How new is the 'modern dad'?

Coloured lithograph of Father Returns by Maude Goodman

When we think about fathers in the past and present, many of us assume that the ‘hands on dad’ is an entirely modern invention. However, historians have shown that there have always been loving and caring fathers. Though different kinds of fatherhood have been celebrated at particular moments – from strong disciplinary figures to affectionate playmates – within the privacy of the family home, we can find a wide variety of behaviour.

Turn of the century

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as historian Joanne Begiato has shown, fathers were celebrated for their tenderness and affection for their children. Yet by the late 1800s, things changed.

Breadwinners

Instead, fathers’ duties as breadwinners were now important, and mothers were celebrated as the caring parent.

The late nineteenth century was a period in which men could choose to spend their time in a men’s club or pub, away from their family homes. But at the same time, many fathers were very present in family life.

Some working-class men lived up to their bad reputation as being neglectful or even abusive. But others had strong emotional bonds with their children. As historian Julie-Marie Strange has shown, children deeply valued their fathers’ hard work to put food on the table.

Wartime 

Whilst both the First and Second World War took men away from their families, fatherhood was seen to be more and more important to both men and their children. After the Second World War particularly, a more ‘family-orientated’ ideal of masculinity placed men at the heart of family life, which moved away from the celebration of soldierhood during the conflict.

Some men found the return to normality difficult, and could become a disruptive or even abusive presence in family life. Yet, for many, returning home to wives, children and other loved ones was the prize they had been waiting for after the sacrifices of the war.

Recent decades

Since this period, much popular debate has focused on the ‘new man’ and more recently the millennial ‘superdad’, who might even stay at home whilst his partner works in paid employment.

Much has changed, and since the Second World War, many families have embraced a more emotionally open and friendly version of family life, with less emphasis on parents as strong figures of authority.

But there is continuity too: whilst dads have taken on all sorts of roles in children’s lives, mothers are still, mostly, responsible for the vast majority of childcare. Are we starting to see this change?

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