Heart and Head: Explanation of the meaning of fatherhood

Heart and Head: Explanation of the meaning of fath…
01 Nov 2009

Fatherhood is increasingly being recognised in a growing body of national and international research that primarily describes the roles and functions of fathers. This study focused on New Zealand men in the context of their everyday lives. Participants described their experiences of being fathered, personal journeys to fatherhood and their perceptions of what it meant to be a ‘good dad’. The goal of this study was to increase knowledge, beyond descriptions of roles and functions, to develop a theoretical explanation of the meaning and practice of fatherhood.


In the mid-1990s the potential for fathers to influence the health of their families was made visible by then Commissioner for Children, Laurie O’Reilly, who described fathering as “One of the most vital social issues facing New Zealand” (Stirling, 1997, p. 20). O’Reilly was disturbed by a widespread trend of absentee fathers, and emerging statistics including the prediction that by 2010, 70 percent of Mäori infants under 12 months of age would be living in fatherless homes.

Increased interest in fathering resulted in articles being published in prominent New Zealand media on topics such as ‘Fathers Love’ (Biddulph 1997), ‘Missing Dad: Absent fathers and mixed up sons’ (Ansley, Stirling & Cohen, 1997) and ‘Being There: How distant dadsruin kids’ (Stirling 1997). Steve Biddulph, Australian psychologist and author of the bestselling book Manhood, toured New Zealand reinforcing concerns for children in homes where fathers were emotionally or physically distant. Biddulph emphasised the unique attributes of fathers and encouraged men to challenge traditional stereotypes that could undermine their active participation in parenting.

Laurie O’Reilly also promoted positive fathering practice, specifically urging men to be caring, nurturing and supportive of their families. He championed Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting, a multicomponent research initiative with the goal of “creating the best possible environment for the upbringing of New Zealand children through identifying ways of enhancing the role of fathers and supporting those fathers who would like to participate more actively in the parenting of their children” (Julian, 1998, p. 1).

In 1998, as part of this initiative, Ian Pool, Professor of Demography at the University of Waikato, addressed the Fathering the Future Forum in Christchurch, stressing the urgent need for further in-depth research on fathering and family health, stating that “If we do not, we have failed to make an investment in our most tangible security – the children, the human resources of the future” (Pool, 1998, p. 8). Significant momentum was generated toward highlighting the importance of fathering in the 1990s; however in-depth research to increase the knowledge base in New Zealand did not eventuate to the extent advocated by Pool. Research about fathering, however, has remained a priority (Families Commission, 2006).

According to a recent report on New Zealand family statistics ‘good evidence’ is required to develop programmes and services to mitigate intergenerational health risks within families. This evidence is also required for social service agencies to have confidence in how to intervene and promote better outcomes (Statistics New Zealand, 2007). More than a decade after the pioneering initiatives of Laurie O’Reilly and others, there is still a need to better understand the preparation, transition and subsequent practice of fathering and how ‘good’ fathering can positively influence the lives of children and families. This information is necessary to promote parenting skills of individual fathers and to better inform professional practice of those who support and encourage family health promotion.

Participants in this research were enrolled with their families in the Christchurch Early Start Programme through which family support workers deliver a regular home-based early intervention programme for ‘at risk’ families, offering direct support in parenting, childrearing and life skills. Although evaluation of the Early Start Programme has shown the service to be effective in key areas of child health (Early Start Project, 2005) there was interest from within the programme to better understand fathering to enhance programme benefits to all family members. Consistent with the purpose of grounded theory methodology, which is to provide a theoretical explanation of a phenomenon to complement practice, the specific aim of this research was:

  • To describe and explain men’s perceptions of fathering in the context of family/whānau for the purpose of improving service delivery to families enrolled in the Christchurch Early Start Programme in the future.

Fatherhood as a research topic has not received the same attention as motherhood (Fagerskiold, 2008, Lee & Owens, 2002; Rosich-Medina & Shetty, 2007) and in research on ‘parenting’ fatherhood has been largely ignored (Gage, Everett, & Bullock, 2006). The Families Commission acknowledges that “Parents and caregivers need to know how to care for and nurture their children and they will sometimes need support to do it” (Families Commission, 2006/07, p. 16). This research was designed to build on the success of the Early Start Programme by targeting a less developed area of service delivery: understanding the complexity of fathering as a prerequisite to greater inclusion of fathers in family support interventions.


Grounded theory was chosen as the most appropriate method to achieve the goal of this research because the purpose of grounded theory is to construct a theoretical explanation of the meanings, actions and interactions of participants (Millikin & Schreiber, 2001). This was first described in The Discovery of Grounded Theory as a method of discovering theory from data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The role of the researcher in this process is to logically and consistently represent data, so that they make sense, and are understandable to the people working in the substantive area of interest.

Eaves (2001) described the following assumptions of grounded theory:

  • inquiry is structured by discovery of social and social-psychological processes
  • data collection and analysis phases of research proceed simultaneously
  • theoretical sampling refines, elaborates and exhausts conceptual categories.

Through the application of the grounded theory method a primary social process is identified and explained through systematic data collection and analysis. In conventional methodology, sampling usually precedes data analysis, however in grounded theory, sampling cannot be determined in advance of data collection. Known as theoretical sampling, data gathered guide the next steps of sampling through the identification of gaps in the developing theory. This approach is designed to illuminate the categories and properties of a theory as they arise. As a result, data are continually being refined through a process of constant comparison. Strauss and Corbin (1998) described the purpose of constant comparison as a means to establish which incidents, context, intervening conditions and consequences are relevant in explaining how social experience is created and given meaning. Theoretical saturation occurs when variation in incidents is no longer evident, therefore adding nothing more to the developing theory than is already known.

In this study, theoretical sampling and constant comparative analysis were consistent with a four-stage process described by Dey (1999). The first involved coding to identify categories and their properties. Secondly, these categories and properties were integrated and relationships between categories were identified. Higher levels of abstraction were defined and, finally, major themes were identified and the theory was articulated. Although these stages appear to be successive, the elements of each occurred simultaneously during data collection, coding and analysis.

Key Results

Men described fatherhood as both an innate and learnt process. This was explained by interrelationships between core categories including learning about and switching on to fatherhood, becoming and being a father and the ‘heart’ and ‘head’ of fatherhood.

Preparation for fatherhood began in their early childhood. Their primary models for learning about fathering were their own fathers. These relationships were described positively by some and negatively by others; however, men’s experiences of being fathered had a significant impact on their future knowledge and understanding of what they should or should not do to be good fathers. Those who could identify what a good father should do were advantaged, particularly in their early parenting.

The metaphor of ‘switching on’ to fatherhood explained the sudden transition from becoming, to being a father. This caused men to reflect upon their prior experiences and prompted a significant change in their perspectives of meaning and purpose in their lives. In some instances, dramatic changes also occurred in attitudes and behaviours.

Regardless of their personal father relationships all participants described a ‘heart’ response toward fathering as innate and characterised by emotions, sacrifice, commitment, responsibility and a desire to provide for and protect their families. The ‘heart’ of fatherhood was further described as latent until men became fathers, at which time the heart responses of fatherhood became activated (switched on).

A ‘head’ response also switched on at the birth of their children. This category explained the intellectual part of being a father, characterised by learning new skills to enable participation in the day-to-day care of their babies and young children. Skill levels varied between fathers dependent on their exposure to positive or negative models of fathering and/or additional male models. Older men believed that practical experience and maturity provided an advantage for understanding how to be a father, though some less-experienced and younger fathers also perceived themselves to be better prepared for fatherhood if they had prior experience caring for other children, including younger siblings, nieces and nephews. Men also acknowledged learning skills for fathering from their partners with whom they worked together in making decisions about day-to-day care.

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