Parenting and mothering

Via RebelDad, I found Jeremy at Daddy Dialectic’s post about why he’s happy to claim the title of Mr. Mom:

"When I’m taking care of Liko, I don’t feel like I’m “fathering” him. In my mind – and this is just the thought I was raised with, not the one I want to have – a father goes to work and comes home in the evening. "Fathering" is playing ball, patting on the back, putting food on the table. An honorable role."

"A mother, meanwhile, is home changing diapers and cleaning baby food off the floor and kissing skinned knees. That’s also honorable and often honored. That’s what I do. So I feel like by staying home with him, I’m “mothering” Liko. I’m a mom, or at least, that’s my role. In many respects, a man out in the middle of the afternoon with his toddler, who is known to neighbors and neighborhood shop clerks and waitresses as a “Mr. Mom,” is a man in drag, and queer in the most political sense of the term. Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a Mr. Mom?"

I commented that I worry that this definition implies that working mothers aren’t real mothers, and there’s been some interesting back and forth on Jeremy’s blog. 

But maybe Jeremy’s right in some ways.  I write here a fair amount about what I call "reverse traditional families" — families with working mothers and at-home fathers.  One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners.  We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don’t do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do.  Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we’re good enough mothers, and decide that we’re damned good fathers.

I can’t remember if I posted here about the "daddies and donuts" event at D’s preschool last month.  This was a chance to have a snack and do a craft with the kids, at the relatively working-parent friendly hour of 9 am (vs. the 11 am time for "family snack" and most other events to which parents are invited).  When I got the flyer, I asked T if he thought in this context, "daddy" meant "male parent" (e.g. him) or "the parent who never gets to do things at preschool" (e.g. me).  [The flyer did say that if a father couldn’t come, a mother or "other Very Important Person" could attend.]  Ultimately, since I was taking off a day the week before to go on a field trip with the class (to the Planetarium), I decided not to fight T for the chance to go.  As it turns out, the "craft" was that the kids decorated paper ties. 


On another note, RebelDad is having an online chat with Leslie Morgan Steiner at tomorrow (Thursday) at 1 pm.  If you can’t be online at the time, you can submit questions in advance and read the transcript later.  I got Steiner’s book out of the library — look for a review in the next week or two.

13 Responses to “Parenting and mothering”

  1. jen Says:

    What a sad statement on previous gender roles!
    The term “fathering”, as we all know, officially means nothing more than getting someone pregnant. As for “mothering”, its official definition is “to care for or protect like a mother”; you’ll note that the role and a very specific set of behaviors are inexorably tied together there. Yuck. Hats off to Jeremy for trying to get past these definitions, but I’m not sure it’s a huge step forward to jump from one gender-constrained role to another.
    Even Jeremy admits he does not like his own definitions of mothering and fathering, that it’s just his upbringing showing thru. I wonder how much better we would all be at parenting if we could drop all this gender role baggage and just concentrate on what’s best for the kid? Maybe the next generation will be able to see the situation without our blinders.

  2. Stephen Says:

    I’m an at home dad and I got a preschool flyer + email just yesterday about how Dads were in charge of organizing a school picnic. And I quote:
    “MOMS PLEASE RECRUIT THE DADS. While this event is supposed to be organized by the dads, we never want to leave anybody out, so Moms are always welcome to help out but no pressure – you ladies do enough as it is… ”
    And my wife and I had similar difficulty untangling all the hidden assumptions.
    As to the Queer thing. Gender isn’t a social construct. There are many well documented differences between men and women on average, so it makes sense to talk about typical men, or dads, and typical women or moms. The problem is that many people are not typical, and it is not safe to make huge assumptions about other people’s identities. This is why *gender roles* are a social construct. Mom, in the public sense of the word is just a gender role. So for many families Mom = Dad. And vice versa. Which also means that there is no sound basis for government, companies, or schools to differentiate between Moms and Dads.

  3. Danigirl Says:

    Ooo, very interesting topic. I’ve been claiming the title of ‘breadwinner’ around our house because it’s true, for the most part – I work full-time and earn about 75% of our household income, while my husband works part-time, cares for the kids part-time, and earns the other 25%.
    The other day, my mother (who is very progressive in her thinking) stopped me and asked me if my husband didn’t find it offensive or hurtful that I referred to myself as the ‘breadwinner’. I was flummoxed – it’s true, it’s fact, and I never thought it might be an affront to his ego to say so. I haven’t asked him yet, and if I did, I’m pretty sure he would brush it off.
    There are traps no matter where you step…

  4. Jennifer Says:

    I like what Stephen said, about gender being fact and gender-roles being social constructs. The men I know best — my father, my husband and my son (no brothers) — fit the male stereotype quite well, so I have a lot of trouble identifying what is a fact regarding men v. women and what is a belief, true in our society only.
    We have been lightly considering me going back to work full-time and my husband switching to part-time (so we would be in the same set-up as Danigirl), and my husband did say that he would have a hard time with it. Regarding ego. The only way he could justify it would be if he were able to do something else… I mean, if he were able to say, “I’m the one who stays home most of the time because I’m training for a marathon.” Or, “It’s a great life, I take the kids skiing/biking/hiking all the time.” He could never say simply, “I’m the one who stays home because I love my kids and want to be with them.” My husband’s a pretty liberated guy so I found that very, very interesting.
    Out of curiosity: Did you say that your husband is working part-time? What does he think about my husband’s comment? And did he become the primarily stay-at-home parent because he wants to be the “mom” like Jeremy, or did he do it because it made financial sense for your family?

  5. chip Says:

    I’ve been in both positions, as a stay at home dad with my wife the breadwinner; as a “breadwinner” with my wife a stay at home mom; and now both of us work.
    I never thought of what I was doing when I was a SAHD as mothering, but as parenting.
    I see Steven’s point, but I think the real goal should be transformation of what “fathering” means so that it actually includes the things now lumped into only mothering.
    Jennifer, I wrestled with that when I became a SAHD and then when I went back to work, I’ve blogged a lot about it, I think it’s very complex exactly because of all of the gender expectations in our society.

  6. chip Says:

    whoops, that should read “I see Jeremy’s point” …

  7. Jody Says:

    Well, and if we accept Jeremy’s division of terms, does that mean that children in full-time childcare are “motherless”? That the paid caregivers are doing the mothering? I’m not remotely prepared to accept the idea that “mothering” isn’t a sex-specific term — mothers are the female parents of their offspring, and what they do, however they do it, is mothering. Ditto fathers. If our current terms don’t capture all the various ways in which mothering and fathering work, then we need to re-think our definitions of the terms. Not decide that caring for a family through paid employment is best described as “fathering.” Because that? Is just icky.

  8. Wayne Says:

    When I make cookies with my daughter, go grocery shopping with my son, tell stories to both of them at night, do their laundry, sweep and mop their rooms, take time off work to attend teacher conferences, and pick up their toys with them, I am fathering, too. Enough of this hand-wringing about gender roles already.

  9. Stephen Says:

    I cherry-picked this definition (2):
    tr.v. moth·ered, moth·er·ing, moth·ers
    1. To give birth to; create and produce.
    2. To watch over, nourish, and protect maternally.
    The whole nanny thing can be a very touchy subject. But if you spend time with the nannies (I do) and see them slicing up fresh fruit snacks and mopping up pee, it’s hard not to see them as substitute mothers. They are not robots (thankfully) so it’s impossible for them to maintain any emotional distance from the children when they spend so much time with them. This is why we have the clichés of infants sometimes responding better to the nanny than mom, and of insecure moms chucking a nanny for bonding too closely.
    The truth is that if we are going to live in a culture that supports the right of mothers with young kids to return to full-time work, then we have to accept that someone else is going to have to fill her traditional (and valuable) role.
    We are lucky that English has the good gender-neutral umbrella word “parent”, some languages don’t (like Spanish).
    Jennifer, I think your husband’s comment shows that there is still a strong stigma involved when the male parent decides to stay home. (Especially in some parts of the country.) We will never know how many fathers would really prefer to stay home with their kids until that invisible “gender-role expectation” is completely erased.

  10. Jody Says:

    Healthy attachment to primary caregivers is always best for children, whether those caregivers are mothers, fathers, nannies, or caregivers in a nursery/center setting. No one is proposing otherwise.
    Both of my aunts are long-term early childhood caregivers with professional credentials, and the ability to nurture emotionally, physically, socially, and cognitively is an essential part of the profession. One of my aunts has worked herself up into a position of leadership, and she regularly encounters parents who request that their child be moved from one caregiver to another, so that the child doesn’t get more attached to the caregiver than to the parents. This is a heartbreaking situation, and not in the best interests of the child. Healthy, loving attachments to caregivers help the child thrive.
    It doesn’t change the fact that the caregiver is not the mother, and what she or he provides the child is not mothering. Both “fathering” and “mothering” are constructs, ideas, to which people are allowed to bring their own ideas. The idea that one set of tasks attaches only to one role or the other is, simply, absurd.

  11. Jeremy Smith Says:

    The boy is sleeping, so I’m getting a chance to check out all the threads in the blogosphere about my post. I confess that in reading the responses here and elsewhere I got so completely lost that I had to go back to review what I wrote: “did this person Jeremy (i.e., me) really say _that_?”
    I’m really not advocating that dads at home start calling themselves Mr. Mom, or saying that staying at home with your kid is intrinsically demasculinizing and that this is desirable. I’m just trying to get at the “truth” (ha!) about my own experience. For the first year of Liko’s life, I went to work and my wife stayed home. It felt like a very comfortable “father” role to me; I understood it and everyone around me understood it. When my wife went to work and I stayed home, it triggered changes in our families and ourselves that we couldn’t necessarily control; staying at home with my kid is changing my idea of myself and my gender identity in ways that are very nuanced and, I think, largely positive. Seeing myself as a kind of mom actually gives me a degree of confidence; was I the only one who was blown away when Elizabeth wrote, “Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we’re good enough mothers, and decide that we’re damned good fathers”? That struck me as an almost revolutionary insight.
    Look at all the ways language has shifted over the past thirty years, in response to the newfound cultural confidence of populations that previously considered themselves oppressed or threatened in some way: once “heeb” was one of the worst things you could call a Jew; now it’s the name of a great magazine (; once “Bitch” was a word no feminist would use; now we have blogs like Bitch Ph.D. and a magazine called Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Same for “faggot” and “dyke” and “queer”, now all in common use here in San Francisco, including in the SF Chronicle. One of the fruits of liberation is that such words lose their sting. In the various threads, including this one, you can see that we as a culture (assuming you take the threads as representative) are very far from consensus about what mothering and fathering mean; things are changing in a big way, and if current trends continue, there might be a huge generation gap between us and our children, with many unintended consequences. Revolutions — maybe I should say evolutions — have a way of leaving the revolutionaries behind.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Through a rather circuitous route I’ve arrived here. This is a wonderful discussion and I wrote a very similar thing just this week. Always happy to find another “thinking mom’s” blog.

  13. Mom101 Says:

    PS that was me, Mom101 commenting, inadvertently anonymously as I see.

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