Fatherhood, the routine production of gender

22 Oct

Super-friend sent me along this blog post from the NYT about one of the tribulations of stay-at-home fathers. Guy has his daughters, and they go to storytime at the public library. Where, of course, they are repeatedly singled out (great to have a daddy!), including doing an extra verse of some Mommy song, so that they could do a Daddy version of it. Eventually, his daughter backed out of the library, and he scooted on out of there as quickly as possible.

My first reaction was to think about the ways I might have done things differently. I would like to think that I would have said something, politely but firmly, like “please don’t single me out, it makes me uncomfortable.” That would be the gracious, teachy, adult thing to do. More likely, especially after the verse about bouncing baby on Mommy’s knee, and now Daddy’s knee!, I would have then said, “OK, now a verse for just the Black people! Now the Asian women! Now one for you there, with the disability!” I’m a little worried that my gently caustic nature is going to turn me into a full-blown asshole in some situations. The sad truth is, there’s a decent chance I’d sit there and quietly just take it, like the dude in the article did.

When I realized impending fatherhood happening to me, I looked up the sociological literature on fathering (yep, I am a nerd), which is interesting but also depressing. For the most part, middle-class white men don’t change fatherhood, nor do they actually do anything approaching 50% of the work. If I’m anything like the men in the literature (which I may or may not be – it is tough to predict individual behavior from group characteristics), I’m more than likely to retain much of my male privilege. It’s families who are more working class who actually are changing fatherhood on the ground, mostly because economic necessity prevents a (mythical 1950’s) traditional family structure from emerging.

But for those fathers who actually do a substantial portion of housework and parenting, the evidence suggests that 1) domestic divisions of labor are going to be considered “normal” to those who are attempting something similar, and “amazing” to those who are not; 2) fathers get tons of credit for parenting work that mothers do routinely; and 3) men who successfully re-oriented their identities to full-time parenting more often compared themselves to other mothers, not to other men. Since men who do full-on parenting see it as natural, and compare themselves to other full-on parents (mostly mothers), getting singled out by well-meaning women seems, for the most part, not to go over so well. Hence the sad and angry NYT man.

Some more detail, from Scott Coltrane’s excellent analysis, Household Labor and the Routine Production of Gender:

Mothers and fathers reported that women friends, most of whom were in more traditional marriages or were single, idealized their shared parenting arrangements. About two-thirds of sample mothers reported that their women friends told them that they were extremely fortunate, and labeled their husbands “wonderful,” “fantastic,” “incredible,” or otherwise out of the ordinary. Some mothers said that women friends were “jealous,” “envious,” or “amazed,” and that they “admired” and “supported” their efforts at sharing domestic chores.

Both mothers and fathers said that the father received more credit for his family involvement than the mother did, because it was expected that she would perform child care and housework. Since parenting is assumed to be “only natural” for women, fathers were frequently praised for performing a task that would go unnoticed if a mother had performed it…

[F]athers appreciated praise, but actively discounted compliments received from those in dissimilar situations. The fathers’ everyday parenting experiences led them to view parenthood as drudgery as well as fulfillment. They described their sense of parental responsibility as taken-for-granted and did not consider it to be out of the ordinary or something worthy of special praise. Fathers sometimes reported being puzzled by compliments from their wives’ acquaintances and judged them to be inappropriate…Thus fathers discounted and normalized extreme reactions to their divisions of labor and interpreted them in a way that supported the “natural” character of what they were doing.

One mother commented on a pattern that was typically mentioned by both parents: domestic divisions of labor were “normal” to those who were attempting something similar, and “amazing” to those who were not: “All the local friends here think it’s amazing. They call him “Mr. Mom” and tell me how lucky I am. I’m waiting for someone to tell him how lucky he is. I have several friends at work who have very similar arrangements and they just feel that it’s normal.”

Most interesting is his finding that the practice of child care itself transforms men. They become more ‘maternal’ thinking, not so much in the sense that maternal thinking (mothering) is what childcare is really about, but more that they stop being ‘helpers’ or having an ancillary role and take on a more central one.

I mean, we still live in a world, so you’re going to get the BS from the delighted, well-meaning but also drive-by crazy librarian, but there is some hope for transformation as well.

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