The role of fathers as attachment figures
In the past, research into child development tended to ignore the role of fathers in their children’s lives, except as a financial support for mothers, who were viewed as the primary caregivers.
Bowlby’s (1969) theory of monotropy stated that infants have to attach to a single (primary) caregiver within a critical period, with the first 3-6 months of life being particularly important. His evolutionary theory suggested that attachment to a primary caregiver evolved because of its survival and reproductive value. The main caregiver’s role is to nourish the baby and protect it from harm, including disease or accident, so it can survive and reproduce and contribute to the survival of the species. Although he acknowledged that other caregivers existed, this primary caregiver role was always referred to the mother. It was the mother who fed the baby and saw to the child’s every need, while the father’s role was seen as being a good provider of economic support for the family. This reflected the practicalities of family life in the UK in the 1960s, though possibly not as much as Bowlby assumed, as by 1970 nearly half of all married women were in paid employment (McCarthy, 2020).
The UK Office for National Statistics reported 2.8 million lone parent families in 2020, of which 425,000 (about 15%) were headed by single fathers, with 205,000 (7%) of these being fathers of dependent children (ONS, 2021). Although this shows that women are much more likely to be single parents than men, it also demonstrates that there are many men with sole care of their children. It seems that even if we accept Bowlby’s monotropic theory we do not have to accept the assumption that these primary carers will all be female. (Image cc from pexels.com)
So, what is the role of fathers nowadays? It seems to be much the same as the role of mothers. Changes in the law that allow more paternity leave, husbands who work at or from home, adoption by males, both singly and as couples and with more males looking for surrogate mothers for the babies they would like to father have all added to the normality of seeing fathers caring for babies and young children.
Newer studies are finding that fathers play a vital role in children’s cognitive development, behaviour and happiness, right from babyhood. Fernandes et al. (2021) found no differences between three-year-old boys and girls for either mother-child or father-child attachment security. They also found that if the child had lower attachment to one parent, their attachment to the other parent was correspondingly higher. Therefore, there is no reason at all why a father could not be seen as a primary caregiver or why both parents could not be seen as part of a network of multiple attachments of similar quality that includes siblings, grandparents, neighbours and friends.
Psychologists now accept that babies and young children are not unduly stressed by separation from one caregiver so long as they are accompanied and supported by another attachment figure. Separated parents who share the parenting report the same. Unless there is conflict that disturbs the child, they benefit by having attachment to more than one person. Overnight stays with fathers do not disrupt a baby’s attachment to the mother. Interestingly, there is no research to be found on the effect of overnight stays with mothers and if they disrupt a baby’s attachment to the father, when the baby or child lives with their father. It seems this is still such an unusual arrangement that it has not yet become the subject of studies!
Given that fathers are half of all parents, and that research suggests they are as good as mothers in a caregiver role, maybe it is time that we stopped asking where a child’s mother is and just be happy that they have at least one caring parent. Future research will hopefully focus more on a father’s role and prevent us from assuming that the primary caregiver is ‘naturally’ the mother.
Bowlby, J. (1982, 2nd ed.) Attachment and Loss, Vol 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books
Fernandes, C., Fernandes, M., Santos, A. J., Antunes, M., Monteiro, L., Vaughn, B. E., & Verissimo, M. (2021). Early Attachment to Mothers and Fathers: Contributions to Preschoolers’ Emotional Regulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 660866. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.660866
McCarthy, H. (2020). Double Lives: a History of Working Motherhood, London: Bloomsbury
Office for National Statistics (2021) Families and Households. Accessed 25 September 2022 from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/datasets/familiesandhouseholdsfamiliesandhouseholds