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Men and mothering:
An interview with Andrea Doucet


MMO: Many of the stay-at-home and single fathers you interviewed mentioned the public perception of lone, adult males as a potential threat to children, especially to girls. Fathers reported being "checked out" when they visited their children's schoolyard, for example, and some of the men you interviewed admitted that they, too, would have reservations about trustworthiness of a dad they didn't know well. What were some of the other ways the having male bodies shaped the caregiving experiences of the fathers you studied?

Andrea Doucet: The male body was the unexpected surprise in my research. What I try to do in my book is to make visible the embodied quality of mothering and fathering and to bring this parental embodiment into scholarly and public understandings of mothering and fathering. In a nutshell, I argue that there are contexts -- times and spaces -- when embodiment does matter a great deal and there are other contexts where it's negligible or inconsequential. Yet, what continually surprised me in this work most was the weight of embodiment within the narratives I gathered from over 100 fathers and from 14 mothers. While this impact of bodies waxes and wanes through men's (and women's) narratives and through the flow of parental time, it nevertheless emerged as one of the stronger themes in my work, even though I certainly did not ask anybody to speak about it directly, nor did I start out with embodiment as an area of inquiry. Specifically, this weight of embodiment figures in many ways, three of which I will mention here.

First, both fathers give greater symbolic and practical significance to the role that mothers play with children. Both fathers and mothers point to the influence of female embodiment -- pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, post-recovery- as well as to the metaphoric example of a mother's hug ("longer', "tighter," "deeper") as having greater emotional weight in the care of children.

Second, fathers' embodiment also comes to figure in the ways in which men emphasize physical activities, being outdoors, playing, and doing sports with their children -- all drawing on a notion of masculine embodiment as strong, physical and muscle-bound.

Third, many of the fathers, particularly fathers at home 5-10 years ago, drew attention to how they had to move cautiously as embodied actors in female-dominated community playgroups and in settings where they are placed closely to pre-teen and teen girls (such as in supervising girls sleepovers). The story of the girls' sleepover was one that came to figure as a negative instance of the father-daughter narrative and where men had to be careful around girls because of how the male body might be misread.

I should, however, add a point that feminist scholars of embodiment have emphasized, which is that while the body does have a biological and material base, it is nevertheless modified and variably enacted within different social contexts. It is a point that I also emphasize throughout my book. Quite simply, sometimes bodies do not matter. When a father is attending to children -- by cuddling, feeding, reading, bathing, or talking to them -- gendered embodiment can be largely negligible. But there are also times when embodiment can come to matter a great deal, both for the men in these situations as well as for those who are observing them. As detailed in varied parts of "Do Men Mother?," there is at times a "social gaze" cast upon men's embodied movements with children, particularly as they move in female-dominated community spaces.

MMO: In popular discussions about women's increased participation in the paid work force, common metaphors evoke images of invasion or infiltration -- women "seize opportunities" to "move into" the workforce; they "demand" an end to sex discrimination, and "fight" for equal pay. Conversely, I was struck by the passive metaphors applied to men taking on a greater share of caregiving and household labor, particularly the framework that mothers need to "move aside" to make space for fathers to practice caregiving on their own terms. Obviously, this is a culturally and relationally complicated issue. But based on anecdotal accounts, one of mothers' frequent complaints is that fathers fail to initiate or "notice" when carework and housework needs to be done. The accompanying narrative is that women's standards are different, too high, and inflexible. Why is it that we continue to talk about mothers as the "gatekeepers" of the relational and family workload, instead of talking about father as individuals with the capacity and responsibility to open the gate, and walk through it?

Andrea Doucet: As you rightly point out, it is indeed a culturally and relationally complicated issue. It would be great if fathers could just open the gate and walk in. And indeed some fathers do this. But the gate is not always open and the gate into parenting, especially early parenting, is very much controlled by women. It is not 'control' in an overt sense but in a symbolic, embodied, and normative sense. What I heard in the more than 100 interviews I conducted with a wide diversity of fathers -- immigrant fathers, poor fathers, wealthy fathers, all who assumed primary caregiving in their children's lives for at least one year, and some for many years -- was that the 'default' mode for fathers was that mothers would be the primary caregivers. Men would support and assist mothers. But mothers would be in the driving seat.

In "Do Men Mother" I argue that the processes by which men come to be primary caregivers start with the deeply marked gender division between vastly different expectations for mothers and fathers. In my work, I came to describe parenting as a mother-led dance. I also describe it as a relational set of practices and activities. What I argue is that fathers rely profoundly on mothers to define their own fathering. The early period defines this so much because women take on many of the responsibilities.

It is when mothers forgo some or all of their mothering, or overtly challenge assumptions that are socially, culturally, and ideologically engrained and prescribed that fathers find themselves in a place where they are opening that gate and entering. It is as though fathers look across this metaphorical gender divide to what women are doing and then co-construct their own actions in relation, sometimes in reaction, to those maternal decisions and movements. Many of the fathers make it a point of saying that they did not grow up expecting to be a primary care giving father. Many women, on the other hand, begin thinking about being a mother or having children, or the decision not to have children, from a young age. A related point is that when girls start their menstrual cycles, they have to start planning around their child-bearing capacities. "When do I have to bring tampons to school? Where do I put them?" Then, as young women, they might be thinking, "At what age will I have my children? How long will I stay at home with them? How many will I have?" Young men don't think about those things nearly as much. So women take on this kind of reproductive planning earlier and this gets reinforced through the largely female-dominated social networks or early parenting. Although this is slowly changing, it is generally the case that fathers don't have those kinds of networks. Several of the fathers in my study referred to these maternal settings as "estrogen-filled worlds”.

There are several other points that are important to add here about gatekeeping. First, I think men open the gate when the children get older or when they see areas where they immediately feel competent and able. What facilitates this? Not only women moving over, but women not being present. Moreover, men more easily enter into areas where they feel a particular background, competence, and skill that their female partners may not have (the most common example mentioned by fathers was sporting and physical activities). What I did find was that in households or parenting arrangements where women were not present or were more marginally involved, such as in sole custody households and in gay father households, that men took on these responsibilities full-tilt.

A second point is maternal gate keeping is mostly talked about in relation to household life. The research conducted thus far on this concept has focused on its occurrence within households between a woman and a man. My work shows how it is enacted by couples within households, but it also occurs within communities, between mothers and other fathers. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are the example of how a when a woman, in the words of one father, Archie, "came to check me out" because he was reading to the kids in the schoolyard, or when another father felt excluded in the mothers' group because a woman felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of him. It could well be that the times and spaces where maternal gatekeeping occurs in communities are those in which male embodiment is viewed as intrusive or threatening, either to women or to children.

Finally, I want to add that this is an area that still needs a lot of discussion. Several interesting questions about gatekeeping emerge from my work on fathers as primary caregivers. The first is on the relationship between women who gatekeep and the length and experience of maternity leave or parental leave taken by women and/or men. For example, is maternal gatekeeping more likely in households where women take long maternity leaves? Conversely, does it occur less in households where men take some parental leave? Second, do men take on paternal gatekeeping within domestic and community life, and if so, where and when? Finally, is there any relation between women's sense of responsibility as expressed through a need to protect children and the extreme gender-differentiated experiences of women and men in relation to issues of violence and sexual abuse? Could it be that there is a symbolic relationship between women's maternal gatekeeping and a larger societal fear that hovers around the history of male violence? Such thoughts began to enter my analysis after I reflected on the words of one father, Alexander, speaking about the loss of his close relationship with his step-daughter: "There is a historical sexual ambiguity operating between men and girls. We know that history -- you know, sexual abuse."

I think this is a fertile area for lots more debate and discussion, as well as scholarly research.

do men mother?

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