Dad’s the Word

By Mark Smith

Date Posted: 15th December, 2011

Mark Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Work at the University of Edinburgh. Before that he was for many years a teacher and a residential child care worker. He is the author of ‘Re-thinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives’ published by Policy Press and he is a widely published author of essays, papers and articles.



Dad’s the Word


Mark Smith


As a practitioner, I didn’t really give much thought to gender. I was aware at an experiential level of my differential relationships with boys and girls and the way in which the fact of me being a male mediated those relationships. At a practical level I did speak out once or twice over issues such as the apparent favouring of females in the recruitment process, but was quickly typecast and put down as an unreconstructed patriarch. But I didn’t really engage with questions of gender at any conceptual level. I certainly didn’t think too much about masculinity. To explore something that seemed so taken for granted felt all a bit esoteric and maybe even a bit uncomfortable.

Then, not long after I had left practice and moved to work in a University, a friend asked me if I would help him out on a piece of work he was doing for a family support agency. The agency had been given some charitable money to set up a project to work with fathers, but no fathers actually came along. So they earmarked a sum of money to do a small piece of research speaking to local dads to check out their experiences of available child care services and to find out what they might want from a father’s project (Cavanagh and Smith, 2001). So, quite by chance, one of the earliest pieces of research I was involved in was around fathers. It seems odd now, given the growing interest in this area over the past decade, but there was very little research or writing in this area; dads were largely invisible in all of the child welfare literature and when they were visible it tended to be as a problem, either as sexual or domestic abusers. Yet, what little literature did exist actually made it clear that the involvement of men in their children’s lives is implicated in better outcomes across a range of academic and social domains (Lamb, 2003).

At a personal level this early piece of research opened my eyes, leading me to delve deeper into the, by now, growing literature on fathers, into men and caring more generally and even into some of the literature on masculinity. A number of the messages from the interviews we conducted have stayed with me. “I guess I am gonnae explode soon – can’t keep all this in my head”, one of the men informed us. Of our sample of fathers, 20% were diagnosed with depression and another fifth stated that they constantly felt depressed.

An older father told us “I’ve been there, bottling it up playing the hard man – it takes lumps out of you, and I am past the age of worrying about losing face. It’s good to get the other boys to talk about what’s eating them, things like custody.” Custody and the problems men had in gaining access to their children were raw issues. They still are. I am working with a practitioner at the moment looking at the experiences of men in the child protection system and the horror stories do not abate.

On the back of this early piece of research we were asked by another family support agency to do a piece of research for them. Rather than replicate what we had already done, we decided to focus on the experiences of young dads (Smith and Cavanagh, 2002). Again the experience was illuminating. One, particularly poignant story stays with me. A young lad, I think he was 19, told us of his reaction on hearing that his girlfriend was pregnant and his subsequent experiences:

“I wanted to be there for her – don’t know if I love her – don’t think so, but just feel responsible. Contact’s a killer.”He went on. “They (the girlfriend’s parents) want her to stick in at college – get a decent job – they see me as a waster – not good enough for her. I’m starting to feel they are right and maybe I should just drift off the scene.”

It strikes me that, rather than being feckless individuals only too ready to walk away from their responsibilities, the reality for many young dads is that they cannot negotiate a place in their children’s lives. Rather than actively abrogating their responsibilities, they are perhaps more likely just to ‘drift off the scene’.

Such voices challenge the easy assumptions that can be made about men. The first speaks of a man acknowledging the need to escape the confines of traditional masculinity while the second turns on its head stereotypes of the feckless young father, reframing it to that of someone frozen out of their child’s life and unable to assert a place for himself. The tendency within political and professional discourses to totalise such experiences under the heading ‘men’ or ‘young fathers’, or whatever label might be placed upon them, just doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity of these men’s lives and insights.

In addition to interviewing fathers, in the course of our research we also interviewed a number of local service providers. This, again, was revealing. Responses indicated that ‘men might potentially become involved in nursery trips etc but have tended not to do so. Another service provider, who ran a parents’ group, noted that “no father has ever shown an interest in attending”. Parenting services by this way of thinking were obviously targeted at mothers, and the fact that fathers didn’t avail themselves of them was represented as reflecting a lack of interest on their part, rather than as perhaps suggesting that it might be pretty difficult for a solitary dad to turn up at a service so obviously geared around the needs of mothers. Were the same sentiments expressed in relation to race, then, service providers would, rightly, be open to charges of institutional racism. It became clear to me that social work and social policy more generally needed to engage with the lives and voices of men in ways that went beyond what might be thought of, at best, as casual indifference. This casual indifference or lazy recourse to a notion of patriarchy or male privilege is deeply embedded in social work in particular. It reflects a very narrow and ‘stuck’ version of second wave feminism which sees men as being to blame for all of society’s ills, regardless of the facts of any case. It is manifest in what my colleague Gary Clapton (2009) identifies as “a pervasive and influential negative attitude towards fathers, particularly in the children and families field.”

More recent thinking around men and care perhaps offers some hope of advancing practice in this area. In the past few years we have seen an upsurge in interest in fathering. It is now fairly clear that fathers are beginning to be constructed politically as a resource for children (Featherston, 2003), rather than as an irrelevance or a risk. At the same time, there is a welcome broadening of feminist thinking. It is no longer good enough, according to Orme, to claim that something is feminist merely because it is asserted to be so. This, she argues, denies ‘the complexity and diversity of women’s experience and the richness of feminist theories that explore and explain that experience.’ Nor does it ‘recognise the contradictions that such theory might unveil […] or acknowledge the relevance of feminism to working with men’ (2003: 135).

Fathers in fact entered into the political reckoning with New Labour. An early policy document noted that

“Increasingly, boys and young men seem to have difficulty maturing into responsible citizens and fathers. Declining educational performance, loss of traditional ‘male’ jobs, the growth of a ‘laddish’ anti-social culture, greater use of drugs, irresponsible teenage fatherhood, and the rising suicide rate may all show rising insecurity and uncertainty among young men. Fathers have a crucial role to play in their children’s upbringing and their involvement can be particularly important to sons.”

This is a very traditional view of fathers, an ideal of fatherhood lost perhaps, but a pretty simplistic one. Nonetheless, it’s where I started with my own my thinking about the need for fathers in their children’s lives. I operated from a fairly intuitive and common-sense belief in the importance of inter-generational, same sex role models. Role model theory is one that is easy to get your head round. And, I’d argue that it has a lot to be said for it. A place for male role models in the lives of adolescent boys can be traced back to rites of passage rituals in traditional societies, where boys approaching adolescence were taken away by village elders to learn how to be men. In industrial times trade apprenticeships fulfilled a similar function. The rites of passage argument is reclaimed in some of the mytho-poetic men’s writing that emerged in the 1990s (Bly 1992). It is given a more modern makeover by Biddulph (1997) who claims that (boys) ‘need to download the software (on how to become a man) from an available male’. As I say, this line of thinking has something to be said for it but it makes assumptions about what it is to be a man. That’s when we need to start thinking about masculinity in all of its complexity. Some of the literature talks of multiple masculinities, of ‘floating signifiers of masculinity. This notion was brought home to me in another piece of research I was involved with, this time evaluating an initiative to bring men into care work. One of the men interviewed captured this idea of multiple masculinities embodied within the one individual:

“Yes, you can go play football and all that and be rough and the rest of it, but you can still have the sensitive side, that’s all part of being a man, you’ve got all these different sides to you, ok you might not want to open up to people all the time but at the same time, you’re still sensitive to issues because most of the boys in there, or all the boys in there, have got that sensitive side but they hide it. So try to get them to see that’s ok to be open and sensitive about things. So if they feel angry and hurt, it’s ok to feel that and show it. You don’t need to bottle it up but at the same time you can still keep your masculinity, you’re not giving that up.”

Thinking about fathers brings with it an inevitable reflexive aspect. One of the things that determine the way men approach fatherhood is their experience of their own father. That was a message that came at us consistently in some of our research. One young dad we interviewed expressed his hope “to be a better dad than my own.” Another noted the continuing impact of his father’s actions in his own behaviour when he told us, “the trauma of my dad walking out has played a major part in my life. I often think that his behaviour in walking out when things weren’t working out is something I copied when I left my first wife rather than trying to sort it out.”

A few years ago, my own dad had his 70th birthday and after a few drinks he began to question how much of a role he had played in our upbringing. It was good enough but it was of its time. It was really only when I started having a drink with my dad that we got to know each other. My father-in-law was of the same ilk. He managed to raise eight children without ever changing a nappy or pushing them in their prams. He made up for it with his grandchildren, who he really enjoyed and bonded closely and naturally with. But the kind of societal expectations placed upon working class men of their generation, which privileged a breadwinner role, perhaps inhibited their expression of care in a more relational way. So, there’s an issue of time and place in how we enact being a dad. There is also, perhaps, a question of social class. One of the men we interviewed only a few years ago spoke of the impact on his own experience of taking part in the programme to bring men into child care:

“My whole outlook of life has changed so much. Things that were really important to me two years ago are not important any more, or not as important, there’s more to it. One of the things I did notice is with my older son. He passed his qualifications yesterday, his grades. He got 2s and 3s, which is fantastic, and that’s the first I hugged my son. I shook his hand and hugged my son. That’s the first time I’ve done that in years, was just that proud of him, ken (you know)…”

For my part, the relationship I have with my kids is qualitatively different from that I had with my own dad growing up. I’m not quite there yet in terms of some of the emotional expressions of caring. I remember my wife and her friend pointing out to me as I walked along the street pushing my daughter in her buggy, that I did this sideways on, not fully engrossed in the act, not fully taking responsibility for being with her in that moment. But I’m actually pretty comfortable with that. Maybe it’s OK to present kids with male and female ways of caring that are different. I’m their dad, not their generic parent. In this I’m reminded of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘The Two Parents’:


I love my little son, and yet when he was ill
I could not confine myself to his bedside.
I was impatient of his squalid little needs,
His laboured breathing and the fretful way he cried,
And longed for my wide range of interests again,
Whereas his mother sank without another care,
To that dread level of nothing but life itself
And stayed day and night, till he was better, there.
Women may pretend, yet they always dismiss
Everything but mere being just like this.


I wonder … might I be able to, could I learn to, immerse myself entirely in the needs of another. Does it matter? Might I, in my bumbling imperfection in everyday domestic matters like ensuring school clothes are washed and ironed at the right times, have something to offer as a parent, as a father that is OK just the way it is? Might I offer something different to my sons than to my daughter? These questions call on me, on us, to engage with questions of what it is to be a father, which go way beyond simplistic and damaging professional dogmas of patriarchy.



Biddulph, S. (1998) Raising Boys London: Thorsons

Bly, R (1990) Iron John: A Book About Men. New York: Addison-Wesley

Cavanagh, B. and Smith, M. (2001) Dad’s the Word Edinburgh: Family Service Unit

Clapton, G. (2009) ‘How and Why Social Work Fails Fathers: Redressing an Imbalance, Social Work’s Role and Responsibility’, Practice: Social Work In Action, 21 (1): 17-34

Lamb, M. E. (2003) The role of the father in child development. (4th ed) New York, John Wiley & Sons.

Featherston, B. (2003) ‘Taking Fathers Seriously’ British Journal of Social Work 33 239 – 254

Orme, J (2003) ‘”It’s Feminist Because I Say So!” Feminism, Social Work and Critical Practice in the UK’in Qualitative Social Work 2 (2): 131–153.

Smith, M. and Cavanagh, B. (2002) Lads Becoming Dads, Musselburgh: First Step


On 4th February, 2017 Andrew Marchant writes

Could you say thank you to Mark Smith for his 2011 post “Dad’s the word”?  It’s one of the resources I found that helped me through the difficult parts of early fatherhood – I recognised a lot of the themes which he discussed and it’s helpful to know that your experience has precedents.

I embarked on fatherhood, fearful and enthusiastic, ready to take as full a part as I could.  I went to a Dads2b class (West Lothian) beforehand and thought it was a great resource.  We now have a delightful little boy who’s two, but I’ve been struck and saddened by how marginalised you can feel along the way.  Society as a whole, including professionals, see fathers as peripheral – in every context there is the expectation that you are in the background and the only thing you are useful for is to “be supportive”.  Breastfeeding has been a major negative for me – there are positives to breastfeeding, but we’ve had to work hard at it and I don’t know that it’s been worth it.

Why is there limited engagement of fathers with services – perhaps it’s puzzling, perhaps it’s inevitable?  I’ve condensed some older thoughts into an acronym…

* Bored – When baby’s awake your sole role as a bloke is to follow the child on his travels and be supportive.  When baby’s (eventually) asleep you must tiptoe – no noise, no laughter, no music.
* Lonely – You can’t spend all your time out of the house, that’s not supportive.  If you stay at home, you’re on your own whilst attempts to breastfeed fill the evening.  You’ve lost your partner to breastfeeding, and not really met your child yet.  He’s handed to you when neither mum nor baby can cope any more. His face just seems to say “Who the fuck are you and why am I still hungry?” You can’t take your child anywhere on your own because you can’t do anything when they collapse into tears of hunger – you don’t have breasts.  You can’t talk about this with friends.  It’s not what family want to hear.  The health visitor can only offer propaganda to encourage more of the same.
* Useless – It’s miserable when your child is crying because they’re hungry and your partner’s crying because breast-feeding isn’t stopping the crying.  She’s failed because it’s not as blissful as the ante-natal propaganda said.  You can’t succeed because bottle-feeding is the work of the devil – you can’t suggest it, you can’t offer anything.  Cabbage leaves FFS!  You are utterly pointless.
* Emasculated/ Excluded – There is no specific role for a bloke here. You can look adoring – that doesn’t fill the day…  You can do household chores – anyone could do those, if you paid someone the job would be the same…   You could bury yourself in work or go to the pub – it’s stereotypical but understandable.

Have I felt BLUE?  Well, yes.  I’ve learnt to sleep through the crying and walk away from the tears.  There’s nothing I can do.  I might have to go for a walk and a cry outside but that’s it.  We’ve managed the WHO’s recommended 2 years so we’re coming through the other side and perhaps we’ll stop soon – I live in hope.

Please don’t use any of this in an attributable way, but I hope that it’s a useful window into some of the thoughts that pass through one’s head.

Thanks again to Mark,


Andrew Marchant.