What do we know about social fathers? An initial survey

by Clare Deane

As a starting point for our research, we wanted to gain a snapshot of social fathers’ perceptions. How common is social fathering? How do they perceive themselves or define their role? What is their actual relationship to the child or the children in question? As a readily available and relatively untapped resource that is already well connected to fathers, the website DAD.info seemed to be a good starting point to develop our understanding.

Dad info screenshot

What is DAD.info?

DAD.info is Europe’s largest advice and support website for fathers. An advice and support network run by Family Matters Institute, the site provides guidance to over one million users per year. It offers targeted and relevant information through articles and other content across a variety of topics linked to fatherhood; from relationships and separation, to financial and legal matters, to expecting and raising children. It also encourages an interactive element and peer to peer support through the moderated forum.

An initial poll revealed that 27% of users surveyed were a non-biological father to one or more children. At almost a third of the respondents, this is a reasonably high portion of the men on the site. This could demonstrate that a lot of social fathers use the site, and/or that social fathering is a common role within families.

What did the survey results show?

When asked about their relationship to the child/children, 53% of the non-biological fathers surveyed defined themselves as step-father, 21% as a friend of the family, 15% as sibling, 5% as uncle and 5% as grandparent. This shows that there are a range of men across both family and wider societal networks that are involved in fathering children that they are not biologically related to. This is reinforced from the findings of a question asking about the men’s relationship to the mother of the child/children; 47% of the men described themselves as a partner and 5% equally said they were a parent, friend or sibling.

father reading to son

(Image via http://all4desktop.com)

A further question asked the respondents about common characteristics of the relationship between a father (indeed, any parent) and child – whether they felt they cared for the child, and whether the felt they had responsibility for the child. 63% defined themselves as a carer, and 74% defined themselves as having responsibility. For us, this generates some interesting possible research questions; 37% of the men do not define themselves as a carer, and 26% do not define themselves as having responsibility for the child/children. Why do they not see themselves to have responsibility/a caring role? Is this because of the language used or their actual relationship with the child? How do they define their role?

These findings become particularly interesting when we consider that 69.5% of these social fathers also had one or more children that they were a biological father to. Firstly, this reinforces the picture of varied family structures outside of the traditional ‘nuclear’ family; but secondly, for us it points to another question about how the father perceives his relationship or role with his biological children, compared with his non-biological children. Is it the same? Is it different? Do they perform the same duties?

This initial survey has provided some thought-provoking snapshots and questions in these early stages of the research project. These results also provided a basis for discussion at the ‘father figures’ seminar, and more notes about this, and the implications for our research project, will follow soon.

If you have any thoughts or questions about the information from the survey – or social fathers more widely – please do get in touch via this blog, or via Twitter @fatherfiguresOU.

Clare Deane is Impact Officer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, and was formerly Senior Researcher at Family Matters Institute.

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