The Mothers Movement on Fathers

By Christine Cupaiuolo — June 5, 2007

The latest issue of The Mothers Movement Online asks the question, “Do men mother?”

In notes from the editor, Judith Stadtman Tucker writes:

While robust social research confirms that fathers can be excellent and affectionate caregivers, caregiving men still bear the burden of having their performance compared to the specter of the ideal mother, whose mythic capacity for domestic omnipotence and self-denial is tied to gender in complicated ways. Real world mothers bear the brunt of this as well, of course — among our favorite complaints, pressures to conform to unrealistic standards of maternal perfection top the list — but at least we don’t have the cultural construct of masculinity to contend with.

In this excellent essay, Jeremy Adam Smith, who blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic (a really neat site) and who has a new book coming out titled “Twenty-First-Century Dad,” begins by describing his experience at the local playground in 2005 with his infant son. Attempts to form a manly play group with other dads failed as not enough kids showed up each week for it to be considered a real playgroup.

“And so I plucked up my courage and I set about finding mothers who could join us,” writes Smith, continuing:

Dads were scarce on the playground, but in truth I wasn’t alone. Generation X dads spend twice as much time with children than did their Baby Boomer fathers. The result is a huge generation gap (though, ironically, it was previous generations of fathers who pioneered more developmental and caregiving roles). When Kerry Daly of the University of Guelph interviewed thirty-two young Canadian fathers in the early 1990s, he found that many dads rejected their own fathers as role models. “In light of the perception that parenthood had changed so dramatically from the previous generation,” Daly finds “a tendency to search for specific instances of good fathering behavior among one’s peers.”

At the same time, however, “the men in this study viewed their mothers and wives as providing some of the more practical and tangible guidance for how to provide care for children.” One father tells Daly: “I think my mom for the most part did a better job of getting me ready to be a father. When the child came home, there was more input from my mother in helping me out on how to handle things; where my father was pleased for me, you know, ‘it’s your child,’ and that’s what I got from my dad.”

Daly’s findings are not isolated. In 2006, Trent W. Maurer and Joseph H. Pleck studied the connections between parenting identity, the feedback parents receive from others about their identity and behavior, and behavior by interviewing 47 fathers, whose average age was 38, and 56 mothers, average age 36. “The more involved fathers perceive other fathers to be,” they conclude, “the more they attempt to model the level of that involvement (and the more models they have).” Maurer and Pleck suggest that such peer influence is one of the most decisive variable influencing fathers’ caregiving behavior — perhaps just as important as their wives’ expectations.

Are men who take care of children mothering, or are they merely pushing the frontier of fatherhood into new territory?

It’s not an idle question, for it goes right to the heart of the relationship between gendered identity and gendered behavior. Those who seek to expand the definition of “fathering” to include caregiving tend to emphasize male distinctiveness, like supposedly male qualities of rough physical play, risk-taking, and careless housecleaning. Another group tries to extend the definition of “mothering” to include men, which severs the mothering role from biology and sets up “mother” as a role into which either a man or a woman can step.

Go read the rest. And, stealing from the editor’s notes, here’s a look at some of the other essays featured in this issue:

In the Commentary section, Erica Etelson spells out how Democrats can reclaim the family values agenda by supporting progressive work-life policy, and Jean Kazez explains why Linda Hirshman is wrong about relieving the tax burden on secondary earner wives.

In Books, Carolyn McConnell reviews Ann Fessler’s “The Girls Who Went Away,” which is based on the author’s interviews with women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade. Deborah Siegel reviews Pamela Stone’s “Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Their Careers and Head Home,” which relays the findings of Stone’s in-depth study of 54 high-achieving mothers who left the paid workforce.

Tucker adds that “‘Opting Out?’ is by far the most important book on women, work and family to be published this year, and is an absolute must-read for activists and advocates.”

How’s that for a recommendation?

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