6. February 2023 | Press releases:

Understanding playmate instead of absent breadwinner Study by TU Braunschweig and Kiel University of Applied Sciences provides insights into fathers' self-image and self-perception

Joint press release of TU Braunschweig and Kiel University of Applied Sciences

How do fathers perceive themselves and their family? Do they have problems reconciling fatherhood and work? What about gender equality and work organisation in everyday family life? These and other questions were investigated by social scientists from Technische Universität Braunschweig and the Kiel University of Applied Sciences in their study “VAPRO – You don’t need to be Superheroes”.

The role of fathers has increasingly become the focus of society in recent years. Debates such as #dazuhatpapanichtszusagen (Dad has nothing to say about it), discussions about 14-day father protection and, last but not least, the extension of parental leave by two father months reflect this development. “Despite the increased discussion about the role of fathers, this has not been studied extensively scientifically for several years. We wanted to close this gap with our study,” explains project leader Dr. Kim Bräuer from TU Braunschweig. As part of the VAPRO study, the team led by Bräuer and Prof. Dr. Kai Marquardsen from Kiel University of Applied Sciences surveyed 2,200 fathers online and conducted 55 qualitative interviews. In addition to legal and biological fathers, they also considered foster fathers, fathers in co-parenting constellations and homosexual father couples. Furthermore, not only the men themselves were interviewed, but also the (self-)portrayal of fatherhood in social media was analysed.

The image of the father who feeds the family with his income and plays with the children at most on weekends is passé. In fact, it is important for fathers today to raise their children in an “empathetic and understanding” way. This is one of the central findings of the VAPRO study. The ideal of the emotional father is widespread. Thus, it is most important to almost 60 percent of fathers that they show affection to their child or children. The trend towards more active fatherhood is clearly recognisable, according to the researchers. Fathers are most often involved in childcare, for example by playing with the children. Fathers are much less likely to take on active parenting measures.

The image of the father as breadwinner no longer dominates

A large proportion of the fathers surveyed have broken away from the image of the father as breadwinner. Only about 12 percent of them consider it their most important task to provide financial security for the family. “The fathers we interviewed stated that monetary values were not as important to them as social or emotional values,” explains Prof. Dr. Kai Marquardsen. In this context, many of the interviewees criticised their own fathers as “too controlling”, as “absent” and “too busy with work”, among other things. They use their fathers as a “negative role model” and emphasise that they themselves would consciously act differently as a father.

However, almost 85 percent of fathers work 40 hours or more a week, while almost three quarters of other parents do not work or work a maximum of 30 hours a week. Nevertheless, almost every second father assumes that he takes care of family childcare matters as much as the other parent. Only every tenth father takes on most of the family work tasks. These are mainly fathers who have stopped their gainful employment or reduced its scope in order to have more time for their family and the care of the children.

Many fathers, this is another finding of the study, state that they do not live up to their own ideas of good fatherhood. “Parallels to the mother as an all-rounder who has to be successful in her job and at the same time lovingly cares for the children and their relatives are evident here,” explains Kim Bräuer. “So the trend is moving away from the ‘classic’ separation of roles towards ‘fulfilling all roles’ and doing it as perfectly as possible. In the process, fathers are not only experiencing a work-family conflict. It also seems to be about getting involved in their circle of friends, in associations or in caring for their parents and in this way setting an example of social values for their children,” says Bräuer.

Fathers do not blog about poverty

As part of their study, the social scientists analysed the Instagram accounts of seven very popular father bloggers and their image of fatherhood. Here, the ideal of the mostly white, active father prevails. Fatherhood in poverty or fatherhood with migration experience, on the other hand, are hardly discussed, explains Prof. Marquardsen. “This can be explained by the fact that poverty is tainted with shame and fathers in poverty situations do not want to reveal themselves – even virtually. Fathers whose lives are characterised by a low income or who are dependent on benefits from the state will therefore not find anyone in a similar situation among father bloggers.” The researchers also found only a few reports of fathers in poverty situations under #ichbinarmutsbetroffen (I am affected by poverty).

The social scientist from Kiel explains that it was difficult to establish contact with those affected for interviews, as they are under particular pressure from society’s ideas of normality: “Of course, we also find diversity in the experience of fatherhood among fathers in poverty situations. But in contrast to other fathers, the material provision for the family is more important to them. In our interviews it became clear that challenges at the material level play a role for them, which were not an issue for fathers in secure circumstances,” says Marquardsen. “Overall, however, there is an urgent need for further research on the experience of fatherhood by fathers in poverty. Last but not least, we still know too little about the short- and long-term influences of social crisis events such as Corona or rising inflation on the practice of lived fatherhood in different milieus.”

Recommendations for action in practice

The aim of the project was also to develop recommendations for employers, coordinators of fathers’ networks and political actors in order to make the situation of fathers more visible and to improve their situation and that of their families in the long term. According to the researchers’ recommendation, fathers’ work should focus more on their everyday activities. It is not so much a matter of conveying a new image of fatherhood as of involving fathers more in everyday tasks, explains Bräuer: “It would be conceivable to actively ask fathers to be parent spokespersons, to offer fathers’ swimming courses or to actively address them in parent chats, for example.” The researchers would also like to see support through corresponding family policy reforms. “This would make it easier for many fathers to actually take up special offers from employers.