Within an evolutionary perspective, males strive for status and resources because these can yield reproductive success. For humans, one of the ways males display their potential worth to a reproductive partner is by providing resources such as a regular income. That’s the potential breadwinner in him. It’s not the only way males can add value; being emotionally supportive, helping with household chores, changing diapers, providing protection from other guys—those can make him a viable mate too. 

A new book, Fathers in Cultural Context, edited by David and Barbara Shwalb and Michael Lamb, provides lots of international perspective on fatherhood. It has 16 chapters and contributions ranging from China to Brazil, Australia to Japan. One of the themes arising in the book is the close tie between the economic environment in which a man lives and his capacities to contribute as a father. More narrowly, one of the themes is that many men are falling through the economic cracks, with consequences for the stability of reproductive partnerships, fertility, and men’s variable involvement in the day-to-day lives of their children. What’s going on?

In his chapter on fathers in the Arab world, Ramadan Ahmed comments on the growing challenge families face to pay their bills. One of the responses is a large-scale migration of fathers from communities with fewer job opportunities to the wealthier oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. A large fraction of the estimated 10 million migrant workers are fathers, who live long spells apart from their families to provide resources, but with consequences including strain on their families back home.

In Russia, as Jennifer Utrata and colleagues note, the past two post-communist decades have featured the failures of men to adapt to changes in economic and family life. Male alcoholism and mortality have increased, widening the already-present mortality gap (in which men live on average to 62, women to 74 years of age). While a role is still envisioned for men as breadwinners, the shift from guaranteed state employment to market economy has left many men without an ability to contribute: “[W]ithout money, men are seen as almost superfluous.” Male migration for work offers one hopeful remedy, but comes at expense to father-child emotional relationships. Failed marriages may leave some fathers paying child support but otherwise separated from their children’s lives, with maternal grandmothers more reliable secondary caregivers.

While seemingly a world apart, there are parallels in southern Africa and the Caribbean in variable paternal roles, in part due to brutal historical legacies and in part due to current economic challenges. Among African Caribbean communities, as Jaipaul Roopnarine notes, relationship trajectories often begin with visiting unions, in which partners live apart, perhaps followed by living together in common-law unions, and maybe later codified with formal marriage. Economic and religious considerations help account for the stability of these relationships as well as men’s abilities to be involved, positively contributing fathers. Indeed, “The inability to provide economic support was the major source of dissatisfaction in men’s role as fathers.” In southern Africa, the stability of partnerships in part turns on economic considerations. As Nicholas Townsend reviews, many lower income fathers abandon fatherhood when they can’t contribute, with one consequence that men may have children with multiple partners, yielding more mixed parentage families. Men often migrate in search of economic prospects, which removes them from immediate family life. Further, “On one side are men who have stable work and incomes…On the other side are men who do not have much prospect of finding steady employment. For them, successful fathering is a severe challenge and a rare accomplishment.” 

Men’s value as fathers, these cultural accounts recognize, often feature a focus on resource provisioning. And when men are unable to provision well, these fathers and others may see that as a failure. These examples highlight international dimensions of the links between breadwinning and fatherhood, and how shifts in male employment and incomes and family life occurring in countries like the US have parallels in other corners of the world. 


Shwalb DW, Shwalb B, and Lamb ME. 2013. Fathers in Cultural Context. New York: Routledge.


The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time
Peter B. Gray, Ph.D.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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