In over half of all two-parent households with children under the age of five, mothers are now in paid employment. In these families, men do a third of caring for children - eight times more than 30 years ago.
At the same time, there has been a big increase in the number of children who live with their mother in a different household to their biological father.
While there’s no job description for fatherhood, the vast majority of men today both want and expect a much more hands-on role in bringing their children up. In fact there’s strong evidence to show that the active and positive involvement of fathers is good for children in terms of both their future emotional and educational development.
It’s worth looking more closely at what children need from their dads - and what the role of a father means.
What do babies need from dads?
In the very early days, the relationship between a mother and a baby is very much a two-person dyad. A father’s role is largely to support the mother in her maternal role. This supportive role starts during the mum’s pregnancy and continues once the baby is born.
He might help with practical things like housework, cooking, changing nappies as well as looking after older siblings to enable mum to have time with her newborn and support, for example, breastfeeding.
A baby will soon recognise dad’s face and be able to be comforted by him as well as by mum, providing important respite for exhausted mums, as well as developing the relationship between a father and his child. Of course dad may be going out to work as well, so mum will probably not be the only exhausted parent in the early days!
As well as a supportive paternal role, early involvement between a father and their child is important in its own right too.
Research shows that fathers involved in caring for their baby, such as bathing etc, enjoy closer contact with their child when they reach the age of 10 or 11. Even if the father and mother later separate, a father is more likely to stay involved with his children if he was engaged in their intimate care from the start.
As the baby grows in the first few months, the relationship moves increasingly from a dyad to a three-person triad.
A really important role for a father is to gradually help the mother regain more independence and achieve some separation from the baby at times, by spending time with his child and allowing mum to gradually reconnect with other areas of her adult life.
It is important too for the infant to develop a sense of two adult parents working cooperatively together, and gradually learn to tolerate that they do not ‘own’ their mum and that she has close relationships with others as well as themselves.
But fathers can take a primary role too, when the need arises.
It is quite a challenge for many men to realise that what the baby needs from them is not so different from mothering. If mother has to go out father can take her place. The only obstacle to that, apart from breast feeding, is his surprise at having tender (maternal) feelings towards the baby.
What about toddlers?
Around the age of two, managing boundaries and needing to say no sometimes, is very important, as the child typically will test parents regularly. A father has an important role here in helping the mother to provide safe and secure boundaries for their child and ensuring that they as parents are providing consistent messages for their child without getting split.
Fathers are often more active in their play with young children than mothers. You’ll often see young children squealing with delight as dad throws them in the air. This so-called rough play benefits both boys and girls and helps build physical self-confidence.
Of course rough play must also be safe play and be tailored appropriately to the child’s age. Children also benefit from close physical contact with their dads, such as warm hugs, which can give them a sense of security and intimacy.
What about older children?
Children need to see both male and female role models as they are growing up.
Traditionally, fathers came into their own when a child was older. But the presence of a father, as opposed to stereotypical heroic models of men in comics and cartoons, will help sons in particular find their own balanced identity and sense of gender.
And unless fathers are involved in childcare, how are both boys and girls going to see what men are really like, and how will men really get to know their children?
What children want from fathers isn’t necessarily a hero, adventurer or even a playmate, but a parent who looks after them and thinks about them when they’re not there.
Fathers may help a child with their homework, encourage sporting or other interests and help generally with a child’s emerging identity. Research tells us that fathers’ involvement in their children’s education matters for children's educational, emotional and social development, for both girls and boys.
A survey by the Fatherhood Institute, the national information centre on fatherhood, showed children don’t want expensive holidays, bikes or computers from their dads. They rate shared time doing things like playing football, chatting at bedtime or being helped with their homework much more highly.
The survey backs up research carried out at Lancaster University that showed more than half of British children wanted more time with their dads doing ordinary activities.
A child who feels loved by their father as well as their mother is likely to have good self-esteem. Their relationship with their father is likely to colour their relationship with men in the future and to some extent their view of men in general.
What about supporting the family financially?
It’s very important that fathers and mothers discuss and jointly work out aspects of family structure, such as who is going to be responsible for earning money, and in what proportions.
A central aspect of a father’s role in supporting his family may be to be the main breadwinner, but parents may share this or the mother may take on this role with a decision being made that the father will have a greater role in terms of childcare.
What rights do fathers have in the workplace?
Fathers have the statutory right to paid paternity leave. This was introduced in the UK in April 2003.
Many can also benefit from flexible working which means they may be able to take time off for parent/teacher discussions, sports days and caring for children when they are sick.