Redefining Fatherhood

The new generation of fathers is more interested in taking an active part in raising their children and in sharing all the work of maintaining a house and a family with their partners.
by Nicolette Stewart

Fatherhood has been a hot topic in the German media, particularly since Ursula von der Leyen’s term as Bundesfamilienministerin (2005-2009). During this period she introduced paid Vätermonate (fathers' months) to encourage men to take time off from work after the birth of a child, and she was also responsible for the introduction of Elterngeld which can be paid to mother or father, depending on which parent wishes to stay home during a child’s first year. The call for Germany's "new fathers" appeared in many newspaper and magazine articles at the time.  

Ursula von der Leyen's programs offered more German men the opportunity to be active parents. With women’s emancipation movements and more and more lesbian and gay couples raising children in the last two decades, social mores have moved in a direction demanding that traditional gender-based parenting roles be re-examined and redefined. “Younger cohorts, in view of changed living conditions, increasingly question such traditional role ideas and are developing their own new concepts of masculinity and femininity, respectively of fatherhood and motherhood,” said Dr. Tanja Mühling, a researcher for the Staatsinstitute für Familienforschung at the Universität Bamberg.

In 2006, Dr. Mühling wrote a detailed report about the perception and implementation of this new ideal of fatherhood for German men.  The report, titled “Caring Fathers in Germany: Where are the ‘New Fathers’?”, was presented at the WELLCHI Network Conference. In it she offers a detailed portrait of both the parental ideals that young German fathers prize, as well as the realities of their behavior within the family.

Statistics show clearly that men’s attitudes toward parenthood have changed. The percentage of German fathers who believe that men should take a larger part in parenting was 67 percent at the writing of Mühling’s report, while fathers who believed children suffer when their mothers returned to work during early childhood have declined.  In 1988, 38 percent of men surveyed in West Germany agreed that “Men’s job is work, women’s job is household.” In 2002 a survey showed that that number had shrunk to 16 percent.

This change in perspective has had as much to do with women as with men: women are better educated than they were in the last century, which has in turn lead to better employment opportunities as the gap between what men and women earn for the same positions begins to close, and more women become career-oreinated.  This has changed women’s expectations of their partners—a women who wants to return to work after a pregnancy needs a partner willing to take on his (or her) share of the work—and what were once considered radical feminist ideas have become societal norms.  Government programs such as Elterngeld and Vätermonate have supported this shift in ideology as well, making it easier for fathers to take on a more active parenting role then ever before.

However, stay-at-home or part-time dads still remain in the minority in Germany, and what Dr. Mühling’s research revealed was that fathers were not yet practicing what they preached. While they may have equally divided housework with their partner before becoming parents, research revealed that the introduction of a child into the family often caused the couple to revert back to traditional gender-based parenting roles.

“The modernization of the male role is developing much more slowly than that of the female one. Although fathers welcome an egalitarian division of tasks in the family when asked in modern surveys, these changes in attitude have so far had hardly any effect on the behavioral level. New empirical longitudinal research shows that couples, following their transformation to parenthood, give up their previously more equal role distribution to go back to the more traditional forms of work sharing,” said Mühling.

That the cultural ideal has changed is clear, yet obstacles still remain in the path of those men looking play the part of Germany’s “new fathers.” Most often cited are financial pressures and work environments that are less family-friendly when the employee in question is male. More men then ever are working part time or taking Elternzeit in order to spend more time with their children, but these men are still in the minority.

“The self-definition of fatherhood has changed without any doubt, men today want to contribute actively to the upbringing of their children and no longer return to the role of the absent provider,” concludes Mühling. “All the same workplace-related, financial and social barriers of every kind to date prevent the modernized attitudes in the minds of the “new” fathers from being realized to their full extent.”

by Nicolette Stewart