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Are ideals and norms related to fatherhood equal in Europe?

Individual attitudes towards reproductive decisions and the exercise of fatherhood in Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK

Father kissing child on cheek

Changes in family dynamics have been linked to the theoretical framework known as the Second Demographic Transition and, within it, to ideological changes, processes of secularization, increased individualism and the weakening of traditional family norms. However, empirical research analysing family-related social norms and individual preferences is still relatively scant when compared to the abundant literature focused on family behaviour, especially so when focusing on men rather than women.

In a new paper in the Special Issue ‘Fathers in Europe: Policies, Constructions and Practices’ in the Journal of Family Research, Teresa Martín-García (Spanish National Research Council, CSIC), Marta Seiz (National University of Distance Learning, UNED) and Teresa Castro-Martín (Spanish National Research Council, CSIC) explored ideals and norms related to fatherhood in five European countries: Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Using European Social Survey data from the most recent available round (2018/2019), they examined: (1) the ideal age to become a father; (2) approval of men’s decision to never have children, to have a child outside marriage and to keep working full-time when having small children (0-3 years). The added value of their research is that – besides setting the focus on men – they look at selected countries representing different institutional and cultural contexts. 

Their findings confirm signs of convergence across countries regarding the ‘normalization’ of postponed fatherhood, as well as increased detachment from traditional attitudes. Differences between ‘forerunner’ and ‘laggard’ countries with regard to family-related norms and family change are visibly narrowing. However, the gender culture and the welfare regime in each country reflect different incentives and possibilities for the establishment of new family models leading to variation in the ideal age for fatherhood and the approval of non-traditional life course trajectories. For instance, although both Sweden and Spain show the highest degree of approval of male deliberate childlessness and out-of-wedlock fatherhood at the normative level, the generous social protection of the Swedish welfare regime facilitates more autonomous, non-normative behaviours, while the greater reliance on the family as a safety net in Spain slows down such behaviours.

The study has also underscored different attitudes regarding paternal involvement depending on the societal context. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it turns out that normative ideals of full-time working fathers remain pervasive in the presence of small children in most examined countries, even in the Swedish gender-egalitarian society. The authors suggest that while younger women and men have internalised more egalitarian gender values and less traditional life goals than older generations, the normative approval of men’s full-time involvement in the labour market, even with minor dependent children, seems to remain relatively conservative.

Examining social norms regarding male reproductive decisions and the exercise of fatherhood from a comparative perspective is important for understanding men’s choices and the normative social framework potentially constraining them.


Martín-García, T., Seiz, M. and Castro-Martín, T. (2022). Ideals and Norms related to Fatherhood in Europe: A Comparative Perspective from the European Social Survey. Journal of Family Research.

Author(s) of the original publication
Teresa Martín-García