Fathers in present age – what does science tell us?

 Fathers in present age – what does science tell us? 

Author: Jurriën den Hollander, MSc, MA, BMus 

Pastor and Organizational and Family Psychologist 

December 2018


Having been raised in a culture of male superiority, the first person to challenge my understanding of masculinity was Walter Trobisch (1983). Trobisch opened to me a new perspective of the male identity which he described as vulnerable, sensitive and complex. This did not resound with my upbringing nor with my understanding of what a man was supposed to be. Yet, it explained part of the inner turmoil in my younger years. Writing this article, I realized that Trobisch (1983) already reflected on the openness to the change in the understanding of masculinity that is happening now. It also opened my eyes to a deeper awareness of myself as a male and father. Men are not simplistic animals driven by the raw lust of procreation and the need for power and dominance, as some feminist movements have made the world believe. Men are sensitive, caring human beings, able to raise children, and yet, live a purposeful and goal oriented life in connection with society and in harmony with love companion on equal basis. In this article we will explore some of the research findings pertaining to fatherhood. It is inescapable to mention also general research about men since the developments that affect men will also affect fathers. The following case study may be an example of how a father in the new understanding of fatherhood, has taken up the household tasks and the care for children, and still needs to learn how also care for himself, and how to stay in contact with society. 

Case study 

Recently, I visited a couple in their early thirties with relationship issues. She was a successful business women. He cared for the household and for their two children. Everything should be fine. She earned enough money to support the family. He loved their children, and he loved his wife. However, since the moment they decided that he was going to stay home to care for the children, gradually feelings of a lack of purpose came up. Not so in the beginning, when he was very enthusiastic to care for their little ones. She complained that he had no energy anymore, that he seemed depressed, that he was becoming overweight and not the man anymore she started out with. He found it hard to pinpoint what was happening to him. He took the care for their children with mutual consent, although he had a proper education and could take on any job if he wanted to. He mentioned that he loved to care for their children, but increasingly lacked a sense of purpose and felt a heavy moodiness which he could not explain. I wondered what was going on. I wondered whether there might be a connection between the obesity, the lack of energy, the task of caring for the children, and the marital dissatisfaction. This young father, who took on the recently new cultural role of care giver, did not know how to position himself in this new identity and thrive. Research may have an answer to him and to many more fathers in similar situations. 

Can situations affect men? 

John Gray, in his book Beyond Mars and Venus (2017), points to the interesting discovery that the male hormonal levels change when they take up caring tasks. When men get married, their hormonal levels change. When men become fathers who care for children their estrogen levels will raise even more and their testosterone levels will even drop more (Berg & Wynne-Edwards, 2001). Married fathers with children have lower testosterone levels than married men without children (Gray, Kahlenberg, Barrett, Lipson, & Ellison, 2002; Perini, Ditzen, Hengartner, & Ehlert, 2012). This seems to be a natural process. Some explain that the lowering of testosterone levels benefits the bonding between the father and his children and decreases the chance of mating outside of wedlock (Gray, Kahlenberg, Barrett, Lipson, & Ellison, 2002). 

Recently, the male hormone testosterone has come into the news in an unfavorable way in that it is supposed to be responsible for antisocial and risk behavior. As happens more often, the public media not always give the full picture. Yes, testosterone is related to antisocial and risk behavior, but only in certain circumstances. Testosterone is much more than an evil male hormone which causes men to act irresponsibly. On the contrary, the right balance of testosterone levels is at the core of male wellbeing. Medical research suggests that testosterone has positive effects on men’s mood and wellbeing (Wang, et al., 1996). Deviations from normal testosterone levels are related to an increase in fat mass and an increase in depressive symptoms (Corona, Forti, & Maggi, 2011). Too high levels of testosterone are related to antisocial and risk behavior. Booth, Johnson, and Granger (1999) found that the relation between men’s wellbeing and testosterone is parabolic. Too high and too low testosterone are related to antisocial and risk behavior, unemployment, low paying jobs and being unmarried. And, as a result, high or low levels of testosterone are related to depression. Average levels of testosterone are related to a positive mood and male wellbeing. 

As mentioned above, men’s behavior is not only influenced by testosterone but also by the hormone estrogen, though at lower levels than women. In males, testosterone is the major source of the hormone estrogen (Vermeulen, Kaufman, Goemaere, & Van Pottelberg, 2009), which means that the male body converts testosterone into estrogen, depending on certain circumstances like a marriage and the care for children, but also on overweight and a lack of exercise. In a random double blind experiment estrogen administered to males increased the emotional reactivity when watching someone else in distress (Olsson, Kopsida, Sorjonen, & Savic, 2016). Estrogen is related to caring tasks. When men become fathers, their testosterone levels decrease and their estrogen levels increase. So, indeed, circumstances can affect men on a hormonal level, which may also partly explain what happened to the father in this case study. Relationships between people are a complex interwoven network of personality, values, culture, expectations, perception, and mental scripts, to name some elements. Besides that, the level of communication skills, flexibility, interpersonal contact, and conflict resolution skills tell a lot about the quality of the relation (Olson & Olson, 2000). Gray (2017) has drawn the attention to a factor which in addition to all other factors that influence a partner relationship, may be of vital importance not only for the health of the partner relationship, but also for the wellbeing of the man.

How did the story with this couple proceed? After listening well and spending enough time to explore the situation, I drew the conclusion that, possibly, we might deal here with an extreme low level of testosterone, among others, due to the father’s life situation. The first thing I suggested to the father was to take more time for himself, and, besides this, to commit himself to a one hour walk each day, and to take a small responsible task in, for instance, a non-profit organization like a foodbank or buddy system. This is what he did, and gradually he started feeling better, because he regained a sense of purpose through actively taking part in social life, and thus boosting his testosterone by taking time for himself, and improving his mood by daily exercise. But how does this case study fit in the bigger picture? 

The change in roles 

Popenoe (1996) indicated that the change and decline of fatherhood is ‘one of the most basic, unexpected, and extraordinary social trends of our time’. New developments like birth control, women entering the paid labor force, the call for gender equality next to changing work situations through the upcoming of computer technology, social media, short-term working contracts, etc, have all affected the position of the male and father. We see men change and adopt new roles. An increasing number of men is willing to question the traditional model of masculinity and take part in parenting and housework roles. Younger men claim a greater participation in the rearing up of their children (Crespi & Ruspini, 2016). Talking about fatherhood in the public arena is becoming more and more acceptable (Dermott, 2008). Recent research has turned its attention to what these changes may entail for man, and for fatherhood. In the Netherlands popular books are being published on the specific role of the father (Zwaan, 2013). Fatherhood is, so to say, hot. The role of the father is being redefined from the one who earned the money and provided the bread to live to the one who nurtures for children together with a partner who also is employed, while they share equal responsibilities for household and children. This change in understanding of the father role raises many questions like a very fundamental one: (a) Do fathers still matter? (b) How to define a stay-at-home dad? (c) The effect of multiple roles? 

Do fathers still matter? 

In the United States of America, by 1970, 85% of American children under eighteen lived with two parents. By 2018, the total number of families with children was 34.452, 31% of which were single parent families: 24% single mothers and 7% single fathers (U.S. Census Bureau, Newsroom: Single parents day, 2018). The categories ‘with children under 18 include parents of never-married biological status, and includes also step and adopted children. The two-parent figure actually undercounts biological father absence, because it includes families composed of a biological mother and a stepfather. Some have suggested that the number of children living with both biological parents should be estimated around 50% (Heuveline, Timberlake, & Furstenberg, 2003). This means that a substantial part of children in some parts of the Western society live for a shorter or longer time without a resident father figure. But, are there any indications that the absence of fathers matters?

The most fundamental way to approach this question is to find relations between the presence of the father and child mortality (Gray & Anderson, 2010, p. 122). Gaudino, Jenkins, and Rochat (1999) found that children with no father listed on the birth certificate were 2.0 times as likely to die as children whose fathers were listed on their birth certificates. Criticism on these numbers said that the registration of the father on the birth certificate may depend on other factors like poverty, and, therefore, not relate child mortality to the absence of fathers, but to, for instance, poverty. Sear and Mace (2008) indicate that fathers have a positive effect on children’s survival in some societies. They reviewed twenty-two studies that examined whether a father’s death influenced child mortality. In 32% of these studies children were more likely to die when fathers died. However, the presence of other kin also improved the survival of children. Grandmothers appear to be as important as fathers, if not more so, in increasing child survival. Gray and Anderson (2010, p. 124) pose the question why fathers are not more important? The absence of fathers may not be the best way to measure the importance of fathers since when fathers die, kin will substitute for the father. Also, in the early years fathers may be less involved than in the later years. Therefore, another way to approach the question: ‘Do fathers still matter?’ should be to look at the impact on children’s development. 

Plenty of research shows that growth, maturation, health status and psychological wellbeing are outcomes of parental influence. A large body of literature suggests that children who grow up in single-mother households are more likely to drop out of school and complete less schooling, to exhibit disruptive and other so-called delinquent behaviors including substance abuse. Further, they earn less money as adults, have poorer physical and mental health as adults, and are more likely to experience non-marital births and union dissolution or divorce as adults themselves (Sigle-Rushton & McLanahan, 2004). However, these outcomes and others have been criticized for not taking into account that people choose a certain way of life. This means that one cannot compare the data of a married couple with a single mother situation without reckoning with confounding factors. Because people choose the family structure they live in, unobserved variables may be responsible for any observed relationship between family structure and any particular outcome. 

Other approaches have been longitudinal and offer more reliable evidence of the importance of fathers. A father’s involvement when the children were young had a positive effect on the development in later years (Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid, & Bremberg, 2007). Greater father involvement earlier in life was associated with higher educational achievement, lower delinquency rates, and lower psychological distress (Harris, Furstenberg, & Marmer, 1998). Another study, using a nationally representative sample of adolescents with nonresident fathers, found that teenagers with stronger ties to nonresident fathers had fewer behavioral problems (King & Sobolewski, 2006). Indeed, fathers do matter, but in a different way than often understood. Fathers matter when they are in positive relationship with their children and support them in different ways, even when the father is at distance. 7 

But how is the current situation for fathers? How are they involved with the care for their children? 

How to define the stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) 

Over the past few decades, as the educational attainment and labor-force participation of women increased, some men have taken up the care for household and children. They are called: ‘Stay-at-Home Dads’ (SAHDs). This term has largely been taken for granted in the academic, every day, and popular discourses, and is used to indicate the number of men who stay at home and care for children. In Canada, for instance, the number of SAHDs has increased from 1 in 70 in 1976 to 1 in 10 in 2015 of all Canadian families (Statistics Canada, 2016). At the same time the number of dual earner families has increased as well. Families with stay-at-home mothers declined by 1,025,000, whereas those with SAHDs increased by 32,000. In Canada, SAHD means a household where a mother is employed and a father is not employed for one year (i.e. not going to school and not looking for work but able to work). 

The American Census Bureau collects data in a very similar way. They defined an SAHD as a ‘married father with children under 15 years old who has remained out of the labor force for more than one year primarily so he can care for his family while his wife works outside the home (U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012, 2012). Conceptually, the term may not cover the real situation, since the definition is centered around the nuclear-family and excludes LGBTQ families (i.e. all family structures except hetero sexual ones), as well as men who are single, divorced, or living in a cohabiting union. Also excluded are fathers who have some connection to paid work, including men who work part time or in irregular or flexible work, as well as fathers who work at home, unemployed job seekers, the under-employed, students, and discouraged workers (Doucet, 2016). Based on research, Doucet (2016) suggests three categories of SAHD’s: (a) fathers in transition, who are rethinking or retraining for their career path or job, (b) fathers working flexibly, at home, self-employed, freelance, or in part-time jobs, who remained tied to the labor market and also gave attention to household’s caring responsibilities, and (c) fathers taking a break from paid work, who have achieved at least some of their career goals and were looking for other forms of fulfillment. 

Why is this research important? It shows that SAHDs maintain some formal or informal connection to the labor market (Doucet, 2016). When men enter the caring for children and household situation it seems not simply a role exchange: more women at work and more men at home. It seems that men take up multiple roles including child care, household tasks, while maintaining an attachment to society and work. This raises the question of the effect of multiple roles. 

The effect of multiple roles 

Can fathers have multiple roles and still thrive? Insights have changed in the past fifty years with regard to the benefits of multiple roles. Multiple roles were expected to be the source of burnout, since working together with the care for the household would drain the energy of the worker too much. Especially, women were supposed to suffer from the changing situations, i.e. next to household tasks the added responsibility of working for an employer and earning money (Barnett, Raudenbush, Brennan, & Pleck, 1995). However, research also found that multiple roles offer multiple opportunities to experience successes and develop a sense of self-confidence or self-efficacy (Bussy & Bandura, 1999). Multiple roles provide the individual with a broader frame of reference. Multiple-role holders have many more opportunities to get perspective on their ups and downs than do single-role holders. Linville (1985) has theorized that the less complex a person’s cognitive representation of the self, the more extreme will be that person’s swings in affect and self-appraisal. Conversely, the greater the individual’s self-complexity, the more that individual will be buffered against the negative effects of stressful live events and consequent effects on depression. Men who were engaged in the roles of employee, spouse, and father reported fewer physiological symptoms of distress than men who occupied fewer roles (typically, men who were not fathers (Gore & Mangione, 1983). Wilkie, Ferree, and Ratcliff (1998), found that more equitable sharing of breadwinning offered benefits to the marital satisfaction for both husbands and wives. Fathers should seek multiple roles, for having multiple roles can be beneficial rather than detrimental. However, having multiple roles not necessarily increases the fathers happiness. Multiple roles will increase the number of demands. Accurate management of demands means balancing demands with resources. This will be essential for the father not to end up in a burnout. We will introduce two new theories that can be of help for fathers who are balancing several roles: the Job Demands and Resources Theory (JD-R) and the Self Determination Theory (SDT). 

Job Demands and Resources Model (JD-R) 

This theory is based on the Conservation of Resources Theory (Hobfoll, 1989) which predicts that stress occurs when: (a) there was a threat of a loss of resources, (b) there was an actual net loss of resources, or when (c) resources could not be replenished after they have been spent (Hobfoll, 2002). Taking the three groups of SAHDs as mentioned above, all three groups of fathers may have stress when they experience the termination of work as a loss, i.e. in the case of dismissal at an older age and with no chances to find new work. In that sense, taking up a caring task at home may be a stressful event. 

The Job Demands-Resources Model brings together the demands that are related to loss, but also the resources that relates to enforcement which balances the losses (Bakker & Demerouti, 2014). Demands refer to physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of a situation that cost energy on a physical or psychological level (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001). Resources refer to physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects that are functional in achieving goals, reduce demands and stimulate personal growth, learning and development (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). When a father takes up child care and household tasks, he may only see the demands, the washing of clothes, the cleaning up of the mess, the long hours, and the boredom of repetitive tasks, etc. However, he may also use the resources like having the opportunity to create free time, meet new people, take time for self, enjoy playing with the child, and have time for work. When fathers take special care to let the resources outweigh the demands, they will thrive in their child care and household tasks. If they get bogged down in the demands, they will get depressed and may even develop a burnout. There are three specific areas in which a father may develop his resources: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. This concept is called the Self Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 2000). 

Self-determination Theory (SDT) 

This theory deals with human motivation based on basic psychological needs. SDT suggests three intrinsic needs, (a) autonomy, (b) relatedness, and (c) competence, that improve self-motivation and psychological health, growth, and development. Autonomy refers to self-governance, personal initiative, self-will (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Relatedness refers to the tendency to be oriented toward forming strong and stable interpersonal bonds (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Competence refers to the experience of mastery in one’s activities (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Fathers who take up responsibility for child care and households need to develop resources in these three areas. When fathers increase their sense of autonomy, increase their sense of belonging and deliberately work on getting better in whatever tasks they have to do, they will thrive and experience great fulfillment. 


The father as a child-caring person is a new identity of which many men have not had a male role model. Men should expect that new situations will affect them even on a hormonal level. This is part of the entire change process. The change does not render fathers obsolete. Fathers are essential for the development of their children. It will become more and more acceptable that men take up multiple roles among which caring for children. Men should not copy women, but find their own balance between caring and self-development. Two recent theoretical models can be of help for the modern man. This new identity needs to be discovered and tested. More research is needed in this area. More and more men are willing to take on this new identity, however, it appears not simply to be a replacement of the mother in the home. For several reasons men need to stay in touch with society and work. This gives men the kind of fulfillment they need. 

As Trobisch (1983) already suggested, man is capable to far more than the old patriarchal role that has been assigned to him. Today’s changes in expectations, male roles and male responsibility could not occur if man did not have the propensity to act in these different circumstances. However, as the case study we started off with suggests, these changes ask for new behaviors, new strategies and a new masculine identity.






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