Who works harder, the father or the mother

Father images and father functions

The father image

The image of the father reflects how people thought, spoke and wrote about fathers and fatherhood within a certain epoch and culture. Images of the father can contain both stereotypes - that is, the perceptions in society about the supposed thinking, feeling and acting of fathers - as well as ideal images of society about how fathers should think, feel and act. A certain image of the father does not necessarily have to reflect social reality as far as the actual actions of fathers are concerned, but as a model in interaction with other influences it can certainly have a behavioral impact on fathers and mothers. The concept of the father function is closely related to the concept of the father image. Father functions include the position and duties of the father within his family and society.

Compared to the mothers, the culture of the fathers has an even higher and also specifically different meaning when it comes to the definition of an image of fatherhood and the development of a role as a father. In the case of mothers, the interaction of nature and culture has the effect that in every culture the mother is assigned the task of looking after and caring for children, usually as the person primarily responsible. Normatively, mothers do not have the option of not accepting their social role as mother. If this is the case, then they are considered to be “mother ravens”. Mothers are allowed to delegate some things, but not the core of socially defined motherhood in the sense of close emotional and loving attention to the child. It is a little different with the fathers. Since the father is, from a biological point of view, comparatively “further” from his child than the mother, despite his role as a producer, when and how he becomes a social father depends even more on him than on the mother on the relevant culture . “But not biology, but culture brings father and son to one table” (Grieser 1998, p. 12).

In the past and present there have been or are more distinguishable models of fatherhood than of motherhood, since fathers, in addition to the obligation to provide for the family, generally have more leeway when it comes to accepting and, in particular, shaping their role as father. Fatherhood is even more subject to social change than motherhood with its “harder” biological core. Father images and father functions have changed again and again over the centuries.

Patriarchs and housefathers

According to Hildegard Macha (1991), a largely unambiguous image of the father existed in European and other high societies for centuries and millennia into the 18th century. It was only because of the change in the way of life and work in the course of modernization and industrialization that there were extensive changes in the father's image, which endangered the previously “secured father identity” and ultimately led to a “role diffusion” among fathers. The previous housefather became the father who left the house during the day.

The image of the pater familias of Roman antiquity had a very strong influence on the early modern period. As the head of the family, the pater familias was the supreme authority of the family or the house and represented the family externally. He had legal, economic, political and social privileges, but also duties towards his relatives and the other residents. In addition to these secular functions, he also enjoyed sacred veneration due to his priestly function. The pater familias can be seen as the king, judge and priest of the family, the pietas (sense of duty) of the loving father ascribed to him in the form of clementia (mildness) and diligentia (care) with the potestas (paternal power) ascribed to him at the same time of severitas (rigor) and disciplina (discipline) should unite in his person as a father.

The patriarchally run house formed the foundation of society and contained considerably more functions and tasks than today's families. In addition to the pater familias (father of the family), there were father images and functions of paters patriae (father of the country) and paters coeli (heavenly father), who embodied the community of heavenly and earthly householders. For all early and later advanced civilizations we can assume such a primacy of the Father.

The father functions mentioned above were different in the specific cultures and epochs. They changed or fell away. For antiquity, the educational scientist Dieter Lenzen names three child-related central tasks of fatherhood in addition to other father functions. These are nourishing (nutritio) in the sense of maintaining the next generation, protecting the life and limb of children and their well-being (protection) as well as showing the world (deixis).

A culture of fatherhood existed in German-speaking countries between the 16th and 18th centuries, which was also reflected in the house fathers order and in house fathers' literature. The father of the house embodied the special legal and social position of the father. As before, sole responsibility for and power over the family was attributed to him, even if functions were increasingly transferred to the mother or the state. Even until the end of the 18th century, the father was regarded as the main addressee of educators, pediatricians and constitutional lawyers for the task of caring for and bringing up children.

The father's loss of function has increased over the past two hundred years. Former fatherly functions, especially with regard to the upbringing and socialization of the young children, especially the sons, were taken over by other people (e.g. mothers, teachers, master craftsmen) and institutions (e.g. schools, companies). This process of de-fathering in society does not necessarily have to mean that fatherhood at the individual level has to be fundamentally lost, as research shows us. Nevertheless, a change took place on the individual level insofar as it led largely to the loss of the function of protecting and at least partially the function of showing the world, with the latter having to concentrate increasingly on increasingly smaller areas. Even the function of providing alimentation in the form of direct nourishment and provision as the remaining specific function of the father alongside that of the producer, which can also be questioned today, appears to be endangered in the future if work is increasingly linked to motherhood. Despite the increasing work outside the home as a breadwinner for the family, the father did not lose his dominant position over his wife and children in the 19th century.

Since the 18th century, society's ideas about children have changed increasingly. The interest towards them as “educable beings” initially grew increasingly in the middle class and was expressed in an education discussion, which asked the parents to raise their children themselves. The new upbringing maxims demanded the renunciation of draconian punishments and beatings as the dominant means of upbringing. The educational goal of the “reasonable person” should be achieved primarily through empathy. In this sense, a reduction in the authority of the father was called for. “Although the father remained the highest authority figure, he was no longer the primary commanding and chastising father of the house, as was the case in the 'whole house', but - according to the idea - became an adviser and friend” (Rosenbaum 1982, p. 270).

The father as breadwinner and punisher

From the second half of the 19th century, many fathers spent more and more time outside their families. “The father was no longer a housefather, but primarily a professional” (Schütze 1988, p. 123). The educational and medical advice literature increasingly focused on the mother as a person. She alone has now been ascribed the natural ability to develop an emotional bond with the child. This attribution was accompanied by one of the male sexual character. Men were expected to suppress feelings, fears and other weaknesses. They should “manfully master” their feelings (ibid., P. 127).

The prevailing norms at the end of the 19th century, which continued to have an impact far into the 20th century, absolutely required the preservation of male authority, which in the eyes of many fathers could be jeopardized by too close emotional ties to the child. The preoccupation with children was considered rather “unmanly”. The attribution of reason, discipline and toughness to the husband and father resulted in his “responsibility” within the upbringing as the “highest enforcer of norms”, especially towards his sons.

The polar gender order was also expressed in the family law of the German Civil Code (BGB), which came into force on January 1, 1900. According to the law, the father was responsible for the family's livelihood, while the mother was obliged to look after the house and children. It was no longer spoken of paternal power, but of parental power. However, the mother could only get full parental authority with the Equal Rights Act of 1957. Until then, the father had parental “primary authority”, while the mother only had “secondary authority” limited to caring for the person (Stein-Hilbers 1994).

Since the twenties there has been a gradual appreciation of the role of women and mother. At least within certain urban milieus, this was accompanied by a slowly increasing emancipation of women. The assumption of “male” tasks during the war and after the war also had the effect that the position of women and mothers within the family was upgraded. Even if the husband and father continued to be the head of the family, at least outwardly.

For the father-child relationship in the family during the first half of the century, the research situation does not permit any generalizable statement about the typical of this time. The professional or military-related absence of many fathers, as well as the models of masculinity and paternity widespread at the time, suggest that this is also found in many families in social behavior between fathers and children in the form of a marginalized father or primary responsibility for caring for the Family as well as the "breeding" of his children, especially the sons, reflected. Even so, due to the lack of empirically based research on the subject, we shouldn't get too tied down in a one-dimensional direction.

The fatherless society

In his study Authority and Family in the Present (1947/1949), Max Horkheimer also dealt with the figure of the father. The role of the authoritarian father ideally involves actively bringing up the children. Within the authoritarian family form as a scaled-down image of society, the father would have to “get the children used to modesty and obedience”. Another essential task of the father is the promotion of intellectual abilities and the ability to work hard. Due to the extensive industrialization, there was a significant weakening of the father. The father, as a small employee or worker, has lost the father's authority as a small business owner or farmer, so that the sons no longer have any figureheads to identify with.

In his study On the Way to a Fatherless Society (1963), Alexander Mitscherlich assumes, for the same reasons as Horkheimer, that socialization and upbringing will become increasingly “defathers”. The father's authority has drained more and more. At the same time, his position of power within the family has decreased, which has decisively changed the father-child relationship and especially the father-son relationship. This lack of structure-building father function could be very unfavorable for the moral development of the child.

Fatherhood Crisis - Insecure Fathers

Some scholars, such as the Dutch woman Trudie Knijn (cf. 1995), see fatherhood in a major crisis at the end of the 20th century. At the moment, many men simply do not know what is expected of them as fathers. The father role is no longer a matter of course. As a man, you have to make a conscious decision as to whether you want to become a father and how you want to exercise your father's role. Many prominent and unknown men liked to be photographed as fathers, proudly pushing the stroller or carrying their baby close to their bodies. Trudie Knijn speaks of the “coming out” of the father who wants to be recognized as a committed father. Such phenomena can be interpreted as a defense of fatherhood, which at the same time means that “the naturalness of traditional fatherhood no longer exists” (ibid., P. 175). Many fathers were just looking for their new educational role, so to speak, and were unsettled. Some fathers have already found the new educational role by becoming their children's play and leisure time companions. Care and support are also sometimes part of the new educational tasks of these fathers, although there is still ambivalence and uncertainty, since active fatherhood still does not fit “real masculinity”.

Shadow fathers, leisure fathers, and abusive fathers

Sometimes an actual or supposed fatherlessness is not at all complained in a cultural as well as in individual respect, but rather rated as irrelevant or even beneficial for society or the development of the child or the well-being of the mother. Fatherhood is then discussed primarily as a problematic or even a negative phenomenon. In the corresponding discourses, fathers appear primarily as egomaniacal workaholics who flee from their responsibility as a father or, as a divorced father, no longer want to take on any responsibility for their children. In addition, discourses dominated for a while, which necessarily and sensibly deal with the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children, although sometimes the focus was too one-sided and thus against the empirical situation on the biological fathers instead of on the quantitatively clearly more relevant group the “social” fathers, i.e. the new partners of a divorced mother, or to address the phenomenon of abuse by mothers (cf. Deimling 1999, cf. also Amendt 1999). At the beginning of the nineties, people in social science research and in the media were particularly interested in the father when he appeared to be an abuser of his children. Dieter Lenzen (1991) speaks of “continued defamation and anti-paternal tendencies, tendencies towards the liquidation of the father, tendencies towards the reduction of paternal functions” (p. 239).

Furthermore, the engagement of fathers within their families is often the focus of discussions. “The” fathers did not care enough about their families, they were even lazy, mostly absent, indifferent or non-existent. “The” fathers are usually passive with housework and at most take on pleasant tasks. Some were more involved in childcare, but only in pleasant activities. Often fathers were or are generally referred to as shadow fathers, weekend fathers or leisure fathers.

The relevant German research and data on the subject of the engagement of family fathers (e.g. Fthenakis 1999, Fthenakis / Minsel 2001, Matzner 1998, Rosenkranz / Rost / Vaskovics 1998) make it clear that paternal engagement in the sense of action in the areas of childcare and upbringing in terms of number of participating fathers has increased significantly overall. We have to differentiate between different groups of fathers with different levels of commitment and fatherhood concept (cf. Fthenakis 1999, Fthenakis / Minsel 2001, cf. Schmidt-Denter 1984, cf. also Matzner 1998).

New Fatherhood - The New Fathers

In the father research, which has been increasingly established since the 1980s, in contrast to earlier times, the focus is primarily on the benefit of a committed, soulful, cooperative and competent father for the development of the child and for the well-being of all family members. The father seems almost indispensable here for a successful personality development. Due to the high importance of the father, now recognized in science and the public, in connection with the phenomenon of increasing commitment of many fathers, a rather optimistic orientation prevails in current German research with regard to the future of fathers (e.g. Fthenakis 1999, Fthenakis / Minsel 2001).The father's position within the family has changed significantly in the past few decades "from a predominantly punitive and power-exercising authority, which can primarily be defined through the functions of witnessing, protecting and nourishing, to a more emotionally accessible contact person with modified educational tasks and Functions as an object of identification or increasingly as a leisure partner ”(Werneck 2001, p. 6).

In the last few years the concept of the New Father has increasingly appeared in the discussion. This is associated with a new, positive fatherliness that is clearly different from the well-known traditional father. But what exactly do you understand by a new father? What are his characteristics? Sometimes this primarily refers to those fathers who become the primary caring father or the sole responsible father; So the comparatively small number of fathers on parental leave, househusband or single parents.

Others associate a new form of father-child relationship with the image of the new father. The sociologist Rolf Stein (cf. 2000, pp. 61ff.) Speaks of the awareness and practice of the new fatherhood. Today's new fathers are often more tolerant, more solidary, more generous, more affectionate, more caring and more cooperative towards their children. They experienced their fatherhood in deliberate opposition to their own fathers and often saw themselves as partners and playmates of their children. They are much more committed within their families and spend most of their free time at home with their children. For Stein the question arises whether we are already on the way to a “parental culture”. In the course of modernization, one can see “clear breaks in tradition with regard to the father image”. “This change in fatherliness can be described as a change from the traditional authoritarian, repressive and marginal role of the father to a friendly, loving and central role in the family” (ibid., P. 63).

For Dieter Lenzen (1991, p. 239ff.) The new father exists more on the media and discourse level than in reality. Sometimes there are bizarre attempts at justification, such as the discussion about the pregnant man, the so-called Couvade syndrome. Not only the social distribution of roles is problematized. Rather, the gender difference itself should be described as negligible with regard to the childbearing and nutritional functions, so that one can speak of a “feminization of the father role”. Such a leveling of the gender difference in the parent-child constellation is certainly not “what psychologists and social psychologists have in mind when they point out the indispensability of the father function” (ibid., P. 246). The propagation of a new motherhood goes hand in hand with the image of the new fatherhood, so that in the long term both roles within an androgynous parenthood could come to an end.

At the moment there does not seem to be a standardized, standardized image of a father that fathers and mothers could use as a guide. The images of father that are currently being discussed are often characterized by polarized one-sidedness. Either the father is absent or even an abuser. Or as a new father, he is an almost perfect father in that he takes on the maternal role and possibly loses his specific masculine paternity. Fatherhood in industrialized countries is to be viewed as an amorphous phenomenon, which currently has a wide range of representations of being a father and of fatherhood.


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Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Dr. Michael Matzner, educational scientist and sociologist,
Current book publications: Handbook Migration and Education, Handbook for Boys 'Pedagogy, Handbook for Girls' Pedagogy, Social Work with Boys and Men


Dr. Michael Matzner
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Created on November 30th, 2001, last changed on February 25th, 2015