In June this year the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent is organising a conference on ‘Parenting and Personhood: Cross-cultural perspectives on expertise, family life and risk management’. The Children, Young People and Families Research Group, based in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University, will be presenting a paper at the conference. The topic we’ve chosen to focus on is ‘Parenting and distance’.

There’s a tendency to think of parenting as something that depends on close, intimate and regular contact (hence perhaps the moral panic about ‘absent’ fathers). But what are the implications for parenting practice and experience when parents and children are separated for unavoidable reasons? The three exemplars that we’re focusing on, and which form the basis of research in which we’re currently engaged as a group, are: children and parents separated by migration (very topical at the moment, with charities urging the UK government to accept large numbers of unaccompanied child refugees from Syria); children in long-term residential care; and young people in prison.

The last of these three examples is of particular interest to me. My first full-time job was running a NACRO education project for (mainly) young offenders in Basildon, Essex. Then I moved to another NACRO project in inner London, which included the education day centre which I was responsible for managing, but also a residential block where we provided a temporary home for ex-prisoners who wished to continue their studies on their release. Part of my role involved visiting prisons and young offender institutions, mostly in London and Kent, to interview prospective students / residents. I became keenly aware of the difficulties involved in maintaining meaningful contact between prisoners and their families, and yet such contact was vital for the rehabilitation, especially of young offenders, into everyday life.

Rochester Young Offenders Institution: the original 'Borstal'

Rochester Young Offenders Institution in Kent: the original ‘Borstal’

The subject of ‘parenting and distance’ also forms a key dimension of another piece of research in which I’ve recently been involved. At the end of March I’ll be attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where this year’s theme is ‘(Un)Masking Masculinities: Constructing and Deconstructing Representations of Masculinities.’ I attended last year’s conference in New York City, where Mike Ward and I presented a paper on our ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ study. This year, I’ll be talking about something rather different. The title of my paper is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One’. I’ll be analysing letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather, when the latter was a private in the army awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in early 1916 (exactly one hundred years ago this month, in fact).

The letters offer an intriguing glimpse of one man ‘doing’ fatherhood under conditions of traumatic separation and extreme anxiety. I’ll be arguing that the letter writer manages the anxiety of separation by presenting a reconstruction in language of the familiar world of home and church. A number of things intrigue me about my great grandfather’s letters: not least the fact that he was a widower, and therefore arguably having to fulfil a maternal as well as paternal role towards his son. This links to a wider question that continues to engage me: what exactly is it that fathers do that’s distinctive from what mothers do, or is it just more of the same?

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb, in his army uniform

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb, in his army uniform

I’ve written extensively about my work on my great grandfather’s letters on this blog (if you’re interested, start here and follow the links forward). I also gave a presentation on the same topic in 2013 at a seminar on ‘Fathers and fatherhood’ organised by the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at The Open University. You can see the Powerpoint slides for that presentation here (scroll down to the foot of the page), and you can watch a video of my talk here (second screen down).

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