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Which fathers are involved in looking after their children? Identifying the conditions associated with paternal involvement

Author: Helen Norman
Institution: University of Leeds
Type of case study: Research

About the research

Most fathers agree that they should be as involved in childcare as the mother (see Norman’s PhD thesis), and many would prefer to spend more time caring for their children than they currently do (see research by Working Families and the Equality and Human Rights Commission). However, fathers continue to do less childcare compared to mothers.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, fathers in the UK spent an average of 24 minutes caring for children for every hour that was done by women (see the 2016 OECD Gender Data Portal; report in The Independent). This gender gap has now widened. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report that although fathers had doubled the amount of time they spent on childcare in the early stages of the 2020 lockdown, mothers were still doing the majority – spending an average of 2.3 hours more on childcare than fathers. So why are childcare responsibilities so unbalanced?

The Involved Fathers research project, led by Dr Helen Norman (Principal Investigator) with Co-Investigators Professor Colette Fagan and Professor Mark Elliot from the University of Manchester, uses the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Their analysis establishes which employment and socio-demographic characteristics influence paternal childcare involvement as children age from nine months to eleven years old. Focussing on two (opposite sex) parent households, the project explores whether such employment and socio-demographic characteristics have cross-sectional or longitudinal effects on paternal involvement at different stages of the child’s life.

Quantitative measures of paternal involvement are derived and rigorously tested so that longitudinal trajectories of paternal childcare involvement can be explored. Part of the analysis also examines whether and how paternal childcare involvement during the first year of parenthood affects the long-term stability of the parental relationship.

The research is particularly relevant in light of the increased attention on how to better support paternal care in policy debates about work-family issues across the UK and Europe, including work by the European Commission in 2013 and 2019, and Eurofound in 2015.

In the UK, following the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015, which was designed to support fathers to take a longer period of time off work to look after their baby, the Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry in 2017 on how to better support fathers in the workplace. In 2019, a ‘Good Work Plan’ consultation was launched by the Department for Business and Industrial Strategy seeking to improve flexible leave and pay entitlements for fathers. In addition to policy support, it is important to consider how household, demographic and economic factors may enable or hinder fathers’ involvement in care.

Research for the project showed that:
  • Fathers are more likely to become and remain involved in caring for their children as they grow older if they are involved in childcare during the first year of parenthood.
  • Both mothers’ and fathers’ employment hours affect fathers’ childcare involvement during the early years of parenthood but in some cases, the mothers’ employment hours have a stronger effect on paternal care.
  • The probability of parental relationships breaking down is reduced over the longer-term if fathers spend time caring for their babies on their own during the first year of parenthood.

Research funding and partners

The research was funded by the ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (Phase 3) and was partnered with Working Families – the UK’s leading charity organisation dedicated to advancing policies to enhance work-life balance.

Image: Father walking through field, carrying two children, with one child running ahead. Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash 

Methodology

The researchers conducted cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of the first five sweeps of the Millennium Cohort Survey (MCS) – a nationally representative birth cohort study following the lives of 18,819 babies aged nine months (brought up in 18,552 families). The MCS provides a sample of children who were resident in the UK at age nine months and born between September 2000 and January 2002 drawn from Child Benefit registers using a clustered, disproportionately stratified sample design. Data were collected from the “main” parent (usually the mother) and where resident, the “partner” parent (usually the father) through face-to-face interviews.

The first five sweeps of MCS data – when children were aged 9 months (sweep one), 3 years (sweep two), 5 years (sweep three), 7 years (sweep four) and 11 years (sweep five) old – were merged together. The sample was then filtered to include only the same, two-parent (mother-father) married or cohabiting couples that were intact over the five sweeps of data and in which all fathers responded to the first sweep survey when the child was nine months old. The final sample for the project amounted to 5,882 households, representing 32% of the original sweep one sample.

The researchers derived different measures of paternal involvement using existing variables from the MCS dataset. They derived simple binary measures that captured ‘involved’ fathers defined as those who did the most childcare or shared it equally with their partners. They also derived age-specific summary involvement measures using multiple childcare variables through more complex statistical techniques such as Confirmatory factor analysis. These measures are being used in regression and structural equation models to predict paternal childcare involvement at different stages of the child’s life.

In order to explore how paternal involvement affects parental relationship breakdown, the researchers used a different sample of households from the MCS. The original MCS sample (n=18,522 households) was filtered to include married or cohabiting two-parent couples in sweep one (when the child was aged nine months old). All households were retained in this sample regardless of their relationship status in subsequent sweeps (13,411 couples, representing 72 percent of the original sweep one MCS sample). The researchers then used autologistic regression to predict parental relationship breakdown up to seven years post-birth, using the father’s involvement in four childcare and three housework tasks during the first year of parenthood as explanatory variables. Autologistic regression models use past or “lagged” measures to predict later outcomes. Specifically, father involvement measured when the child was aged nine months (sweep one) is used to predict relationship breakdown as the child gets older (i.e. in sweeps two, three and four). The analysis focussed on paternal involvement during the first year of parenthood because previous research finds it to be a pivotal time for shaping future parenting behaviour as the child gets older (e.g. see Fagan and Norman, 2016).

Other analysis has been, and is being, developed by the researchers as a result of the project work described above. For example, Norman explored the influence of paternal involvement on mothers’ employment trajectories during the early stages of parenthood using logistic regression on the MCS. Fagan and Norman are using cross-national data from the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey to explore what influences paternal involvement in childcare, eldercare and housework across the EU27 plus the UK and Norway with a particular focus on the impact of welfare policy regimes versus organisational factors.

Data used from the UK Data Service collection

Millennium Cohort Study:

Messages

  • Fathers are more likely to become and remain involved in caring for their children as they grow older if they are involved in childcare during the first year of parenthood.
  • Both mothers’ and fathers’ employment hours affect fathers’ childcare involvement during the early years of parenthood but in some cases, the mothers’ employment hours have a stronger effect on paternal care.
  • The probability of parental relationships breaking down is reduced over the longer-term if fathers spend time caring for their babies on their own during the first year of parenthood.

Findings

1. Deriving longitudinal measures of paternal engagement in childcare

Paternal involvement is a variable and complex term, which makes deriving a conceptually invariant measure over time difficult not least because the tasks that are necessary for raising a child change as the child grows older. Yet there is little consensus about what ‘involvement’ means and how it might be measured. A ‘quantitative tool’ for measuring paternal ‘involvement’ would create a benchmark for conceptual elaboration and it would provide a methodological means for assessing what it means to be an involved father.

In previous research by Norman and Elliot, two quantitative measures of paternal involvement at nine months post-childbirth were derived but the use of these measures was limited to understanding paternal involvement in the care of a baby. This project builds on this earlier analysis, using confirmatory factor analysis on five sweeps of the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) to derive five conceptually invariant latent measures of paternal childcare engagement based on (changing) observed measures that span a ten-year period post-birth. Five measures (or factors) of engagement are produced (one measure per MCS sweep) which corresponds to each age (or development stage) of the child. This confirms that there is age-specific paternal engagement in childcare.

In the interests of parsimony, the five involvement measures (or factors) are reduced into a singular, coherent construct of ‘paternal engagement’ that remains stable across fathers over time. 

 

2. What influences fathers to be involved?  

The way in which family and work-time is arranged, during the first three years of parenthood shapes fathers’ childcare involvement throughout the early stages of a child’s life. The researchers have explored this area previously with academic papers published in 2014 and 2016, as well as blog posts for Working Families and Policy@Manchester, and Norman’s PhD thesis.

Specifically, fathers are more likely to be involved in childcare when the baby is nine months old if they work standard full-time (30-40 hours a week) rather than long full-time (45+ per week) hours, and if the mother works full-time.

Work and care arrangements established in the first year of parenthood also set up a pattern of care-giving that persists two years later:

  • Fathers were more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if they shared childcare equally when the child was nine months old, even when other factors that may influence father involvement in childcare were taken into account – such as the father’s occupational class, the presence of other children and fathers’ gender role attitudes.
  • Both parents’ employment hours when the child was nine months old influence how involved a father is when the child reaches age three. Fathers are more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if the mother works full-time, and if the father works standard rather than long full-time hours when the child was nine months old.
  • The way in which parents organise their work-time when the child was aged three affects how involved a father is at that time. A father is more likely to be involved when the child is aged three if he works standard rather than long full-time hours when the child is aged three, and when the mother works full-time.
  • When the child is aged three, the mothers full-time employment hours have a stronger association with fathers’ sharing childcare compared to the fathers own employment hours.

The analysis is being developed to explore what influences paternal involvement when children are aged 5, 7 and 11. The five measures of paternal involvement derived through confirmatory factor analysis are to be used in structural equation models to identify the potential causal pathways that lead to paternal childcare involvement at the later stages of a child’s life. Of particular interest is whether the fathers’ involvement increases from age three onwards if childcare is shared in the first year of parenthood and/or if fathers take leave from work after the birth.

 

3. Do trajectories of paternal involvement vary over the child’s lifecourse and if so, what are the predictors?

Using the singular latent measures of paternal involvement (derived in step 1 above), the researchers explored paternal childcare involvement trajectories. They used transition matrices (i.e. cross-tabulations of a population across two points in time) to explore flow proportions in paternal involvement between nine months and eleven years post-birth.

They then explored whether differences in levels of involvement over time can be predicted by the mothers’ employment hours given previous research, published in 2014, 2016 and 2020, shows this consistently has a strong association with paternal childcare involvement. 

 

4. Does paternal involvement affect long-term relationship stability?

To explore how different childcare involvement tasks may affect the parental relationship in different ways, autologistic regression was used to predict parental relationship breakdown between nine months and seven years post-birth.

The father’s involvement in four childcare and three housework tasks during the first year of parenthood are used as explanatory variables measuring the frequency the father

  • performed solo-childcare;
  • changed nappies;
  • fed the baby;
  • got up in the night

and whether fathers did the most, least, or shared the

  • cooking,
  • cleaning
  • laundry

The models control for other variables that have been found to correlate with relationship stability such as, for example, the mother’s annual earnings; the unemployment of the father; household income; the parents’ marital status; ethnicity; the mother’s age and attitudes towards divorce. The focus is on the first year of parenthood because previous research shows this to be a pivotal time for shaping later parenting behaviour.

Results shows that although the type of task that a father is involved in does not significantly affect relationship breakdown, the amount of time the father spends alone caring for the baby during the first year of parenthood does. This suggests paternal solo childcare during the first year of parenthood has some association with long-term relationship stability.

This finding complements other research that shows solo-paternal care to be particularly important because of the positive effect it has on a father’s happiness and well-being, and the development of the father–child relationship (e.g. Brandth and Kvande, 2017; Wilson and Prior, 2010). Paternal solo-care may also increase the mother’s leisure time, which could have a positive effect on her personal well-being, work–life balance, and thus relationship satisfaction. However, the results do not confirm a causal relationship between paternal childcare involvement and relationship stability. It is possible that relationship stability and childcare are associated with some other factor (for example, the father having an agreeable personality type) but it does suggest there is a need to dig deeper into the causal mechanisms that influence divorce and separation.

Other related research

Does paternal childcare involvement influence maternal employment trajectories post-birth?

Norman has built on the research findings from the Involved Fathers research project to explore how paternal involvement in childcare affects mothers’ employment resumption nine months and three years’ post-childbirth. The analysis uses logistic and autologistic regression on the first two sweeps of the MCS and finds that the probability of mothers resuming employment increase at both time points if the father is more involved in childcare nine months post-birth. In some cases, this is more important for her employment resumption than her occupational class and the number of hours the father spends in paid work. However, gender role attitudes have an even stronger effect, and appear to drive maternal employment behaviour, as the probability of mothers resuming employment increase significantly three years post-birth if either parent endorses more gender egalitarian roles in the first year of parenthood.

Norman and Fagan are now using the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey to explore the effects of policy and organisational factors on paternal involvement in childcare, housework and eldercare across Europe.

Image: father holding small child and kissing them on the cheek. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Findings for policy

The research shows that

  • fathers are more likely to become and remain involved in caring for their children if they are engaged at an early stage after the birth; and
  • the employment hours of both fathers and mothers shape how involved a father is in his child’s care.

This means that creating the conditions for the father to take paternity and parental leave during the first year of parenthood is pivotal for enabling a more equal division of childcare, as are fostering working hours that are compatible with family life.

The researchers recommend four policy changes that would better support fathers to fulfil their caregiver roles:

1. Reform Shared Parental Leave so that it includes an individual, father’s quota of leave with an earnings replacement rate of at least 80%.

This would encourage more fathers to take parental leave up and thus spend time a longer time at home during the first year of parenthood. Currently SPL allows eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and 37 weeks’ pay, previously only available to the mother but only a minority of fathers take SPL because it is too low paid and reliant on the mother giving up a portion of her maternity leave. Evidence shows that the scheme would be more successful if it was an individual father’s right with a higher rate of pay.

2. Limit long hours of work and promote flexible working to all men so they are able to adapt their work to share childcare responsibilities with their partner.

Given the analysis shows that long full-time work hours consistently have a negative association with paternal childcare involvement

3. Improve the supply of affordable, good quality and flexible full-time childcare, and extend the statutory provision to all children from the age of two

(i.e. at the end of the maternity leave allowance) so that women are not obliged to reduce their work hours to meet childcare demands.

4. Step-up measures to close the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap creates a financial logic for women to reduce their employment and take primary responsibility for childcare. Although it is positive that large companies have been required to report their pay gaps from 2018, action plans should be published with practices put in place that set out how they will close their gender pay gaps.

 

Impact

In January 2017, the analysis of what influences fathers to be involved in their children’s care was presented at a policy seminar in Westminster attended by the then Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility (Margot James), the then Co-Chair All Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work and member of the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) (Flick Drummond) and representatives from NGOs such as the Trades Union Congress, the Resolution Foundation and the Federation of Small Businesses.

A briefing paper (Norman et al. 2017) based on the Involved Fathers project findings was subsequently submitted as written evidence to the UK Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) 2017 inquiry on ‘Fathers and the Workplace’. This included the four policy recommendations outlined above. The inquiry was launched in response to research showing that many fathers do not feel supported in the workplace to care for their children.

The briefing paper was published by WEC who drew on the findings in Section 4 of their 2018 First Report of Session making recommendations to Government – in particular:

    • Paragraph 24: “Leave policies can influence the division of caring and domestic responsibilities between mothers and fathers over the longer term.”
    • Paragraph 60: “There is…  potential for fathers’ leave to have a significant influence on families, not just at the time, but in future years as well. The Government told (the Committee) that international evidence is mixed about whether the amount of caring fathers do in the first year of the child’s life is particularly influential on how parents divide their roles and responsibilities over the long term. However, experts on fathers and work were less equivocal. Dr Helen Norman, Professor Colette Fagan and Professor Mark Elliot told us that ‘the work and care arrangements established in the first year of parenthood set up a pattern of caregiving that persists two years later’.”
    • Paragraph 91. “The Government told (the Committee) that the extension of the right to request flexible working in 2014 had played an important part in changing workplace culture. However, men are less likely to make a request and are more likely than women to have their request rejected when they do.”

Following the policy seminar and written evidence submitted to WEC, the Department for Business and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) contacted Norman in August 2018 to discuss the project findings, and seek advice on their interim plan for evaluating Shared Parental Leave (SPL). This led to an invitation in September to join the BEIS Shared Parental Leave (SPL) Advisory Group to provide steer on BEIS plans for evaluating the SPL policy, including advice on subject-specific (e.g. maternity and paternity rights, parental leave and pay) and methodological issues. 

After the WEC inquiry, on 24 June 2019, the then Prime Minister Theresa May announced a consultation with a view to increasing paternity leave entitlements in order to give fathers more time to spend with their newborns and help equalise the roles of men and women at home and in the workplace. She said:

“It will help ensure from the outset that caring for children is a shared responsibility and means that employers will not be able to make assumptions about who will take on childcare responsibilities when a couple start a family” (May 2019).

The team were invited to submit evidence to the BEIS Good Work Plan consultation on parental leave and pay. The outcome of this is pending as BEIS are currently reviewing the evidence that has been received.

The project findings have been discussed in various briefings on UK policy and labour market developments that Fagan and Norman have submitted to the European Commission in their roles as members of the Expert Network on Employment and Gender Equality (SAAGE team). This is an area of emerging impact with the findings potentially feeding into wider European policy debates around men, fathers and gender equality.

The findings have also been presented at academic international conferences and symposia, policy and industry events organised by Working Families at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Manchester and Fathers Network Scotland at Lloyds Bank in Edinburgh (video presentation).

In the media…

2019

  • The research was reported in an article for BBC Futures, which stated: “Researchers led by sociologists Helen Norman and Colette Fagan at the University of Manchester found that fathers were more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if they shared childcare equally when the child was nine months old”.

2018

  • The Guardian published an article reporting the findings of the analysis exploring paternal involvement and parental relationships based on Norman, Elliot and Fagan (2018).
  • Helen Norman was interviewed by the media team at the University of Manchester about what influences dads to get involved in their children’s care.

2017

  • Helen Norman was quoted by The Guardian journalist Mark Rice-Oxley in an article on men’s struggles to combine work and family following an interview about her research on fathers
  • Helen Norman was interviewed by Mandy Garner from workingmums.co.uk (a website that promotes best practice in flexible working and gender diversity) about how to support fathers to be more involved at home.
  • The project findings were reported in the ‘Child and Family blog’ (supported by Princeton University and the University of Cambridge) in April 2017

Publications

Website and Research Groups

Involved Fathers project website

Gender, Work and Care Research Group

Academic papers

Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2016): ‘What makes fathers involved? An exploration of the longitudinal influence of fathers’ and mothers’ employment on father’s involvement in looking after their pre-school children in the UK’ in Crespi, I., Ruspini, E. (ed): Balancing work and family in a changing society: the father’s perspective, Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke, doi:10.1057/9781137533548

Norman, H. (2020) Does paternal involvement in childcare influence mothers’ employment trajectories during the early stages of parenthood in the UK? Sociology Vol 54(2): 329-345

Norman, H. (2017): Paternal involvement in childcare: how can it be classified and what are the key influences?, Families, Relationships and Societies, 6, 1, p. 89-105 (online version printed in 2015), doi:10.1332/204674315X14364575729186

Norman, H., Elliot, M., Fagan, C. (2018) Does fathers’ involvement in childcare and housework affect couples’ relationship stability?Social Science Quarterly, Vol 99(5): 1599-1613 (open access), doi:10.1111/ssqu.12523

Norman, H., Elliot, M. (2015): Measuring paternal involvement in childcare and housework, Sociological Research Online, 20(2), doi:10.5153/sro.3590

Norman, H., Elliot, M. and Fagan, C. (2014) ‘Which fathers are the most involved in taking care of their toddlers in the UK? An investigation of the predictors of paternal involvement’, Community, Work & Family, 17:2, 163-180, doi:10.1080/13668803.2013.862361

 
Briefing papers and blogs

Norman (2019) Why involving dads is good for relationships, Workingdads.co.uk; 22 January 2019

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017a) What make fathers involved in their children’s upbringing? Working Families Workflex Blog: 20 January 2017

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017b) What makes dads involved in childcare? Policy@Manchester blog: 7 February 2017

Norman, H., Fagan, C., Elliot, M (2017) How can policy support fathers to be more involved in childcare? Evidence from cross-country policy comparisons and UK longitudinal household data Evidence submitted to the Women and Equalities Committee ‘Fathers and the Workplace Inquiry’

Norman, H., Fagan, C., Watt, L. (2017) What should mums and dads do? Changes in attitudes towards parenting Working Families Workflex Blog: 24 March 2017

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017) Shared Parental Leave in the UK: is it working? Lessons from other countries, Working Families Workflex Blog: 5 April 2017

Norman, H., Watt, L. (2017) Why aren’t men doing the housework? Working Families Workflex Blog: 29 August 2017

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017) Why do UK men work such long hours? Working Families Workflex Blog: 6 October 2017

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017) Tackling the problem of childcare Working Families Workflex Blog: 13 December 2017

 
Other relevant publications

Fagan, C. and Norman, H. (2013) ‘Men and gender equality: tackling gender equality in family roles and in social care jobs’ in F. Bettio, J. Plantenga and M. Smith (Eds) Gender and the European Labour Market, Routledge: Oxon, UK.

Fagan, C., Norman, H.  (2012) “Trends and social divisions in maternal employment patterns following maternity leave in the UK.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 32, no.9 : 544-560, doi:10.1108/01443331211257643

Norman, H. (2010) Involved fatherhood: An analysis of the conditions associated with paternal involvement in childcare and housework (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Manchester.