Before 1980, most dads didn’t do ‘diaper duty’

While dads have been actively involved in child care much longer than many people assume, they only recently started to change diapers, research shows.

Figures from a 1982 study showed 43 percent of fathers never changed a diaper. By 2000 another study showed this figure had fallen to 3 percent. A 2010 study by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit reported that 65 percent of men helped “a great deal” with diaper-changing.

“We must reject suggestions that close father-child relationships have only developed since the 1970s or even 1990s,” says Laura King from the University of Warwick Centre for the History of Medicine.

“The stereotype of the distant and tyrannical Victorian patriarch conceals substantial evidence of fathers who cared greatly for their children and played with them, educated them, and even nursed them.”

The study suggests that in the post-World War II era, fathers were more determined to cultivate much closer relationships with their children than they had experienced with their own fathers.

This was reinforced by important social trends and the reduction in average family size meant that many parents could devote more time to each of their children. A decrease in working hours and increased holiday time also meant that men had more time available to spend with their families.

King says there was an emphasis on the nuclear family after 1945 caused by the expansion of state welfare and psychological thinking about the family.

She says: “We have to rethink this idea that ‘modern’ fathers are a recent phenomenon. Such stereotypes affect policy-making and the way legislation is used; fathers are still subject to harmful stereotyping. There is a great deal of historical evidence showing that fathers have played a caring and nurturing role with their children for centuries, including taking informal paternity leave to support their partners around the time of childbirth.

“However, it does seem to have taken a while for the majority of fathers to take their turn in changing dirty nappies.

“By 1982 there were still 43 percent of fathers who never changed a nappy. This figure has dropped to 3 percent by 2000. We can see from the 2010 figures that more men are changing nappies on a regular basis.

“Whilst we can point to clear practical changes such as nappy-changing, men’s participation in childbirth, policy changes introducing official paternity leave and changes in child custody laws, the change in active fatherhood has been less sudden that is often assumed.”

The Wellcome Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) supported the project. A paper detailing the findings is available on the History & Policy website.

Source: University of Warwick