Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog

Men and mothering

An interview with sociologist Andrea Doucet,
author of "Do Men Mother?"

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

print |

In her provocative and complicated book "Maternal Thinking" (1989), philosopher Sara Ruddick famously agued that "mothering" ought to be viewed as a generic human activity rather than a sex-specific role. Unlike "motherhood" -- which I prefer to think of as a relationship, not a job -- Ruddick observed that "mothering" can be classified as an intentional practice with three clearly defined goals: the preservation of life, fostering growth and development, and training children for social inclusion through the transmission of cultural values and norms. Since the awareness and skills necessary to succeed in this enterprise are learned through the hands-on process of child care, Ruddick reasoned, it's a mistake to assume that biologically-inscribed sex differences prohibit men from developing the same sensitivities and modes of response shared by competent mothers. Men can and should mother, she proposed, in the interest of gender equity and because the possibility of creating a more humane world depends on it.

With more fathers taking on the role of primary caregiver in their households, Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet became curious about Ruddick's theory about the gender-neutrality of "mothering" as an experience and practice. "In researching men's contributions to domestic life," Doucet writes in her 2006 book, Do Men Mother?, "I consistently noted that one puzzle has remained unsolved: why, in spite of men's growing participation in domestic tasks and their slowly increasing contributions to the time spent in childcare and housework, does the connection between women and domestic responsibility persist?"

In an effort to answer this question and learn more about men's personal and social experiences as caregivers, Doucet interviewed over 100 fathers and 14 couples in which fathers had primary caregiving responsibilities. The MMO recently interviewed Doucet about the findings of her study.

MMO: In mainstream feminist thought, the conventional wisdom is that mothers and fathers are essentially interchangeable -- that is, biologically-based sex differences do not determine men's capacity to become proficient and sensitive caregivers, or women's ability to perform brilliantly in the public sphere. But in the course of your study, you found that socially inscribed gender norms continue to be an important factor in how mothers' and fathers' define and divide domestic roles and responsibilities. What were the main conceptual and practical strategies primary caregiver fathers used to make sense of child care and household work as a masculine practice?

Andrea Doucet: I should start by saying that masculinity is sometimes an aspect of men's care giving and sometimes it isn't. I argue in my book that what scholars have termed "hegemonic masculinity" carries a large shadow over the lives of men who put care giving at the center of their everyday lives. Traditionally, hegemonic masculinity has been defined as the most desired or stereotypical form of masculinity, usually aligned with traditional masculine qualities of autonomy, strength, economic success, and control. Perhaps most centrally, it has been defined as the opposite of "femininity." Just as young boys don't want to be called "sissies," men do not want to equate their care work as "women's work." And this comes to bear on how men define themselves, not only as fathers but as fathers in relation to a society that still largely assumes that care work is women's work.

So what seemed very clear to me from most fathers' accounts in my study was that they were quite adamant to distinguish themselves as men, as heterosexual, and as fathers -- not as mothers. In one focus group with fathers, for example, one stay-at-home father kept interjecting, half jokingly: "Well we're still men, aren't we?" In another interview, one father made several pointed references to how he often worked out at a gym and enjoyed "seeing the women in lycra."

These men's words resonate with what theorists of work have underlined about men working in non-traditional or female dominated occupations (such as nursing or elementary school teaching) and how they must actively work to expel the idea that they might be gay, un-masculine, or not men. This then leads to men finding ways of reinforcing their masculinity -- such as engaging in sports or physical labor so as to maintain masculine affiliations and to exhibit public displays of masculinity. What was also occurring was that the men in my study were attempting to carve out their own paternal and masculine identities within spaces traditionally considered maternal and feminine. These processes of masculine reconstruction, and distancing from the feminine, occurred in at least a couple of ways.

First, the overwhelming majority of fathers spoke about their efforts to impart a more "masculine quality" to their family care through promoting their children's physical and outdoor activities, independence, risk taking, and the fun and playful aspects of care. Second, given that domestic space, the home, is metaphorically configured as a maternal space with feminine connotations of comfort and care, many fathers more readily identified with the house, as something to build and rebuild. Thus many stay-at-home fathers spoke about work they were doing on the house, landscaping, carpentry, woodworking or repairing cars.

While having said all of the above about bringing masculinity into care work, it is also important to mention that for the highly involved fathers interviewed for my study, I also picked up on what I have referred to as a slow revisioning of masculinity. One notable way in which this occurs is that many fathers admitted that they had become a different kind of father as a result of being highly involved with their children. Fathers referred to how they had found the "soft father" within them and even at times "the mother in me." One father phrased it so beautifully when he spoke about how he had lost the traditional masculine qualities of autonomy and independence with his children and that he got "lost in the nurturing." I think that what my work ultimately reveals is that while primary caregiving fathers seek to distance themselves from what are considered traditionally feminine practices and identities, they are also, in practice, radically revisioning masculine care to include perspectives that are more aligned with women's social positioning and more feminine defined ways of being and seeing.

what about housework?

page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | print |

Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online