Mummies and Daddies
Many couples are quite unprepared for the impact parenthood will make on their lives, both as individuals and as a partnership. Airline pilots spend hours in a simulator in order to perform a task which is infinitely less complex than caring for children. The new mother and father are dropped in at the deep end without anyone enquiring if they even know how to swim.
It is not only the experience of parenthood which is a closed book before birth; the sheer quantity of life that it takes up is also a shock. As part of my work on the Open University’s The First Years of Life, I asked Jackie and Michael how they thought their lives would be affected if they were to have a baby. Firstly I got them to list the various roles they played in their lives, and then to draw a pie chart showing how they all fitted together. The more important the role, the greater the slice of the pie it should have. It isn’t simply a case of how much time is spent on a particular role, but rather how crucial a part it plays in your hopes, desires and priorities.
Jackie and Michael have been living together for a couple of years. They are not married, but Jackie bracketed together her friend and lover roles as making up a wife. She sees her most important role as being worker. with wife coming next. Michael’s job—he is a public service worker—is not so important to him. Instead he sees his principal role as creating a home, and spends a lot of time decorating and renovating their new house. Michael and Jackie are not intending to have a baby in the next year or so, but they both want children at some time in their lives.
I then got them to draw a pie chart of how they thought their roles would look after the birth of a baby. Michael had a fairly reasonable expectation of the amount his life would be changed: parent is by far the largest slice in his new chart. But he has simply replaced house and home maker with parent as if the two were mutually exclusive. This allows him to keep his lover and partner roles almost as important as they were before. In practice, things probably won’t be as simple as this, but at least Michael has some idea of the size of the change. Jackie’s expectations of the impact of a baby on her life seem less realistic. Although she realizes that her social life will be cut down, she actually anticipates an increase in her role as a lover. Jackie’s expectation of the parent segment is so small that, if she were to have a baby now, she would probably experience severe distress because of her lack of preparation.
The new role, mother or father, must be slotted in somewhere, and this has two major repercussions for the new parents. Firstly it means that the individual has to reorganize his or her personal priorities in order to accommodate the new responsibilities. Secondly, the couple have to reorganize their relationship. Before the birth they interacted with each other on the basis of the expectations each had of the other’s roles and the rights and duties associated with those roles. When the roles themselves change in nature and importance the relationship itself has to be re-negotiated.
In this adjustment process the traditional father has distinct advantages over his more involved counterparts. He is more likely to belong to a close-knit network of friends and work mates who will not only provide help and comfort, but also exert quite a strong influence by guiding him towards appropriate role behaviour. In any case, the traditional father will have to make less of a change in his behaviour than the committed father. He will already be giving high priority to work, and will probably have a traditional set of attitudes towards the division of labour in the home. His partner is likely to share his views and rely on her network for support, rather than on him. The effect of the new baby will be to reinforce these network ties, and to underpin the values of traditional fatherhood.
Many traditional fathers now get very involved in pregnancy and birth—especially birth—and want to spend time with their partner and baby immediately after the birth. But as soon as the traditional father returns to work he is pulled towards a more ‘old-fashioned’ kind of fatherhood. He may, in fact, hardly be aware of the changes which are occurring. Traditional family patterns have great survival value and as long as both partners are happy with their separate parental roles they should be able to adjust to the new baby fairly easily. It will be hard work of course, but they won’t have to undergo radical changes of self-image, or need to work out the practical implications of a new set of ideals and values.
It’s not so simple for the active father. He has the same practical difficulties as the traditional father, but in addition he has to work out the details of his new involvement in child care. Most active fathers spend at least some part of the week in sole or principal charge of their children. Graeme Russell has documented the pressures which this can put on the marital relationship. He discovered that marital satisfaction was lower for couples who shared care than for those in traditional families. In particular the shared care couples were more likely to have considered ending their relationship, left the house recently after a quarrel, felt the relationship wasn’t going well, and felt that they got on each other’s nerves.
Graeme Russell’s sample included both men who wanted to share care, and those who found themselves forced into it because of economic circumstances. They were therefore not all ‘active fathers’ in the sense that I use the term. He did find slight indications that those who were keen to share were more satisfied with the marriage than those who had no choice, but this difference was not very significant. Even the active fathers found it much more of a strain than the fathers in traditional families.
Despite his difficulties, the active father does at least know what he is aiming for. His goals are high involvement in child care, and equality in the decision making and responsibilities of the home; and even if these are hard to achieve he can usually judge how well he is doing. The man I have characterised as the ‘committed father’ is not so clear about his role. He tries to compromise between home and work, and may well feel that it is wrong to define fatherhood or motherhood too closely. He knows that he is supposed to be more involved in child care than the traditional father, but doesn’t know how much involvement is required, or of what kind. To some, this new flexibility is a positive advantage. Parents writing about mothers’ and fathers’ roles came up with the following comments:
A free-wheeling creative approach to parental roles is attractive in theory and exciting in practice—as long as things go well. In times of crisis or self-doubt it can be harder to sustain. With clearly defined roles it is easier to see how closely you fit in with your own, and society’s, expectations. If there are no clear guidelines you’ve got to make up your own. There are times when this is relatively easy, and by far the most palatable option. But at times of rapid change or great stress the lack of clear boundaries and directions can easily add to your problems, and give you just one more thing to think and worry about.
In the last chapter I looked at the pressures of work for the committed father. But he has a further problem: not only is he to be more involved in the home, he also has to share. ‘Sharing’ is the committed father’s version of equality in the home. It differs from genuine equality in several ways, and is a very slippery concept. To illustrate it more clearly, and to show some of the problems the committed father may run into I present a scenario which shows ‘sharing’ in action. In fact this kind of scene needn’t involve children, and some couples may have played this game before becoming parents.
This scene never actually occurred. Not in that exact form, anyway. But variations on the theme have been performed in countless venues throughout the Western world. Many of the men and women I have shared it with have recognised themselves in it. They know the ending even before I tell it.
It shows the way the committed father makes problems as well as encountering them. Elizabeth’s point about initiative and decision making was straight to the point. Many men fail to accept responsibility in the home, even when they are prepared to help with the housework or child care. How, one might ask, could a man be married for nine years and still not be able to operate a washing machine? But, believe me, it can happen. However, instead of looking at the problems the committed father makes for himself (and for his partner of course), I want to concentrate on the problems that he has.
It is a question of power. For many years women have wielded power in the home. Even if the overt authority belonged to the male ‘head of the household’, in the majority of cases it was the women who made the important practical domestic decisions. You have only to consider the stereotype of the Jewish or Italian mother or the supposedly matriarchal nature of American family life to see how pervasive the power of the mother in the home can be. As a result, women have tended to identify the domestic sphere as their particular area of competence just as men have tended to identify themselves with their work. A ‘good’ woman and ‘proper’ mother is one who performs the household and child care tasks effectively and efficiently. Since many of these tasks are boring and unpleasant, it is not surprising that women should want help from their menfolk. But help is all they need. Many women want to keep control over the house for themselves.
So the committed father who feels that he ought to be involved around the house is often denied any real opportunity to participate, except on his partner’s terms. Further, many men lack knowledge of basic housework skills because of their upbringing by women, their mothers. Stuart came across this ambivalence when he was out with his eighteen-month-old daughter:
The distribution of power in a household used to be more clearly defined than it is now. Today it often has to be negotiated in encounters like the one between Joseph and Elizabeth. If they are to resolve their problem then both will have to change. He must learn to take responsibility and acquire the appropriate skills, and she must be prepared to give up power and share her knowledge with him. It is Elizabeth who holds the upper hand in this situation. She has control of the housework and if she will not relinquish some of it their tensions will continue, or else Joseph will have to revert to a more traditional role.
Scenarios like this have been analysed before, from a woman’s point of view, and not surprisingly rather different conclusions have been drawn. For instance, Pat Mainardi presents and interprets several male responses to housework, drawn from her own experiences with her husband:
And so on... She is right of course; many (most? all?) men use the fact of women’s domestic power and greater expertise to try to opt out of housework. But this does not diminish the fact that many (most? all?) women gain satisfaction from the exercise of this power and find it a tempting weapon to use in domestic politics.
The figures I obtained from the questionnaires I referred to in chapter one give some indication of the complexity of the relationship between housework and parenting. Most women give it a low priority and hence a low status. Nevertheless, almost a third of those asked thought that it was more important to motherhood than fatherhood (and they were not necessarily the ones who scored it high). The committed father thinks that, in theory at least, doing housework is an important part of being a father; so he feels he ought to be involved in it—even though he doesn’t really want to do it. His partner feels that his level of involvement ought to be lower than hers, while at the same time she wants to keep her own involvement as low as possible, which means that he must do more to help, and so on. Confused? Join the club! This conflict of priorities is both an expression and a consequence of the present parental role uncertainty, and makes it even harder to come to a reasonable compromise.
Having disagreements about housework is an example of Mummies and Daddies. Children play this game as a way of preparing themselves for adulthood. Grown-ups play it too, as a way of defining their roles as parents. At its best, it can be a creative way of redistributing power and responsibility in the home. At its worst, when played for keeps, it can lead to distress and divorce. Mummies and Daddies isn’t just about housework; it can be played in other ways too:
Discipline is always a problem for parents. The concept itself is a slippery one. When I have spoken to parents about discipline, it is clear that some make a big distinction between discipline and obedience to authority, while others see the two as almost synonymous. In the traditional family structure the mother would be responsible for day-to-day disciplinary measures, while the father would remain the ultimate source of authority. Today most mothers regard the chilling phrase, “Wait till your father gets home” as an admission of failure. They feel they should be competent to deal with all the traumas of the day by themselves, rather than having to rely on the heavy hand of the paterfamilias when he eventually gets home. There is also a widespread belief that if punishment has to be handed out, it should be given as soon as possible after an offence. This, too, has led to the lessening of the use of the absent father as a threat.
Men have welcomed the change. It may be part of the ‘flight from responsibility’ which Barbara Ehrenreich has charted, but many are happy to relinquish the role of ogre. One of the problems experienced by the more active father is that he has to get more involved in the dirty work of discipline. As one Australian father said to Graeme Russell:
The active father may not like it, but he has no choice. Other fathers are making a conscious effort to avoid situations where they might end up being feared rather than loved. The committed father, in particular, finds it very difficult to set the level of his authority and control over his children. Although he recognizes the practical necessity, he often has a set of ideals which tell him that they ought to be dispensed with. The dilemma can easily freeze him into inaction or irrational over-reaction.
Many men now seem to put great stress on the concept of being ‘friends’ with their children. This, too, may be an aspect of their new desire to create a good relationship with the children. Charlie Lewis found that the men in his survey were less likely to think of their children as ‘naughty’ than their wives were. They were also more likely to want to pick them up if they cried. The Victorian stereotype has been reversed: once it was the father who was the stern parent, now he is soft and indulgent.
As women become more assertive and confident of their own authority, and men become less so, discipline becomes one of the key areas for domestic encounter. One of the most common complaints I hear from women today is that their husbands are ‘opting out of discipline’. They may be right, but this is largely because an increasing number of men now feel that they are in a no-win game and the only way to survive is to stop playing. The committed father runs into trouble in the home because he intrudes on the female domain which his partner has carved out for herself. He can run into similar difficulties outside the home.
It is not until they become fathers that most men experience sexism directly; that is, prejudice against them simply on grounds of their sex. But once a man embarks on fatherhood for the first time he will be lucky to escape it. Firstly, there is institutional prejudice: in the antenatal clinic where he may be ignored, in the antenatal class where he may be matronised, in the labour room where he may be treated as an irrelevance, and in the postnatal ward where he may be treated as an inconvenience. Many men have been shocked and surprised to be on the receiving end of such treatment. Yet the majority accept it as normal and don’t question it unless they are given a specific opportunity.
Let me give an example. A constant problem for parents is what to do if your baby needs to be fed or changed while you are out shopping. Good changing facilities are rare, but in 1985 a scheme was launched in Britain which tries to improve things. Selected establishments now display a Baby Care Symbol. It started life as an idea for a breastfeeding symbol which would indicate places where a mother could breastfeed her baby, but the scheme was eventually broadened to include changing rooms “for mothers and their children which provide cleanliness, warmth, seating, privacy and washing facilities with paper towels and a waste bin”. The symbol is sponsored both by health professionals and by consumer groups such as the National Childbirth Trust and La Leche League, and its launch was supported by the Mothercare chain of maternity stores.
Unfortunately, the exclusiveness of the phrase mothers and their children is not just a slip of the pen—as Jim discovered. When his son, Andy, was eight months old Jim and Amy decided to swap roles. One day, when Jim was out shopping, Andy needed a clean nappy. While Jim was in Mothercare he noticed one of the new Baby Care Symbols. The shop was empty and no-one was using the changing facilities. This was clearly the solution to his problem. He walked towards the changing room, only to be stopped by the assistant who told him that he couldn’t go in, because the facilities were only for women. Jim asked why, but could get no other answer. She just continued to repeat that the facilities were only for women. In the end Jim walked half a mile back to his car, changed Andy, and then walked half a mile back into the city centre to continue his shopping. Jim told me, “I was very annoyed. If it had been a male assistant I think I would have lost my cool, but as it was I just walked out the shop. I think it’s disgusting”.
This isn’t the only example of discrimination Jim has faced. He wanted to do some weight training at a nearby leisure centre to keep himself in trim. So he tried to arrange it at the same time as the ladies’ yoga class for which the centre laid on a crèche. But he was told that the because the crèche was for women with children he would not be able to leave Andy there! Jim’s experience is not unique. Every man I know who looks after his children has told me similar stories.
Sometimes the prejudice is personal rather than institutional. Here the rejection is more subtle, but no less hurtful. I remember taking my daughter, Rebecca, to the play centre in the local park (with its big sign which said, For Mothers and Children Under Five Only) and feeling totally out of place as the only man present. None of the women spoke to me, nor did there seem to be an opening for me to speak to them. It was a very alienating experience—one I did not repeat. I am actually not very good with strangers, but I have since spoken to so many men who had similar experiences that I am sure that in this instance it wasn’t just my shyness, but a real structural problem.
The active father who has sole care of his children during the day cannot adopt the soft option of staying out of women’s territory. If he doesn’t use the facilities, his children will suffer. So he perseveres, and eventually women will speak freely to him. But before complete acceptance comes (if it ever does) he usually has to put up with a great deal of matronising behaviour from at least some of those present. It is done under the guise of friendliness, and often is genuinely kind in intention, but the message is cruel: ‘You’re only a man so you couldn’t possibly know how to do that properly. Let me do it for you’. And even when acceptance comes there are still residual doubts.
All the women are nice to me when I go, and they always make a big fuss of me and “It’s nice to see the dads doing the work for a change” and that kind of comment, but I must admit I do feel a bit out of place, standing in a room with thirty women. It’s almost as if you’re on exhibition, and everybody’s watching you to see if you’ve changed the nappy properly, and this kind of thing. (Ian)
Fathers experience institutional sexism and personal sexism, both inside and outside the home. The reasons are many; one of the most important is that many women feel threatened by the man who has a real commitment to fathering. Such women define their personhood in terms of their mothering and housekeeping, just as many men define themselves in terms of work. They see this as the one area in which they are successful and indeed superior to men. A man who intrudes onto this territory sets off some pretty deep-rooted defence mechanisms. She will try to exclude him, or undermine his confidence, or put him down, or play no-win games with him.
There are those who believe that only men practice sexism, and that only women are oppressed because of their gender. Some radical feminists hold this as a developed theoretical position, but many women simply accept it without argument. The involved father knows, from personal experience, that it is not true. The question is, what should he do about it?
There is a temptation to retaliate, to match oppression with anger. It is possible to make a few cheap debating points by pointing out examples of women’s sexism (I know, I have done it), but it is not a good thing to do. The way forward does indeed involve exposing prejudice and oppression whenever it appears, but with understanding and constructive concern. A certain degree of assertiveness and campaigning may be needed to break down the kind of structural sexism found in public institutions, but the only thing that will work in the home is honest analysis and loving acceptance of the complexity of relationships. Only in such a setting can the games parents play lead them forward to a greater understanding of each other.
Committed fathers face opposition from women both in the home and outside it. Many are unable to cope. They distance themselves from their homes and from their children, in order to reduce the opportunities for conflict. But by doing so they also retreat from their earlier high ideals and drift back towards traditional fatherhood. As they are pushed out of home and child care, so they are pulled into the world of work and career prospects. They still believe in the ideals of commitment, involvement, and power sharing, but the practicalities are just too difficult. It is easier to sink back into the patterns learned in childhood and abdicate responsibility for child care, leaving the few active fathers to carry the torch for genuine male participation in child care. [Next]
 This is a course produced by the Community Education Department of the Open University. It is designed to help parents adjust to life with a new baby or toddler. It is due to be published by the Open University Press in January 1977.
 Of the 54 women I asked, 17 (31%) thought housework more important to motherhood than fatherhood, 28 (52%) thought it equally important to each, and 9 (17%) thought it more important to fatherhood. I only managed to ask eight men this question; five thought housework equally important for mothers and fathers, while the other three thought it more important to motherhood.