The concept of the "new father" has been discussed in the literature and popular
media for over 25 years. Yet current studies regarding father involvement continue to show that fathers do not contribute equally to childcare and domestic labor, even among parents in dual-income families. Furthermore, as roles within families become less differentiated by gender, fathers' roles remain ambiguous.
This study investigates fathers' perceptions of social expectations related to fatherhood, and how expectations inform their roles and identities as fathers. This study uses qualitative data to address three central research questions: (a) Where do men receive messages about expectations of them as fathers? (b) What specific messages do fathers receive? (c) Which messages are most meaningful to fathers? Focus groups were conducted with middle-class fathers (n = 17) in dual-income families from a small college community in the northwestern United States.
The findings suggest that messages about fatherhood conveyed through television programs are not meaningful to fathers, even though television often reflects cultural norms and social changes in family life. Many fathers in the study also do not identify with many fathers within their own community. Instead, they largely define their roles based on negotiations with their wives, and they emphasize their desire to participate equally in caring for their children. They also turn to fathers in their most inner circles as important anchors for setting their own expectations and judging their own performance as fathers. Yet fathers suggest that other fathers in their community do not display the same level of commitment to fathering as themselves, and they identify persistent low social expectations for fathers as a culprit in men's failure to fully participate in family life. The problem of low expectations is also connected to what fathers see as a larger problem: one in which there are no larger social expectations or scripts to clarify what it is that men should be doing as fathers besides being much more than providers.
This study illustrates the importance of understanding how men construct their identities and make meaning of their roles in relation to other fathers, especially those within their communities, a topic that has received little attention in the literature. It also raises questions about the "new father," a concept that is no longer new but for which progress has clearly been slow. The study offers future directions for research on fatherhood, emphasizing the importance of explaining why fathers' involvement, especially in dual-income families, continues to be unequal relative to mothers. Future research also must account for how a variety of reference groups either support fathers in being more involved or, in contrast, simply perpetuate low-expectations for fathers.