It’s interesting that while the role of the mother is more or less similar- in almost all societies it’s most often the mother who nurtures the baby, the role of fathers around the world differ depending on culture. As primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy notices in her book “Mothers and Others”:
“Human males may nurture young a little, a lot or not at all.”
The Role of Fathers
It’s true: Depending on culture, fathers can be extremely involved on one end of the spectrum, and totally absent on the other. While we’ve come to see a nuclear family as the norm, it’s far from it.
In cultures around the world, it’s women who take care of children, but the child is just as likely to be carried, and nurtured by their grandmothers, aunts, sisters and other female family members, not just the mothers. And sometimes fathers are also involved.
In primates, the father and other males are seen as a danger to the child and therefore kept away from infants and children, and in many cultures around the world, this is still the case.
Anthropologist David L Lancy explains:
“It is a fairly safe generalization that the father’s primary contribution to children occurs at conception. (…) No men, not even husbands, are permitted to witness the birth of a child, and this prohibition is typical (Ifaluk Island). Post-partum, fathers are discouraged from attending on their wives and babies, as well. Societies construct rationalizations for the father’s absence from the nursery.”
Even in the most equal of families, where both parents contribute to the household, and fathers are involved in childcare, they still pick and choose the activities they want to do with their child, while mothers pick up the slack.
“Middle-to upper-class fathers play less with their offspring than do mothers, nevertheless behave as if this is a natural and appropriate part of their role- a view not shared in all industrialized societies. But fathers play differently than do mothers. In other words, mothers play for the sake of the child, fathers for themselves,” says Lancy.
That’s why fathers are seen as more fun and exciting than are mothers- who have to take care of the more mundane things related to caring for children and may therefore get more frustrated.
But let’s have a look at fathers around the world.
The Aka, a Pigmy tribe living in Central Africa, has been recently called “the world’s best fathers”. Barry Hewlett, the man who studied the Aka, said in this article for the Guardian, that that “Aka fathers are within reach of their infants 47% of the time – that’s apparently more than fathers in any other cultural group on the planet.” What is fascinating about the Aka tribe is that they’re extremely gender equal. Men’s and women’s roles are practically interchangeable. Of course, some inequality still exists: for example the top positions are occupied by men, mothers still spend more time with their children than do fathers and play more with the children. Also, Hewlett found in later research, that even among the Aka, male status was negatively affected by childcare.
Meet the Pasthu, the pastoralists in Afghanistan. Their women work harder than men and therefore the burden of childcare falls to fathers- because other women are equally burdened. This is especially the case in milk-processing season. I couldn’t find anything else about the Pashtu but this certainly caught my attention. A society where men do more childcare than women? Wow. Of course, notice this is only because women have more work but it shows that it’s definitely possible.
Paternity leave in Sweden
Sweden is famous for its long parental leave for fathers. Swedish dads get 3 months of paternity leave, which they can’t swap with their partners and they have to take or else it will be lost. How does this look like in practice? Swedish photographer Johan Bävman took a series of photographs called “Swedish Dads” where he took pictures of fathers staying at home with their children. This year, Sweden planned to introduce another month of paternity leave. Sadly, only 12% of fathers take this opportunity but at least it’s something to aspire to.
Daddy day in The Netherlands
Dutch father get a measly 2 days of paternity leave- and I think it has a lot to do with the amazing postpartum support Dutch women are getting. However, they are also expected to be involved in their children’s lives. Once I even found myself the only mother at the playground– all the other parents were fathers! Dutch dads can also take something known as “papadag” or daddy day a week. My husband has one day off work on Wednesdays, which is great because it’s the day my kids get off school early.
“In other parts of Africa, one might find people living in large, diverse groups in a “compound”. There are multiple males- brothers, cousins, and grandsons- whose relationship to the corresponding group of women in the compound is not easy to discern,” writes Lancy.
And in some cultures, especially among the extremely patriarchal ones, children and mothers are considered the father’s property. Men can decide to take away the children from their mother’s care and place with his family.
In many Western cultures, fathers are supposed to be hands-on caregivers, but in the time of intensive parenting, fathers increasingly start feeling the same pressures that mothers do, to be intimately and continuously involved with their children, and that’s obviously not a good thing.
But why the variability?
One of the reasons fathers are not considered natural caregivers in so many cultures is not only that they can’t get pregnant or give birth. It’s more because, all over the world, fathers are often missing. They are out hunting, serving in the army, herding livestock or working. These are often dangerous situations in which a man can die. Therefore, mothers had to make sure they could raise their children without the fathers by getting support from grandmothers, sisters, aunts and even the baby’s older siblings.
But it doesn’t mean that fathers can’t be great caregivers. In fact, if circumstances or cultural pressures necessitate it, they can and they do.
In short, as Lancy says, “the role of father varies in part because the role of husbands, and/or adult males, generally, varies so much cross-culturally.”