Sharing the Caring. How Fathers of Children with Special Needs Negotiate Parenting Responsibilities

Clearly, a father's involvement with his children does not take place in a vacuum. In most cases the father/child relationship, interaction and his participation in childcare unfolds in context in which his partner is an important factor. Past research with heterosexual couples has identified ways in which mothers influence father involvement. For example, the quality of the marital relationship and the degree to which the mother views the father as competent have been shown to affect a father's motivation, feelings of competence and, as a result, his level of involvement in parenting. (Bouchard and Lee, 2000) Other researchers have identified  "maternal gatekeeping," the ways in which mothers' behaviour and attitude and inhibit or facilitate father involvement.  (Allen and Hawkins, 1999).

However, neither gatekeeping nor relationship quality fully illuminate the complexities of how mothers and fathers negotiate parenting roles and responsibilities. Research by FIRA's Fathers of Children with Special Needs Cluster, led by Ted McNeill, director of social work at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, is shedding additional light on the way these issues play out in families with children with chronic physical and health problems, specifically, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

FIRA's Fathers of Children with Special Needs Research Cluster

The study, part of FIRA's Community University Research Alliance project, funded by Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, involved a combination of interviews with mother-father couples together and individually.

Most families (75%) in the Fathers with Special Needs Cluster study, had what some people might consider a "traditional" division of responsibilities with the mother devoting more time to work in the home and the father spending much more time on work outside the home. However, McNeill argues that labels such as "traditional", "transitional" or "egalitarian" do not do justice to the multiple influences that come together to shape the parenting relationship. "We're suggesting that complemenarity and symmetry are better concepts for helping us understand the ways in which parents divide, share and combine the roles and tasks required for caring for their children," he says.

Complemenary and Symmetrical Partnerships

Complementarity refers to parent partners specializing in certain roles.  For example, a mother might be in charge of keeping track of and administering a child's medication, while the father might the one who takes the child to swimming lessons or other recreational activities. Symmetry refers to both parents having more or less equal skills and sharing responsibilities for various caregiving and household tasks. But even those two concepts do not fully describe the complexities of parents' negotiation and navigation of parenting responsibilities. "In fact, most couples combined elements of complementary and symmetrical parenting," says McNeill "For example, some parents had a complementary arrangement with the father being the primary breadwinner and the mother the primary caregiver; however, when they were together evenings and weekends, they had a symmetrical arrangement regarding caregiving and household tasks. Availability, preferences, skills, cultural traditions, child's gender and care needs etc. all contributed to shape the way parents defined their roles."

One value of this model of  complementary, symmetrical and combined sharing of responsibility is that it can help us understand why an arrangement that might seem "unegalitarian" to some people, actually works quite well for a couple. "There was no one model for success that applied to all families," McNeill says. "We found that adaptation to parenting roles was idiosyncratic, practical and usually reflected what was the best available division of roles and responsibilities under the circumstances.  More father (or mother) involvement isn't necessarily better. It must work in the context of the couple relationship."

Negotiating Roles

Success in negotiating roles was often a moving target for these families.  The data showed that even couples who had worked out divisions of responsibilities that they were comfortable with sometimes reached "tipping points" where the workload or division of responsibilities had gotten out of balance, or simply didn't work anymore due to a change in the child's care needs, work changes for one parent or a loss of a sense of fairness.  "These tipping points can cause conflict, dissatisfaction and even disengagement in couples," says McNeill. "So it's important for practitioners to understand that mothers and fathers of children with special needs can experience these tipping point (both small and large) from time to time and may need support finding ways to work things out and renegotiate their roles. In order to understand the individual roles and experiences of mothers and fathers, it is important to appreciate them in the context of the relationship. "

For more information, take a look at Children with Special Needs: Unpacking how mothers and fathers parent, Ted McNeill's power point presentation from Father Involvement Research 2008 in our Resources section. Search under the key word McNeill


Allen, Sarah M, Hawkins, Alan J. (1999). Mothers' beliefs and behaviors that inhibit greater father involvement in family work. Journal of Marriage and the Family 61(1):199-212.

Bouchard, G., & Lee, C. M. (2000). The marital context for father involvement with their preschool children: The role of partner support. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, 2, 37-54