INTRODUCTION: the active engagement of fathers in maternity care is associated with long-term health and social benefits for the mother, baby and family. The maternity care expectations and experiences of expectant and new fathers have received little attention to date. AIM: to identify and synthesise good quality qualitative research that explores the views and experiences of fathers who have encountered maternity care in high resource settings. METHODS: based on a pre-determined search strategy, relevant databases were searched for papers published between January 1999 and January 2010. Backchaining of the reference lists in included papers was undertaken. INCLUSION CRITERIA: good quality qualitative research studies exploring fathers' involvement in maternity care through pregnancy, birth, and up to 6 months postnatally, that were undertaken in high resource countries. No language restrictions were imposed. ANALYTIC STRATEGY: the analysis was based on the metaethnographic techniques of Noblit and Hare (1988) as amended by Downe et al. (2007). FINDINGS: from 856 hits 23 papers were included. The emerging themes were as follows: risk and uncertainty, exclusion, fear and frustration, the ideal and the reality, issues of support and experiencing transition. SYNTHESIS: fathers feel themselves to be 'partner and parent' but their experience of maternity care services is as 'not-patient and not-visitor'. This situates them in an interstitial and undefined space (both emotionally and physically) with the consequence that many feel excluded and fearful. CONCLUSIONS: fathers cannot support their partner effectively in achieving the ideal of transition to a successful pregnancy, joyful birth and positive parenthood experience unless they are themselves supported, included, and prepared for the reality of risk and uncertainty in pregnancy, labour and parenthood and for their role in this context.