University of East Anglia explores the changing role of fathers after family separations

While the traditional life journey of meeting a partner, getting married and having children may still reign supreme, a gradual shift in attitudes brings its own challenges.

Marriage is in decline although the majority of children, around 60pc, are still raised by couples who have tied the knot, according to academics at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

But modern day data shows more people choose to have children outside of marriage, although the likelihood of these relationships breaking down is also going up.

There is also an increasing number of couples where both work, leading to the traditional roles of men acting as breadwinners and women as the homemakers being broken down.

Equality of the sexes is perceived by the vast majority as an important ideal to work towards, giving both genders the choice to take up the roles they want rather than conforming to stereotypes of what they should do.

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But questions remain about how men have adapted to their changing roles. Research is also continuing into what support is on offer to encourage them to fulfil their parenting responsibilities should a break-up occur.

Support workers, fathers and academics gathered at the UEA yesterday to hear experiences about fathers and families after separations and divorce, with a call for more talking between all the groups to ensure the best results are obtained.

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Professor Margaret O'Brien, co-director of the UEA's Centre for Research on the Child and Family, said: 'Cultural models for fatherhood are in flux. There's new aspirations for men to be more caring and take a lead where needed to be co-parents in the homes.

'There's some people who say there is too much pressure to do it all, as we had with women in previous generations.'

But Professor O'Brien added there are also 'great anxieties' in Britain about how men are stepping up to family life.

She said: 'We can't understand fathers in families unless we are mindful of the complex demographics concerning family life.

'We are very focused on these aspects at the centre - how families are changing and how that impacts on the wellbeing of children and welfare of families.'

A United Nations report suggested one of the big challenges in responding to the needs of vulnerable fathers and men in vulnerable family contexts is the lack of comprehensive data collected about fathers.

The document, entitled Men in Families and Family Policy in a Changing World, insisted there had to be more formal recognition of a man's role should a relationship breakdown and he no longer lives with the child.

Beyond the initial child support payments, the report added this includes overnight stays and care-giving.

The UEA is playing a leading role in assessing what research has been about how fathers are supported and what needs to be done.

Dr Georgia Philip told those gathered yesterday there were only two UK-based studies focusing on fathers identified during the research, with many being American-based.

The starting point involves learning how men react and the support they receive when a separation or divorce takes place.

Officials talked about a transition period, in which they hope both parents can move from being in a relationship to out of one while having as little an impact as possible on the lives of the children.

They added divorce is seen as a risk to a child's wellbeing, but if families can be offered good support that achieves quality parenting then the risk will decrease.

If both parties do not have a cooling off period and act rashly, it is feared there could be long-term problems and the child could miss out on the best relationship with their parents.

One dilemma researchers found was how to monitor, gather data and test ideas at a time of immense difficulty for families going through a break-up.

In Great Yarmouth, a group is hoping to carry out its own research to find what other fathers are experiencing.

It is hoped if fellow dads do the research, rather than care professionals, it will provide a better understanding of the issues faced.

Adrian Tester, project worker at the Priory Children's Centre, helped establish the Great Yarmouth Father's Project, although said there was a stigma associated with support groups, with people believing you need to have a problem to go.

He said it could prove difficult getting people through the door, but with agencies helping to refer people and after the initial nerves things start to improve.

Mr Tester said: 'They realise you are normal people, we are normal dads. There are good days and bad days. We are not hippies wearing sandals chanting but we are working class people and there's different age groups.'

Dad-of-six Carl McCauley, of Yarmouth, said as one of the older members of the group he could talk to the younger dads and identify problems or issues they would refuse to raise with professional support workers.

Mr McCauley continued: 'Just airing their views with people they trust, it takes a while, but they tell you something that is minor but to them is important.

'Anything that's getting people together talking and working towards an aim for the benefit of the children is important.'

Nicky Dawson, Norfolk County Council partnerships, parenting and troubled families adviser, said they were pleased with progress made with several programmes, including the Think Fathers campaign.

She said the future would include maintaining these standards for both mothers and fathers, while also concentrating on newer areas needing improvements.

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