Do dads cook, too?

May 25, 2007

Common consensus in academia and beyond is that it is mainly women who take responsibility for shopping, cooking and serving family meals.

However, the research that supports this contention was undertaken in the 1980s. Since then, there has been an apparent transformation in fatherhood. Fathers are thought to be no longer the distant breadwinners they once were and are instead increasingly involved in their children's upbringing. Has this change from fatherhood to fathering had any impact on who does the cooking?

To find out, we interviewed fathers on the meanings of food and food practices within the family. So far, we have spoken to 18 fathers living in South Yorkshire with at least one child at primary school.

In the majority of cases (12), it was the woman who took most responsibility for cooking. Indeed, in six of these households the men did little or no cooking at all. But this left six others where the men shared or took major responsibility for providing meals.

Previous research had argued that women's employment would be at the heart of this because of women's unavailability when food needed preparing or because of relative status or income and notions of fairness within the couple.

But our research discovered that, although women's employment was one factor, it was far from being the only one. People's lives were far more complicated than that.

Illness was important, for example. In one case, the male partner's ill health meant that he could no longer work outside the home, meaning his wife worked full time. In another, the woman was not well enough to stand for long periods to cook. In both cases, the men had taken over food preparation.

Ethical principles also came into it, incorporating men's beliefs in gender equality, but also in vegetarianism and in buying organic and local food.

These beliefs meant they preferred to share the cooking.

Cultural and family traditions were also important: some men saw it as more natural for women to do the cooking, others had had women to cook for them all their lives. Relationships with extended family often meant that others were available to cook for the children, and even the man, when the woman was unavailable. Finally, while all couples negotiated arrangements over domestic tasks, for some negotiation resulted in very defined roles. In one household, the wife still did the cooking, even though she worked full time, while the husband, who worked part time, had other duties, primarily childcare.

These issues are not, we argue, causal factors that drive otherwise recalcitrant men into the kitchen. Rather, they both help structure and provide resources within which family members negotiate domestic life.

Rather than showing a simple shift to increasing involvement of fathers in the family meal, our study suggests a shift from a single predominant model of fatherhood and family life to multiple models that people can use to make sense of their own family lives.

Alan Metcalfe is research fellow in the School of Health and Related Research, Sheffield University.

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