Helen Norman and Mark Elliot, University of Manchester
How to measure the involvement of fathers in childcare is a matter of wide debate (e.g. Dermott 2008, 2003; Williams 2008; Mikelson 2008; Sanderson and Sanders-Thompson 2002; Cabrera et al 2000; McBride and Mills 1993; Lamb 1986). This is in contrast to the concept of maternal involvement, which is universalised and taken for granted (Miller 2010; 2011).
Paternal involvement is challenging to define and measure in quantitative research because it is a subjective and manifests itself in varied ways (e.g. see Dermott 2008; Pleck 2010; Palkovitz 1997). Yet a precise measurement of the term would prove useful for creating a benchmark for further research and conceptual elaboration as well as a reliable means for assessing the factors associated with being an ‘involved father’. Simplifying a complex term into a quantitative measure allows us to capture and summarise a diverse set of practices that reaches out to all types of fathers. This is particularly useful for exploring paternal involvement across a large cohort of fathers in order to help inform UK policy debates on both fathers' and mothers' work-family reconciliation, which has been a key concern for all UK Governments since the 1990’s.
In our paper, published in Sociological Research Online, we derive two measures of paternal involvement using household data from the UK's Millennium Cohort Study. These measures are based on two dimensions of paternal involvement coined by Michael Lamb in 1986: ‘engagement’ and ‘responsibility’. Engagement represents the one-to-one interaction time with the child such as feeding the child, helping the child with their homework and playing. Responsibility is defined as knowing in detail what childcare needed and ensuring it is provided by anticipating, planning and arranging provision. For example, knowing when the child needs to go to the doctor, making the appointment and ensuring the child gets to it is responsibility – going with the child to the doctors and talking to them about it is engagement. Another way in which a father might evidence responsibility is through maintaining a clean and safe standard of living for the child i.e. housework. This also relieves the other parent (i.e. the mother) of these tasks so that she can concentrate on other activities such as looking after the child.
In order to derive our two measures, we use variables from the MCS that measure the fathers' accounts of their childcare practices when children are very young and the mothers' reports on fathers' contributions to housework. This use of a combination of mothers' and fathers' reports for different variables is primarily driven by the structure of the MCS questionnaire design but doing this also allows us to gain a balanced perspective of fathers' involvement. We use three different factor analytic techniques to derive our measures or ‘factors’. Factor analysis works by reducing a large number of variables to a smaller number of factors that can be used in subsequent analyses. Our factor analyses confirmed the existence of ‘engagement’ and ‘responsibility’ factors in the data.
We then explored the relationship between socio-demographic, attitudinal and employment variables, and paternal engagement and responsibility. Our results show that fathers are more likely to be engaged and responsible when they work shorter hours or have a partner who works longer hours. Interestingly, mothers' employment hours had a higher correlation with paternal engagement and responsibility than fathers' own employment hours. Fathers were also more engaged when they had a higher level of education and more egalitarian gender role attitudes. Our analysis also reveals variations in paternal involvement according to the father's ethnicity. For example, Black/Black British fathers are most likely to show most evidence of responsibility (through housework), and are also most likely to be engaged in childcare. Engagement and responsibility is lowest for fathers with a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background. The variations in paternal involvement according to ethnicity may be related to cultural differences as shown by Hauari and Hollingsworth (2009) for example, but further research is needed to explore this.
Our results suggest a modest shift in gender relations whereby it is no longer the fathers' but the mothers' employment that primarily shapes how involved a father is with his children. In two-parent households, fathers' labour market roles have historically been given precedence as the 'primary' earner in the couple (also see Warin et al. 1999) so this role is expected to dictate the amount of time available to spend with children. However, our results suggest this is no longer the case with the mother’s employment being even more important than the father’s in shaping how involved he is in childcare and housework.
In future, it would be interesting to explore the association between paternal involvement and paternity and parental leave, as well as different forms of flexible working, for a more recent cohort of fathers in order to assess the impact and success of these different levels of Government support.
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