Fathers, Mothers, and Trends in Parenting
Precisely because of the progress toward legal equality that women have made, we are now at a point where we can begin for the first time to examine gender differentiation and the significance of parental influences more dispassionately and with a keener sense of the implications of such study for gender equality. Ignoring gender does not make it go away. It will not disappear because we stop
investigating it. To the contrary, the considerations discussed in the last section suggest that we must take the opposite tack and examine gender in order to effectively create more equal relationships between women and men.
Almost all feminists, with the exception of some radical feminists, have advocated that fathers share child care equally with mothers. Equal parenting viewed as a "solution" to the problem of child care has great appeal especially for middle-class women accustomed to the isolated nuclear family, because it preserves the husband-wife relationship and the integrity and isolation of the nuclear unit. As I have suggested throughout this book, however, there may be problems with equal parenting because of gender differences and because "husbands" and "wives" are not equal. Equal parenting may be more of a Utopian vision that attempts to preserve the integrity of the nuclear unit than a realistic aim. Moreover, the focus on male parenting deflects attention away from alternative forms of child care and societal responsibility for child care.
While equal parenting may be Utopian, I applaud the idea of finding ways to include men more constructively in parenting. One important reason for including fathers as child-carers is that if males are nurturant, the male child would find it easier to identity with being male and would not have to deny femaleness so compulsively. Beyond this, if fathers or other male caretakers included nurturance in their views of appropriate male behavior, boys and men might be able to nurture themselves more adequately.
As things stand now, men depend too much on women for nurturance and then, fearing that the nurturance they receive is infantilizing, they may deny their dependence by shows of power. As we saw in Chapter 7 men who cannot nurture others or themselves may also tend to resent the nurturance they see their wives give their children. This resentment and hostility may show up in their relationship with their children in the form of direct violence or in the form of hostile withdrawal. Violent or hostile fathers cannot counteract the fear of males in children and deter their sons' ability to identify comfortably as "male."
Beyond urging less distancing and more warmth, there are few clearly agreed upon guidelines for fathering. Supporters of equal parenting suggest that if fathers were more involved in their chil-
dren's day-to-day care, it would decrease the possibility of their becoming sexually involved with them. On a very general cognitive level it is likely true that the more one is committed to being a parent and the more one defines oneself as a parent responsible for a child's well-being, the less likely one would be to sexually abuse one's child. A conscientious father who finds himself sexually aroused by his child would try to put himself into another gear by reminding himself that he is a parent, not a lover. Incest's greater frequency among stepfathers than among natural fathers is compatible with the argument that the more one feels oneself to be a parent, the more one is committed to the parental role and the less likely one is to sexually abuse. Stepfathers can tell themselves that they are not the child's "real" father and thus are not required to behave in a parental way.
Increasingly there are fathers who are able to be genuinely loving—neither sexually threatening nor rejecting toward their children. We need to know more about how this balance is achieved and what other attitudes on the part of the fathers themselves and what structural arrangements might contribute to this good outcome. The question of structural arrangements is complex. For example, less isolation of the family and less emotional intensity within the family might decrease the likelihood of incest (see my discussion in Chapter 7). Family breakup and the increasing presence of stepfathers may increase the likelihood of incest. Either possibility makes the empowering of mothers as people especially important.
Certainly one basic deterrent to incest would be greater equality in the husband-wife relationship. As I noted in Chapter 7, an important aspect of ending father-child incest is to strengthen mothers to support the child when they need protection from the father. All too often, mothers now give their primary allegiance to incestuous fathers rather than to their children because of their own and their children's financial and social dependence on him.
In my view, the issue should be less that of attempting to get fathers to participate equally in child care than of helping fathers learn to bring out their own maternal, human, empathetic feelings toward their children. In so doing they can come to represent a new definition of "manhood," not the definition purveyed by their male peers but a definition that rests on a maternal base. Ideologi-
cally, we have been slowly moving toward a definition of fathers as mothers for several generations, perhaps even longer, and the current generation of fathers seems to embody this definition to a greater extent than any previous one. Sons are amazing their own fathers with their new attitudes. The factors encouraging these new attitudes I believe are increasing individualism for women and matrifocality.
In Chapter 9, I suggested that de facto matrifocality in the professional segment of the middle class may have had some important effects on the psyches of the children in these families. Even though they were criticized for it, many mothers in the 1950s were not totally appendages of men, and emphasized mothering instead. They were well-educated, ambitious and likely to be their upwardly mobile husbands' superiors or equals in class background. They encouraged achievement in both girls and boys, even though they themselves were not able to directly model it. I argued that these mothers may have had a distinct influence on the role crossovers that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s, which culminated in the antiwar movement and feminism.
Now mothers themselves have joined the labor force, and in the middle class we are moving toward a more genuine matrifocality in which women have gained more public respect as people outside of the family. Beyond this, women's maternal attitudes are coming even more to prevail over paternal authoritarianism within the family. That is, fathers are increasingly moving toward a more maternal stance. This should discourage strong gender-typing in children and lead to more egalitarian marriages.
When wives were not employed outside the home, fathers were the only representatives of the outside world that middle-class boys and girls had. Many adult women's attachment to their fathers rests on their fathers having served as a model for them. As more and more mothers work outside the home, women may more directly become models for their daughters and they will be perceived more as mothers and individuals than as wives. Moreover, mothers will be able to act more freely as a caring parent and less as persons constrained by being father's wife.
In a sense the fragility of marriage is changing the context of child-rearing, and middle-class mothers are no longer quite as in-
volved with their children as they used to be. In the 1950s, a frequent media theme was that fathers were absolutely essential to save children from the clutches of their mothers. But as women become less totally psychologically invested in their children, the felt "need" for fathers to "rescue" children should also decline. Although male models are needed, households without "fathers" are not necessarily pathological. Although single mothers are often poor and operate under extreme financial and time pressures, single mothering can be a positive experience for women to the extent that not being a "wife" allows them to act on their own—as an adult. Women without husbands learn to trust their own judgment in a way they may not have when they were wives. They must be themselves. Having a mother who is not a wife is bound to affect children's view of what women are like—they are real people who are also mothers, not wives.
Much of the psychoanalytic account of gender development rests on the assumption of a nuclear family, isolated from other relationships and offering a very distinctive and separate kind of emotional closeness. As individuals become integrated in a wider set of relationships outside of the nuclear unit, the power of this account to define the proper relations between women and men will decrease. Moreover, the psychoanalytic account, both the gynecentric and phallocentric versions, will simply have less relevance because the isolation of women and of the nuclear unit will have decreased. In short, there will be less compulsion to overcome women's psychological power as mothers and to solve it by making mothers into wives.
Supports for Parents.
As things stand now women are not paid equally to men and this is rationalized by the belief that women do not need equal pay because they are dependent wives. We are still rewarding male providers but not female providers. Employers justify paying men more than women on the grounds that they have a family to support, but when a woman is in fact supporting a family, she is not paid more; indeed, she may be considered a less good worker. The deeper truth is that our society rewards men who financially support families but not women who financially support families. Over half the families living below the poverty level are headed by women only.
The labor force participation rate of women with children is now over 60 percent. This represents an increase of more than 50 percent since 1970. Working mothers with and without husbands need day care. Indeed, mothers, working outside the home or not, and their children need day care. Husbands and lovers as childcarers are no overall solution, any more than women being at home alone caring for children full-time is a solution. Out-of-home child care is not something one turns to when mothers "fail"; such care is at least potentially good for not only mothers and fathers but also, and especially, for children.
Sheila Kamerman calls child care an issue for gender equity and for women's solidarity. I agree, good child care arrangements beyond "the couple" are long overdue. The United States is woefully behind other industrialized nations, capitalist and socialist, in the provision of out of home care. In the future, although the actual time a mother spends with her children may be lessened, the control women exercise over child care may be strengthened. This would include working toward equal economic opportunity and wage equity, control of fertility, various child care options, and custody rights in divorce. This would be a kind of matrifocality that is compatible with individualism.
Sylvia Hewlett has written an impassioned plea for recognizing the handicaps under which mothers are placed as they attempt to survive in a competitive economy. Hewlett tends to blame feminism for this. I disagree and have provided a different and more complex picture of feminism—one that shows its "maternal" facet. One must not let her critique of feminism, however, prevent us from taking her description of the desperate need to end the handicaps of working mothers very seriously.