Dr. Alexandra Macht recently completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh where she was supported by the Centre for Research for Families and Relationships. In this post, Alexandra reports on some of the findings of her research into fatherhood and love.
There is very little research on the subject of the love shared between parents and children, and the contemporary father’s role in relation to masculinity. My research looked at a specific group of fathers, who are present (‘involved’) in the lives of their children, and their experiences of love. I considered involved fathers as embedded within and dependent upon an intimate network of relationships: to their children, their partner and their own parents. In my interviews with 47 fathers from Scotland and Romania from working-class and middle-class backgrounds, I explored the fathers’ love for their children: How do they describe it? How does it compare to other kinds of love? How do they show it? What do fathers think love looks like in their countries?
I found that involved fathers understand love as a verb (it is something they do) in which both love and power are intermingled. The majority of fathers, had a hierarchical understanding of love in which the child was granted a distinct focus; some even distinguished between unconditional love for their children and the – at times – conditional love for their partner. Culturally, the fathers described love and said they expressed it in similar ways, with some minor differences: Scottish fathers thought love made their children warmer to others, while Romanian fathers thought it gave their children confidence to do things.
In order to maintain loving relationships with their children, involved fathers also had to work at communicating their love through speech and through their physical activities, as having ‘quality time’ was sparse and required planning. Financial and material resources were important in how men showed love and this is one reason why class differences continued to matter. Across both cultures, the importance of ‘providing’ persisted but it was deeply influenced by how society portrays the role of fathers. The image of the new father who is very loving is also something that is sold to men through advertising, in the process of spreading certain values globally from the Western part of Europe to the Eastern part.
Men as fathers build their identities on a mixture of beliefs about how they should be as men and as fathers, and sometimes there is tension between these roles. Shifting between the two roles is an emotional process I have called ’emotional bordering’ – developed from Barrie Thorne’s concept of gender borders (1993), in which fathers adapt their communication and behaviour according to social circumstances and to how others respond to them. This new term helps explain a process of give-and-take which builds a man’s identity in close relationships. For involved fathers love appeared from spending time daily with their children, which can have further implications for family policies. By reducing involved fathers’ time with their children to merely two weeks of paternity leave, as it stands at the moment in the UK, the time to build a close, meaningful and loving relationship is also diminished. Flexible and state-supported provisions that increase the length of the parenting leave, could contribute to the emotional wellbeing and relational stability of fathers, their children and their partners.