Academic journal article Fathering

Determinants, Costs, and Meanings of Belgian Stay-at-Home Fathers: An International Comparison

Academic journal article Fathering

Determinants, Costs, and Meanings of Belgian Stay-at-Home Fathers: An International Comparison

Article excerpt

Data gathered from 21 at-home fathers living in Belgium were analyzed and compared to results from research conducted in Australia, Sweden and the USA on fathers taking primary responsibility for childcare. The dynamic process of managing the tension between assigned norms and personal identity was studied through a comparative overview of how at-home fathers come to assume the primary responsibility of childcare, the norms they are confronted with in their daily interactions and the strategies used by these fathers to (re)construct a positive self-image. The fathers' increased involvement in childcare challenged masculine self-definitions and self-presentations in normative contexts where men's predominant involvement in paid work is privileged and childcare is largely defined as feminine. In response, Belgian fathers developed strategies and discourses that drew on a multiplicity of masculinities that appear in many cases to be both transgressive and yet complicit with hegemonic definitions of masculinity.

Keywords: fatherhood, childcare, identity, gender, at-home dads, norms


In industrialised countries, professional and family life balance has long been considered a "women only" issue (Barrere-Maurisson, 1992; Hochschild, 2003). Women's growing presence in the labour market and the challenge posed by women's movements to the traditional male breadwinner/female caretaker model has made the articulation of paid work and family more acute. Concerns about paid work/family balance are heightened by ageing populations and decreasing birth rates, both of which affect social security systems in most Organisation for Economic and Cooperation Development (OECD) countries. In the Nordic countries, where gender equality policies date back to the early 1960s, governments stressed the importance of combining actions targeted at both women and men. These policies start by acknowledging that women's position in the labour market and society will not be improved unless men take on traditionally female activities, both in the public and the private sphere (Bruning & Plantenga, 1999; Hernes, 1988; Leira, 2002; Moss & Deven, 1999). Following the Nordic example, several EU Member States have recently started to develop schemes and policies promoting men's involvement in the family, with a special focus on childcare and active fatherhood (Deven & Moss, 2002). Fathers are expected to be an active or 'hand on' sharer of child caring responsibilities (O'Brien, 2005). But although discourses indicate an evolution of men's attitudes, practices are only changing slowly. Still, in different OECD countries, some men do engage in active and involved fatherhood and reduce their investment in paid work to take on the primary responsibility of childcare.

Data from doctoral research of at-home fathers conducted in Belgium between 2002 and 2006 were analysed to add to our understanding of how "deviant" fathers deal with the tension between dominant gender norms and their practices and to compare with findings from similar research in other western countries. The experiences of at-home fathers in Belgium are reported with a focus on the factors contributing to their involvement in active fatherhood and the costs and barriers they have to deal with. The significance of these factors are supported by the results from research conducted in Australia, Sweden, and the United States. Some of the strategies at-home fathers living in Belgium develop to maintain a positive self-image are briefly presented.

Theoretical Perspective

My Belgian investigation of at-home fathers is grounded in a constructivist and phenomenological approach of the social world. This approach considers the perception of the every day life world as a social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1996; Schutz, 1987; Williame, 1973). In this sense, socially constructed sex differences are considered to be one of the guiding principles of our perception of the world (Delphy, 2001). …

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