History of fatherhood sheds light on contemporary challenges.

Monash Life | Thriving communities | 4 minute read

Being a single father is tough. But historian Jill Barnard says that her work on Australian fatherhood uncovered one particularly heartbreaking story. The man, a widower who had lost his wife to illness, was trying to care for two young sons, first with the help of his mother-in-law before she too died, and then by moving in with another family.

But this, as Barnard explains, was the 1940s. “At that time, working-class men whose wives died had literally no hope of keeping their kids with them,” she says. And just when it looked as though he might battle through, the father was killed in a workplace accident, and his sons were placed in care.

The story, told by one of his sons, is one of hundreds of records of fatherhood examined by researchers at Monash as part of the ground-breaking project, Fatherhood: an Australian history 1919-2019.

Surprisingly little work has been done in this area, including among Indigenous and migrant Australians. “In the history of the family in Australia, there’s a lot said about motherhood, as you would expect as family history was pioneered by feminists,” says Dr Kate Murphy, a senior lecturer in contemporary history, who is a chief investigator on the project. “But there has not been a lot written on the history of fatherhood in Australia. It was a really glaring omission, so this project was designed to redress that.”

A clear theme emerging from the work is that while there have been seismic shifts in society’s expectations of fathers, the overall picture is one of continuity, particularly in the perception of fathers as breadwinners of the family.

This model of the male breadwinner with dependent female partner and children was enshrined in law in the Harvester Judgement of 1907, which established that a fair wage should enable a man to support a wife and three children. “That idea of a male breadwinner and a dependent female partner is judicially determined, and goes on to effect welfare policy and tax policy and so on,” says Murphy.

Men queuing - the great depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the first challenge to that model, as it left so many men unable to support their families. Given the societal expectation that they would provide, this had a devastating effect both on those men and their male children, Barnard’s work has found.

“People who were kids in that Depression era – even looking back from the 21st century when they were being interviewed – tend to be very hard on their fathers if they weren’t adequate breadwinners,” she says. That in turn has shaped their own approach to fatherhood, with many placing great emphasis on their ability to support their families when they themselves become parents. “They judged themselves as successful because they did achieve that breadwinning role, where their fathers hadn’t or couldn’t,” she says.

This has left a legacy for some, says Dr Kylie King, a senior research fellow at Monash’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health. In her work on men’s mental health and suicide prevention, outside the Fatherhood project, she hears stories from men now in their 80s who spent their lives focusing on their role as provider rather than carer, and now find themselves on the periphery of family life as their children grow up and are able to provide for themselves.

“In their lifetime, they were noticing those changes and they were talking to us about how they hope that that’s different for young fathers today,” King says.

“If we look over the whole period, one of the big changes is a cultural acceptance of the capability of fathers to be effective parents, to actually do the full work of parenting as opposed to what was expected of early 20th-century fathers, which is more around discipline.”

The classification of parenting roles into the breadwinning father and caring mother experienced its most significant challenge in the 1970s, with the move to award women equal pay with men for equal work. More women joined the workforce and, suddenly, fathers who assumed their only role was to earn money found themselves expected to play a part in caring for their children.

Father styling daughter's hair

“If we look over the whole period, one of the big changes is a cultural acceptance of the capability of fathers to be effective parents, to actually do the full work of parenting as opposed to what was expected of early 20th-century fathers, which is more around discipline,” Murphy says. There is now much more faith in men being able to do just about everything involved in being a parent, from being present at the birth, to changing nappies, to staying home with young children while their partner works.

But while many are happy to embrace that new paradigm, they face structural barriers, through lack of access to, or lack of encouragement to access, parental leave. “Mothers are still much more likely than fathers to reduce employment to care for young children," she says, partly because flexible work arrangements are more likely to be offered to women than to men.

It illustrates why research initiatives such as the Fatherhood project are so important, Barnard says. “Historical research is important for informing understanding of contemporary issues as well as giving us an insight into our past.”

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