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Lecture 6

Week 6 - The Formative Years: How Parenthood Creates Gender

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Rania Salem

Headnote The Formative Years: How Parenthood Creates Gender* Headnote Cet article presente les conclusions d'une etude qui traite d'une serie d'entrevues en profondeur de couples hdterosexuels en voie de devenir parents. Le but de 1'6tude etait de mieux comprendre comment le fait de devenir parents produit des differences dans les roles attribues aux sexes et des inegalites entre eux. En se concentrant sur les relations sociales changeantes de la maternitY, la discussion tourne autour de quatre Ajustements dans la vie de la femme: I'appropriation des responsabilites maternelles, les negociations qui determinent comment la femme et l'homme entreprennent leur role de mere et de pere; le developpement d'une division des travaux menagers moins equilibree; l'evolution d'une vie sociale centree d'avantage sur la famine; et le renouvellement des relations entre la femme et sa mere. Headnote This paper presents findings from a study involving a series of in-depth interviews of heterosexual couples as they made the transition to parenthood. The study was aimed at understanding how parenthood produces gender differences and inequalities. Focussing on the changing social relations of motherhood, the discussion revolves around four changes in women's lives: the assumption of the responsibilities of motherhood and the negotiations that shape how women mother (and how men father); the development of a more unbalanced division of household work; the evolution of a more family-focussed social life; and the renewal of women's relationships with their mothers. GENDER INEQUALITY HAS BEEN A MAJOR CONCERN in social-science research for decades now, at least among feminist social scientists. Attention has been directed to both society and the individual-to structural divisions by gender and to social processes that create gendered activities and gendered individuals. Old explanations of individual gender differences due to childhood socialization, and its presumably lasting effects, have been challenged. Focus has turned to structural sources of gender differences-arising out of the gendered division of paid and unpaid work-which shape people's choices and constrain their options, and thus explain much about their behaviour and choices as adults (Gaskell, 1983; Gerson, 1985; 1993; Tavris, 1992). The focus has also turned to daily practices and interactions that create gendered adults on an ongoing basis: for example, it is argued that as women do housework the activity produces and reproduces a sense of gendered identity (DeVault, 1991; Ferree, 1990; South and Spitze, 1994; West and Zimmerman 1987). The old focus on socialization meant that considerable attention was directed at families, as researchers (mostly psychologists) attempted to assess how parents produced gendered children.1 Current concerns with discourses and practices that create gendered identities have not generated a similar kind of research attention. So, how parenthood produces gendered adults, and especially how motherhood does so for women, has received relatively little attention.2 That there has been surprisingly little research on parenthood by sociologists interested in gender differences and gender inequality is a significant oversight. It has been clear for decades that parenthood moves heterosexual couples to a more conventional division of labour (Backett, 1982; Cowan et al., 1978; LaRossa and LaRossa, 1981; Rexroat and Shehan, 1987). Examining the dynamics of the transition to parenthood may, then, reveal much about the persistence of the division of labour in the household, which is so clearly key to women's subordination in this society (Hochschild, 1989; Luxton, 1980; 2001; Frederick, 1995). Moreover, the way motherhood is structured in this society-as a privatized responsibility with incredibly high demands and expectations-- constrains many women's lives and even threatens their health (Blain, 1991; Glenn, 2000; Luxton, 1980; Rosenberg, 1987; Taylor, 1996). The experience of motherhood may also move women toward a more feminine identity (McMahon, 1995). All things considered, motherhood may be the most gender-enforcing experience in the lives of many women. This paper presents findings from a study of 40 heterosexual couples, which focussed on the changes in their lives, and especially their relationships, as they became parents for the first time. The study was based on interviews with people as they negotiated the transition to parenthood, and focussed on gender differences that emerged in the process. After a review of the sociological literature on parenthood and gender, I discuss the negotiations that shape how women mother, the development of a more unbalanced division of household work and the change to a more family-centred social life. The Literature The patterns that parents develop in their baby's formative years are perhaps also formative of patterns that will remain in their relationship and structure their household. With parenthood, women typically become responsible for baby care, while men typically become mothers' helpers, babies' playmates and family providers (Backett, 1982; Cowan and Cowan, 1992; LaRossa and LaRossa, 1981; LaRossa, 1998; Lewis, 1986; Walzer, 1996; 1998). Despite this gendered pattern, it is only recently that social researchers have begun to study the transition to parenthood as a key producer of gender divisions in heterosexual couples. The timing of this research has meant that much of the work is done from a social-constructionist perspective. While this approach has proven fruitful for a number of topics, social-constructionist examinations of motherhood have tended to neglect the interpersonal negotiations behind the gendered division of labour that accompanies the transition to parenthood. Caring for a child is a profoundly relational activity, however, so examining the social relations of parenthood seems to be central to understanding it. Decades ago, social researchers who studied the experiences of mothers with young children developed an analysis of the social organization of mothering and the problems it created for women (Bernard, 1974; Boulton, 1983; Luxton, 1980; Oakley, 1980; Rosenberg, 1987). Their studies highlighted the social isolation of full-time mothers with young children, and the stress mothers experience daily due to lack of control over time, coupled with the high demands of infants and young children (Rosenberg, 1987). More recent work on motherhood has shifted the focus to the inflated expectations that "intensive mothering" ideologies establish for mothers-that is, the expectations of the so-called "experts" that mothers respond to every need expressed by their babies, that they be responsible for their babies 24 hours a day, that they provide social and intellectual stimulation for their older pre-school children, etc. (Hays 1996). This social context of mothering influences the interpersonal dynamics that determine how couples organize parenting. Exploration of the interpersonal dynamics of parenthood began years ago, when LaRossa and LaRossa (1981) focussed on the "interactional context" of baby care to explore the development of gender divisions with parenthood. However, their chief concern was parents' interactions with their babies. When they examined interaction between spouses, they were mainly concerned with how spouses coped with the heavy demands of the first year of parenthood. What was being negotiated by the couples, and the ways in which they were actively constructing their roles-their agency in the process-were not considered. Individuals' agency promises to be in the foreground of the socialconstructionist approach, which is popular among many researchers (especially American researchers) who study gender. First articulated in Sarah Berk's The Gender Factory (1985), and then elaborated by West and Zimmerman (1987), the argument is that gender is recreated daily, in common practices like caring for children, preparing meals, etc. (see Coltrane, 1989; 1996; DeVault, 1991; Ferree, 1990; South and Spitze, 1994; Walzer, 1998; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Berk (1985: 201) argued: "Simultaneously, members 'do' gender as they 'do' housework and child care, and what [has] been called the division of labour provides for the joint production of household labour and gender." From this perspective, gender is an "ongoing activity embedded in everyday interactions" (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 130). Social-constructionist approaches make their contribution by stressing the ongoing, contingent nature of social phenomena. While the emphasis is usually on discourse, and people's search for meaning that "constructs" identity, certainly social interaction and social relationships also "construct" the ongoing social practices that divide women and men, and create in them a sense of gender identity. Martha McMahon's (1995) Engendering Motherhood went furthest in realizing the potential fruitfulness of a social-constructionist approach-and her work is quite different from that of the American social constructionists. Her rich analysis of the discursive processes through which women make decisions about and interpret their lives indicated that mothering often transforms women so that they come to identify with conventional notions of motherhood that, in turn, are traits commonly associated with womanhood. Such a transformation does not usually occur for fathers, although some researchers have found that those rare men who care for their children full time experience a similar transformation (Coltrane, 1989; Gerson, 1993). While McMahon made clear that for many women motherhood is embedded in a heterosexual relationship, her purpose was not to examine the dynamics of those relationships for the women in her study. In fact, the tendency in all the work done from this perspective is that the focus on discourse or meaning-and the related focus on individual identity-turns the examination away from social relationships. Some researchers who use a social-constructionist perspective pay more attention to social relations. Kathryn Backett (1982; 1987) studied the development of gender divisions in parenting from what she called an "interactionist perspective." She (1987: 76) argued that "in studying twoparent families, the behaviour of one spouse is only properly understood in the context of the other." Nevertheless, she focussed on the meanings people create to make sense of the gendered patterns that develop with parenthood-and not on the development of those patterns. Like Backett, Susan Walzer (1998: 9) asserted that "mothers and fathers are defined in interaction." Her study of how couples make the transition to parenthood briefly considered the ways in which women's mothering is shaped by their partners. Her main argument, though, was that "doing parenthood" is a form of "doing gender," and that cultural images of "good motherhood" and "good fatherhood" are the dominant influences on the development of parental roles. In the end, Walzer and Backett both paid less attention to the social relations of parenthood than one might expect, given the importance they attributed to them. In the research on motherhood, the social-constructionist approach has displayed a number of problematic tendencies. The emphasis on thesymbolic nature of daily practices has meant the assumption that social expectations, based on shared values and norms, are what move people. The norms that determine people's behaviour are assumed to be given; they are not questioned (McMahon, 1999: 166-67). It is also assumed that because people are always held accountable to gender norms, "doing gender is unavoidable" (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 137). Thus, in the literature on parenthood, it seems that there is one way to "do motherhood."3 The doing gender approach in this literature leaves little room for human agency. Also problematic in this literature is the emphasis on the reproduction of the gender-divided social order. Like functionalism, the "doing gender" approach risks overlooking the contradictions inherent in social arrangements (McMahon, 1999). Indeed, in emphasizing the meaning inherent in daily practices such as caring for children, work in this tradition has overlooked issues of conflict, power and control. The negotiations in which couples engage, which may be laden with conflict especially when their lives are changing, are not problematized or examined in much of the work on parenthood that is done from this perspective. A shift in focus to social relations should reveal the conflict inherent in parenting practices-and the possibility of different outcomes. More generally, focussing on social relations will acknowledge that the way people parent is largely a product of couples' negotiations. The understanding that mothering is, in part, a product of women's ongoing relationships with their partners has been discussed only briefly in the literature (Fox, 1998; Walzer, 1998).4 In this paper, I take the insight of the social constructionists that gender is emergent in social practices, and examine the social relations of parenthood as these are negotiated in the formative months when couples become parents. In examining social relations rather than discourse and meaning, I aim to complement social constructionist arguments and insights. Discussing four key changes in the lives of 40 women as they became mothers for the first time, I show some of the relational causes and consequences of these changes, and the implications of them for the position of these women in relation to their partners. The Study This discussion is based on a series of in-depth interviews with 40 heterosexual couples living in Toronto, during the period in which they became parents for the first time. Ten couples were interviewed in 1991 and 1992 in a pilot project and 30 couples were interviewed in 1995 and 1996 in a larger project involving essentially the same sets of questions. The couples volunteered for the study in response to my brief presentation at the end of their childbirth classes. Couples were recruited from hospital classes or Lamaze classes (which had sizeable fees) and classes sponsored by the public-health department (free of charge). About one in five couples in the classes I addressed volunteered for the study While an attempt was made to recruit working-class couples, in the end most of the couples were middle class.5 Nine of the 40 couples were working class (as defined mostly by education but also by income); five of them were living on very low incomes, as were four other couples in the study. Aside from social class, other differences were minimal, because fluency in English was essential for participation in the study. Only two couples were immigrants from non-English speaking countries. And most of the group was white: four individuals (two women, two men) were African-- Canadians-all married to white Canadians. All of these first-time mothers gave birth in hospital (Fox and Worts, 1999). Twenty-four of them returned to paid work before the end of the year-usually at the six-month point, at the end of maternity leave.6 While patterns that developed over the year for these parents seemed typical, what likely distinguished them from other parents was the seriousness with which they undertook the challenges of parenthood. So, the fact that they are not representative of Canadian parents in general has some benefits: the men probably approached parenthood with greater than usual intent to be involved in the care of their babies, and both men and women typically answered my questions with impressive insight. We interviewed these women and men (separately) during the pregnancy, and at two months and a year after the birth. Shortly after the birth we interviewed the women alone; and at the six-month point we interviewed the women and men together. The interviews were taped and lasted between one and two-and-a-half hours. They were guided by a structured questionnaire, but people talked extensively about their lives. Inteviewers pursued all issues of significance to the people being interviewed, as well as answers to questions on the questionnaire.7 Based in part on grounded theory, my analysis of the interview material involved developing summaries of key themes in the experiences of each woman, man and couple, and of the changes in their lives. To derive tentative answers to my questions, and general arguments, I developed codes of relevant material, and used categorization (of the people themselves and their behaviour) and comparison (across couples) as a check on apparent relationships and patterns. I read all interviews several times, over several years, in a process that moved back and forth between the interview material and tentative findings. Becoming a Mother, Becoming Responsible for the Baby The first change women experience after the birth of their baby is that they assume a huge responsibility for a completely dependent human being. While the literature has emphasized the role of the state and the "experts" in defining motherhood, the way a woman defines mothering evolves over time, and is partly a product of negotiation with her partner. A woman may choose "intensive mothering"-prioritizing the baby's needs every minute of every day-but ultimately such a choice requires the "consent" of her partner. Without his consent and support, she is likely to change her definition of what the baby needs and what she must provide (cf. Walzer, 1998). Because the responsibility for children's welfare is gendered and privatized-that is, held by parents exclusively, in the absence of a range of support services in the community-in effect, new mothers must accept responsibility for their babies. Of course, many'(if not most) new mothers want to do so, given their feelings for their babies.8 Fathers, however, have choice about how actively they will be involved in baby care. The social world is still organized around an assumption that mothers care for babies, and popular literature on parenting still assumes it.9 Consequently, men are in a stronger bargaining position as negotiations unfold over how life will be reorganized in the household once the baby comes-and whose needs will be addressed. To do intensive mothering, new mothers are dependent on their partners' consent-their agreement not to expect to receive any attention to their own needs, at least, and even to "help out." This is especially so if the woman is otherwise unsupported. Some of the (17) women in this study who did very intensive mothering-that is, who apparently never failed to respond to their infants' immediate needs, who seemed to prioritize their babies on a 24-hour basis-had partners who were very involved fathers, and themselves prioritized the babies' needs over all else. Because these men also prioritized their babies, their consent to intensive mothering was automatic and assumed; these men never seemed to question that their wives were completely absorbed in baby care. In fact, they seemed grateful that their wives were providing their babies with such dedicated care. In turn, these women gained respect and bargaining power in their relationship as a result of the way they mothered. Of the men who were less involved with their babies, a few were both grateful and relieved that the babies were being cared for so well. The majority of these men, however, displayed reactions that ranged from irritation at their wife's absorption with the baby (and inattention to the men's needs), to discomfort that they too were expected to meet such high standards of parenting, and a sense that their own access to the baby was being inhibited by their wife. What distinguished all but one of the (10) women who did intensive mothering in spite of partners who were not willing to provide it themselves was their strong material position in the relationship prior to motherhood. Most of them earned more than their partners. These cases highlight something else about intensive mothering: to devote oneself to a baby in the way these women did requires material and personal resources that are usually unavailable to working-class women. Being able to stay home for at least a number of months (and thus forego full earnings) is the most obvious necessary condition, but also important is a level of satisfaction with one's personal accomplishments, an ability to forego getting "anything done" (in terms of more obvious accomplishments) or meeting one's own needs, for a sizeable period of time. In contrast were the couples where the men not only had more power than the women (mostly based on higher earnings), but also could not or would not consent to having their wives devote all of their physical and emotional energy to the baby. One case, involving a working-class couple, especially showed how contingent intensive mothering is on the man's approval. In this case, Simon10- who earned most of the household income-refused consent to his wife's definition of their baby's needs, which meant that she owed her partner for the time and attention she gave the baby. Nancy, who had a family background of abuse, and who was in her second marriage and without the nearby support of family or even friends, bowed to the demand of her partner that they resume "normal" sexual relations two months after the birth. To do so, she modified her definition of the baby's needs: she began putting her two-month old to bed at 9 p.m., and letting him cry until he fell asleep, instead of allowing him to set his own bedtime schedule (as the experts advise). Because of Simon's demands, intensive mothering was not an option for Nancy, who minimized her baby's needs over time. She ended up catering to Simon's needs even more than she had before becoming a mother, to compensate for the time she gave her baby. Generally, there is a tendency for many new mothers to become obligated to, or more dependent on, their spouses-for reasons beyond the matter of economic dependence. In response to a question about what they needed from their partners in order to take care of their babies, all of the women in the study talked about their partners' support. A few referred to their partners' consent to their absorption in mothering. Jennifer, who was fully engrossed in motherhood in the early postpartum period, said, "I guess the most important thing is that he be supportive of me being so absorbed with [baby]." She continued, "and thathe himself is equally fascinated with [baby]." This dependence on the man's support-especially in the case of a woman already materially dependent-may obligate the woman to her partner. New mothers depend upon their partners to do all that they cannot, from earning money to doing some of the housework and child care (or at least relieving them of baby care, at times). The perception of the new mothers in this study was that a partner was absolutely essential to the fulfilment of their responsibilities as mothers. It was commonplace during interviews for a woman to say, with conviction, that she would "never make it" as a single mother.12 Mary, a mother of twins, responded to a question about whether she had become more dependent on her partner with, "Yes, I'm more dependent on him.... I couldn't do it without him. I just couldn't. He has to be there. I don't know, he has to tell me a lot that I'm doing a good job, that the kids are good. Yes, I am very dependent on him." Thus, depending on men's approval and consent was one of many dependencies for these new mothers. Moreover, these women's typical perception was that for the man to be able to do the breadwinning, and to help out at home, he needed to be healthy himself; that reason alone meant that the father's needs often came before the mother's (cf. Luxton, 1980; 2001). Ruth, who was married to a professional, explained why she got up with her infant every night, while her husband slept, as follows: "I can't have him not sleeping when he has to go to work; that's number one.... I'd much rather have him stable and healthy so that he can help me when I really need it." Somehow the woman's health was taken for granted in this formulation. It was a pattern with many of the couples that, even in the immediate postpartum period, when the women were recovering physically from the birth, they went to considerable lengths to protect their partners. At a time when they needed sleep, men's sleep was the more prominent concern for many women. At a time when they were overwhelmed with trying to figure out their new responsibilities, these women worried about the disruptions in their partners' lives. In essence, the belief of these women that they absolutely needed their partners in order to succeed as mothers had the effect of prioritizing many of the men's needs over their own, despite their own substantial need for care and rest.13 Jane explained that since her baby's birth her priorities were "totally different, totally different," and involved her baby and husband rather than herself and her career. She explained, "maybe because of me identifying with [baby's] needs, I'm more conscious of [husband's] needs." Ruth gave up efforts to have a career that her husband did not want her to have, and explained as follows: "I'm not the most important thing anymore. You learn to sacrifice so much." Meanwhile, in many couples, men's support of women's intensive mothering- whether that meant their consent that the women devote all their energy to mothering or their assistance-seemed to be contingent upon men forming a relationship with their babies (as the quote above, from Jennifer, indicates). This relationship often depended upon the mother's active promotion of it. Many of the women in this study went to considerable lengths to construct the father role, and especially the men's relationship with their babies. So doing necessitated women's attention to fathers' needs. Some women set aside for the men certain tasks like nighttime feeding or bathing, after making the preparations themselves (e.g., pumping breast milk). Sometimes they changed and fed the baby before giving it to dad, to try to ensure that the interaction would be pleasant. As Helen explained, "It takes work to bring the man into the picture." We have seen that some women had partners who shared their view that the baby was the priority, and that active fathering was important; these men's involvement with their babies did not exact a price from the women. One couple even avoided the gender divisions just described. Rosa and Sam were unusual in a number of ways: both of them were feminists, and very serious about equity in their personal life; neither prioritized material success or having a career, and they were immersed in a very tight community of like-minded friends. Perhaps most unusual was that from work, many of the women prioritized daddy's time with the baby; who was doing the housework became secondary to the establishment of the father's relationship with the baby. I
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