Petteri Eerola

(; twitter: @EerolaPetteri)

Beginning around the 1980s, significant changes in male parenting have become increasingly evident in western societies (Doucet 2006, Miller 2011). Researchers have argued that caring and involved fatherhood has become more widespread and culturally more accepted, or even the norm of male parenting. This development has been described as a profound “gender revolution” (Goldscheider, Bernhardt and Lappegård 2014); as more sensitive and hands-on involvement has entered cultural conceptions of responsible fatherhood, it is clear that the so-called traditional tasks of fathering, such as begetting, protecting and providing (see Coltrane 2011), no longer meet the expectations of contemporary male parenting. These shifts in cultural understanding have likely involved novel moral duties that have affected men’s sense of their parental responsibilities. During the last three decades in Finland, for example, men’s involvement in childcare has noticeably expanded, while the cultural understanding of fatherhood has become more care and nurture oriented.

The changing ideals and understandings of fatherhood were scrutinized in my 2015 PhD dissertation, Responsible Fatherhood: A Narrative Approach, in which I analyzed the narratives of responsible fatherhood given by 44 Finnish men in their early years as parents. Specifically, I analyzed in what terms responsible fatherhood is conceptualized in men’s narratives, and what gendering of responsibility their narratives reveal. My dissertation was based on narrative methodology. The results of my dissertation were also published in three peer-reviewed journal articles between 2011 and 2015 (Eerola and Huttunen 2011, Eerola 2014, Eerola and Mykkänen 2015).

My narrative analyses highlight that the fathers I interviewed produced comprehensive engagement in caregiving from the very beginning of parenthood as a key feature of responsible fatherhood. That is, they narrated nurture and hands-on care as self-evident features of responsible fatherhood. In many ways, their narratives aligned with mainstream cultural portrayals of “good” motherhood. Moreover, traditional paternal responsibilities such as breadwinning were narrated as shared parental duties in principle, though the fathers’ accounts also implied how these ideals were not always realized in everyday life. However, based on my analysis in the Finnish context, it seems that fathers have moved closer towards the intimate and emotional core of the family and that fatherhood has become a domain of life in which men are allowed to show their emotions and act in many ways that run counter to what has traditionally been understood as masculine. For example, the account of Jaska, a 27-year-old university-educated father of one, portrays emotional closeness as a key characteristic of responsible fatherhood:

As I see it, the most important thing is just to be there with him [the child] … Really, what else would a one-year-old baby need? To be emotionally present: that’s the only thing that matters.

The results of my dissertation reveal a swift change in cultural understanding on fatherhood and men’s responsibilities as parents in Finland. As recently as the 1990s, gendered labor in child care was being narrated as a cultural norm in the accounts of Finnish fathers (see Korhonen 1999; Perälä-Littunen 2004), whereas the narratives analyzed in my dissertation appear to stress responsibilities in a notably different manner by accentuating equality between fathers and mothers in their capability and obligation to perform care work. It also seems that the previously wide gap that prevailed between the cultural demands pertaining to good motherhood and to good fatherhood respectively has narrowed, as it now appears that the demands made on fathers, especially regarding their share in child care, have become stricter.

One interesting issue revealed in my results is the reflective quality of present-day fatherhood. Mothers’ narratives have already been found to have a reflective character (Miller 2005), and this tendency is also perceptible in the narratives produced by the fathers interviewed for my study. Although the participating fathers were interested in principle in telling about their fatherhood, and had probably a high tendency to reflectivity, the manner in which they reflected on their own experiences and stories, drawing on existing cultural models, reveals new possibilities, and perhaps even cultural obligations, for men to reflect on their fatherhood. This reflectivity also highlights that fatherhood today is by no means self-evident or stable; rather, it is constantly negotiated and pondered. In addition to strong cultural narratives and new conceptions of responsible fatherhood, another reason for the men’s high reflectivity may be that enhanced expert and media discourses on fatherhood have given fathers conceptual tools with which to contemplate their fatherhood in a new manner. It is difficult to see that a corresponding level of reflectivity would have emerged in similar interview situations just a couple of decades ago.

In sum, my results suggest that an ideal of fatherhood characterized by nurture and caregiving has become the cultural mainstream among present-day Finnish fathers. This ideal of fatherhood is produced especially by young, highly educated urban men who actively reflect on their own fatherhood and who emphasize nurture-based fathering as a cultural norm of contemporary parenthood. However, even though nurture and care seem to have supplanted breadwinning as the most idealized paternal responsibilities, straightforward conclusions about everyday family practices cannot be drawn from the fathers’ narratives. Although in Finland fathers’ share in childcare has notably increased since the late 1980s, a wide gender gap in early care persists, with Finnish mothers dominating both in hands-on care work and parental leave (Miettinen and Rotkirch 2012; Salmi, Närvi and Lammi-Taskula 2017). The narratives produced by the interviewees are, however, promising in terms of the greater parental involvement of men in the future. Although developing both father-friendly family policies and work-life practices is important for expanding the role of fathers in childcare, it is obviously the fathers themselves who are most responsible for turning these caring narratives into mundane family practices.

Petteri Eerola: Responsible Fatherhood: A Narrative Approach (2015). Published by the University of Jyväskylä. Available online:


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