Talking and doing fatherhood: on fatherhood and masculinity in Sweden and England

Talking and doing fatherhood: on fatherhood and masculinity in Sweden and England

Lars Plantin

This article draws on empirical data from interviews with men and their partners in Sweden and England to explore how fatherhood formation takes place within intimate relationships and in the context of wider structural factors. The research illustrates the influence of the contemporary discourse of the “involved father” in both countries and shows that the ways in which this affects men’s practices is dependent on a wide range of factors including economic circumstances, social policies, political history, and the emotional relationship between partners. The influence of class is of particular significance in the English context, while it is less of a factor in Sweden. It is argued that, although the process is uneven, men’s practices as fathers are shifting toward more involvement in childcare and household labor and that this process can be assisted by structural changes and social policy initiative.

Key Words: fatherhood, gender relations, Sweden, England


Research on fatherhood is at present a rapidly expanding field of knowledge. The questions at issue are no longer focused only on the topic of how fathers’ behavioural patterns influence their children’s development. New perspectives have developed and much current research focuses on the men themselves and how fatherhood is constructed in everyday practice and in relationships.

Parallel to this development there is also a growing academic interest in how men live their lives, create their male identities, and form relationships with their surrounding world. One context in which these kinds of questions are being explored is in the new research on men and masculinities. However, such research has only to a limited extent paid attention to the issue of male parenting. Its focus has been more on men’s relations to work, sports, violence, and sexuality (Lupton & Barclay, 1997). Furthermore, we have noted a particular lack of research on the relationship between masculinity and fatherhood, which in a clear way connects issues concerning fatherhood and male identity. To some extent this is quite surprising, since parenting occupies a large part of many men’s lives and especially since the intersecting point between these two areas opens up a number of interesting questions including how men perceive their own fatherhood; how external expectations influence modern involved fathering, men’s discourses, and behavioural patterns; and finally how these experiences influence the way men perceive themselves as men.

The aim of this article is to discuss some of these issues. More specifically, the article has two purposes. First, we analyse how different culturally conditioned expectations influence men’s ideas and practices concerning parenthood. We do this by comparing research material from two different cultural settings, Sweden and England. Second, we examine whether male behaviour in everyday family life is changing in ways that might lead to more gender equality within family relationships.

It is interesting to make a comparison between England and Sweden considering the wider sociopolitical and structural differences between these two countries, not least in the area of family policies (ESO, 1996). A comparative perspective has of course other advantages. Cross-cultural comparisons often contribute with new and unexpected angles. At the same time they offer the researchers the possibility to place themselves in the position of an external observer in relation to phenomena and conceptions of their own society (Hantrais & Mangen, 1996). This article is thus based on a comparative research project carried out in Sweden and England by the Department of Social Work at Gotenborg University and the Centre for Social Research and Practice at the University of Sunderland.


Research on male parenting has lately shown a more diverse picture of how men perceive and conduct their fathering. As a consequence, fatherhood has more and more come to be considered a social construction that is shaped in the interplay between a number of surrounding relations and structures in men’s lives (Brandth & Kvande, 1998; Coltrane, 1996). This includes both relationships within the family, where fatherhood is put to the test and shaped in everyday practice, and the societal expectations and conditions that surround parenthood (Backett, 1987; Marsiglio, 1995).

As will be seen below, this is the perspective we have chosen for our theoretical approach. In the analysis, we have emphasised the influence of the sociocultural context on fatherhood and the production of fatherhood in the context of men’s and women’s relationships. The theoretical perspectives that have guided our work are drawn from the rapidly expanding research in the field of masculinity. The gender theory of Robert W. Connell in his works Masculinities (1995) and The Men and the Boys (2000) has been of particular interest to us. Moreover, we have been influenced by the theoretical discussion on how gender is “done,” or constructed, in daily interactions between men and women. For this reason West and Zimmerman’s (1987) concept of “doing gender” is a core concept in our analysis.

Connell (1995) has described the social construction of gender as a way of structuring social practice, and as such it is both “a product and producer of history” (p. 81). Gender relations are constructed in time and over time and therefore are both maintained and changed by societal structures and day-to-day practices between men and women. Connell suggests a three-fold model of gender relations incorporating relations of power, production, and emotions (Connell uses the concept of “cathexis” in the sense of emotional attachment). In this article, we will consider all these areas of gender relations. One of the questions we will explore is whether “involved fathering” entails an altered, more equitable relationship between men and women or whether it is just a new, more subtle expression of traditional “hegemonic masculinity” as has been suggested by certain researchers (Brandth & Kvande, 1998; Dryden, 1999). However, we would suggest that it is not necessarily helpful to view this as an “either/or” question.

Connell (2000) argues that the hegemonic form of masculinity “need not be the most common form of masculinity, let alone the most comfortable. Indeed many men live in a state of some tension with, or distance from, the hegemonic masculinity of their culture and community” (p. 11). One way of describing this complexity is by using the concept of “complicity.” By this Connell means that most men live in a kind of tacit consent toward patriarchal power. Complicity means simply to play a part in a system that favours oneself at someone else’s expense. Connell claims that men tend to benefit from what he calls the “patriarchal dividend,” which is the different advantages–financial and others–that men in general have from living in a society of patriarchal dominance. For example, in public settings it is more unusual for men to overtly dissociate themselves from women’s demands on equality between the sexes. On the other hand, there are relatively few men who actively support pro-feminist policies. However, if one examines how men relate to hegemonic masculinity on a day-to-day basis, a rather complex picture emerges. Most men in our society live a life of continual compromise and negotiation with the women and children they share their lives with. One of the questions arising from our research is to consider whether men from different social and cultural settings are in fact shifting along what might be called a “continuum of complicity” between masculine power relations and more equal participation in family life.

In order to examine this issue, we have used West and Zimmerman’s (1987) theoretical approach described as “doing gender.” They view gender as “an accomplishment, an achieved property of situated conduct (in which attention is focused on) interactional and ultimately institutional areas” (p. 126). West and Zimmerman refer in their study to Berk (1985), who found little variation in most families in the “actual distribution of domestic tasks or perceptions of equity in regard to that distribution. Wives, even when employed outside the home, do the vast majority of household and childcare tasks. Moreover, both wives and husbands tend to perceive this as a “fair arrangement” (Berk, p. 145). She argues that it is difficult to see how couples together could rationally establish such unfair arrangements solely in order to cope with domestic tasks. It is even harder to see how these arrangements may be considered fair. Berk claims that the arrangement in reality supports two “production processes”: the production of household goods and services and the production and reproduction of gender. West and Zimmerman refer to the following quotation from Berk:

Simultaneously, (family) members “do” gender as they “do”

housework and childcare, and what (has) been called the division

of labour provides for the joint production of household labour and

gender; it is the mechanism by which both the material and symbolic

products of the household are realised. (p. 44)

It is not only a question of perceiving household tasks as “women’s work.” According to Berk the fact that women do it (more and most often) and men do not further turns it into a symbolic expression of “natural” gender differences. “What is produced and reproduced is not merely the activity and artifact of domestic life, but the material embodiment of wifely and husbandly roles” (p. 14).

Scott Coltrane (1996) has also used the concept of “doing gender.” Coltrane emphasises the importance of an active participation in household work as a means not only to produce a fair division of work, but also to create gender in a new way. His studies of “shared care” couples show that an active participation by men in childcare and domestic duties transformed the men in different ways:

… through the interaction with their children, parents constructed

images of fathers as sensitive and nurturing caregivers. The couples

were doing gender through direct and indirect childcare….

When domestic activities are shared equally, maternal thinking

develops in fathers, as well as mothers, and the social meaning of

gender begins to change. (p. 83)

Drawing on Hochschild (1989), Coltrane (1996) notes that “ideology is extremely important to divisions of labour: Who makes the bed, feeds the dog, washes the car, or stays home with the sick child depends on who ought to do those tasks in a particular household” (p. 52). He also argues that the division of domestic responsibilities is a continual process of negotiation, which is based not just on rational and economic factors or imbalances of power, but on what Hochschild calls “the economy of gratitude.” This concept encompasses relational and emotional aspects such as feelings of guilt, obligation, or appreciation associated with the performance of certain domestic tasks. In our analysis, both these concepts and lines of reasoning have been relevant and useful. We have clearly observed how men from different social classes are well aware of the new discourses and expectations of the “involved father,” how the couples are in a constant process of “doing gender” and how “the economy of gratitude” permeates the interviewees’ way of structuring their everyday lives.


As mentioned above, this study is based on data from a comparative research project between Sweden and England (for reports on the full study see Kearney, Mansson, Plantin, Pringle, & Quaid, 2000; Plantin & Mansson, 1999). An important aspect of the project was to understand relational issues in the construction of fatherhood, and for this reason it was decided to interview not only the men, but also their partners. The interviews with the women were mainly concentrated on their views of their partners’ parenting and how they thought fatherhood had influenced the men’s understanding of their masculinity. In this way the women’s voices provided an important background for the data from the men, but in this article they are not, for the most part, referred to directly. The men and women were interviewed separately. Men interviewed the male subjects, and women interviewed the female partners. The reason for proceeding in this way was to facilitate the dialogue, which at times touched intimate and delicate matters. The interviews were carried out in the couples’ homes and were tape-recorded. The interviews were then transcribed into either Swedish or English for analysis by the research teams. However, all research analyses and reports were written in English, and the two research teams met regularly.

We used an interview guide with three sets of questions focusing on three different aspects of fatherhood that influence men’s ways of thinking and dealing with parenthood: (1)

(i) Experiences and perception of their own childhood. We examined how different life experiences influence the construction of parenthood. This included both the relationship with their own parents and relationships with different friends or partners.

(ii) Fatherhood and family life. In this area, we looked at how fatherhood is constructed in everyday family practices. This included consideration of the characteristics of everyday life in families with children and how the joint tasks are divided between the parents, how the balance is maintained (or not) between work and family life, and to what extent couples used the social insurance system. We also inquired about how the couples perceived that parenthood had influenced the relationship between the man and woman and how their social life had changed since they formed a family.

(iii) Experiences from their own fatherhood. Under this heading we looked at how men make sense of their experience of fatherhood–what these experiences have meant to their self-image and how they have influenced the way the men perceive themselves as men. We explored with them whether these experiences changed over time, and if so, how. We also asked the men to describe how they perceived the societal and cultural expectations on current fathering and what were the public expectations of fathers and if they were consistent with their own behaviour.


In total, 20 couples were interviewed in England and 30 in Sweden. In each country the couples were divided into three groups: (i) new parents with children under one year of age, (ii) parents with early school age children between five and seven years, and (iii) parents with adolescent children. Our aim was to include as large a variation as possible in our material to get a broad view of men’s experiences and perceptions of fathering. In order to achieve this we attempted to contact men from different settings in terms of social background, education, employment, ethnicity, and housing. This was, for example done by recruiting interviewees from different living areas with different social profiles. In both Sweden and England the interviewees were recruited through the staff of different child health services and schools. When meeting the parents, the nurses and teachers described the project and asked if they wanted to participate in the study. If so, the parents then contacted the child health service or school which, in turn, handed over the interviewees’ telephone numbers to us. We then contacted the parents for a meeting and interview. In Sweden, however, 7 couples were found by using word-of-mouth and “snowballing” techniques.

Half of the couples in both the Swedish and English samples were married and half were cohabiting. The average age of the men and women in the two samples were quite close and the men were generally one or two years older than the women. The average age of the new parents was 28 years. For the parents with early school age and adolescent children it was 35 years and 42 years, respectively.

There were differences in levels of education among participants–55% of the Swedish men, 40% of the English men, 57% of the Swedish women, and 25% of the English women had a college or university degree. There was also considerable variation in the interviewees’ socio-economic backgrounds. The Swedish data were based chiefly on middle-class couples, while the English data included a larger proportion of working-class couples. Another difference was found in the interviewees’ involvement in the labour market. While only 7% of the Swedish men were unemployed, 25% of the men were unemployed in the English group. This difference was partly due to regional factors within England–historically unemployment has always been higher than the national average in the northeast of England–and the overall economic policies pursued by Conservative governments in England over the previous 18 years. As a result unemployment was not unusual in areas of northeast England. Also amongst this group of unemployed men, two were disabled, and one had given up work to look after his disabled wife.

Our interpretation of the interview data followed the standard procedures of qualitative analysis (Kvale, 1996). This means that we have, above all, searched for patterns and thematic features in the interviewees’ experiences and feelings around parenthood and family life. In our treatment of the interviewees’ subjective accounts, we analytically brought out and organised meaningful relationships and characteristics. This selection process followed an inductive analysis model, in which a continuous interplay between the developing theoretical perspective and the grouping and categorising of the data is stressed.



It is clear from our research that the discourse of involved fatherhood is understood and responded to in both Sweden and England and influences men’s parental behaviour in both cultures. However, there are important differences in its overall influence and how this behaviour is acted out in each of the countries.

In Sweden, the discourse on active and equal parenting has been long established over 30 years. In the early 1970s, social policy changed its focus in the reproductive field and became more based on an ideology of gender equality. Several of the reforms that took place at this time were aimed at strengthening a woman’s position in the labour market and home. Parental leave, which was introduced in 1974, gave men the same rights as women to stay home and care for their children, and at the same time financial compensation was raised. Also the development of municipal day-care facilities was accelerated. Since that time, parental leave regulations have been improved and have reached a very high standard. Today’s Swedish parents have the right to share 10 months of parental leave with 80% compensation of their wages. In addition, both men and women have an extra month at their disposal with the same percentage of compensation and an additional three months time that can be shared at a reduced rate. Swedish families with children receive twice as much in governmental benefits for their children as English families do (ESO, 1996). These measures have of course influenced both the Swedish gender culture and construction of parenthood (Haas, 1993; Sandqvist, 1993).

The following quotation from one of the Swedish men illustrates how deeply rooted this system is in some men’s memories and experiences. This man could be said to belong to the second generation of fathers with roots in the Swedish family policy discourse and its generous social insurance terms: (3)

I remember my father as very active in the family, and I can’t see

any major differences between him and my mother on that matter.

They were both working full-time, but my mother worked irregular

hours. So, one can say they overlapped each other at home.

When she was working in the evenings and weekends, he took

over all the duties at home. He took care of us children, cleaned

the house, and I have strong memories of his enormous enthusiasm

over cooking good food. I don’t think that was something unique

for men to be like that at the time. Weren’t the early 70s in

general a path-breaking time when men started to be more civilised?

(Patrik, Swedish man, first-time father, aged 31)

The Swedish data reveal that most of the men in the sample not only seem to participate in this discourse in a positive way but, more significantly, men can “talk” the discourse coherently, whatever their actual behaviour. For example, almost all the men in the Swedish sample talked positively about gender equality and argued for shared responsibility in family work. Most men also said they wanted to be “committed,” “tender,” “open,” and show interest in their children’s world; at the same time, they wanted to be in charge of the overall moral guidance of the children and to maintain a framework of standards for their behaviour:

My ambition as a father is to create a close relationship with my

children, always try to be available for them and encourage them

to do different things. But I also think it’s important to provide a

moral framework for my children and give them clear rules of how

to act in different situations. (Anders, Swedish man, first-time

father, aged 30)

This mixture of both “tough and tender” or “flexible but firm,” as the men express it, is very consistent with the Swedish discourse of involved fatherhood. It is worth noting here that there were no class differences in how the men talked this discourse. However, it is important to be careful not to draw too definite conclusions on this matter, since middle-class men dominated in the Swedish data. The inclusion of more men from a working class background might have altered the picture.


On the other hand, rather than support families and parents, social policies and economic conditions in England over the last 30 years have not encouraged gender equity in the area of work and childcare. In fact, it was only two years ago (2000) that the government introduced a law of parental leave open to both men and women. It is significant, however, that unlike the Swedish policy, this leave is unpaid and of limited duration (a total of 13 weeks for children under age five years). Even more recently the government announced plans to bring in a limited system of two weeks paid paternity leave in April 2003. This will be paid at the standard flat rate for maternity leave of 62.20 [pounds sterling] a week (approximately $96.85 USD). Despite these limited but welcome initiatives (which were introduced after the interviews for this research were completed), it is clear that men are well aware of the expectations for involved fathering (also see Burghes, Clarke, & Cronin, 1997). This discourse, which most of the interviewees described as new and specific to the current generation of fathers, seems to exert pressure on fathers in terms of how they should behave. One of the men expresses this in the following way:

I do feel guilty at times going to work. I feel guilty if I am lying

in bed in the middle of the night, and my partner gets up to feed

the baby, even if it’s not my turn to do it…But I feel as though

you have got to be there as a team, it’s not a one-man or one-person

show, you’ve got to try and share chores and help each other. I

think men should have equal responsibilities to what women have

when it comes to bringing children up. So whether the man is

becoming softer, I don’t know, or whether it’s a sign of the times.

For example on a Saturday you can go into Sainsbury’s, and it’s

surprising how many men are shopping. Ten years ago that would

never have been the thing. (Jeff, English man and first-time father,

aged 36)

Another man says:

If you think of 50 years ago, less than that, ironing, washing,

cooking was for the woman; the car was for the man. Society is a lot

different now, but I think there is still that tendency. But I think

any man who wants to care for his wife or the family or the house

still gets very involved. I don’t believe that the two are

overlapped yet. In a sense if you have two circles, there is a

strong overlap between the two. (Tom, English man and first-time

father, aged 30)

Compared with the Swedish testimonies, the English interviews give clear indications that the new fathering discourse is not yet fully embedded at a social and cultural level in England. It is above all English working-class men who give evidence of the numerous problems involved when trying to create a new identity as a father. One man described how he had been subjected to mocking comments from his workmates when he started to change the length of time he spent at work after his child was born:

… because over the last three or four weeks I’ve started not doing

the overtime, I’m getting called a “soft tart,” you know, “are you a

man or a mouse?” or “tell your wife what to do.” There’s a bit of

macho in something like that. (John, English man and first-time

father, aged 30)

Another man describes how he met a similar resistance from his own father:

My dad will sometimes say, “Where is he today, has he got his

pinny on in the kitchen?” And I was thinking I’m like my uncle,

because he’s always been helpful around the house, and my dad

used to say, “Oh, he’s a bloody pool him, man.” (Tim, aged 33,

English man with children aged five to seven years)

In this ambiguous situation, in which the men are well aware of how they should act as fathers, but at the same time are challenged in their attempts to alter their behaviour, great difficulties appear on an individual level to link up the involved fathering discourse with the male self-image. Several English men expressed a relatively traditional ideological view about gender relations at the same time as they were actively involved in both domestic affairs and with the children. Other men described a certain pride in their parenting at the same time as they sometimes felt their fathering clashed with their male self-image:

You are proud of it if you have your son with you; you should be

proud. Your child is your blood, and it doesn’t come into an

equation of the feeling soft or not …. The only time I would have

any sense of that would be at the nursery school … it’s all women.

I might feel it a bit off-putting because it’s all women in there

with their children. Otherwise, on the beach or in the shops, at

football, not at all. (Sid, English man and first-time father,

aged 27)

In Sweden, however, the fatherhood discourse seemed well established, which facilitated the men’s integration of involved fathering with their self-image as men:

To me, it’s completely natural for us to share all domestic tasks.

There is nothing odd about that. I mean, if you are a parent and

live in a family, you just cannot choose to ignore all the things

that have to be done at home. We both work full-time, which means

that we both have as little time left…. I mean, we stress as much,

both of us to try to make both ends meet, you know, with the kids

and everything. Evenings are a proper circus nowadays where you

have to prepare food, wash, help the kids with their homework,

attend parent-teacher meetings, tuck the little ones in for the

night, and so forth. It’s a question of making it work, and this is

why you can’t go round saying things like, “I won’t do that because

it is not a man’s work.” Maybe it was like that in the old days, but

definitely not these days; it simply doesn’t work. Sometimes my wife

is away on a course or on practice in the evenings, and I have to

manage everything by myself, and the same goes for her when I

am away. You have to co-operate and try to cope with everything

together. If you in spite of this don’t find the time you need,

which may be the case from time to time, you just have to tell them

at work that you have to leave a bit earlier. That’s all there is

to it. (Gustav, aged 42, Swedish man with teenage children)

This comparison between the interview material shows that in England the traditional idea of masculinity has begun to be challenged by a growing family orientation among the new generation of fathers. But at the same time, the discourse on involved fathering has not established itself as well as in Sweden. Much more attention is now paid to men’s behaviour as a focus of social problems, and this makes it more difficult for the current generation of English men to act as their own fathers did. Although it is true that English men still gain some benefit from the patriarchal dividend (Connell, 1995; SOU, 1998), it is nonetheless reasonable to claim that the value of these benefits is unclear or sometimes nearly nonexistent to certain groups of men. For the working class men in particular, benefits have not been gained in the labour market for the last 20 years. Many have lived most of their working lives in a state of economic uncertainty and have experienced periods of unemployment.

Some interesting factors in the interaction between gender and class, and their relationship to the overall discourse, emerge from an analysis of the ideas and practice of the middle-class English men, who have a high level of education and are in professional occupations (e.g., education, medicine). For it is this group who are most similar to Swedish men, as they have not only changed their behaviour (as reported both by themselves and their partners), but could also “talk” a different ideology. For them fathering was much more about nurturing, as well as the provider role. One man describes how he took leave and holidays for a couple of weeks when his child was born and did all of the childcare tasks in the home. He did this because:

I was very conscious that it would be harder for me to bond with

the baby, because when I returned to work I wouldn’t have the time

… so that was one way of having one-to-one contact. I was very

anxious to do that. (Jack, English man and first-time father, aged


He also talked about going on a four-day week when the baby is older, saying, “I would rather lose money and have a day with my daughter.” Another father identified that his view of the fatherhood role was made possible:

… by the general change in society; it is now the norm to be more

that way. I think that legitimises it … it is nothing unusual,

almost expected. That is the norm … I feel that is the way I want

to be and also the way I think most of my friends are. (Robert, aged

36, English man with children aged five to seven years)

Several of these men also expressed an awareness of the fact that their own views on fatherhood are not necessarily representative of all English men and they may not be shared at all levels of society. As one man put it, “Without getting into class issues, certainly with the people I mix with, that is the norm.”

While the man here is able to integrate for himself, in a coherent way, his behaviours with an appropriate masculine discourse, he also recognises that his views are not necessarily shared throughout society and that the class issue is important. The men from working-class backgrounds and some of the middle-class men in our study, while recognising that their behaviour had changed (or should change) and that society’s views of men’s and women’s roles had also changed, were not able to integrate these changes at the ideological level. Some men spoke quite clearly about seeing themselves as breadwinners and, even though their wives had good jobs, they were also not keen on giving up work and staying at home:

My partner has a very good job, but she is going back part-time

and I can’t honestly see her staying part-time for the rest of her

working days. I would like to think that in a couple of years she

would finish altogether. So really I feel as though I am the

breadwinner. (William, aged 34, English man with children aged five

to seven years)

Our data seem to suggest that the working-class men have the greatest difficulties making sense of the paradoxical relationship between the ideas of involved fathering and traditional views on masculinity. So while several of the English working-class men show a growing involvement in family life, at the same time it is clear that they express a wish to maintain a more or less traditional gender split. In the following comments by an unemployed man, who has the main responsibility for the daytime domestic tasks, this issue is made clear:

I think it’s easier for a woman to cope than it is for a man. It’s

nature. It’s not that I’m being … I think it’s just natural. It’s

natural instincts for a woman. I think women are born with it …

I’ve always felt strongly about that. It’s caused a couple of

arguments between my partner and me because I’ve said, “It’s natural

for a woman.” A little lad is born, and the first thing they do is

play football or play with boys’ toys. A little girl has an iron,

and dolls, nappies on dolls, dolls that cry, and even wet themselves

now. I just think that women find it easier to cope with children. I

don’t know why. No, I’m not biased. I don’t say women should do

this. I believe in equal rights and all that. (Sid, English man and

first-time father, aged 27)

Several of the English working-class men show a growing involvement in family life. At the same time it is clear that they express a wish to maintain a more or less traditional gender split. What they are confronted with is either to maintain the traditional marital roles or to engage with a role that is at this stage not fully defined–to be a “modern man” in a more equal relationship. The latter is still looked upon with both skepticism and uncertainty and above all as being associated with middle-class beliefs and values.

Although much of the existing research suggests that the lowest levels of involvement of men in domestic and childcare tasks is found in households with unemployed men and women in part-time employment (Burghes et al., 1997; Ferri & Smith, 1996; O’Brien, 1992; Wheelock, 1990), the group of unemployed men in the English sample showed an interestingly different picture. All the men in this group had major responsibilities for day-to-day household and childcare tasks. One man talked about looking after his three children as a “24-hour job really…. My partner has just started work to give herself a break,” and he described how there was a big difference in roles since he became unemployed:

Oh, yes. Big difference. I think the roles have changed now. I feel

that a lot now since my partner started work…. It seems as if I

am stuck with them now as she was. She is at work, and I am doing

her job now. She might not think that way, but I am, because

obviously I am watching the children, I am having to give them their

dinner…. I am doing the washing, I am having to keep the house

tidy…. I feel as if the roles have changed a lot now. (Daniel,

aged 37, English man with children aged five to seven years)

So while the change in role has been mainly forced upon them, unemployed fathers have taken on domestic responsibilities, which in turn are having some effects on the ways they act and think in relation to gender roles. This may suggest a more complex development in the men’s behaviour than shown by previous research.

To summarise, we note that the contradictions between ideology and practice found among several of the English fathers did not appear in the statements of the Swedish men. The dominance in Sweden of the involved father and gender equality discourses meant that few men expressed opinions that disagreed with ideologies. At the same time, of course not all Swedish fathers behaved in accordance with the involved fathering discourse.


Consistent with our finding of different discourses about fatherhood among English and Swedish men, the ways that the men and women talked about their day-to-day interactions around basic tasks of childcare and domestic labour also varied. As mentioned earlier, West and Zimmerman’s notion of doing gender can be usefully applied to the way that fatherhood is constructed in relationships. By using this approach we can illustrate some of the ways that men (and their partners) maintain their gender relations within particular discourses, and also within particular societies. Berk (1985) has drawn attention to what is regarded as “fair” in couple relationships and has noted that often it is difficult to see the rationality behind people’s judgements. Doing gender is an important concept as it moves away from a solely material distribution perspective and creates space for the symbolic and emotional nature of “work” within the partner relationship. Therefore, as Berk says, the concept of doing gender is crucial on the symbolic, as well as the material, level.

Berk is a little too dismissive of concepts of “fairness” and “rationality.” Our data show that these concepts play an important part in people’s thinking about the division of labour. So while it may not appear “fair” or “rational” when looked at solely as a gendered couple interaction, if seen within the wider context of financial and structural constraints, the behaviour can make good sense to the couple and to outside observers. Furthermore, the concept of fairness may have different meanings among couples and individuals and is not necessarily synonymous with doing the same tasks to the same degree. Back-Wiklund and Bergsten (1997) argue that other values and dimensions, such as feelings of mutual trust and equal value or individual autonomy, may add to the feeling of equality or fairness.

In particular in Sweden, the couples in the sample placed a great emphasis on the fairness and rationality of their gender strategies for organising their lives as parents. This was most clearly illustrated in the way the couples used the Swedish parental leave system. They would justify the fact that the women took most of the leave on the basis that, as the men usually earned more and had more flexible work-hours, this was the most economic and rational thing to do in order to spend more time together:

It wasn’t all that difficult for us to decide who was to stay home

with Annika. As Janne works more irregular hours, he earns a lot

more than I do. We would in other words lose more financially if

he stayed home than if I do. In addition, we get more time together,

the three of us during daytime, since he is on compensatory leave a

lot or doesn’t start until late in the evening. You know, I work

regular hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and I couldn’t leave work

even if I needed to. For Janne, on the other hand, it is much easier

to swap certain shifts in order to have more time off. I don’t know

… but I would probably also have felt strange not being home now

that Annika is so little. I believe it is important for a mother and

child to spend the first year together … I mean, I wouldn’t forbid

Janne to profit from his parental leave if he insisted, but if you

consider what is best for all three of us in the family, we gain

undoubtedly more both financially and in time spent together if I

stay home. (Anette, Swedish woman, first-time mother, aged 28)

On the other hand, in England, as there was until very recently no system of parental leave, the couples very rarely even considered the possibility of the man staying at home. The financial costs would be far too great for the family. Basic economic logic dictated that the highest earner, the man, kept working. But interestingly, for some of the working-class and unemployed men, the low wages available for men meant that there was much less clarity and urgency about whether the man or woman should work or stay home with the children. It depended rather on who had the best possibility of either maintaining or getting a job. One man described the situation like this:

(It wouldn’t be easy to get a job), not a well-paid job. Now I will

be looking at a job that will be about 600 [pounds sterling] a

month, with my experience. That wouldn’t be enough, and so Mary

would have to get a job…. In the short term it looks as if I am

stuck with not working. (Gary, English man and first-time father,

aged 27)

However, as mentioned above, economic rationality is almost never the only decisive component to influence a couple’s behaviour. Emotional aspects have a considerable influence on how couples organise their everyday lives. This is shown from Anette’s comments when she emphasises the importance of “a mother and child to spend the first years together.” Hochschild (1989) has drawn similar conclusions and argues that knowledge about the interplay between practical and emotional sides is of a vital importance to understand whether couples view their distribution strategies as fair or not. According to Hochschild it is in these two areas that the couples’ gender ideologies are created, maintained, and put into practice.

As mentioned above, Coltrane’s (1996) research supports this line of reasoning even if he emphasises the transformation potential more in the construction of gender. He notes that when men actively interact with their children and share the responsibility of domestic work with their partner a change takes place (“a transformatory effect”) in the men, which influences both their views on fatherhood and their gender identity.

Our material supports Coltrane’s line of reasoning as a majority of the men claim they have changed the view of themselves as a result of becoming a father. According to some fathers, the experience of seeing their .child born was profoundly emotional and was even characterised as an “emotional revolution,” while others described a slower but nonetheless significant transformatory process. Particularly in the Swedish material, there are numerous descriptions of how these transformations have influenced the men’s behaviour both in the home, at work, and in other social situations:

It has of course meant a lot to me to have children. Most important,

I believe, is that you stop being so serf-centred, that you grow

maturer in a way. I can’t help noticing how my colleagues who

have no children believe the world revolves round their heads.

Everything is centred round them. It’s not that I’m not self-centred

sometimes, just like everybody else, but in some ways I feel

strongly that having kids has meant that I can leave my professional

role out of consideration from time to time. In my line of

business, it is really easy to become self-centred and believe life

is about doing well or bad at work. It is so performance related. I

imagine many people who have no children go home and still

think about work and all the things that could be improved and so

on. While to me, work doesn’t really matter all that much from the

moment I’ve opened the door at home. Because that’s when two

kids come running towards me to tell me all the things they’ve

done at school and stuff. Work kind of vanishes in that context. To

the colleagues who have no children, work may perhaps sometimes

become their whole identity, and I believe that could be dangerous.

They turn sort of traditional, and work means everything in

life. To me work is just a part of my identity, because in my

private capacity my private identity constitutes another large part.

In this way I think I’ve become more of a whole person, more

harmonious and have a broader emotional range. The best solution is

if these two parts can interact with one another, so as the family

part can take over sometimes, when it’s necessary, and in this way

the work identity can take over during periods when I have lot of

work to do. This has for me meant that I can be more creative at

work because of the varied life I’m leading, or I may put it like

this: I believe I’ve become a better and more mature person both at

work and at home since we’ve had kids. Through the kids I’ve had to

learn to be more patient, to become “softer” in my attitude and not

so square. These are features that have been very useful to me at

work. Moreover, I have noticed that if everything happens to be

sheer hell at work I can always gain new strength at home,

especially with my children. At home you are sure to be loved for

who you are, which is not the case at work. This is why I mostly

choose to get back to my family rather than joining my work mates

for a beer after work. It is just not as tempting as it used to be.

(Jonas, aged 46, Swedish man with teenage children)

Fredrik, another Swedish father, related a similar experience:

I feel much more secure and have become a more humble person

since we have had children. I don’t know, but it feels like I have

changed a lot since becoming a father. You learn something new

every day from your children. I notice it especially at work where I

have become more tolerant, less condemning, and I have developed

a new interest in personal relationships. That’s very positive

for me as a head of the department, to develop qualities like that.

I have been at different courses, for example to study the concepts

of team psychology and group dynamics. A few years ago I would

have refused to participate in courses like that. And I have also

started to encourage my employees to take their paternal leave

because I think people develop through increased contact with

their children. In the end that’s something that benefits the whole

company, to have employees that feel maturer. I mean it has been

like that for myself; I feel more confident now at work. I no longer

need to run around wearing a tie every day in order to experience

social status and position. I don’t need to play a lot of roles

anymore; instead I feel secure in myself. (Fredrik, Swedish man,

aged 43 with children aged five to seven)

It seemed easier for men in the Swedish sample to clearly identify these changes than for the English group as again the discourse that provides a background for this process is much more coherent in Sweden. Most of the Swedish couples had a life plan that structured their thinking about when to have children, who would work, how their finances would be organised (see Plantin & Mansson, 1999). However, among the English sample, the period after the birth was most commonly described as a “culture shock,” and the words of one new father describe well the experience of many of the English men in response to the reality of fatherhood: “It completely changes your life. It is a major culture shock…. You are running around like a headless chicken; your sleep pattern is all out.” For, as noted above, although the discourse prescribes an involved father, it does not necessarily describe how the men should behave in day-to-day interactions. The notion of a life plan was not well established among the English men. Again the exception to this was the group of middleclass professional men who had life plans and were in most senses “ready” for the birth of their child. An example of this is an education administrator who said:

We had always planned, but it was always in the distance. Our

careers came first for a long time, and I think the realisation

dawned as I got to my mid-30s, and thinking ahead, the child is

15/20 years old before it leaves the nest. I was going to be a fair

age…. (Peter, English man and first-time father, aged 35)

However this kind of thinking was very much in the minority among the English men.


Both Berk (1985) and Coltrane (1996) note that there is a reflexive relationship between childcare, household tasks, and notions of gender. Our results support this idea that the more men participate in housework and involve themselves with the children, the more their ideas on masculinity and fatherhood change as does their view of themselves as men. Our data also indicate that the widely held belief about the importance of involved fathering is a real driving force in this process. But this process is certainly not automatic. It is well known from previous research that many men in theory readily give their adherence to an involved fathering discourse without conforming to it in practice (Dryden, 1999; Segal, 1990).

In the early 1980s, the Swedish researcher on masculinity Lars Jalmert identified what has become known as the “in principle attitude,” which means that men often express how they would like to act in different situations, but how they behave in reality is a quite different manner. “This is a particularly prominent feature in areas that may be identified as gender equality areas” (Jalmert, 1984, p. 76). However, we would suggest that some changes have taken place over the past 15 years. Our data reveal that many of the men in our sample not only claim to be involved fathers, but they actually have started to behave in a more equitable manner. In the Swedish material, half of the couples showed a flexible and equal gender behavioural pattern in their everyday life, where the woman and the man alternately took responsibility for most of the domestic tasks. However, views about gender differences arguing that parents are different “by nature” have not disappeared. Some of the men persisted, on the contrary, in adhering to these views irrespective of how they behaved in family life. However, these differences between men and women manifested themselves differently in the couples. To the couples who had a more traditional division of responsibilities, this maintenance of gender differences meant a clear and thorough division of most domestic tasks. The men took responsibility for external and the women for internal family work. To the couples who had a more flexible organisation of family life, the construction of gender and parenthood was to a larger extent a question of how and not if the man or the woman performed certain domestic tasks. Several couples claimed that they interacted or communicated equally with the children, but the ways in which they did it were different. In the men’s conversations with the children, the emphasis was on practical and tangible matters, while the women often handled more “delicate” subjects. Other couples stated that both parents shared the household work, but that the woman often was better at planning or organising than the man was (see Plantin, 2001):

I guess that we share most of the household work between us, but

maybe I’m a bit more organised in my way of doing things. When

it has to be done, my husband is cleaning and tidying up, but I

prefer to do certain things on certain days. We also differ

completely in our way of doing things. When we, for example, are

cleaning the house, my husband usually does the vacuum cleaning

while I’m wiping the tables, taking care of the plants, cleaning

the windows, etc. (Lena, aged 41, mother with teenage children)

One of the results of the fact that a number of men had started to show more equal behavioural patterns was that most of the women were satisfied with their partners’ involvement in family life. In the sub-sample of English families (seven couples-35%) where the men did not do what was regarded by the woman as a fair share of household tasks and/or childcare, there was also agreement between both partners’ stories (i.e., they agreed that the man did not do very much or only did certain things). The reasons for the man doing less were diverse and depended on the individual situations of the couple. In one particular case where the man said he did very little in the home and that he thought his wife was very unhappy about this, his wife confirmed that this was correct. It was clear from both interviews that the real difficulties related to unresolved problems in the marital relationship. Both talked about the possibility of the marriage breaking up.

This is reflected in the Swedish group where, out of eight couples in which the woman was dissatisfied with the man’s participation in housework, four of the women mentioned the possibility of the marriage breaking up. One of the women described how, when the emotional relationship broke down, the inequalities in domestic work and childcare emerged very strongly:

Last weekend was just awful. We discussed divorcing again. I

can’t stand living like this anymore. He accuses me of having

destroyed his life, that I have taken advantage of him and conned

him. But most of all, he claims that I have mined his life by

refusing to have sex with him any longer. I tell him there’s

nothing funny about that. The first thing a woman loses when

she’s having a relationship like ours is her sexual drive. It has

been like this before when we’ve been going through hard times, but

we’ve always been able to make it up. But lately, we’ve had the head

of the enforcement district on our heels, the house has been put on

an auction under a writ of execution, and just about everything has

been really hard. These things wear you out! I’ve had to deal with

so many problems, I just cannot find enough peace of mind to

even think about having sex. He probably thinks I’m not the

woman he married, that I’ve changed. But that goes for him, too;

he’s also become a completely different person. Even if it has

always been I who have taken care of most things at home, it has

become worse, for nowadays he doesn’t do anything. You know, I

was the one who did the cleaning, washing up, mangling, shopping,

cooking, shoe shining, and well, the lot. Ola worked most of

the time, took care of the car and the house. That’s the way it’s

always been. Now it feels as if I have to carry the whole burden by

myself, while he does nothing, except mending things when they

break and going to work. Things have changed, and soon I won’t

be able to take it and won’t give a toss about it any longer.

(Ingela, Swedish woman, aged 39 with teenage children)

Data from the English and Swedish samples revealed that some couples seemed to have balanced marital relationships even when the woman held a critical opinion of her partner’s family behaviour. One of the English women felt for instance that her husband had the wrong image of fatherhood, which judging from his behaviour was mainly about “going to work, coming home, going to the park, pushing a pram around the park, kicking football, or having picnics. The baby would sleep right through the night. But that’s not the reality.” In a similar way, one of the Swedish women was critical of her partner’s involvement in domestic work and the children:

It has taken my husband quite some time to adjust to his role as a

father. I can’t really explain why it has been like this, but the

fact remains that I’ve always taken care of the children, and he has

ended up taking less part of the family. Now, the last couple of

years, he has actually started to take more responsibility, but he

still wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t there to tell him what to

do. He is, for instance, fully capable of coming home from work

and throwing himself on the couch without as much as asking the

kids how their day has been or if they have any homework. He

works quite a lot, I’ll grant him that, but still. When I’m not

about, I guess the children will have to take care of themselves.

However, he does spend a lot of time together with the children when

it comes to football, being a trainer for the team, and a member of

the board. There’s practice, matches, or meetings almost every day

of the week, and they go regularly on training camps. He takes

care of all these matters alone with the children. (Mia, Swedish

woman, aged 41 with teenage children)

Mia’s comments raise the issue about female norms for fatherhood (Warin, Solomon, Lewis, & Langford, 1999). Palkovitz (1997) criticises the fact that descriptions of father involvement often are made from a very limited number of variables concerning household work or practical childcare. He argues that other values should be included in a broader model that allows a complete description of the father’s emotional and cognitive involvement in the children and domestic affairs. This involvement does not, according to Palkovitz, have to be expressed through direct and practical duties, but may instead include activities such as planning for the children’s future, worrying about them, protecting them, always thinking about them, or as in the case mentioned above being directly involved in their leisure activities. In this respect, Mia has a split view on fatherhood. On the one hand, she claims she has “always taken care of the children” and that he is lacking in his care for them. On the other hand she describes how he takes care of everything involved with football, which is “almost every day of the week.”

Overall, our material presents a more complex and diverse picture of men’s ideas and behaviour in everyday family life than that suggested by some existing research in this field. It particularly illustrates the importance of emotional factors. When the emotional bond between the partners is threatened or breaks down, a vital basic element for the perception of a fair division of family work is lost. This observation is fully in accordance with the results of other researchers in this field. Lupton and Barclay (1997) argue that “most women did not articulate strong criticisms of failure of their partners to engage in household and childcare activities”; instead it was “affective support, intimacy, romantic love and companionate marriage that women valued above the sharing of domestic labour” (p. 56). Picking up on Doucet’s (1995) work, they make the comment that:

Often gender differences are automatically assumed to lead to gender

disadvantages. This approach tends to ignore the complexities,

intimacies and rhythms of routine household life and the importance

that caring activities have for most mothers. (Lupton & Barclay,

p. 57)

Coltrane (1996) argues that irrespective of what indicators are used to predict household labour allocation, they cannot necessarily predict accurately what the division of labour will be in any one particular family “because a multitude of personal and social factors shape economies of gratitude and influence countless subtle negotiations over who does what.” He continues:

Couples do consider efficiency and sometimes trade one form of

labour for another, but often they divide household labour

inefficiently and without regard to how much labour the spouse is

performing. Couples also appear to divide housework in response to

underlying power relations, but many refrain from using superior

resources to avoid unpleasant tasks. Couples also regularly conform

to gender stereotypes and espouse traditional attitudes, but

sometimes ideology and practice do not coincide, and sometimes

beliefs appear to be after-the-fact justifications for practices

that couples have already adopted. (p. 174)

A number of these points in our research are consistent with Coltrane’s (1996) line of reasoning concerning the lack of coherence between ideology and practice. This is shown in the case of some of the English men who are more heavily involved in housework and see themselves as different from their own fathers because of this. At the same time they see themselves as having and wanting to maintain a “traditional” view of gender roles in their families. We found a similar example among men who claim that they have a more progressive ideology regarding couples’ roles, yet are clearly maintaining traditional power relations between themselves and their spouse. Connecting this with Connell’s (1995) ideas about complicity, an interesting picture emerges. On a general level Connell observes that even if a majority of men take advantage of women’s socially subordinate position, few of them actually exercise a distinct and unambiguous hegemonic power toward women. In theory, English fathers still seem to stay close to the hegemonic position at the same time as they seem to be shifting toward a position of more equal participation in practice. On the other hand, Swedish fathers seem to show the opposite pattern. Almost all express a clear ambition for equal participation in their discourse on fathering; at the same time some still show traditional behaviour. The men are thus shifting along a “continuum of complicity” between hegemonic masculinity and equal participation, both in theory and in practice.


On a closer examination of the interaction between men’s parenting and the overall discourses on fatherhood in Sweden and England, we have found some interesting similarities and differences. One clear finding is that the modern discourse on fatherhood is more established and coherent in Sweden than it is in England on all societal levels. This has made it considerably easier for the Swedish men to integrate the new expectations on fatherhood with their own view of themselves as men. However, in England this discourse has only had a limited impact at an individual and sociocultural level, which sometimes generates contradictory discourses and behavioural patterns. On the one hand, it is no longer possible for English men of the current generation to repeat their own fathers’ traditional masculine behaviours without experiencing resistance, particularly from their own partners. On the other hand, a large number of the English sample express a wish to maintain the traditional gender role patterns. However, this discourse on fixed gender roles is very unusual in the Swedish sample, probably because there is no room for it within the framework of the predominant normative conceptions about involved fathering.

The involved fathering discourse is not only not as well established in England as it is in Sweden, it is also clearly more stratified by class. While middle-class professional men appear to be most like the Swedish sample in their confidence and potential ability to express themselves and act in line with the new expectations, the situation is far more complicated for working-class men. At the same time as these men are conscious about the new expectations for involved fathering, they are often challenged in their attempts to change their situation, either by their close surrounding or by uncertain financial circumstances.

Our research suggests that the discourse of the involved father is now hegemonic in Sweden. It is not possible for fathers in Sweden to “talk” another discourse, at least not publicly. In this aspect, the basic normative concept in Swedish family policy has had a significant impact on all societal levels. As men gradually take more responsibility for the children and participate more in traditional household work, they become more family oriented. Our material shows, at the same time, that Swedish fathering also is greatly influenced by the structural arrangements that constitute one of the fundamental bases for this policy. Swedish couples often refer to financial considerations when they talk about shared family work. The fact that the economy plays such an important part in the Swedish couples’ negotiations must be regarded in relation to the financial crisis in Sweden during the last decade. Economic restraint policies have succeeded one another, and the attempts to put national finances on a sound basis have above all affected families with children (Nelander & Lindgren, 1999). Fewer subsidies, cuts in the social insurance system, increased unemployment, and a growing worry about employment security are all behind the couples’ attentions to financial issues. Despite the fact that Sweden at present has one of the world’s most generous social insurance systems, other factors–external to the system–have a decisive influence on how couples use the opportunities available. This is clearly reflected in the way that couples defend a traditional distribution of parental leave. The result is that Swedish men take 14.5% of the total number of days of parental leave (REV, 2002). These figures seem extremely low in relation to how many days of parental leave women take. However, compared with England, these figures are large. As mentioned earlier (p. 10), English men will receive rights to only two weeks paid parental leave beginning in April 2003.

To summarise, our study shows that the situation in England is both more complex and harder to interpret than that in Sweden. An interesting and perhaps surprising result is that several among the unemployed English men showed a relatively active involvement with their children and in domestic work. In many of these cases, the men had the main responsibility for domestic work, while the women worked outside the home.

Above all the Swedish data suggest that developing a more nurturing, caring, and equal form of fathering depends on a coherent discourse and a supportive family policy. However, this is not a guarantee that individual men’s behaviours will change. Individual motives and relationships with partners are often of decisive importance to the outcome, both in negative and positive directions. We have shown in the English material that some men, despite unpromising structural circumstances, have found new ways to a different fathering. Although men in both Sweden and England still benefit generally from the patriarchal dividend, the results from our study argue against previous research, which claims that the concept of involved fathering is just another example of hegemonic masculinity. We suggest that men, within the patriarchal structures, actually have begun to increase their involvement in family life. We have also found that increased father involvement depends on supportive measures in the form of structural changes and constructive social policy initiatives.


1. These three areas have been selected as a result of a previous pilot study (see Plantin, 2001).

2. Couples with occupations that require maximum high school degree were classified as “working-class,” and couples with occupations that require college or university degree were classified as “middle class.”

3. All the interviewees’ names are pseudonyms.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lars Plantin, Health and Social Science, Department of Social Work, Malmo University, 205 06 Malmo, Sweden. Electronic mail:


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