Talking to Men about Fatherhood: Re-interpreting Family life in Late Twentieth century Scotland

I recently co-organised and presented at the Scottish Oral History Centre’s Inaugural Postgraduate conference, ‘Face to Face with the Past: Postgraduate experiences of Oral History.’ Writing the paper, I was forced to think about why I have chosen oral history to examine the nature of fatherhood in late twentieth century Scotland. While a number of, often contradictory, representations of fatherhood can be found from a range of sources, few historical studies have used oral history to explore the experiences of fatherhood. Fewer still have conducted original oral history interviews; we know very little about how fatherhood was experienced in the past from men themselves.  This is partly because while the place of the father in family life has gained some attention from historians, this has only been true of certain groups of men, in certain historical periods.  Whilst middle-class fathers have been given a place within the home from the eighteenth century onwards, working-class fathers appear only on the margins of family life, and histories of fatherhood in the twentieth century are largely neglected.

Yet it is during this period that it was believed the nature of fatherhood was changing. Male and female roles were challenged by the changing labour market, deindustrialisation and unemployment, feminism and an increase in the number of women entering paid employment. The rise in divorce, cohabitation and remarriage led to multiple family forms. The fathers’ rights movement was established, there was a dramatic growth in the number of fathers attending childbirth from around fifty percent in the late 1970s to over ninety percent in the 1990s, and the ‘new man’ who was caring, sensitive and willing to take an equal responsibility for childcare was to be found in everyday culture via television, film, newspapers, celebrities and politicians. Although women remained responsible for the majority of childcare and housework, time-use studies suggest that between 1975 and 1997, British fathers’ care of infants and young children rose by some 800%, from fifteen minutes to two hours in the average working day. The time British men spent on domestic work rose from an average of ninety minutes a day in the 1960s to 148 minutes per day in 2004.

While such statistical evidence is undoubtedly useful, figures claiming fathers’ share of housework and a number of physical childcare tasks can only tell us so much. They do not provide insight into how men felt about their parental roles, their role in decision making, and levels of interest, knowledge and sensitivity to their child’s behaviour, and how these changed over time.  As a result, what fathers ‘did’ has often been taken to suggest what they ‘felt’ when this might not always have been the case. While many fathers may not have taken an equally responsible role for childcare, this does not indicate that they were not equally loving or invested in their children, or that they were ‘cruel’ at worst and ‘incapable’ at best. Particularly when fatherhood was strongly associated with the ability to provide financially and the stereotyping of men as useless parents was, and still is, widespread. In the early nineties, children living with a lone father were forty-eight times more likely to go into care than children from two-parent families, British fathers worked the longest hours in Europe and men only got the right to two weeks paternity leave in 2003.

There has been much diversity, continuity and change in the representations and experiences of fatherhood throughout the twentieth century.  There are clearly many kinds of fathers, trends toward both more caring and traditional fathering may co-exist and men may even transition between these two within their own lifetime.  None of these complex and subtle elements can be conveyed by a single statistic claiming how many hours a father spent with his child.  Becoming a father is life altering and fatherhood is a crucial part of many men’s identities and experiences.  Oral history is therefore a particularly effective way to explore men’s positions within the home and family and to examine how fathers in the past viewed, experienced and enacted their parental role, then and now.

There are nevertheless a range of methodological issues which can arise from using oral sources to explore fatherhood. The present notion that fathers today are now more involved with their children and family life and that this is a positive phenomenon will certainly influence the memories recalled, the identities embraced and the narratives constructed.  Oral history is able to offer evidence of the attitudes, beliefs and values attached to fatherhood but cannot necessarily be used to determine behaviours and the conduct of fatherhood: what men actually did in the past.  However, I will take the approach that the dialogue with the present will be productive and oral evidence does not have to be literally ‘true’ in order to be of historical value, as the personal meanings embedded in people’s memories of the past are all valid.  I believe that using oral history to voice the experiences of fathers themselves will be central to breaking down the stereotypes about working-class fathers in Scottish society and demonstrating that so many were in the past and continue to be loving, warm and caring fathers.

Did you become a father between 1970 and 1990? To find out more about the project and what an oral history interview would involve, please check out the ‘get involved’ page. To find out more about Oral History, please visit the Scottish Oral History Centre website:



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