mumsnet for struggling with fatherhood and writing about it. The drift of the piece, as it concludes, is still that being a father is somehow something that remains alienated from parenting proper and that change, real change, is deferred indefinitely.

Now I don’t know about you but we seem to have been discussing changes in the role of the father for decades and yet the most thoughtful media pieces still seem to position it as as far away as ever. The next article listed trumpets that “Many men, it seems, give less thought to starting a family than they do to choosing their next car.” Next up, hysterically, is Tiger Woods in an article from 2008 discussing his discovery of the joys of fatherhood. What’s the message? Well, you can be a great sportsman and an engaged father. But you have to get your cardio in first. The difficulty, apparently, is balancing the demands of family life against those of work (or the other stuff we now know about Tiger. But moving on…)

There’s any number of points one might pull out of this – the inherent conservatism of the model of Tiger Woods and his nuclear family, the continual positioning of men feeling complex emotions about fatherhood as somehow a bit abnormal, the deferral (I keep coming back to that as it seems a key point) of a kind of parenthood which routes around the cliches expected of ‘mummys’ and daddys’.  They’re all vectors from an ideology which requires fatherhood in one box and motherhood in the other. Parenthood doesn’t really exist in this ideology – it functions almost invariably (cf. the Sainsburys ad above) as a synonym for motherhood.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go try the same exercise in the Daily Mail – but read attentively.

Okay, resistance. Wherever there is power, you’ll find resistance (I’m taking that and a lot of the basis for the foregoing from Foucault if you’re curious). Resistance doesn’t mean fighting something or avoiding it. The best kind of resistance to a pesky kind of discourse like being a ‘dad’ is a long, hard, critical look at how one is being positioned and an informed, knowing choice as to the kind of self one wants to be. Discourses are functional, useful even. They accomplish things. They get you through the day (or night). More worryingly, the discourse of ‘mum and baby’ versus ‘dad’ (how many dad welcome packs do you know of? Leaving aside the worrying content of the mummy ones, of course) functions very well in enabling the prevention of equal rights in maternity leave or assuring that people don’t ask too many questions about the continuing deferral of that particular legislation (deferral again). It keeps fathers productive and mothers in their place. It keeps the dangerous idea of ‘parents’ as something more meaningful than a legalism at bay.

So I take a good hard look at being a dad and the social expectations involved in being a dad every day. It’s an act of resistance that keeps me closer to being a father and a parent as opposed to a ‘dad’. It informs how I act at work when someone wants time off to go to a scan or a colleague on a KIT day wants to bring her baby in.

Resistance. It isn’t futile. It’s what we do to stay alive as thinking beings as opposed to geometrical points the forces of discourse act upon.

P.S. I’m doing a walk for the Joseph Salmon Trust with a bunch of other bloggers. More about this on my  Just giving page,


About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

22 responses to “Resisting fatherhood

  • Beta Dad

    I haven’t been reading daddy blogs…er parenting blogs… very long, but that’s the first Foucault reference I’ve seen. LOL. I guess.

    I wonder what would happen if you searched “father” in Google Scholar. I’m guessing you would get a lot of Freudian perspective.

    I’ve read some interesting stuff about notions of masculinity by Andrew Smiler, Bryce Traister, James Davis, and Bethan Benwell. I was mostly interested in “ladishness” (or as I call the Yank version “dudeishness”) at the time None of them said much about fatherhood in what I read, but you can extrapolate the kinds of expectations placed on dads from those placed on dudes. Traister is especially interesting because he traces the rise of “Masculinity Studies” from the seventies up to now. There’s also some interesting work by Scott Fabius Kiesling on masculine discourse. It’s more about young men creating and maintaining subject positions (I think he uses the term “stance” a lot) through discourse–not so much about how these stances were constructed through prevailing discourse.

    How about checking into the available scholarship on the social construction of fatherhood and posting a summary? Thanks!

  • Dan


    I suspect I’d need to think long and hard about what my opinions are in regard to this.

    I’m a atypical man. I am a nurse and I work part time and I am the primary care giver for my children. I do the majority of the housework in our home.

    But given all that I have never really felt my masculinity is threatened or questioned by anyone else in my social circle.

    But outside that, yes. I am a square peg in a round hole.

    I was waiting outside school the other day and someone from the local surestart center approached me and invited me to join their special “Dads and Kids group”. “It will help you build connections and a bond between you and your children” she said. I was very close to being very obnoxious towards her, but I just politely informed her that I found both her and her manner patronising and asked her to leave me alone. I can “bond” with my children perfectly well thank you very much.

    I like the word Dad. I like being a dad. It is one of the identities I possess which fits me best. I’m not too keen on being a Daddy, and even less on being a “Daddyblogger”. But that’s cool.

    I have no point here.

    Only to point out that P.S. yes you are going on a walk with a load of other bloggers and people really should donate 🙂

    • dadwhowrites

      Hey! I think I’d say that you’re atypical partly through choice and the courage of your well-thought through convictions. As I argue in my reply to BetaDad, I think most men who take on the bulk of the parenting face little negativity – it’s more how things are set up to make it difficult or hard to think of (in the sense of unthinkable) in a social sense.

  • Dara

    It’s all true. There’s this notion of fathers as being the extra in the mom and baby equation. Fathers are the ones that struggle for work-life balance and “resist” parenthood. As a woman I find it dually sexist, for by categorizing men in such a way we end up categorizing women and mothers as well.
    From a woman’s perspective, what really gets me is the way many women treat fathering as an extension or an aside to mothering rather than as part of the whole of parenting. Personally, what really gets me is all the women complaining about their husbands and their inability to parent just like them or do the household chores just like them. And then they complain that their husbands won’t do anything without being strictly told what to do. Men are not permitted to find their way to fathering, in fact I believe they are held to stricter sterotypes and expectations than women and mothers.
    And what really, really gets to me is that I was so surprised to see a discussion of semiotics and Foucault on a parenting blog. I hate the way we’ve all been dumbed down and – in my case dumbed myself down – as mommies or daddies. Leads me to ask: are you Dad who Writes or Writer who Fathers?

    Thanks for the brilliant post. You’ve inspired me to go ahead and reference Freire in my upcoming post on children’s literacy – I’ve been wondering whether I should or if I’d come off as smarmy smartass.

    And BTW – I don’t “actually” judge you for letting your 6 yo watch Star Wars. I wouldn’t let mine but that’s because he’s highly impressionable and lacks impulse control. There are children in his class in the same boat but who have been allowed to watch it. The worst, though, is that they’ve watched Clone Wars and think it’s authentic Star Wars!

    • dadwhowrites

      Well, yes, basically! I haven’t discussed the impact on women on detail, though, because it’s so well covered elsewhere in the blogosphere. But it’s a power system that affects both genders.

      Star Wars – you’ll be pleased to hear he didn’t like the Clone Wars. And when Darth Vadar died, he sat on my knee and cried a bit and we had quite a deep discussion.

    • dadwhowrites

      PS – do reference Freire- I’ll have to look him/her up but we should have higher expectations of each other…

    • J

      Amen, sister. I hate the emails that go out telling women (mothers) how we act, how we forgive all, endure all, give all, for our children. As if men (fathers) don’t forgive, endure, and give just as damn much. It’s sometimes different, but it’s a lot, and I get very tired of the stereotypes that plague our sexes in our similar and different roles in parenting.

  • Beta Dad

    I have to add that, although I’m fascinated by the social theory aspect of fathering, like Dan, I haven’t really come up against other people’s expectations of what it means to be a father. For that matter, I haven’t felt much pressure to be traditionally “masculine” for a long time. My wife trusts me with the kids (because I do what she tells me to), and I haven’t heard any titters about being Mr. Mom (I’m a stay-at-home dad). In a really stupid way, I’m almost disappointed. I was kind of itching for a fight with someone entrenched in traditional gender roles. It will probably come soon enough.

    Dana–yeah, it’s really sad when dads are pushed to the periphery of parenting. I think a lot of guys allow it to happen though, probably because they think that’s what they are supposed to do.

    One funny thing about being a stay-at-home dad is that in many cases, not only do people not titter; a lot of them act like I am superhuman for being able to handle my job, whereas they would expect a woman to do it with no problem. This reaction is at once gratifying and condescending to me, and it raises my feminist hackles.

    This is some complicated shit.

    • dadwhowrites

      Hey! Thanks for both brilliant comments! I think I’d find (if I were in a position to research it) that many stay at home dads don’t encounter much prejudice. Anecdotally, many of the problems seem to come from women with normative expectations of parenting (as with Dan’s encounter). My point would be not that fathers enconter negativity about their role but that things are set up for them to feel negative.

      I’ll have to check out the sources you mention – as it happens, my masters research piece was inthe construction of fatherhood in the work place so I’ll have to blow the dust off it (finished last year) and extract a summary of the literature. I did look at masculine studies though I can’t remember if I used that particular writer. I was coming at it from an org psych/sociology perspective mostly bit pulled in quite a lot of different perspectives.

  • charlotteotter

    Such a great post. I think it’s essential to resist, to question the definitions and how they place us as parents within a specific construct. I try very hard to talk about and think about ‘parenting’ rather than ‘mothering’ or ‘fathering’, though I am proud to be a mother. And I have always resisted ‘mummyblogging’, though until Noble Savage’s intelligent post I didn’t really know why. It just didn’t sit comfortably with me, mostly because I don’t want to be defined only as a ‘mummy’.

    Would love to hear more about your masters piece. It sounds fascinating.

  • Dara

    This is really fascinating and I’ll have to look into BetaDads suggestions as well. A short while back I wrote a couple of columns on how fathers are locked out of the parenting equation because of societal expectations and the way women are taught to think of their husbands/children’s fathers. It came up against a lot of opposition from the local feminist structure who believed that by suggesting mothers take part in alientating fathers from parenting and that we’re all responding to societal norms I was attacking women in general and not acknowledging the societal pressures they face. Fact is women’s role in parenting and responding to norms has been so written about that I find myself sighing when I see another discussion (though I do understand the need to have these discussions – I guess the continual discussion but lack of movement make me feel stuck in a half-idealogy). I find the whole concept of parenting and gender responses to it fascinating.
    BetaDad -please tell me you were being a bit tongue in cheek when you wrote that your wife trusts you because you do what she tells you to. Please!

  • Sandra

    I’ve just quickly read your blog – and at the school where my 2 boys go to, there are quite a few dads who are primary care givers and part-time workers. I’m not sure why really.

    I’d like to see more dads as primary care gives, because it just seems right. Just as iI would hope that one day economics could allow for families to live on one wage, or better still, 2 part-time wages, so that everyone benefits from family life.

  • Beta Dad

    Maybe you can post your thesis for those of us who are interested. I did all my masculinity research for a paper I presented at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association conference a couple years ago. It was called something like, “Badasses and Ballbusting: Constructions of Masculinity in Maxim Magazine.” It was a lot of fun to research! I was on a panel with a good friend of mine who gave a talk on rhetorical constructions of motherhood, and resistance (!) to those constructions through mommy(mummy)blogging. That’s what she wrote her Master’s thesis on too. Come to think of it, I’ll make sure she is reading this blog and Dara’s.

  • bsouth

    Ahem, shuffles off feeling a bit thick!

  • Noble Savage

    Fantastic post, and so great to see more and more dads attempt to deconstruct societal expectations of fatherhood. There are definitely constraints and limitations placed on fathers and certain taboos that only the bravest of men are willing to break when it comes to masculinity and parenting. You’re doing that here, simply by writing about it, and so I applaud you. It shouldn’t be about ‘mummies’ or ‘daddies’ but about all of us as parents trying to break out of the boxes we’ve been stuffed in by our society’s gendered, cultural norms.

    • dadwhowrites

      Thanks, NS – I think it’ll be a long time before we break out of the mummies-vs-daddies dichotomy, though. What we want is a more universally felt and embodied mummies-and-daddies sense of things with more fluidity as to what those polarities are about. We should be able to move freely along a certain continuum there, or perhaps find new words for modes of parenting that fit neither. But we’re bipeds – polarity is perhaps inescapably in our blood.

  • Fran

    My house husband said it was always a very lonely place in the playground, surrounded by women who felt as awkward about him being there as he did. But then this is quite a few years ago. Hopefully things have changed.

    By the way, you suggested on my latest ‘rewritten famous story’ post that I had a go at rewriting Frankenstein. Come and read the story of Frank In-Stain.

  • MumVersusKids

    Another brilliant post. OK, I’m not a dad so I will never fully understand BUT, as a woman, I find it quite suffocating at times being surrounded by mums. For whatever reason, women tend to define me solely by my children,while men tend to define me by my achievements, humour, intelligence, whatever…and the children are a sort of added feature.

    I have to say I am having a very hard time dealing with being a “mummy”… worse, a “mumpreneur”. Until quite recently I had a very successful career in science, and later as a senior manager of a medical school, and am now running my own business, playing music and doing plenty of things I think are worthwhile. I’m not thick; I know all about things other than poo. In the playground, though, I am now “M & E’s mum”. Sadly, even amongst the people who’ve known me for the 10 years I’ve been here, the conversations are all about the children and no longer about me or my interests. It’s demoralising and really quite depressing.

    Have I brought this upon myself? Partly I think this not-quite-wanted “mummy” persona has to do with meeting people outside of work. I no longer have an easy icebreaker (talking about budget cuts, departmental politics or the new boss, for example), and there is no longer an easy answer for the “what do you do?” question… so I go for the most obvious ice-breakers, and with parents they all have to do with parenting. Within minutes you can form a playground friendship and set up regular “playdates” over a brief chat about the state of your pelvic floor. Easy peasy. But then that person forever sees me as a mother. It’s reinforced because they remember my children (they’re very memorable), so I become known as “M & E’s mum”.

    The dads take much longer to approach – there are weeks of eye contact before I finally ask about something that seems like an easy icebreaker (I have yet to meet a man brave enough to make the first move in this sort of environment), maybe the make of the baby carrier on his bike seat for example, and whether he’s happy with it. The baby carrier has no emotional connection, it’s not part of him, it doesn’t define him – it’s a bit of kit. So he keeps his “person” status, and the “daddy” bit is secondary. And so begins a different kind of friendship, one where we both have children, but where we are both people. It’s nice.

    BTW if anyone reading this is a dad in North London, one of the locals has set up a Dads-only playgroup at the Sure Start centre near Highgate Primary on Weds mornings. Mums and therefore talk of engorged breasts and stitches are strictly banned.

    • dadwhowrites

      Great comment! A post in its own right. Supermum’s experience isn’t too dissimilar. I’ve actually found that approaching other dads is really difficult, though that’s probably as much down to my own lack of networking skills as anything else. The mums, of course, never talk to me if I’m delivering or collecting dudelet, unless they already know me through supermum.

  • nonlineargirl

    Interesting. I feel myself in a bit of a bubble. (C is going to be full time parenting our 3 this summer while I pick up my hours for a few months, there is no question – by me or him – about whether he can or should be the main caregiver.) How people will respond to him when he is out with the kids is a different thing.

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