The experiences of new fatherhood

a socio-cultural analysis
Lesley Barclay PhD MEd BA RN CM
Professor of Family Health, University of Technology,
Sydney and the South-eastern Area Health Service,
Sydney, Australia
and Deborah Lupton PhD MPH LittB BA
A/Professor in Cultural Studies and Cultural Policy and Deputy Director
of the Centre for Cultural Risk Research, Charles Sturt University,
Bathurst, Australia
Accepted for publication 15 May 1998
BARCLAY BARCLAY L. & L. & LUPTON LUPTON D. (1999) D. (1999) Journal of Advanced Nursing 29(4), 1013±1020
The experiences of new fatherhood: a socio-cultural analysis
For most men, ®rst-time fatherhood involves signi®cant changes in self-identity
and their relationship with their female partner. This paper presents some
®ndings from a longitudinal, qualitative study into the ®rst 6 months of new
fatherhood for a group of 15 Australian men. The discussion draws on a series of
semistructured interviews undertaken on a minimum of four occasions from a
few days before the child was born until 5±6 months after birth. We found that
®rst-time fathering in contemporary western society requires men to be
simultaneously provider, guide, household help and nurturer. The demands of
these roles, and the tensions they sometimes produce, challenge men's
relationships with their female partners, the meaning and place of work in their
lives and their sense of self as competent adults. Almost all the men we
interviewed found the early weeks and months of fatherhood more uncom-
fortable than rewarding, despite looking forward to fatherhood very positively.
Their experience appeared more closely aligned to their dif®culties with
meeting social expectations and roles rather than individual de®cits.
Keywords: fatherhood, couple relationships, families, qualitative
socio-cultural discourses, family policy, parenthood education
Fatherhood as a socio-cultural phenomenon is far less
studied than motherhood. The research on fatherhood
published in the health literature addresses similar
concerns to the more researched ®eld of motherhood.
For example, father±infant attachment (Bowen & Miller
1980, Mercer & Ferketich 1990), fathers' involvement in
infant care (Rustia & Abbott 1993, Tiedje & Darling-Fisher
1993), their sensitivity to infant cues (Graham 1993) and
the in¯uences of the fathers' attitudes to breast feeding on
the female partners' decision to breast feed (Littman et al.
1994) have all received attention. The early experiences of
fathers during a transition to parenthood have also been
studied (Jordan 1990, Henderson & Brouse 1991). This
body of literature often represents fatherhood as poten-
tially pathological (Berman & Pedersen 1987), disruptive
and involving intrapersonal struggle (Cowan & Cowan
1987) and stressful (Terry et al. 1991).
Such literature portrays fatherhood as a series of
individualistic problems that require individual solu-
Correspondence to: Professor Lesley Barclay, Family Health Research Unit,
L2, J. Laws House, St George Hospital, Kogarah, NSW 2217, Australia.
Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1999, 29(4), 1013±1020 Health and nursing policy issues
Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd 1013
tions, often needing help from `experts'. Absent fathers
are similarly believed to create problems, particularly
for male children, although some researchers claim that
girls require fathers to `validate' their femininity and
enhance their self-esteem (Shapiro et al. 1995). Father-
hood is most often treated as profoundly gendered,
with differences between men's and women's approach-
es to parenting forming a central focus. Mothers and
fathers are often represented as different but comple-
mentary (Pruett 1995). While some writers are moving
to explore the social and cultural dimensions of
fatherhood (Bozett & Hanson 1991), they tend to
position culture as an external in¯uence on fathers
rather than viewing fatherhood itself as a socio-cultural
construction. It is important that health workers, pre-
dominantly midwives and nurses involved with newly
forming families, have a well-informed basis for the
clinical and educational activities they undertake. This
study aims to broaden the basis of our practice by
adding a socio-political dimension to our assessment of
families often lacking.
To address this latter dimension of fatherhood, we are
conducting a longitudinal study involving in-depth,
semistructured interviews with a group of men who
are experiencing fatherhood for the ®rst time (their
partners are also interviewed as part of a larger study on
®rst-time parenting). The study, which began in 1995, is
currently in progress and will continue until the child of
each couple reaches 3 years of age. Each participant is
interviewed several times over the course of this time-
span, beginning from just before the birth of the child. A
full report of the research on fatherhood, including
detailed analyses of popular media portrayals and expert
discourses on fatherhood with case studies, a descrip-
tion of our participants and detail of how data was
obtained and analysed is published elsewhere (Lupton &
Barclay 1997). Because of the dif®culties in presenting
qualitative research in a brief journal article the present
paper summarizes some of the key ®ndings from the
interviews only, and focuses on the ®rst 6 months of
Progressive, purposive recruitment of the couples in-
volved in the study occurred between early 1995 and
early 1997. Most of the couples were attending pre-
parenthood classes at a Sydney hospital, with a further
three couples recruited via snowball sampling. The ®nal
group of couples ranged in age from 24 to 37 years. The
analysis presented here is based on interview data from
the 15 men recruited between early 1995 and late 1996.
These men were employed in a broad range of occupa-
tions including factory supervisor, ®nancial analyst, sales
representative, nurses' aid, storeman, plumber and
Both partners were interviewed separately, often si-
multaneously, in different rooms in the couples' own
homes. Twelve men were interviewed by one of two
male interviewers, and a female researcher interviewed
the remaining men. Each man was interviewed for about
an hour on four occasions during the period between
just before the birth of his child and 5 or 6 months
following the birth. The interviews were semistructured,
with a similar set of questions asked of each man but
allowing the scope for expansion or the opening of new
issues. The questions investigated the participants'
expectations and subsequent experience of fatherhood,
their notions of `good' fatherhood and motherhood and
explored the participants' contribution to decision mak-
ing and practices in providing care. For example, one
question asked of all participants in an interview held
after the birth of the child was, `There is a wide range of
beliefs and activities around a baby's feeding. What
decisions have you and your partner made about feeding
the baby?'
All interviews were audio-taped and fully transcribed
for analysis. Discourse analysis, a qualitative method of
investigation focused on the representation and creation
of meaning through language and visual imagery, was
used in analysing the interview data. A discourse is
de®ned as a patterned way of representing phenomena in
the social and material worlds, which in so doing
`constructs' these phenomena. This form of analysis
highlights the constantly changing and historically
contingent nature of discourses (Lupton 1992; Weedon
1992). The analytical process focused on the structure of
the participants' explanations and the words, phrases,
concepts and belief systems they used to describe phe-
nomena and beliefs and represent their experiences.
Contradictions, ambivalence and paradoxes have proven
particularly critical points for our analysis of these data.
We identi®ed several interrelated themes that shape the
experiences and self-identity of men and their partners as
they enter parenthood for the ®rst time: ®rst, how men and
women de®ne `work' and the capacity or willingness of
men and women to renegotiate employment and house-
hold or childcare work; secondly, the expectations and
symbolic meanings around fatherhood were important
and varied. These were established as relationships within
the family unit changed and men formed a father±child
dyad and renegotiated a different relationship with their
partner. The emotional dimensions of new fatherhood are
profound and emerge from the data as both complex and
evolving. These themes are discussed in detail below.
L. Barclay and D. Lupton
1014 Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020
Renegotiating paid employment
and household work
Many men in our study found after their child's birth that
they lacked skills in household tasks they had not
attempted before. The families where men had participat-
ed equally in household work for some time before their
children were born were advantaged in the early weeks of
parenting. These men were less likely to see domestic
labour work as gender-related. Not only were they more
ef®cient, because they were already competent at getting
jobs done, they did not resent this or feel put upon by their
partner in their domestic role. For example, Peter said:
I don't feel as though I'm expected to do a lot of things. We had
been together for a long while even before the baby came along.
Donna and I would get everything done. We had a routine set up
and we would swap round. I've been used to helping for ages. A
lot of my friends would not even know one vacuum cleaner from
another because their mother, sister or another woman did all the
Becoming skilful in the work of caring for their infants
required men to invest time and energy in familiarizing
themselves with the infant's requirements. Most men in
our study did not do this. Some were not allowed to do so
by their partner, most were prevented from doing so by the
requirements of paid employment, and one did not believe
it was `proper' for men to be involved. The few men who
chose to become closely involved with their infant, and
had paid employment that allowed them to do so, found
the emotional rewards were signi®cant and began quite
early in the infant's life.
The nature of paid employment profoundly in¯uenced
the amount of time men could commit to parenting. Jim, a
sports psychologist with a very demanding practice, had
planned before the birth of his son to be very involved
with caring for him but had underestimated the amount of
time this took. An hour or two snatched from work, which
was often all he could manage in a 12-hour work day,
proved unsatisfying for Jim. This brief period was not long
enough to provide him with the close bond he wanted
with his son. Steve, a computer systems analyst, also
worked long hours, his child was frequently asleep when
he left and returned from employment. Steve commented
how this made him feel `left out':
I hope I'm around in those times when he is learning to play.
There is a couple of hours each day when he wants to play and try
and talk and stuff. Because I'm at work I hope I don't miss out on
that too much. I don't want to come home all the time and [®nd]
him asleep.
Richard, who worked in sales, was very open with his
employer about the priority his family played in his life.
Indeed, he said he chose his employer, in part, because his
employer also put a high value on spending time with his
own family. Despite this, the demands of Richard's job,
particularly the travelling time required of him, resulted
in him being away from the house for 10±12 hours a day, 5
days a week. Tony, a tradesman, was the only father in our
study who participated fully in the `work' of parenting
during infancy. He said that he came from a home where
his own father was neither close nor involved with him as
a child and wanted to avoid replicating this in his own
parenthood. On weekends, when Tony did not have to
work and was home all day, he devoted much of his time
to performing household tasks and infant care. It was
evident from Tony's interviews that the closer he became
to his infant son James through caring for him, the more he
enjoyed fatherhood. The tasks that many other men in the
study avoided, Tony said he found rewarding, for
I enjoy nappy changing `cause they are fairly frequent. A chance
for him to be out of those bloody nappies and have a kick. I guess
you're doing something for them. So you get a chance [to get
close]. He sits there and looks at me sometimes and you know if
you're not doing a bad job. Bath times are good [too].
The men and their partners differed in how they de®ned
work. Also they differed in whether they saw the tasks of
the household and infant care as holding the same status
or demands as paid employment. Mike, like Tony, was a
tradesman with a non-involved father. He also espoused a
rejection of his own father's model of parenting. Mike,
however, de®ned his employed role very differently from
Tony. It appeared essential for him to retain his paid
employment status above that of parenting or contribution
to domestic work. He considered his weekend leisure
pursuits of ®shing and hunting more appropriate activities
for him as a man than childcare and justi®ed them as a
necessary part of his relaxation. He constructed his
fatherhood contribution as the economic provider for the
family. His partner Jenny disagreed with this and wanted
him to be more involved with household work and
parenting. Despite this Mike was clear that his employ-
ment as a plumber was the `work' of the household. He
argued therefore that Jenny, who was on maternity leave,
should be the one to attend to their baby throughout the
night. He believed she could `catch up' on rest during the
day, because she was `not working'. Mike justi®ed his
contribution to the family in other ways, although not
without defensiveness, as Jenny was often critical of his
lack of contribution to childcare. Mike used the word
`guilty' often in his interviews as if he recognized some
legitimacy in his partner's complaints that he was `lazy'.
He resented the expectation, however, that he should help
because he went out to `work'. He argued, `I don't do much
but there is not much I can do. I'm still going to work and
paying the bills, that is part of it isn't it?'
The men's unrealistic expectations in relation to house-
hold and infant work had negative consequences for their
Health and nursing policy issues Experiences of new fatherhood
Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020 1015
partners, as women could no longer undertake the same
amount of household labour as before. Obviously other
sources of domestic help could compensate, but the
families we interviewed lacked this help. If there was some
¯uidity between the couple on undertaking household
work, particularly if the male partner was already
competent in undertaking such tasks, the family was
Expectations and symbolic meanings of fatherhood
Another challenge arose from men's expectation of devel-
oping an emotional relationship with the infant. Most of
the men in the study appeared to have accepted the
nurturer and carer discourses of `new' fatherhood and
added it to the provider and guide discourses relating to
`traditional' fatherhood. Words and phrases that have
entered the discourse of motherhood such as `bonding'
were used frequently by men who expected something
similar to happen for them. The other phrase, used very
often by men to try to describe a `good' father, was the
ubiquitous `being there'. Men see the performance against
this criterion will be measured by the child, their partner
and society itself. It is a powerful phrase which, like
bonding, is open to a wide range of interpretations.
Somehow `being there' characterizes what men see
makes them different as `modern' fathers from their own
or previous fathers, who they tended to represent as
`absent'. When asked to de®ne `being there' many saw this
in terms of an older child and `male' imagery, for example
playing football or ®shing. Only one participant reported
this in more gender-neutral terms of helping with the
child's homework and none reported images of cooking,
shopping or shared household activity. Some said that
they would not go out as much because they wanted to `be
there' for the child. Only Tony reported `being there' in
relation to tasks attached to infancy such as settling an
infant for sleep, although all enjoyed feeding their infant.
After the baby was born, it became clear the images most
men had of `being there' were unachievable. Instead of
adjusting the images and behaviour to match the maturity
of the infant, almost all the men interviewed postponed
their goal of `being there' until the infant was older, more
sociable, easily managed and rewarding. For most men in
our study therefore the emotional ful®lment they sought
from fatherhood came later than they anticipated.
This appeared to be because of their initial unrealistic
expectations of the infant's responsiveness to them and
incompetence or lack of opportunity to become a compe-
tent provider of care. The men expected to be involved
with the child as a friend, playmate or guide. They also
expected that this involvement with the child would be
reciprocal as they gained emotional satisfaction from their
involvement with the child. These ®rst-time fathers did
not expect their infant to be as non-social and demanding
as they proved to be. Confusion resulted as they tried to
understand a situation they did not expect and one where
they did not see a role for themselves at all, for example
one man said: `There is not much I can do. You can't really
get her on a bike and go for a ride at this stage of her life.'
Many men felt there were no guidelines for them to
follow in the ®rst-time fathering of a tiny infant and few
had role models to emulate. There were signs, however,
with one or two of the fathers, that contemporary role
models were increasing; for example, Simon's brother had
stayed at home to care for his young children while his
spouse had remained in paid employment, and provided a
strong model for Simon. Despite this Simon found it
dif®cult to become as involved as he wanted to be in
caring for his daughter because his partner Jane was
experiencing dif®culties in her own parenting. Simon
found that his attempts to care for his child were more
often rejected than welcome. Simon described in the ®rst
interview after birth how `scary' the process had been and
how confusing some advice had been from the hospital
staff, particularly around issues of breast feeding. Five
weeks after birth the situation was little improved and
despite great dif®culties with breast feeding, his partner
was persisting but not feeling good about herself as a
mother. Simon said that he felt distressed at the continual
exclusion he felt from providing care for the infant. He
wanted to help but felt prevented from doing so:
I've just found that I'd like to have a go at settling her down. And
Jane says it's not a good idea to pass her backwards and forwards,
and it is probably not, but I begin to think, `Just bite your tongue
and just let her do it'. When you want to help it has not
necessarily been wanted or welcome. I think I can rock a baby as
well as anyone else but I'm not allowed to do that. There are times
when you go to help or offer to help and she says `No'.
The men in the study varied greatly in the extent to
which they wanted to be involved with the care of their
infant, but many expected to do so in ways that were not
achieved. Juan, for example, had accepted a de®nition of
fatherhood that meant he was `involved' with his son. He
found, however, in the early weeks and months his
partner was the only one who could really meet the baby's
needs. Juan said that he was waiting for things to `balance
out a bit', and for breast feeding to cease, so that he could
feed the baby and become more involved in his care.
Feeding the infant appears to be of symbolic and also
practical signi®cance to men and their partners. Breast
feeding rates in Australia are relatively high, at least for
the ®rst weeks after birth, and all the women in our study
began by feeding the infants themselves. Breast feeding
provided women with an inevitable, symbiotic connection
that for a number appeared to re-establish the intimacy
begun in intrauterine life (Schmied 1997). This type of
relationship was not available to the male partner and
resulted in some men feeling more `detached' than they
L. Barclay and D. Lupton
1016 Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020
expected or wanted to be. Men who wanted to be
emotionally involved with the child themselves in the
early weeks of parenting found breast feeding very time-
consuming for their partners and excluded them in a way
that was unexpected. As Jim said: `It is hard to get that
total involvement when you can't feed him, and this, apart
from sleeping, is what he is predominantly doing'.
Fathers, such as Richard, said that they found the intimacy
engendered by feeding the infant helped them to `fall in
love' with their infant. For some fathers, bottle-feeding
seemed to establish a vehicle for the communication and
engagement they sought but had not yet achieved with
their child.
The men found that feeding the infant engendered
intimacy and satisfaction in the role that had been
missing. In addition it also bought some practical bene®ts
for families where breast feeding had been dif®cult for the
mother. In families where breast feeding went smoothly,
men such as Jim quickly accepted the bene®ts breast
feeding provided for the baby and his partner. He readily
adjusted to his initial disappointment at being less
involved than he had hoped and took great satisfaction
in feeding baby Tom his solid food as he got older.
Breast feeding was a powerful metaphor for the unique
love only a mother could provide and emphasized the
biological link betweenthe mother andinfant that excluded
the father. Several men had mixed feelings about this
privileged position of their female partner. Some men were
aware of the powerful advantage that breast feeding the
infant gave the womaninrequiring her to establishintimate
and frequent contact with the child. The father who most
comfortably transcended the nexus of breast feeding and
privileged closeness to the child was Tony. Unlike some
other men in the research, he appeared to have no disillu-
sionment, discomfort or resentment in relation to his
partner breast feeding and quickly established an intimate,
care-providing relationship with his child. As noted above,
Tony participated in bodily contact with his son James
through frequent nappy changes and bathing and
welcomed the opportunities these occasions provided for
him to become physically close to James. Tony was not
inhibited by lack of con®dence or skill as he welcomed
learning how to do things he had never done before.
Simultaneously, his partner Louise welcomed his involve-
ment andappearedto be neither threatenednor diminished
in her role as mother by his engagement with the baby.
Men such as Steve saw their role as combining a deep
emotional connection with the baby with an authority or
moral guardian role. This conceptualization of guardian
included notions of discipline; for example, he said:
If you love them, you are going to stop them from doing some
things, and you will use about every method to do this if you have
to. You need to have love but if you let the child get away with
everything and do everything that's the easy way out.
Steve and his partner were clearer than most couples on
their roles as mother and father. Both came from a
committed Christian household and had strong social
networks and supportive relatives nearby. They held quite
conservative views and saw their roles as mother and
father as different. Steve believed the mother's role was
the `practical', caring and feeding contribution in the
main, but did not see this as demeaning, easy or less
valuable than his contribution. His partner, Kerry,
provided care for their son and managed the household.
There was little con¯ict between them, as she appeared
equally comfortable with this role and the respect Steve
accorded it. Families such as Steve's, with social supports
and established `rules', found the social transition to their
role as father less dif®cult than other families.
Many fathers were surprised that `bonding' with their
infants was not achieved immediately. As Juan comment-
I thought as a father there would be a bond there straight away
with the child. I thought it would just come naturally. I thought
because he was mine I was going to be immediately attracted to
this child and love would just come naturally. I was surprised I
wasn't overcome with feelings for him straight away.
Those men who did not enter care-providing relation-
ships soon after birth appeared to take longer to become
close to their children. Peter said, when his baby was
about 6 weeks old: `I know [I want] that bonding. I want to
get that feeling that we both know each other and get
along'. Sometimes incapacity in the female partner
provided the impetus for male involvement. For example,
some men were part of a caesarean delivery, and this gave
them an opportunity to be intimately involved with the
infant immediately. As Steve said shortly after his son was
I've been the one wrapping him in the blanket. Kerry cannot do a
lot because of all the tubes she had coming out of her. I'm looking
forward to doing more. Her Mum was there and copped a dirty
nappy yesterday so she got to change him. But hopefully I'll get
the chance today¼ I'd like to be a bit more involved in that way
Learning skills in caring for the infant appeared to be a
crucial step in becoming closer to the child. Even fathers
such as Mike who saw their role as limited and gave very
little time to childcare activities started to feel satisfaction
in their achievements when they `succeeded' in a task.
Mike noted, for example: `A few times I've put her back to
sleep and gave myself a pat on the back because I don't
know how I've done it'. The men who were relatively
uninvolved felt more distant from the child than they
wanted and looked forward to a time when the child
would be more responsive to them. For example, Juan, 6
months after the birth of his son, said:
Health and nursing policy issues Experiences of new fatherhood
Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020 1017
I don't think I have much of an effect [as a father] now but will in
the future. I guess on the one hand I can't wait until he gets to a
point where he can run around and do things and play soccer. I
can't wait for that.
Men also gained other rewards from becoming fathers.
The response elicited from others, often strangers, to the
baby, makes men feel proud of their changed status in
society. Mike found these rewards were immediate
although he was disappointed with the lack of respon-
siveness his daughter showed him in the ®rst months of
her life:
I enjoy it when we go out to places. Even just shopping Ð I enjoy
that. If you are a father you want to show off the baby.
Social interactions highlighted the men's changed status
and responsibility. These included, for example, the
discussion that they had with people at work about the
baby and its behaviour. Peter said that he enjoyed these
questions and providing answers to them because: `You
feel like the proud Dad, you know, just telling about all the
new things he is doing.'
Changing relationship with partner
The amount of tension that the birth of the baby caused in
the relationship of the couple surprised men greatly,
particularly after many couples achieved an emotional
high point at the delivery. It appeared that, for most
couples, things go wrong into the second or third week
after birth. That is after the man returned to paid employ-
ment. The female partner was left alone all day to pick up
on household tasks and care for the baby. As Mike noted:
The ®rst week was great, then after that things started to get
worse¼I never thought that Jenny and I would have fought so
Simon and Jane exempli®ed another type of tension in
their relationship. Simon wanted very much to be an
involved father but felt excluded from the role he wanted
with his daughter. His partner turned to multiple
agencies and health workers for advice over the ®rst
few months of mothering. Although Simon was himself a
health care worker, Jane would not allow him to reassure
her about the baby's behaviour. He found this hurtful and
felt rejected. Simon realized, however, how important it
was for him to try not to interfere, put his own needs `on
hold', and stay patient as Jane struggled to feel good
about her role as mother. Their relationship was severely
tried by early parenthood: as Simon noted, there were
frequent `blow ups from tiny things'. When their baby
Sally was 6 months old, Simon was still conveying deep
unhappiness and confusion about what was happening
to him with little sense that there was light at the end of
the tunnel.
Other couples appeared to be able to negotiate their
changed relationship more easily. For example, in his
third interview when his baby was 5 weeks old, Peter
described how he was helping with routine household
tasks. He was also spending time with the baby, and he
and Donna were also managing to maintain time together
to work on their own relationship. In part, this appeared to
be because their combined approach to chores and
parenting gave them time to do things together without
the exhaustion or sense of being overwhelmed manifest in
other couples:
We'll go down to¼ a local park and take the baby and the dog
with us. We try to do this every second, if not each weekend. We
usually go about lunch time when there is no one else around, we
just take some sandwiches and water for the dog and enjoy
The couples who experienced the least tension and
fewest `®ghts' were of two types. The ®rst type was the
very few who felt they had a framework of shared `rules'
for behaviour within which they operated. Steve and
Kerry were the most obvious example of this. As noted
above, the framework within which they began parenting
was strongly and positively in¯uenced by their Christian
beliefs, regular membership of a church and frequent
contact with families and friends who provided much
support. Kerry's experiences as a nurse also made her
better informed than most new mothers. The other end of
the spectrum was Tony, who welcomed the freedom and
opportunity of having no `rules'. He was comfortable
with the ambiguity and uncertainty that resulted
from fatherhood as he welcomed the learning that was
necessary. His partner Louise appeared to welcome his
deep engagement with the child and this did not threaten
her as a mother. In contrast, Mike and Jenny each held
different opinions about how fathers should behave, and
these continually placed them in con¯ict with each
It is evident that the expectations of society, men and their
partners of `new fatherhood' are out of step with social
structures in Australia. The employed Australian work-
force is working harder and longer and is less protected by
industrial agreements. At the same time social reform and
support is diminishing and men are expected to simulta-
neously be providers, emotional and practical supports to
their partners and gain increased emotional satisfaction
from intimate relationships with their children.
There is evidence from the interview data collected in
our study that notions of fatherhood are currently under-
going changes that require men to change their own
behaviour and attitudes. Men generally ®nd these changes
dif®cult, as qualitative research conducted in the
L. Barclay and D. Lupton
1018 Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020
American context shows (Daly 1993, Gerson 1993, Walzer
1996). The discourses emerging in men's accounts of their
ideas and experiences of fatherhood Ð of `being there',
`involved fatherhood' and `bonding' Ð are recent in
contemporary western society and appear to derive from
or be related to the `new age man' discourse. The expec-
tations associated with these discourses proved, for most
men we interviewed, to be unrealistic and were not
achieved with the requirements of the workforce and their
`provider, status. Nearly all our participants found father-
hood, in the beginning at least, to be disappointing and
frustrating. Most of the group expected to be more
`involved' than they actually were. Clearly the `absent
father' the men said they had experienced with their own
father as children was no longer acceptable to this
generation of men, but many were replicating this through
force of circumstance rather than choice. The lack of rules
and conventions that men perceived existed to govern
their behaviour, and the absence of individuals after
which they could model their fatherhood practices, made
things dif®cult for men who accepted that they needed to
be different from their own fathers. These men were
unsure how this `differentness' should be played out in
the way they organized their lives and the demands of
employment made it very dif®cult.
A most remarkable feature of the experiences of this
group of ®rst-time fathers is how most remained on the
fringes of parenthood for the ®rst 6 months. The emotional
rewards for new fathers appeared to be in proportion to
the amount of time and energy they expended in intimate
contact with the child. Only a minority of participants did
not want to provide this care, but most men found it
dif®cult to ®nd the time away from paid employment to
develop the skills they required to do so adequately. The
men admired the skillfulness they observed their partners
develop from frequent interaction with the infant, and, at
times, resented the closeness and rewards their partners
obtained from the infant in return. It is as if men who
participated in the research accepted a discourse of
masculinity that suggested they could nurture, invest
emotional and physical energy in their children and
obtain increased emotional satisfaction in return. The
unexpected immaturity of the infant and their lack of time
to get to `know' it rendered most men's expectations of
this unrealistic.
The men underestimated the disruption having a tiny
infant in the house would bring to their lives. They did not
understand the demands and rewards of the breast feeding
relationship for the mother until after birth and how this
privileged women in their intimate relationship with the
infant. We have found in this research that women's
capacity for breast feeding, together with a current,
hegemonic discourse that privileges breast feeding of
infants both for health reasons and for mother±child
`bonding', can exclude men from a close embodied
relationship with their child to the extent they sought
(Lupton & Barclay 1997).
When the men discovered this some felt resentful, while
others adapted and readjusted their expectations. The
latter group looked forward to what may be possible for
them to achieve later, when the maturity of the child
would allow them to play a more signi®cant role.
The participants in our study found fatherhood much
more dif®cult and distressing than they had expected
before the birth of their child. Their language resonated
with words such as `cope' and they talked of struggling,
often failing, at tasks they thought would be straightfor-
ward such as settling a crying baby. Men expressed being
`stumped' or stuck with no apparent way forward. Their
impotence as they struggled with new experiences often
resulted in anger or frustration at themselves and a
situation they could not manage. This frustration became
played out in the relationship with their partner. Instead
of being mutually supportive, it was often tense and
strained. The men felt inadequate, reluctant to share this
with their partners and guilty that they could not or did
not help to the extent needed or expected of them.
In societies such as Australia, men, for the most part, are
not actively supported by society or well prepared for
their household and parenting roles (Barclay et al. 1996)
and ®nd the contemporary experience of new fatherhood
disappointing. Men are now expected to ®ll the gaps that
neighbourhood women or close relatives provided for new
mothers, while at the same time facing the competing
imperatives between paid employment and their family as
contemporary economies expect workers to be ¯exible,
single-minded and ambitious (Beck & Beck-Gersheim
1995: 144).
We suggest that distinguishing between `private' and
`public' spheres in relation to fatherhood creates a false
dichotomy. Parenting and families are not separated
from the `outside world' (Lupton & Barclay 1997).
`Expert' and popular literature and practices of health
workers advising parents on raising children, laws that
control issues such as registering births and a social
welfare system that can remove children from their
parents, are all examples of how childbirth and child
rearing are constantly monitored and regulated by state
and other bodies and norms are created (Lupton &
Barclay 1997).
The experiences of the men reported in our research
hints at how `new fatherhood' might be achieved in the
future. This will require structural and social change. For
most of the men and women in our study, mutually
supportive and enriching early parenting is currently
unachievable. This was not because of individual prob-
lems or psychological de®cit, nor because men did not
want to engage in close, caring relationships with their
infants. As we have attempted to point out, these dif®-
culties are related more to socio-cultural changes in how
Health and nursing policy issues Experiences of new fatherhood
Ó 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 1013±1020 1019
fatherhood is represented and understood. This research
has implications for midwives, community health nurses,
home visitors and others involved in educating and
supporting newly forming families in contemporary west-
ern society who can play a positive part of this process of
The research presented here is drawn from a project
entitled Discourses of Parenthood: a longitudinal study,
funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council.
We are grateful for this support. We also thank Greg
Fairbrother and Virginia Schmeid, interviewers on the
project, and the participants themselves for agreeing to
take part in the study.
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