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Parenting practices in separated couples – a longer historical view


A 1950s family

Laura King, School of History, University of Leeds

Though divorce has become much easier, and more common, in the last fifty years, marital break up is not a new thing. Death, family abandonment and mutual separation in the past meant there were multiple types and shapes of families  and children could have minimal contact with one of their parents. Losing contact with a parent was more often the case with fathers, though families headed by a single father are not new either. Indeed, whilst more children tend to spend the majority of their time with their mothers than their fathers in the case of a break up today, the law used to favour fathers. Until the 1925 Guardianship Act, mothers were only able to apply for custody of their children if they were under seven years old, and women only gained full equal rights to custody of their children in 1973, when they were granted full independent authority over their children.

A recent study, by Tina Haux and Lucinda Platt, has explored the impact of parental separation on children in Britain today – half of who will experience parental break up at some point through their childhood. Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has surveyed the families of around 19,000 children born between September 2000 and January 2002, the authors tracked parenting practices for those whose parents had split up by the time they reached 11 years old. The study highlights the links between parenting practices before the break up and afterwards, and measured the levels of contact with the non-resident parent – typically the father – following a split. Overall, contact levels were high, though the frequency and nature of this contact did depend on factors like the child’s age.

A longer historical perspective can help illuminate some of the key developments highlighted by this study. Indeed, summarising the research, one of its authors, Tina Haux, highlights  ‘the emergence of the ‘new father’ who wants to be more involved and emotionally present than his own father.’ Since the 1970s, there has been some increase in the amount of time men spend with their children, and a greater cultural emphasis on involved fatherhood. Yet the idea of doing things differently from one’s own father can be found in the accounts of men from a number of different generations – indeed, sociologist Charlie Lewis thought the idea that men have recently become more involved in family life ‘is as old and perhaps as prominent as patriarchy’. Furthermore, as my own research and that of Joanne Begiato, Julie-Marie Strange and others, has shown affectionate fathers can be found in all periods of history. Whilst interrogating whether practices of men’s parenting live up to the ‘new father’ ideal, we should be wary of narratives of sudden change.

Two key trends in this research were that as children got older, they were increasingly likely to lose all contact with their fathers if their parents had separated. Over 15 per cent of 3-year-old children had no contact with their fathers, and this figure rose to over 25 per cent for 11-year-olds. Simultaneously, however, children were more likely to stay overnight with their fathers as they got older.

By examining change over time and how men and women interpret the differences between generations, we also can better understand these trends. My own recent research has examined men’s experiences of their partners’ pregnancy, childbirth and early infant care. Whilst many men express eagerness to be involved in their children’s lives, they also highlight the strong differences between mothering and fathering and the barriers to their involvement. Men’s involvement in antenatal classes and attendance at their children’s births is a major change in the latter third of the twentieth century. Whilst many men enjoy this opportunity, their accounts also emphasise how the experience of physical bearing children and breastfeeding can set a pattern for the greater involvement of mothers in their children’s lives. As one father described of having his children in the 1970s, he felt somewhat ‘on the outside’ during the pregnancy, and his wife ‘seemed to know how to do everything’ when the baby arrived. As Richard Hall’s recent blog post suggested, furthermore, breadwinning also remains a core component of modern fatherhood and masculinity. The emphasis on change from previous generations is often tempered by the highlighting of biological difference between men and women, and subsequent parenting practices. This can mean men and women feel men are less able to care for younger children then women, perhaps explaining why children were increasingly likely to stay overnight with fathers as they got older, and that the day-to-day care of children often remained the responsibility of mothers.

The report is a very valuable insight into decision-making and practices amongst separated parents, and it highlights the link between parenting practices before a split and dividing custody and responsibility afterwards. Thinking through narratives of change across different generations, interrogating the idea of sudden changes in fatherhood practices, and further exploring the ways in which men and women understand their respective roles can shed further light on why and how separated parents act as they do.


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