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.


‘Father figures’ seminar: notes from discussion groups

At our ‘Father figures’ seminar last week, we scheduled discussion sessions in which we asked participants to share their thoughts, in small groups, on the issues raised by our speakers. In this post, we’re sharing the notes that the groups made of their discussions, in a fairly ‘raw’ form: we’ll try to draw the key points together, and explore their implications for our research project, at a future date.

ff discussion general

In the morning session, we asked participants to explore what they thought were the gaps in research on social fatherhood. In the afternoon, the groups turned their attention to the gaps in support services for social and non-biological fathers. Here are the notes from those group discussions:

What are the gaps in research on social fathers?

  • Fatherhood generally! – fathers’ self-definitions and how they see their roles e.g. caring – both for bio and non-bio fathers
  • Expectancy and early years
  • Negotiations in division of labour – same sex couples
  • Services –
  • How to pro-actively engage dads
  • How to keep them involved and empowered in their roles
  • Tackling stereotypes – deadbeat dads – ‘special’ fathers
  • Post-natal depression in fathers – mental health concerns
  • Newborn non-bio fathers – bonding issues
  • Focus groups – role?
  • Daddy doing work
  • Generally, much more is known about mothering and women’s roles in parenting
  • Has it really changed, or is the father’s role just more visible now?
  • Research needs to compare past and present roles, and the implications
  • Are professions working with families representing society’s views, or do they have their onw particular view of fathers (e.g. around pregnancy, childbith, fostering, disabilities, school)
  • Is there a different discourse for fathers and stepfathers?
  • Has there been research into children’s perspectives?
  • Definitions of ‘step parent’ – 11% figure low?
  • What defines step relationship – residency – relationship status
  • International understanding of roles (step / social parents)
  • Within UK it’s linked to tax / benefits so clear definitions or understanding needed
  • Housing policy against forming good relationships with children
  • Poverty effects of step families (not the same choices)
  • Research positive aspects of fatherhood / social
  • What works in good healthy families- let’s learn from what’s there?
  • Single fathers – no resident mother
  • Does a social father have to be male?
  • Are older sister carers ‘mum’ or ‘dad’?
  • Are long mothers also in social fathering role?
  • What about lone mothers who say ‘I don’t need a man’? – are children missing out?
  • Is ‘residency’ vital?
  • Does being resident make you a social father?
  • Are some men just there for the ‘nice bits’?
  • Does being a social / stepfather require ‘acceptance’ as such by all parties?
  • Does age of entry (of father or child) into role make a difference?
  • What about families with succession of temporary fathers?
  • Can you have multiple father figures?
  • Were there ‘social fathers’ in wartime, when many men were ‘absent’ fathers?
  • Has new focus on nuclear family made father ‘absence’ more of an issue?
  • Distinction of bio and non bio – real or perceived- self-fulfilling prophecy
  • When in family development are the pivotal moments between partners and children?
  • Motivations for fathering – Relationship with mother / other parent
  • Change and social construction across countries and cultures (e.g. paternity leave)
  • Social gatekeeping – ‘has daddy dressed you today?’
  • Demystify (terminology)
  • Appreciate and better understand distinctive challenge (and age, class, ‘intersection’)
  • How we define role and ‘distinctiveness’ – comparison and complementairty
  • ‘Profound changes’
  • Recover / emphasise the ‘positive’, the healthy, the good

What are the gaps in support for social fathers?

  • Attitudes to fathers – how to challenge and change
  • Universal vs. tailored – different fathering statuses and backgrounds – some more receptive and some more reluctant to engage – what do you do about that?
  • Stepfathers – support that is available for them – no engagement from state. Stepfathers have to seek it out and may find nothing.
  • Data collection – re. who uses services – what kind of questions/info should be gathered?
  • What is stopping people/fathers from looking for help? – unaware, stigma, unwelcome
  • Innovative outreach: reframing activites and locations
  • Signposting in forums/services – but where and how?
  • How do you reach people?
  • No clear pathways – often unexpected life event
  • General parenting support vs. tailored (e.g. stepfamily, grandparent) – how can one organisation cover so many types of care?
  • Professionals only do what they have to
  • Policy – gives message to professionals
  • Policy – joint birth registration
  • Gender equality – parenting – societal view
  • More than focus on fathers
  • Language and terminology – something inherent in how we talk about services for parents that may not resonate with tmen
  • Images
  • Going to where men are – not just physically but imaginatively and virtually – and use of employers
  • Talking about social fathering – talk of support services to father probably not inclusive of social fathering
  • Training issues? (attitudinal rather than information)
  • Accessibility: timing of groups, services, meetings, etc
  • Female dominated social care
  • Training/systems/assumptions
  • Support for fathering – beyond baby care
  • Education re. social fathers
  • Loss of community networks / support
  • Needs for accessible forums
  • Utilising older men – social capital – men being useful at different life stages
  • Language used
  • Seeing them as equal – not treating them as ‘special’
  • Include them!
  • Contact details – collect
  • Tackling stereotypes
  • Confidence of facilitators/practitioners
  • Belief and understanding of practitioners
  • Child’s point of view – is this heard? – understanding – age of child – significant
  • Similarities of parenting – acknowledging difference
  • Recognised
  • Question of confidence /support
  • Role of state for step parent
  • Role of law – legal issues – lack of stability
  • Issue of biological / step parent feelings and point of view of child in this
  • Pre-emptive step parent support similar to expectant parents
  • Raising positive profile – counter stereotypes

‘Father figures’ seminar: a report

On Friday 3rd June The Open University, in partnership with the Family Matters Institute and DAD.info, hosted a seminar on ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children’ (see the previous post for some photographs of the event). The seminar, designed to launch a joint OU / FMI research project on social fatherhood, was co-organised by Martin Robb, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University, and Clare Deane, until recently Senior Researcher at FMI, and now Impact Officer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.

Jason Pandya Wood of Nottingham Trent University, our chair for the day, opened the seminar by welcoming delegates, and then handed over to Clare and Martin, who provided an introduction and overview of the seminar, explaining the background and aims of the event and suggesting some key questions to consider. Clare also introduced an initial survey of fathers who use the DAD.info website, which we’ll report on in a future post.

The remainder of the morning was given over to two presentations highlighting key areas of research with social or non-biological fathers. Independent researcher Sandy Ruxton’s paper ‘Who’s the real daddy?’ explored the challenges of stepfathering, combining personal experience with demographic and legal information, and offering some thoughtful reflections on stepfathers’ perspectives and relationships. Anna Tarrant from Leeds University then introduced some preliminary findings from her innovative research on men’s responsibilities as kinship carers in low-income families, drawing on case studies of men that she has interviewed, in order to highlight this often invisible area of care and to explore the financial and personal challenges for those involved.

In the afternoon the focus switched to ways of supporting men who take on a fathering role. Owen Thomas provided an insight into the services that his organisation, Working With Men, provides to young and marginalised fathers and male carers in inner London, at the same emphasising the importance of valuing and supporting men who may face challenges in taking on this role. The final presentation of the day was from parenting advisor Peter Barras, who spoke about the need to challenge professional expectations of fathers and male carers, and about ways of building practitioners’ confidence to engage dads by focusing on the needs of the child.

Both the morning and afternoon sessions gave rise to lively group discussions, which were recorded on flipchart paper and which we’ll report on in a separate post. At the end of the afternoon, Clare and Martin explained the ‘next steps’ that would follow the seminar, including posting reports on this blog, and establishing a network of individuals and organisations who would like to continue to be involved with the research project.

You can see the Powerpoint slides from all of the seminar presentations, as well as brief biographies of the speakers, by clicking on the links below.

Father figures introduction and next steps FINAL VERSION

FF Sandy Ruxton slides

FF Anna Tarrant slides

FF Owen Thomas slides

FF Peter Barras slides



Some photos from our seminar

Our seminar today, on ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children’, which was jointly organised by The Open University, Family Matters Institute and DAD.info, was a great success. We’ll be posting a full report on all the presentations and discussions from the seminar in due course. For now, here are a few photographs from the day. Many thanks to Tanya Hames for many of these photos (the better ones!).

ff title screen




Jason Pandya Wood, chairing the seminar, introduces the opening session, led by seminar co-organisers Clare Deane and Martin Robb.



Sandy Ruxton talks about the experience of stepfathering.

ff tarrant

Anna Tarrant introduces her research on men as carers in low income families.

ff jason and speakers

Jason chairs a question-and-answer session with Sandy and Anna.

ff owen thomas

Owen Thomas talks about work with young and marginalised fathers.

FF Pete Barras

Peter Barras discusses ways of encouraging professionals to engage with fathers.

ff clare report

Clare introduces her new report, published by Family Matters Institute, on ‘The Cost of Family Breakdown’.

ff mingling

Seminar speakers and participants mingling.

ff Nikki and Alex

Seminar participants Nikki Van der Gaag and Aleks Binder.

And finally, some photos of our lively discussion groups:

ff discussion 1





ff discussion general


‘Father figures’ seminar programme

Here’s the programme for our forthcoming seminar. Watch this space for reports on the seminar, main points from the discussion groups, and information on how you can keep in touch with our research project on social fatherhood as it develops.



The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA

Michael Young Building

3rd June 2016 10:00 – 15:30



10.00               Arrival and coffee

10.30               Welcome

Jason Pandya-Wood (Chair)

10.40               Introduction

Clare Deane and Martin Robb

11.00               Who’s the real daddy? The challenges of stepfathering

Sandy Ruxton

11:20               Men’s care responsibilities as kinship carers in low-income families: some

                           preliminary findings

Anna Tarrant

11.40               Questions

11.55               Group discussion: Research on ‘social’ fathers: where are the gaps?

12.25               Feedback

12.45               Lunch

13.30               Supporting young and marginalised fathers 

Owen Thomas

13.50               Challenging professional expectations of dads and male carers

Peter Barras

14.10               Questions

14.25               Group discussion:

Support for ‘social’ fathers: where are the gaps?

14.55               Feedback                               (Tea and coffee available)

15.10               Next steps                             Martin Robb and Clare Deane

15.20               Closing remarks                  Jason Pandya-Wood (Chair)

15.30               Finish


Seminar on social fatherhood

The Open University, the Family Matters Institute and the DADinfo website are organising a seminar entitled ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children’ on Friday 3rd June at The Open University, Milton Keynes.

The aim of the seminar is to share research and practice on social or non-biological fatherhood and to generate ideas for a possible research project on social fathers.

A full report on the seminar will be posted on the website in due course.

For more information about the seminar, email hsc-research-admin@open.ac.uk