Exploring aspects of fatherhood

This post is by way of an update on my current research activities. As reported in the previous post, my most recent piece of academic research was on young men, masculinity and well-being, working with Sandy Ruxton and David Bartlett, as part of a three-country study led by Promundo. The study I worked on before that – Beyond Male Role Models, which was funded by the ESRC and organised in partnership with Action for Children – also focused on young men and issues of gender identity. However, since completing those studies, I’ve been involved in discussions about a number of possible projects relating to an earlier – and continuing – research interest of mine: fatherhood.

Last year, I reported on a meeting I attended in Amsterdam, with colleagues from the UK, Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands, exploring the possibility of undertaking some methodologically innovative research with fathers of disabled children. Since that meeting, a number of pilot interviews have been carried out, in some of the partner countries, and we’re currently looking for funding for some small-scale research with fathers here in the UK. The plan is to use fathers’ own ‘home videos’, perhaps recorded on their mobile phones, as a means of exploring their relationships with their children, and their experiences of interacting with professionals.

father and son

Father and son: via scope.org.uk

At the same time, I’ve been working with a major national charity, and with colleagues from other universities, on a research proposal on young fathers and relationships. Both Beyond Male Role Models and the Promundo study highlighted the positive role that fatherhood can play in the lives of young men, but also some of the challenges for young fathers in sustaining relationships with partners and with their children. We’re hoping to acquire funding to work alongside young fathers, both to explore these issues in depth, and also to develop some kind of resource that can support both young fathers and the services that work with them.

More recently, I’ve started work with my Open University colleagues Kerry Jones on a pilot project, exploring fathers’ experience of antenatal and perinatal bereavement, a topic that we believe is seriously under-researched. We’ve begun by reviewing the existing literature, and at the same time exploring the ways in which bereaved fathers are supporting each other through blogs, social media and other online resources.

If you are currently working on any of these topics yourself, or are interested in being involved in any of these projects in some way, do please contact me at martin.robb@open.ac.uk

Young men talk about the pressures of the ‘man box’

What does it mean to be young and male today? How do today’s young men think about and experience ‘masculinity’? In 2016, Promundo, a global agency that promotes gender equality by working with boys and young men, partnered with Axe/Unilever to explore these issues in three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico. Email and telephone surveys were used to reach a representative, random sample of young men, reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of each country. Combined with these surveys, qualitative studies were organised in each of the three countries, in which focus group discussions were used to listen at length to young men’s own views and perspectives.

The Open University was commissioned to convene the focus groups in the UK, and I worked on this with independent researcher Sandy Ruxton and consultant David Bartlett last autumn. We brought together four focus groups, two in London and two in the north of England, made up of young men between the ages of 18 and 30 from diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, religion and social background.

Image copyright (c) Diego Cervo via shutterstock.com

It’s difficult to summarise our findings in a few sentences, but you can read a full report on our research here and Sandy Ruxton and I have published an article at The Conversation which you can read here.

Briefly, the wider international study found that most young men are supportive of movements towards gender equality, but many still find themselves stuck in what researchers have called the ‘Man Box’, a construct of ideas and expectations about what it means to be a man – and this can have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing, as well as on their personal relationships.  Our focus groups tended to echo these  findings, and we believe that our study has interesting and important things to say about young men’s attitudes to family, friendships, sexuality, violence, work and community.

The international study, of which our focus groups formed a part, argues that breaking free from the ‘Man Box’ is ‘not something young men can do on their own’.  It concludes that ‘parents, educators, the media, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and others need to be part of the process of reinforcing positive, equitable, unrestrictive ideas of manhood’. On the basis of our group discussions in the UK, we agree that young men need support if they are to break out of the ‘Man Box’ and achieve their full potential. Policy makers and professionals would do well to listen to the voices of young men and attend to the complex realities of their experience, which undermine the often simplistic messages in the media about the so-called ‘problem’ of boys.

A tribute to Jeff Hunt

Last Friday, it was my privilege to attend an award ceremony organised by the Association of Open University Graduates (AOUG), to support the presentation of a posthumous award to my former PhD student Jeff Hunt, who died earlier this year (see this post). The Vic Finkelstein Award is given to a postgraduate student in Health and Social Care who has made an exceptional contribution through their research. Vic was a colleague of ours and a pioneer in the field of disability studies, and in research and teaching in health and social care.


With Lindsay O’Dell, Katie Hunt and Cate Hunt at the AOUG awards ceremony

The award was accepted by Jeff’s widow Cate, who was a huge support to Jeff in his studies, and it was lovely that their daughters Katie and Ness could also be there. My colleague Lindsay O’Dell, as Director of Postgraduate Studies, explained why the decision was made to give the award to Jeff, and I said a few words on behalf of Rose Capdevila and myself, as Jeff’s PhD supervisors:

We came to know Jeff Hunt when he successfully applied to study for a PhD with The Open University in 2010. Jeff had begun his academic trajectory in computing, obtaining an MSc from the OU in 1995, however, having spent a decade in IT and teaching, he discovered an enthusiasm for psychology and counselling, and returned to the OU in 2004 to complete an MSc in Psychology. Jeff then took some time to obtain a postgraduate diploma in Psychodynamic Theory and Counselling from the University of Oxford before developing his own ideas for original research and retuning once again to the Open University in pursuit of a doctorate.

Jeff had a passionate interest in psychoanalytic theory and was keen to apply this to the subject of men’s experiences of fatherhood. Such was Jeff’s enthusiasm for his subject that, as his supervisors, it was all we could do to restrain him from getting started with interviews on day one: when we first met him, he had already carried out a pilot interview with his next door neighbourJeff suffered from a long-term and life-threatening health condition, which meant long periods when he had to suspend his studies. However, he never stopped reading – and thinking. Even in hospital, he tried to interview a patient in the next bed.

Despite the setbacks, Jeff gave a very well-received presentation as part of the Faculty of Health and Social Care’s postgraduate seminar programme, at which he displayed his remarkable fluency in psychodynamic theory. He also managed to pass his probation viva without any corrections or amendments – something very few students ever achieve.

It was a matter of enormous frustration to Jeff that his deteriorating health prevented him from getting beyond the theoretical stage to the empirical research that he longed to do. We talked about the possibility of doing some desk-based research, but Jeff was never really keen.

In the end, his condition caught up with him, and he died in January of this year. It was a pleasure and a privilege – if sometimes a mentally exhausting one! – to supervise Jeff and we miss him immensely. He was certainly one of the most enthusiastic and determined PhD students that either of us have worked with. Given his inquisitive mind and critical scholarly approach we’re sure that, if he had lived to complete his research, it would have been fascinating and ground-breaking. We’re happy to recommend him for this award.

Discussing fathers and disabled children in Amsterdam

Last week I was in Amsterdam, for a two-day meeting with a group of colleagues from the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland and the UK, discussing a possible research project on fathers and their disabled children. The participants included some key figures in European disability studies and inclusive education, some parents of disabled children – and some people who were both. Disability studies is an area in which I don’t have any particular expertise, but I was invited because of my research interests in fatherhood and identity.

We were exploring the possibility of using video as a means of encouraging fathers to talk about their relationships with their disabled children – and in this context disability was defined quite broadly, to include intellectual and developmental as well as physical disabilities. During the course of the meeting, some colleagues who were also parents shared videos of their own children with us, an experience I found thought-provoking, inspiring and often profoundly moving. As a newcomer to the field, I felt that I learned a great deal, both personally and professionally, from this experience and from the discussions that followed. Most of all, it was a pleasure and a privilege to spend two days working with, and getting to know, such a thoughtful, committed and basically nice bunch of people who, despite the challenges that some of them face on a daily basis, were also great fun to be with.


With Myria Pieridou, Alice Schippers, Geert Van Hove, Jonty Rix, Hjortur Jonsson and Dora Bjarnason at Dauphine Restaurant, Amsterdam. Two other Icelandic colleagues – Kristin Bjornsdottir and Hermina Gunnthorsdottir – joined our discussions via Skype.

Thinking about the specific issues surrounding fathering a disabled child helped to deepen my understanding of fathering more generally – and contributed to the thinking I’m doing about my book (still in the very early stages) about men, masculinity and the care of children. I found myself wanting to know more about the ways in which a father’s response to the birth of, and his later relationship with a disabled child differs (if at all) from that of the child’s mother. And does the gender of the child make a difference to the kind of relationship that a father develops with him or her? To what extent do teachers and other professionals treat the fathers of disabled children differently to the way they treat mothers? Finally, how can increasing our understanding of the role of fathers help to improve the ways that professionals interact with disabled children and their families? I’m hoping that our planned research project might go some way to answering these questions, and I’m looking forward to working with this international group of colleagues on the next stages.

My visit to Amsterdam was slightly overshadowed by the way it ended. My flight home was cancelled at the very last minute (I was actually waiting in the departure lounge), which meant that I had to spend an extra night in Amsterdam. To top it all, I’d been feeling a bit off colour and that, together with the stress caused by the cancellation, led to me fainting and cutting my head (though not badly). The colleagues I was with were fantastic, checking I was OK, helping me to re-book my flight, and finding me a hotel room for the night. Thank you, Jonty and Myria. And thanks to my Icelandic colleagues, Dora and Hjortur, who were still around and made sure I got safely on my way the next day.

Book news

I’m writing a book on men, masculinities, children and care, to be published by Routledge in 2017 (all being well). The idea for the book grew out of the research I’ve done over the past decade or so with fathers, male childcare workers, and most recently with vulnerable young men.

Although research on fatherhood has expanded in recent years, much less has been written about men as professional carers for children, and there’s been very little work that brings the two together. What’s more, I’ve felt for some time that discussion of both topics has lacked a proper theoretical underpinning and has often been characterised by muddled thinking. And I’ve lost track of the number of emails I’ve received from students wanting to do an undergraduate or Masters dissertation on some aspect of men’s care for children, and asking me to recommend a good general book on the subject. I wasn’t sure there was one: so I decided to try to write it myself. I’ve edited or contributed to a number of books in the past, most of them published as part of Open University courses, but this will be my first attempt at a single-authored book.

Via all4desktop.com

Father and son (via all4desktop.com)

My plan for the book is that it will begin by posing the question as to why the subject of men and childcare has become such a hot topic, in both policy and popular discourse, in recent times. Why is there so much focus on fatherhood in our time, whether it’s moral panics about absent fathers, or government initiatives to encourage men to take paternity leave and take an equal role in childcare and family life? And what lies behind the repeated initiatives, both in the UK and elsewhere, to recruit more men to work with children, and the accompanying anxieties about the supposed lack of men entering teaching, particularly in primary and the early years? By examining policy documents, news stories and media representations, I intend to identify some of the key strands in dominant discourses about men and childcare. More specifically, I want to explore the tensions and contradictions between a discourse of gender equality, which represents men as equally able (and indeed, increasingly, as morally obliged) to care for children, and the equally powerful discourse of men as a risk to children, which has been fuelled by a number of high profile sexual abuse cases, including some in childcare services. How have these often competing discourses framed public policy, professional practice, and popular ‘common sense’ in relation to men’s care for children?

Moving on from discourses to theories, the book will explore and critique some of the key perspectives that underpin current debates about men, children and care. At this stage, I’m unsure which perspectives I’ll focus on, but it’s likely this section will include an examination of the debate between traditionalist models of family life, which draw on essentialist notions of gender identity, and progressive or egalitarian models, which suggest that gender identities are socially and historically constructed. The latter tend to be influenced by sociological or social constructionist thinking, but I also want to look at the insights that psychoanalytic theory, and particularly the ideas developed by psychoanalytic feminism, might provide into these issues. I’ll probably end up making the case for a psychosocial – or even a biopsychosocial – approach that attempts (perhaps over-ambitiously!) to resolve some of the tensions and differences between these different schools of thought.

Male childcare worker (via www.spiegel.de)

Male childcare worker (via http://www.spiegel.de)

Having set out the discursive and theoretical terrain in this way, I’m hoping that the book will then focus on some key issues that I don’t think have been tackled adequately elsewhere. One of those issues is the meanings that children have for men. A lot of writing about fatherhood tends to focus on the impact of father involvement (or alternatively of father absence) on children’s development and wellbeing. There’s been much less work on men’s subjective and affective experience either as fathers, or as paid carers for children, though this has been rectified to some extent in recent years by some landmark empirical studies (such as those by Miller, Doucet, Dermott et al). But I think we still lack a deep enough understanding of either the social or psychic meanings of children in men’s lives, or the influence of those meanings, whether explicit or unconscious, on men’s capacity or willingness to care.

Another key issue that I want to explore in the book is the factors that influence men’s intention or desire to be involved in the care of their, or indeed other people’s children. What part is played by early experiences and relationships, and what role is there for education, in developing ‘caring’ masculinities? Here, I’ll probably draw on some small-scale research that I did some time ago on boys’ relationships with their mothers, as well as on the findings of our recent Beyond Male Role Models study.

I’ll post more details about the book, and provide updates on my progress, as I go along. I’d certainly welcome feedback on my ideas, particularly if anyone is working in similar areas, or is aware of other interesting work in this field, either in research or practice, that you think I should be aware of.

‘Parenting and personhood’ conference

Last week I attended a conference on ‘Parenting and personhood: cross-cultural perspectives on family-life, expertise, and risk management’, hosted by the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The conference was organised in collaboration with the project Parenting Cultures and Risk Management in Plural Norway at Uni Research Rokkansenteret in Norway.

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

My colleague Lindsay O’Dell and I presented a paper on ‘Parenting and distance’, which we’d developed with a number of our colleagues in the Children, Young People and Families research group at The Open University. The paper introduced our new research project, exploring three case studies of parenting at a distance, and shared some initial findings from one of those exemplars, looking at the experience of parents with a disabled child living away from home for extended periods. I also managed to smuggle in a reference to my own recent research on my great grandfather’s wartime letters, which I believe provide an interesting example of a man ‘doing’ fatherhood at a distance, under conditions of extreme anxiety. You can download the slides from our presentation here:

Parenting and distance slides

The conference was truly international, with most delegates coming from outside the UK, and with speakers representing a variety of European countries, as well as North America, South Africa and Australasia. Highlights for me included the opening keynote lecture by Frank Furedi, a report on the Norwegian project from Synnøve Bendixsen and Hilde Danielsen, and panels on fatherhood and parenting online, where I learnt a new word: ‘sharenting’ – the phenomenon of parents sharing intimate details of their children’s lives and their own parenting experiences via blogs and vlogs.

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

As always, one of the best things about the conference was meeting new people and sharing ideas and experiences. I enjoyed making connections with colleagues doing research on various aspects of parenting in Norway, Denmark, Canada and the USA, and I look forward to keeping in contact with them as our own work on parenting and distance moves forward.

Thanks to Ellie Lee of CPCS for a superbly organised conference.

‘Father figures’ seminar and new research project

As advertised in my last post, I helped to organise a seminar on 3rd June on ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children.’ The seminar, a collaboration between The Open University and the Family Matters Institute, was designed to launch a new joint research project on social fathering.

You can read all about the seminar, and find out more about the project, at the new blog that we’ve created:


And you can follow the project’s progress, and get involved in the discussion on social fathering, on Twitter:


Reflections on the American Men’s Studies Association Conference

I arrived home on Monday from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. It was a rather different affair from last year’s conference in New York City. That was a big, high-profile event, coinciding with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and featuring celebrity guests such as Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. It was deliberately aimed at gender equality activists as much as researchers, and as such was certainly a heady and inspiring few days. However, it  could be argued that academically it was somewhat less satisfying, and specifically that there was little in the programme to appeal to those from a humanities background.

Flag pole on the 'Diag', University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

Flag pole on the ‘Diag’, University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

This year’s conference was smaller, more intimate, with a greater emphasis on academic research, and an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. From such a stimulating programme  it’s perhaps invidious to mention only a few presentations. However, highlights for me included the opening plenary in which three literary academics talked about masculinity in American novels, the keynote lecture by linguist Scott Kiesling discussing the ‘masculine stance’ in language and the history of the word ‘dude’, and a couple of fascinating papers analysing gender relations in popular television programmes. The poster presentations were very good too: I was particularly pleased to link up with Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD student at Ann Arbor, who is researching the use of social media by fathers, including some of the British ‘dad blogs’ that I’ve started to follow.

Preparing for the panel on fatherhood

Preparing for the panel session on fatherhood

My own paper, analysing faith, fatherhood and masculinity in the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War (see my last post), was part of a panel session first thing on Saturday morning. I was presenting alongside Joyce Lee, another Ann Arbor PhD student, and Carol Watson-Phillips, a retired researcher from Massachusetts, both of whom were examining aspects of contemporary fatherhood. Despite the early start, the session was well-attended and the questions were intriguing, even if being asked to extend my analysis to my relationship with my own father was somewhat challenging!

Networking at the AMSA conference

Networking at the AMSA conference

The School of Social Work at the University of Michigan were excellent hosts, and I made some useful contacts and had plenty of memorable and stimulating conversations. Ann Arbor itself was a fascinating town to explore: not just the university campus itself, with its imposing architecture and impressive art gallery, but the Art Deco theatres, the multitude of bookshops and restaurants, and the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The weather was (we were given to understand) typical of Michigan: spring sunshine one day, biting wind and snow showers the next (though not the deep drifts we had to contend with last year in Manhattan).

I don’t yet know where AMSA 2017 will be held (somewhere warmer perhaps?), but if the programme is as interesting as this year, I hope I’ll be going.

The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.


(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 


One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 


The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via www.nationaljournal.com)

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via http://www.nationaljournal.com)

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.