Evolution of a Dad writes:

I've mentioned Jessica DeGroot from The Third Path Institute in these annals before and here I am doing so once again… We had been discussing some of the factors that help dads get more involved with their families. Here's #1 on her list:

"I think the number one reason men in professional jobs get more involved with family is because of the mother's attitude – for some reason she feels very strongly about having the dad involved."

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Jessica's assessment seems to cut to the core of the issue. If moms really want dads to get more involved with the family then they have to be not only willing to give up some of the power in their 'separate sphere' of the home, but they must expect that involvement. If this expectation isn't there then the likelihood, especially given the current attitude of most companies, is that most dads will fall back into the traditional role of detached breadwinner.

This is very controversial idea in many circlesso controversial, that I am taking the unusual step (for a blog entry!) of providing endnotes citing research in order to support the case I'm about to make. When some people hear that "the mother's attitude" plays a big role in determining father involvement, they think it means that we are "blaming the victim"—that is, blaming mothers for the disproportionate share of childrearing that they do.

But this assumes that most mothers see childcare primarily as a burden or see themselves as victims. In fact, they tend to see mothering as valuable and desirable and intrinsic to their identity,[1] though it goes without saying that childcare can indeed be a heavy weight to carry alone. Many studies have shown that relationship satisfaction falls catastrophically when the father doesn't hold up his end,[2] as well it should.

That said, a great deal of empirical research shows that the gender ideology of the mother matters quite a bit in shaping a father's caregiving activities, and that ideology often stereotypes fathers as incompetent caregivers. By and large in our culture today, mothers are still the "gatekeepers"—that is, they control access to, and management of, children. They let men in and they can keep men out. This finding doesn't apply to every couple, of course—it didn't come up as a significant issue for any of the couples I interviewed for my book on reverse-traditional families, and it doesn't apply to my own family—but gatekeeping is extensively documented and replicated in the research literature.[iii]

Of course, gatekeeping behavior is not evenly distributed throughout womankind; it depends heavily on cultural values and beliefs about the bodies of mother and fathers. "If the mother believes that moms are more biologically suited for rearing children, gatekeeping goes up," says Ross Parke, the University of California, Riverside, psychologist and pioneering parenthood researcher.

Insight about the relationship between gender stereotyping and gatekeeping behavior feeds into a tremendous amount of research about the social impact of how gender is framed.

For example, one University of British Columbia study in 2006 found that telling women that their gender will affect their individual math achievement causes their test scores to go down. "The findings suggest that people tend to accept genetic explanations as if they're more powerful or irrevocable, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies," says investigator Steven Heine, echoing Parke.

This phenomenon—which psychologist Claude Steele and colleagues call "stereotype threat"has been widely duplicated in other lab experiments, and has been found to affect racial minorities as well.

"Lift this stereotype threat, and group differences in performance disappear," says University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton.[iv] "Whether one is an older person learning how to operate a computer, a woman learning a new scientific procedure, or a father learning to feed a baby, negative stereotypes can hurt performance in ways that seem to confirm these very stereotypes."

Mendoza-Denton's own research has shown that "notions about innate ability don't just hinder the performance of negatively stereotyped groups—it's worse than that. They actually boost the performance of positively stereotyped groups."

So while belief that abilities are determined by biological identity can increase anxiety among negatively stereotyped groups, Mendoza-Denton argues "it reduces anxiety among positively stereotyped groups by reassuring them that their group membership guarantees high ability. So stereotypic views of fixed ability not only perpetuate achievement gaps—they exacerbate them."

In his 2003 book The Essential Difference, psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen makes a very convincing case that empathizing defines what he chooses to call "the female brain" and systemizing defines "the male brain." But Baron-Cohen cautions against misapplying his argument: He is not talking about all men and all women, "just about the average female, compared to the average male."

However, research by Mendoza-Denton and others reveals that Baron-Cohen's argument faces a real problem: His samples are spoiled by deeply held stereotypes, positive and negative, that affect performance—not only stereotypes, but differences in power between groups that are related to differences in education, income, and wealth. Does that mean there are no differences between men and women? No. But we are a long, long, long way from having an accurate picture of the roots of those differences.

Neither Mendoza-Denton nor I know of a study that specifically tests for stereotype threat against stay-at-home dads, but, based on interviews with the dads themselves, there can be little question that affects men's caregiving behavior.

"Fathers face the stereotype of being cavemen when it comes to children," says Mendoza-Denton. "The problem for dads is that given negative stereotypes, whichever strategy they choose is likely to be more easily labeled as wrong precisely because it is dad is doing it, and those who disagree with the strategy may feel more justified expressing disapproval because of dad's gender."

We are accustomed—much too accustomed—to thinking of women as the victims, but when it comes to taking care of children, it is men who are entering a female domain and confronting stereotypes that can hinder them in sneaky ways. There is obviously something to be gained from positively stereotyping women as great caregivers—but in the twenty-first century, is there anything to be gained by stereotyping fathers as incompetent caregivers?

The good news is that this is changing in a big way–the culture of parenthood is shifting so that more and more mothers are validating male caregiving and welcoming them into the club. Peggy O'Mara, editor of Mothering magazine, has a quietly courageous editorial (well worth a read) in the current issue that acknowledges this shift and how it is affecting the magazine's editorial direction:

There is a new generation of fathers who are not second-class parents to their wives. They are fully present and know what to do. Just like mothers, they have to figure things out for themselves and learn from their mistakes, but more of them than ever are willing to show up and get involved.

In my generation there were only a few such daddies, and in my mother's, even fewer. When my husband and I led workshops at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in the early 1980s, the fathers would sometimes look as if they'd been dragged to the event by their wives. By the '90s, they were attending on their own accord, and in this new century, daddies have found their voices.

This is not to say that, all along, fathers have not been loving and supportive. Of course they have—but their role was usually more narrowly defined than it is now. Fathers of this new generation want to be more actively involved in the life of the home and the care of their children. Many are primary caretakers, and proud of that role.

I began to understand what I'd been missing… when I spoke with another young father, Paul Newman, at the recent Natural Products Expo West. He told me a story about a mothers' group that his wife belongs to. One night, she couldn't attend, and suggested that he go in her stead. He was the only dad at the meeting, and he told the mothers how hard it was for him to go to work every day and leave his children, and how much he missed them. We both got teary-eyed as we spoke, and wondered that so much of a father's experience is unarticulated in our culture.

As I listened to Paul's story, it occurred to me that this was an intimate conversation. While women have a habit and history of gathering to talk about their experiences, these kinds of conversations are not their exclusive domain. And even though its name suggests otherwise, Mothering really is an intimate conversation among mothers and fathers. (Our readers' surveys indicate that fathers read the magazine as much as mothers do.) This intimate conversation is defined not by gender, but by commonality of experience and depth of inquiry.

I told Paul that I was coming to realize how much we unintentionally glorify the image of "woman alone" in the magazine. I personally am inspired by the image of the Madonna, and have pictures and statues of her all over the Mothering office. Now, however, it occurred to me that nearly all of those pictures and statues depict a woman alone with her baby. Aside from a sculpture of mother, father, and baby on my desk, most of the other artwork in the office begs the question: "Where's Joseph?" No wonder we think we're superwomen.

So where does that leave us? In transition. Changes in motherhood (e.g., women going to work) triggered changes in fatherhood (e.g., more caregiving) which are now triggering more changes in motherhood. Mothering magazine is retooling editorially to show fathers as integral to parenting–they are adding blogs, including one I'll be writing for them called "Fathering," as well as new departments, articles, and images that include dads. This reflects a wider change in our culture, one that I welcome. The day is coming when mothers and fathers can co-parent on an equal basis, and no parent has to ask the other one for permission to hold a child.

[Originally posted on Daddy Dialectic.]

[1] "Doing family work is a way to validate a mothering identity externally as it is the primary source of self-esteem and satisfaction for many women," but that "does not automatically mean that they are inhibiting more collaborative arrangements of family work." Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins, "Mothers' Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family," Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, (1999): 204. For many insightful personal observations about mothering as a source of identity and self-worth, see Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire (New York, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2004), passim.


[2] For an overview of this research, see Scott Coltrane, "What About Fathers?" American Prospect, March 2007, 20-22.


[3] See the following studies for examples: Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins, "Mothers' Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family," Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 199-212; Naomi Gerstel and Sally K. Gallagher, "Male Caregiving," Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 2001): 197-217. For observations and insights into the relationship between stay-at-home fatherhood and maternal gatekeeping, see Andrea Doucet, Do Men Mother? (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 229-232. Like me, Doucet also finds that mothers in reverse-traditional families did not appear to exhibit gatekeeping behaviors, although she found that quality of housework remains "a sensitive issue."


[iv] The statements from Parke and Mendoza-Denton are taken from interviews with me.


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