The role of the father: past, present and future

June 14, 2000

EDITORS: Father’s Day is June 18.

ANN ARBOR—In a world where the roles of “breadwinner” and “childrearer” are not always clear-cut, today’s fathers face shifting expectations. But this is nothing new, according to University of Michigan history Prof.Regina Morantz-Sanchez. The role of the father has been changing since long before the modern day.

“During the Colonial period, the fathers were directly responsible for their children’s upbringing,” said Morantz-Sanchez. “If the children ‘went bad,’ it was blamed on the father.” This led fathers to have a very active role in their children’s development, since their job was to create good citizens.

Industrialization in the 19th century changed the father’s role, however. “The new economic structure separated the home and the work place, which led to a new fatherly ideal,” said Morantz-Sanchez. “The men became the breadwinners, and the women stayed at home. This took childrearing out of the traditional male role.

“The role of the father has changed again in this past century, as economic demands have pulled the mother into the work place.” According to Morantz-Sanchez, the family is moving towards a more democratic partnership, a move that took place largely in the last third of the 20th century. “A lot of this was stimulated by the feminist movement, which critiqued the absentee father and the obligations of the breadwinner for overburdening both the mother and the father.

“Today, the role of the father is struggling with new notions of manhood. Today’s ‘ideal father’ is gentler, more child-oriented, and we are recognizing how essential the father is to a healthy childhood,” said Morantz-Sanchez. “However, the irony is that this ideal is competing with Americans’ desire for material success.

“Americans work longer than citizens of any other industrial nation, with the exception of Japan. This is curtailing the ability of mothers and fathers to spend quality time with their children. Consumption has become the major leisure activity in America, and this impinges on the child by compelling both parents to work longer to maintain a uniquely American standard of living.”

As for the future of fatherhood, Morantz-Sanchez is worried—but hopeful. “Fatherhood has always been tied to parenthood, and the future for both looks bright, but only if we can focus less on our relationships with things, and more on our relationships with other people.”

Contact: Jill Siegelbaum Phone: (734) 764-7260 Email:

history Prof.