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Motherhood, fatherhood - why do parents give ourself such different job descriptions as parents....

(33 Posts)
Himalaya Sat 10-Sep-11 15:16:50

.....when we would refuse to accept such a gendered division of responsibilities in any other walk of life?

I am trying to figure out how to frame this question right, without having the same old WOH vs SAH argument or getting into 'guilt tripping' about people's individual choices. 

Feminism to me is in large part about equality of opportunity- getting rid of the assumption that someone should be better at something because they are male or female.

And yet becoming a mother or father shunts people into gender-defined roles. And the consensus seems to be that is ok,  or that changing it is unrealistic.

Bringing up kids requires both supporting them financially and practically and emotionally. There are only 24 hours in the day so we have to make choices. There is no particular reason why a man should be better at the money earning bit and a woman at the caring bit (beyond breastfeeding).But most people still seem to voluntarily split their family responsibilities along traditional lines (either completely or partially) and many say they are happy that way.

Is that ok, or should it change, and if so how?

TheGrassIsJewelled Sat 10-Sep-11 15:35:02

Isn't it the same word, with different genders, e.g. Brother/sister, aunt/uncle?

dittany Sat 10-Sep-11 15:42:12

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Himalaya Sat 10-Sep-11 16:07:21

Sorry Grassisjeweled - I didn't mean the different names for different biological relationships, I meant why are our expectations of the roles that fathers and mothers play still so different? And does it matter?

Dittany - im not sure what you mean? I can see how in an age of arranged marriages, no contraception, marriage bars from work, no equal ops legislation etc... Women had little choice but accept traditional roles for mothers. But nowadays I'm not sure what you mean by 'no choice' in this context. People do make other choices to share parenting and WOH opportunities more equally e.g both work PT, to both work but not at pre-parenthood intensity, to have different years as SAHP over time etc...Some people make these choices, others choose more traditional roles. Is one voluntary and the other not?What is preventing people making voluntary choices in your view?

nooka Sat 10-Sep-11 17:34:59

I have always worked out of the home and dh has spent time at home (currently he is a full time SAHD). For us it's been an easy choice as I hate being at home (get very bored) and more importantly I have always earned more than dh. That's often the key factor. Particularly when women marry older men there is often a pay disparity. After maternity leave it's often seen as a choice about whether the woman goes back to work with childcare costs or stays at home with no costs. Short term economics often mean that there is sometimes a shortfall and few couples look at the whole family income when they make this choice. If the father earns more then him staying home just doesn't seem to come into the equation.

For me this wasn't the way I thought, but I didn't take a long maternity leave and never considered not going back to work. That we were worse off for a while we attributed to having children rather than to my choice IYSWIM. But I've found that viewpoint unusual, and of course we were in the lucky position where it didn't really matter that we had less money (as we had enough for all the essentials either way).

I do agree with you though, so long as you breastfeed there are different biological roles, but after that it doesn't really matter if you are the father or mother, you are both parents (and it is your personality and relationship with each child that determines how you do parent more than your gender IMO).

backtothedrawingboard Sat 10-Sep-11 18:04:50

There are far more men now staying at home but I wonder whether a SAHD is actually working to the same "job description" as a SAHM. In my experience men do not carry out the same tasks and have different views of what being at home entails. The gender differences only continue to exist in society because there are no role models or standard to follow when a man stays at home. Without a revised template to follow men and women have to make it up. This requires both parties to communicate fully, accept that they are creating a way of working which has to be committed to and be prepared to respect each persons viewpoints and work together. This is a lot to ask. So much easier to fall into stereotype!

Snorbs Sat 10-Sep-11 18:48:05

backtothedrawingboard, I think you're absolutely right. A SAHD often gets to make his own plan for what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. A SAHM has a template all mapped out for her and there can be a lot of subtle and unsubtle pressure if she decides she's going to do it differently.

LlydogenFawr Sat 10-Sep-11 19:22:05

I work part time and took long maternity leave my DH wanted to work pt too but his work is not flexible. We are very clear that we both have work and mine includes a lot of the childcare because I work fewer hours outside the home. On top of that work we have housework, which we divide evenly (as we both hate it!) I find this is unusual as most people seem to assume that being at home / childcare automatically includes a lot of domestic drudgery, which is just wrong IMO. Obviously it's not always as harmonious as that sounds but that's the plan :-)

nooka Sat 10-Sep-11 19:52:03

Why would a SAHD need a different template or role model? Not sure why a template is needed at all to be honest, although I know what you mean about the pressure from societal norms (and other people). dh looks after the children and the home. When I (briefly) took the role I did a lot less than him! You are right about the support though. I know that SAHDs sometimes get the 'aren't you wonderful' treatment, but they are also (in general) less welcome at many groups as they have a tendency to be very 'mum' orientated. Sometimes too men are looked at a bit strangely for wanting to spend time with their children and women also for not wanting the full time parenting role.

The flexible working problems is another contributor, if men work in areas that are traditionally male dominated they may not have the same flexible working options, or may have to fight for them. I worked for the NHS which because it has traditionally employed many women has very good flexible working programs which are widely used by men and women (and non parents too) so don't attract any stigma.

backtothedrawingboard Sat 10-Sep-11 20:34:52

When a woman gives up their full time job to be at home it will be easier for her to slot into a pre-defined role; a template which has been defined down the generations. When a man gives up work there is more negotiation required for who will do what. Forget housework which can be fairly evenly split. What about buying clothes for the children. Taking kids to the dentist Clearing out old toys. Visiting elderly relatives. All things often associated with SAHMs but not with SAHDs. Or maybe I'm wrong and Dads do these things? Or do the women at work come home and take on traditionally masculine roles at the weekend. I speak as a working Mum with an H who was a SAHD. I never got it right. I tried very hard for 8 years to make everything balance but couldn't because H never really took on what I saw as being his responsibilities at home. He never appreciated the extent of his role. Have others had more positive experiences? Can it work?

Snorbs Sun 11-Sep-11 00:16:21

Nooka, it's not a matter of a SAHD needing a different template. It's more that, by virtue of being in a (relatively) unusual position, he has the freedom to define that role for himself.

By contrast, a SAHM has social expectations that she will (for example) deal with all the house work, deal with everything to do with the child(ren), and ensure she has provided the man of the house with a hot meal when he returns from work. By contrast, if a SAHD still has the same number of children he started off with that morning and the house hasn't burnt down he's often regarded as something akin to a saint.

There is an element of patronism in this - as a single father, I have sometimes felt patronised that some of my acquaintances see the fact that my DCs being happy, clothed and looked after means I deserve some special praise considering I managed all that despite merely being a man. That's irritating, I won't deny that, but it's not difficult to exceed such low expectations. But I'd happily take such easily ignored patronism if it means I don't have to deal with the judging and opprobrium that is often aimed at SAHMs and/or single mothers.

Himalaya Sun 11-Sep-11 11:54:51

Yes I agree Backtothedrawingboard we do need different templates, role models and ways of thinking about this.

...not so much templates for what a SAHD does with his days, but templates for thinking about work/family more generally.

E.g. A man would be more likely to consider different options like flexible working if other people he knows at work/ friends/ family have done it.

Or as Nooka said when working out the 'is it worth working' calculation, you come out with a different answer if you are offsetting childcare costs against family income on be basis of keeping both careers going for the longer term, than if you are just looking at it as an expense against the lower earners current income. But in order to think that way the man's working patterns must be considered as potentially changeable, not a fixed fact that everything else has to accommodate.

when young men and women are thinking about careers, or about what they are looking for in a partner, I think they are thinking implicity of the templates that say a good job for a woman is one that is flexible, and that you can stop and start while a good job for a man is one that can support a family, even if it demands sacrifices in terms of home life. Those are the kind of templates I think need to change.

Himalaya Mon 12-Sep-11 01:04:37

Thanks all for your thoughts.

This thread is strangely quiet though.

I don't get it, MN feminists- Is this a topic not worth talking about?

It seems quite fundamental to me.

I understand the reluctance to criticise individual women for their (constrained) choices. Which is why I started this thread in more general terms. Is it not possible to talk about this without falling info SAHM vs wohm wars?

nooka Mon 12-Sep-11 01:26:45

Certainly agree with you on the career choice thinking. My mother was very keen that we (her daughters) all chose options that we could drop easily for children and then do part time again few years later. I don't recall her advising my brother in such a way at all (I took my career advice from my father instead).

My dh does all the things traditionally associated with being a SAHM, he's even active on the PTA. I think our friends think it is a bit odd, but as our children are at school he doesn't get many 'saintly' comments, more easy life ones.

I'd like to see more options open for families, with more of an idea that people can and should do different things and have different roles throughout their lives dependent ideally on their choices.

Tyr Mon 12-Sep-11 01:36:56

I’m not a “MN feminist” but I agree with the content of your OP and I think it is a mistake to reduce the issue of gender roles in parenting to breadwinner/SAHM. It is much deeper than that- the prevailing fallacy is that the mother is the nurturer and the father the authority figure. Both genders can and do fill both roles. It is a fallacy perpetuated in every area of life, e.g. by the advertising industry- how often do you see ads for washing powder with male protagonists? That is just one trivial example that reinforces the prejudice.

fluffles Mon 12-Sep-11 14:16:26

agree with Tyr... it's more than just who works and who doesn't..

there is a fundamental difference in our society between 'being a mother' and 'being a father'..

personally i am ttc and i still don't know if i want to 'be a mother'.. but i do want to be a parent so i guess i've got no choice.

thing is, i think i'd make a better father.. i can be caring and kind but i'm also fun and playful, i like to teach kids things and explore the world with them.. but i'm not (yet) very good at cooking for people and providing, worrying and organising, wiping bums or faces and cuddling better grazes or nightmares.. i'm certainly no good at 'keeping home'.

i'm hoping this all comes with pregnancy and birth hormones and having my own children... i want to be a good mother.. but i'm a little bit scared i won't.. however, i am confident that between us my DH and i can be good parents as he will fill in the gaps in my mothering (thankfully).

StewieGriffinsMom Mon 12-Sep-11 14:37:34

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

StewieGriffinsMom Mon 12-Sep-11 14:38:27

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Himalaya Mon 12-Sep-11 18:35:47

Not meant to be a dig at all SGM. Just wondering why the discussion was quite so quiet, and the thread kept slipping down into oblivion was all.

It is a thread about motherhood and feminism and so I was wondering why there didn't seem to be much interest in the question of whether parenthood can be more equal.

vezzie Tue 13-Sep-11 09:54:14

Nobody works in a vacuum - we all need to plug into other people, who would be called "colleagues" or "external partners" in our WOHM roles, and it is really difficult sometimes working against what they expect of you.

After mat leave with dd1, I went to back to work 4 days a week and DP moved to 3, so I was looking for a CM for the other 2 days a week. DP would be doing at least half of the pick-ups, drop offs, and would spend more time at home with dd, but it didn't occur to the CMs that I was interviewing that he was a real co-parent. (One wanted to know how they would talk to me on the days that DP collected dd, if anything had "come up", for instance. No one asked how they could talk to him the days I collected her!) In the end, unfortunately, the CM I chose can't look at, or talk to DP at all as it seems to be forbidden her by her religion (I didn't realise this in advance as the 3 times I met her before making the decision there were no men around except her husband. So I just saw her as a very open, friendly, communicative person - which she can only be with women.)

My mother thinks DP is "very good" to do anything at all with the girls. I earn more than him, dammit, does she want me to do everything? She drives him nuts by following him into the kitchen in his own house to ask if he can find everything he needs.

Now, here is the hypocrisy. To tell the truth I am not always nuts about having fathers at mothery-gatherings of various sorts. This is unfair and I never say anything about it irl, and I would hope DP would be welcome places with dd, so I have misgivings about my misgivings. But I relied on my mother-friends when I was a mess soon after the births of my children, and I wanted to talk about gross things, and so did they, and we mainlined coffee and cake and really looked after each other. I actually think that there were days I would have felt too low to go out if I had known I had to present myself to a physically whole, non-bleeding man who would keep his shirt on throughout and not feel the need to bare (ravaged) bosoms at any time.

Also at the play group dd1 went to when I was heavily pregnant with dd2 (with SPD), there were about 2 chairs adults could sit in and I kept dragging one over to where dd1 was playing and then I would have to get up to do something for her and then I'd turn around to find a man sitting in it. Every bloody time. GRRRRRRRRR. I never saw a woman take a chair from a pregnant woman. OK this is turning into a rant now. THE END

backtothedrawingboard Tue 13-Sep-11 12:30:55

vezzie - I understand the dilemma of wanting equality and then feeling personally uncomfortable in some situations. I guess we are a product of our own socialisation and those deep held beliefs prevent us from accepting that a man could give the same emotional/social support as a woman (and so the gender roles that are culturally defined become self-perpetuating).

Are we guilty of (consciously or unconsciously) rebutting the man's attempts to be emotionally supportive or is it that we never demand them to be?

In your example, for men to be successful at giving non-judgemental, post-pregnancy support the man must first have the desire to be emotionally/socially supportive and the woman must be willing to accept emotional/social support from them. I think those kind of men are few and far between but I wonder how many women would really want to go to a man for that kind of support?

Firsttimer7259 Tue 13-Sep-11 14:11:15

Apart from the labour market (which meant we needed to keep H's job as I am self employed so my work while equal in pay is more risky) and the biology. I ahd a difficult pregnancy and breast fed. The stuff that really gets to me is the expectations and while I was raised by a fem/ist I still find myself cringing when I dont do what I feel I am supposed to because I think DH needs to do it.

So...its the buying gifts. I dont buy gifts for 'his' friends new babies. But I do end up hassling him to do it cos I feel they will think badly of me if 'we' dont. Is this stupid of me or just that there are different expectations on women?
Or arranging the small stuff with nanny/cm. Its like you have to physically force them to speak to each other and not use me like some ancient telephone exchange.
Ditto the small talk you have to make with sitters, somehow he glides past all this without feeling the expectation to make nice. Which I feel. Is it just cos I am me or is it because I am a woman and these things are expected of women??
Makes me grr when I note that somehow I am the only one who feels it when I think our flat isnt up to scratch on cleanliness and I see someone clock the dust on the ledge. We share the housework so why is it only me who feels this shame when its not done properly???

sunshineandbooks Tue 13-Sep-11 15:24:00

I think it's a mistake to think that the traditional mother/father roles are a genuine choice. One 'choice' is weighted much more heavily than the other.

If you're a working woman you are faced with this dilemma even before you have a child. Many employers still view you with suspicion, which means that a couple, both aged say 28, with equal qualifications and abilities, working in a similar field, will probably still find that the man has slightly more job stability and a slightly higher salary. At the lower-skilled end of the market many employers circumvent this by having short-term renewable contracts with 7 days off between the end of one and the start of another so that people don't qualify for maternity rights beyond the statutory.

This all contributes to a culture where even before children are conceived the underlying expectation is that the mother will be the one stopping/reducing work.

And we can't neglect biology. Once a woman is pregnant she'll need time off for midwife visits, ante-natal classes, etc. Men do not have the right to time off for these. Many women also need additional time off for complications during pregnancy. Men do not have this right to time off.

After the birth women are tied to their babies in a way that just doesn't apply to men because of the need to physically recover and breastfeeding. As anyone who has tried it knows, expressing BM so you can go back to full-time work is demanding, exhausting and very time-consuming, and not always possible. Some women cannot/choose not to BF and that's fine, but for those who want to, how can we justify making it harder for them or forcing them to give it up entirely purely for the pursuit of money? Because that's what it boils down to for most women I feel.

Apart from all but the most ambitious people (and I think this would apply to less than 10% of the total population, both men and women) most people do not want to go straight back to work after having a baby. That doesn't mean they want to be a SAHM. It means that they just want a reasonable amount of time to enjoy their baby, establish feeding patterns, adjust to parenthood, find a system that works for them, and then return to work without having completely sabotaged their careers. This was why maternity leave was established. There is no male equivalent apart from unpaid time off which for most families means it may as well be non-existent.

Given that 82% of people are parents, I can't believe that as a nation we haven't come up with a fairer solution to this. We have come so far by introducing maternity rights, which are great. But unless they are extended to men we are always going to find the vast majority of SAHPs being mothers because the care-giving role as enshrined in law is set even before the baby is born. And even if paternity rights were identical to maternity rights, I think you'd still find more women being primary carers because of the biology of breast-feeding etc. This is not biological determinism but simply a recognition that a woman has a lot more physically invested in her child than a man. This is no reason why a dad can't become the primary carer and I think we'd see a lot more of this with better paternity rights and a higher status awarded to the role of SAHD, but denying the effect pregnancy/childbirth/lactation has on a woman and how that has a direct effect on longer-term mother/father roles seems to me to be very dismissive about women and what they do.

With the law and biology pushing men and women in definite directions, it really isn't a true choice for many. In the austerity age even those who can see the long-term advantages to role reversals may not be able to afford to do so and have to revert to traditional roles. Their choices may not be matched by their opportunities.

I wonder if it might be better to recognise that motherhood is an important, equally valuable function in a capitalist society just as much as the parent who works out of the home.

juuule Tue 13-Sep-11 15:32:37

"Once a woman is pregnant she'll need time off for midwife visits, ante-natal classes, etc."

I never took time off for these things.

juuule Tue 13-Sep-11 15:36:08

Although I do agree with most of the rest of Sunshine's post.

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