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A Brief History of Fatherhood

A Brief History of Fatherhood

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As we approach another Father’s Day, it’s once again time to reflect on the profound impact that our fathers, husbands, and sons (who are fathers of our grandchildren) have had on our lives. Archetypally, the role of the father in the family structure has long been one of strength, wisdom, and provision. However, this has looked very differently across the generations, impacted by societal norms, economic conditions, and cultural expectations. Here is a brief look at the history of fatherhood.

The Father in Hunter-Gatherer Tribes

In hunter-gatherer societies, the role of the father depended on the structure of the tribe. Archaeologists believe that fathers who spent most of their time away from the family hunting were the minority, and that actually in most tribes, fathers were present most of the time. In many cases, families hunted and foraged together: men, women, and children. In addition, many fathers were responsible for carrying babies and toddlers during the day, usually strapped to the man’s back (as it was dangerous for young ones to crawl or toddle around).

The Father in the Pre-Industrial Family

In Colonial America, families were centered around a patriarchal structure, where the father was the head of the home. This closely reflected the “Great Chain of Being” ideology of the Protestant Reformation, which viewed everything in the world as being bound by a line of authority and subordination that extended from God on down the chain. Likewise in Europe, with the advent of Christianity and later rationalism, fathers were expected to be detached leaders within the family.

However, despite these expectations, in many cases the role of the father was much more involved. For instance, many women during these times had trades such as weaving and brewing, and there is evidence that in these cases often the care of the children went to the father, leaving the women free to work. In addition, rural life was regulated by daylight, meaning that fathers were home with the family in winter and the whole family often worked together in the summer so that year round fathers were very much available to their children.

The Father in the Industrialized World

The advent of industrialization in both Europe and North America required men to work away from the home. It was at this time that mothers became more responsible for the emotional needs of the family, with fathers’ contributions becoming primarily economic. Going into the 20th century, this trend continued, with commuting becoming part of most fathers’ lives. The trends of imperialism and two world wars meant that men leaving their families became par for the course, with many children losing their father’s altogether during this period.

The Modern Father

With the coming of the 21st century, fatherhood has once again changed considerably, with fathers more and more sharing the emotional and logistical aspects of parenthood with mothers who have become an important factor in the modern workforce. Today, men’s hobbies often reverberate around the family structure, with men more and more reaping the benefits of parenting as a rewarding complement to their careers. In some cases, fathers have become the stay at home parent, with the mother taking over the economic responsibilities for the family structure.


Over time, the role of the father has evolved and reinvented itself many times, but always the father has stood at the heart of the family. Indeed, the relationship between father and child has long had a profound impact on society and been influential in shaping the next generation of fathers and mothers.

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