The hand that rocks the cradle

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The hand that rocks the cradle

 

by Michael Flood

Pull quotes:

The main obstacle to shared parenting is economic: the demands of men’s paid work.

The reinforcement of fatherhood is sometimes about men’s rights over women and children rather than men’s responsibilities.

The hand that rocks the cradle

Public attitudes towards fathers have shifted, but has fathers’ behaviour shifted too? Michael Flood describes the obstacles to paternal involvement, and the potential dangers in the new emphasis on fatherhood.

Suddenly everyone has gone crazy over two new types of men: the "absent father" and the "new father". All over the place men and women are turning to their dad to berate him for never being there—physically or emotionally—during their childhood. The antidote is the "new father", the softly spoken, woolly jumper-wearing man, holding the baby with one arm and doing the dishes with the other.

The "absent father" phenomenon is being hailed as a key cause of all the pain, confusion and anger in modern men. It’s shaping up as a key theme in the men’s movement.

Guys in the "mythopoetic" wing of the men’s movement are especially keen on the whole area of absent fathers and "father hunger". Robert Bly’s book Iron John and his American workshops and talks are the basis for these ideas.

Father hunger

Many men feel cheated, robbed of male support and a male role model who had emotional maturity as well as strength. According to Bly, it was the industrial revolution that robbed us of an ancient father-son bond. There is no "initiation" for boys into the world of adult men. The mythopoetic solution is to develop rites and rituals that allow men to rage at and grieve for their absent fathers, be initiated into manhood and find male mentors and leaders.

Fathering is a key concern for a second wing of the men’s movement, the "fathers’ rights" and "men’s rights" wing. (See Paul William’s profile in this XY.)

But it’s not only in the men’s movement that fatherhood is a hot topic. A widespread shift in social attitudes towards fathers has occurred.

Culture versus conduct

There’s been a remarkable change in public opinion about the role of fathers. Many people believe, and many books proclaim, that fathers are more involved with their children and with domestic work. Thus, the culture of fatherhood has changed, but has the conduct of fatherhood changed too? Are fathers doing more?

Charlie Lewis and Margaret O’Brien state in Reassessing fatherhood that it’s difficult to say whether paternal involvement has risen. Firstly, there have been big shifts in work and family patterns since World War II. Maternal employment has increased and family sizes and structure have changed. Secondly, there isn’t much long-term research on fathers’ involvement and authors disagree about long-term shifts. Nevertheless, Lewis and O’Brien conclude that change in fathering roles has been restricted to particular areas of family life, such as around the time of childbirth.

There have only been minimal changes in fathers’ behaviour according to a series of American studies, discussed by Ralph LaRossa in his article "Fatherhood and social change" in the book Men’s lives. The British evidence is the same according to Lynne Segal, author of Slow motion: changing masculinities, changing men. Most housework is performed by women, and fathers will often only do the more pleasurable aspects of childcare.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report Juggling time: how Australian families use time, released in mid-1991, showed that the household division of labour is still rigidly ordered by gender. Australian women are stuck in the kitchen and laundry as much now as they were 20 years ago. Women spend 70 percent of their unpaid time working on domestic chores while men spend only 30 percent doing housework and looking after children.

The culture of fatherhood has changed much faster than the conduct. The ideology of fatherhood didn’t shift because of the changing behaviour of fathers, but largely in response to shifts in the conduct of motherhood. Ralph LaRossa argues that, as mothers increasingly took up paid work in the last 25 years, it was assumed that fathers must be minding the kids more. The truth is that many women are faced with the double load of paid work and unpaid domestic work.

Why are most fathers relatively uninvolved with their children, despite the popularity of the "new father"? Is the answer simply men’s unwillingness to do childcare and domestic work, or are there real obstacles to paternal involvement?

Obstacles to fathering

The most obvious obstacles to men and women sharing parenting (and other domestic work) are economic: the demands of men’s paid work. Lynne Segal summarises the research relating economic factors to domestic change in Western countries. In their masculine role as "breadwinners" or financial providers, fathers feel more strongly tied to their jobs. Men work longest hours outside the home when they have dependent children; the reverse is true of women. Women in the paid workforce are concentrated in lower-status, lowly paid areas, and women’s employment is increasingly part-time, casual and home-based.

Inequalities in employment are crucial in explaining why fathers don’t father. A further set of obstacles are ideological and practical. Traditional beliefs about gender roles and men’s incapacity to "mother" influence men’s willingness to take on childcare. These beliefs also mean that active fathers encounter negative reactions from their relatives and male peer group. Men don’t have access to the informal women’s support networks associated with children. And men simply haven’t been taught the skills of infant and child care as they’ve grown up. Men are taught that we can’t nurture, we shouldn’t nurture and women are the natural nurturers.

The experience of fathering itself may deter some men from active parenting. Parenting and domestic work can be intensely demanding, repetitious, isolated and low in public status or reward. Fatherhood is experienced by some men as personal crisis, bringing up deep psychological tensions. It may bring feelings of inadequacy, guilt and anxiety.

Men’s unwillingness to take responsibility for children can’t be explained only in terms of economic and social obstacles. It also enables men to remain privileged in relation to women. How else can we explain the fact that when men do participate in the home, they tend to choose all the more pleasant and rewarding tasks?

Most men continue to benefit from the labour of women, and women’s career choices are harmed by their greater burden of domestic work. To really change patterns of parenting in this country, men will have to seriously examine our commitment to fathering, versus our commitment to our jobs or careers.

From here to paternity

The assertion of the importance of fathering is a good thing. On seeing a man pushing a pram in the street, my own reaction is to think "Good on you!" A more equal distribution of labour has long been a central demand of the women’s movements. It would undoubtedly be a positive shift if far more men were involved in raising children.

There is a troubling side to the growing emphasis on fathers. This trend comes at a time when men’s actual power and control over women and children are declining. Fathers are less essential for financial support, status and legitimacy than they were in the 1950s. Women’s choices regarding marriage, sexuality and fertility have expanded. As Lynne Segal succinctly puts it, "the contemporary reinforcement of fatherhood is problematic in so far as it can be used to strengthen men’s control over women and children, in a society where men are already dominant socially, economically and politically."

Pressure groups are hard at work seeking legal changes to increase men’s paternal rights over children after separation and divorce, and even over foetuses inside women’s bodies. The message of "fathers’ rights" groups is that children belong to men (husbands, boyfriends, sperm donors) when men want them, but not when they don’t. On another front, the new reproductive technologies are increasing male medical and technological control over reproduction and women’s bodies. To put it simply, sometimes the reinforcement of fatherhood is about men’s rights over women and children rather than men’s responsibilities.

If we are to look squarely at fatherhood, we must also acknowledge the abuse of paternal power: fathers’ domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse. This violence is all too often denied, condoned or justified with the argument that "she provoked it." One men’s group that does acknowledge the abuse is Fathers for Preventing Sexual Violence, launched in Newcastle in 1992.

The stress on fathers can also be another way of reasserting the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family. It may serve an old right-wing rhetoric about "the family", that reinforces women’s dependence and men’s power. Australia is luckier than the United States or England: a morally and sexually conservative government has not yet come to power. We should be supporting the existence of a diversity of family forms—single fathers, single mothers, lesbian, gay, extended and nuclear.

The "absent father" and the "new father" may be stereotypes, but they do starkly show the contrasting possibilities for men’s involvement in parenting. Despite widespread shifts in the ideology of fatherhood, men’s actual involvement has only slightly increased. The key obstacles to fathers’ involvement are not personal but economic, and it is these that men must tackle if we are truly to be active fathers.

 


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