Can a primary caring responsibility for children be equally shared?

By Tina Miller

The question in the title is currently occupying me as I near completion of a new book manuscript. This question returns me to well-trodden and contested ground, but it is where I have found myself after more than 20 years of qualitative longitudinal research focused on how we organize caring in family lives. Taking apart and exploring the micro-processes of transitions, intentions and practices, identity work and caring have led me all the way back here.

Just like many researchers, it was my own biographical experiences of motherhood (it’s not like they said it would be in the books), which got me starMiller_blog photo_4.21.16ted on my first major qualitative research project, following a group of women through a year in their life as they too became mothers (here). ‘Is this what motherhood is all about?’ asked one new and tired looking mother as my tape recorder whirred in the background, capturing hers and later other women’s accounts as they tried to make sense of first-time motherhood (here).

Now, many years of research later, including researching men’s experiences of transition to fatherhood, parenting experiences as babies grow, start school and become teenagers, it is these unfolding accounts of parenting in heterosexual, couple-households, which are the focus of my new book. What becomes clear is that no amount of preparation can prepare you for the fact a small baby occupies every space (emotionally and almost physically too, with all the ‘necessary’ paraphernalia a ‘good’ mother must have) and that a sense of a ‘24/7 thinking responsibility’ descends as a baby is born. And someone has to take on that responsibility.

Regardless of intentions to change gendered practices of caring by mothers and fathers and to share caring in equal ways, mothers typically very quickly become the parent who is most practiced at caring and doing the ‘mental labor’ (Walzer, 1996), first of the baby, then toddler, then young child and so on. Exhaustion for everyone in the early weeks and months of becoming a parent make it a difficult time at which to challenge and try to disrupt gendered arrangements in the work place and so corresponding possibilities in the home.

Becoming practiced leads to perceived ‘maternal’ expertise and fathers can ‘get it wrong’ if they are left ‘in charge’: everyone falls back into traditionally gendered positions. What emerges are practices of parental caring which indicate father’s increased emotional engagement and possibilities of change as well as maternal and paternal ‘gate-keeping’ of particular practices. Patriarchal habits and dividends and motherhood wage penalties continue to underscore the terrain. But it is the daily, micro-processes of caring, documented over many years which shows the ways in which gendered practices become accepted, reinforced and quite quickly ‘invisible’ and where inequalities and gatekeeping co-exist.

Even though it must be possible (mustn’t it?) for a 24/7 thinking and caring responsibility to be shared equally, why is this equation so hard to balance in relation to parental caring? Rather than focus on the division of tasks, their type and hours spent on them in trying to promote more gender equitable choices in home and work spheres, at the heart of these matters sits the assumed singularity of a primary responsibility. For all the sharing, it is this singularity – so obdurately stuck to motherhood – which demands our critical attention if meaningful change is to be finally achieved.

Tina Miller is a Professor of Sociology. Her research and teaching interests include motherhood and fatherhood transitions, constructions of gender and identities, masculinities, reproductive health, narratives, qualitative research methods and ethics and she has published in these areas. Tina has recently completed a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship focusing on the topic of ‘Managing modern family lives: public understandings and everyday practises of caring and paid work’. Her CUP monongraph based on her findings will be published late 2016. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society. 

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