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«In DISPLAYING FAMILIES: A NEW CONCEPT FOR THE SOCIOLOGY OF FAMILY LIFE Edited by: Esther Dermott, University of Bristol, UK, and Julie Seymour, ...»

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It’s just not good for a man to be interested in other people’s children’:

Fathers, public displays of care, and ‘relevant others’



Edited by: Esther Dermott, University of Bristol, UK, and

Julie Seymour, University of Hull, UK

Palgrave Macmillan, Forthcoming 2012 Andrea Doucet


Sean: 1992, Cambridge England, stay at home father of two I was passing a postman cycling by and I was pushing the push chair and holding Luke’s hand and I thought he’s given me a sort of `What a big sissy. A big sissy’! You know that may have been my response because you do interpret things according to your own level of comfort or discomfort to a certain extent. And then on an another occasion, I walked past some builders just round the corner and one of them was knocking a wall down and turned to his friend and he said: `That’s what you ought to do’.

Archie, 2002, Ottawa, Canada: stay at home father of two “Initially, when Brad was in kindergarten, this women comes up and introduces herself and says I am a little embarrassed but I am coming to check you out. I said okay, she said my daughter came home and told me about this man hanging around the schoolyard reading stories to the kids. She said I hope you are not offended. At this point I am used to it. I said isn’t it interesting, if a kid came home and said a mom is reading to kids in the yard, you would say “isn’t that nice”, and wouldn’t give it another thought. She admitted that was true” (Archie, interview 2002).

Christopher, 2009, Boston, USA, stay at home father of four:

You know like when I first found out that I was going to be a staying at home my friends all made their little comments… I don’t care but they definitely all made their smart alec comments that oh you know - Mr. Mom or whatever. Yeah so um so that is everybody’s initial reaction but it is changing times. It’s amazing if I tried to do this or we did this 15 years ago I would look like a freak show probably. You know a dad walking around with 4 little kids. I’m already a freak show as it is.

This chapter is rooted in two decades of research on mothering and fathering, and gender and care work, in households where women are shared or primary breadwinners and where fathers are shared or primary caregivers. My research, conducted especially in Canada (2000-09) as well as in the UK (1992-95) and in the United States (2008-10) has included a series of inter-locking qualitative research projects where I have personally interviewed over 250 women and men, including a small case study of men and women who have been followed over the course of a decade in Canada (Doucet, 2006a, forthcoming). Across three distinct countries, I have spoken to men, as well as women, about the personal and political challenges and opportunities that recur when ‘doing family’ means reversing or re-adjusting what are still dominant and hegemonic conceptions of male breadwinners and female caregivers.

My sustained interest in this research area began two decades ago where one father’s story stayed with me as a compelling narrative of the difficulties for women and men who were charting different ways of ‘doing gender’ and ‘doing family’. The first quote at the beginning of this paper from British stay-at-home dad Sean, articulated twenty years ago on how he felt that he was viewed as a ‘big sissie’ by a postman and a male construction worker, pulled me into the puzzle of what enables and constrains men’s involvement in care work. Moreover, it was Sean’s narrative, and many more since then, that instigated my thinking on how community responsibilities, enacted in spaces that combine households and communities, are an integral part of the ‘doing’ of family and the social judgments of families.

Janet Finch’s new concept of ‘display’ provides a further way of conceptualizing the challenges faced by mothers and fathers who attempt to ‘do’ gender and family differently. As indicated in the quotes that open this chapter, men who care for children repeatedly mention how their ‘displays’ of care work, as well as of alternative family forms and non-hegemonic masculinities are scrutinized and surveilled by others;

specifically, men can often find themselves under a community spotlight, where they feel treated as ‘sissies’, potential pedophiles, or a ‘freak show’.

Three of Finch’s key contentions about the display of family (2007) are employed in this chapter. First I draw from her point that narratives and objects are tools for displaying family. Second, I draw from her argument about how displays of family involve “the conveying of meaning through social interaction and the acknowledgment of this by relevant others” (Finch, 2007, 77). There is, moreover, an on-going “process of seeking legitimacy (which) necessarily entails displaying one’s chosen family relationships to relevant others and having them accepted” (Finch, 2007, 71). My third argument extends my second point about public legitimacy as I further develop Finch’s point (2007, 72) about how it is important “ to think about degrees of intensity in the need for display, depending on circumstances”.


While this chapter is rooted broadly in two decades of research on mothering and fathering, it is specifically rooted in four qualitative research studies carried out over the past ten years (2000-2010) in Canada, as well as more recently in the United States. The first study (2000-2005) of fathers who are primary caregivers (single fathers and/or stayat home fathers), included in-depth interviews with over 100 fathers and with 14 heterosexual couples (see Doucet 2006). The second (2004-2008) is a qualitative research study with 26 Canadian couples (25 heterosexual and one gay) where the father has taken some parental leave (see McKay and Doucet, 2010) while the third research project (2004-2009) focused on transitions to new fatherhood for a diverse sample of fathers, mainly gay fathers and immigrant fathers, from across Canada; focus groups were conducted with fifty fathers and in-depth interviews with twenty fathers (Doucet, 2009a).

Finally, this chapter is influenced by my current research and writing on Canadian and American households (2008-2010) where women are primary breadwinners and men are primary or shared caregivers (Doucet, forthcoming). Across all of these studies is a small case study of men and women who have been followed over the course of a decade in Canada (Doucet, 2006a, forthcoming). While the majority of individuals that I have interviewed are lower middle class and middle class, of varied white ethnicities, heterosexual, and living with dependent children, my projects also span diversity across class, race and sexuality, across Canada and more recently in the United States.

The empirical context that informs my work is one where there has been some evidence of fathers’ increasing participation in the care of children in many western countries. In the case of Canada, its social terrain is characterized by the rising labor force participation of mothers of young children and gradual increases in the numbers of stay-at-home fathers; the latter have increased 25 percent over the past decade so that, on average, men constitute 1/10th of stay at home parents (Statistics Canada 2002). The proportion of lone parents who are male has also increased over the past three decades;

between 1976 and 2008, the proportion of male single parents increased from 14 percent of all lone-parents to 20% percent (Statistics Canada LFS, unpublished data 2009). It is also worth noting that women are primary breadwinners in nearly one-third of Canadian two-earner families (Sussman and Bonnell 2006)1. Over the past ten years, fathers’ participation in infant care has also increased, partly as a result of policy changes in parental leave provisions2.

Theoretically, my work has long-standing roots in socialist feminist work on the importance of valuing unpaid work (Luxton, 1980/2010; Luxton and Vosko 1998); a focus on gender relations, men and masculinities (Connell, 2005); and feminist With women’s average hours increasing, the wage gap is narrowing and the financial contribution of spouses is becoming more equal. However, differences still exist. For example, husbands in dual-earner couples earned on average $1,040 per week in 2008 compared to only $740 for wives (Marshall, 2009; Perusse, 2003).

In 2001 paid parental leave benefits in Canada were expanded by 25 weeks, and, in 2006 Quebec introduced a separate and more generous parental leave policy with three to five weeks reserved for fathers. Correspondingly, Canadian fathers increased their use of paid parental leave from three percent in 2000 to 33% in 2008, with, however, far more Quebecois fathers – at 82% – taking leave than fathers outside Quebec at 12% (McKay, Marshall and Doucet, in press; Doucet, McKay and Tremblay, 2009’ Doucet, Tremblay and Lero, in press).

theoretical and philosophical writing on the connections between care work and social justice (Held, 1993, 2005; Okin, 1989; Ruddick, 1995; Young, 1990, 1997). For over a decade, I have argued for a conceptualization of care that is intrinsically relational, embodied, embedded in daily practice, linked with what symbolic interactionists would call ‘moral’ identities’ (Finch and Mason, 1993; Finch, 2007), framed by varied kinds of time (biographical, generational and historical), and articulated in domestic and community spaces (se Doucet 2000, 2001, 2006a, 2006b, 2009a, 2009b). I agree with many feminist and family scholars who have argued that gender should not matter to the ways in which care is undertaken and indeed that men can and do take on care work in ways that can be viewed as indistinguishable from that enacted by their female partners (see Biblarz and Stacey, 2010; Doucet, 2006a; Ranson, 2010; Smith, 2009). Nevertheless, while men can and do partake in childcare, I have also argued that there has been little shift in the responsibility for care work. As argued in this chapter, at least part the puzzle for this continuing resistance in gendered divisions of domestic responsibility and carework lies in the differing pressures exerted on men and women who display their care of children in community settings.


I am in agreement with Finch that “narratives are one tool which can be used in displaying families” (2007,78). She also maintains that “a fundamental driving force in presenting families to an external audience is to convey the message ‘this is my family and it works’” (Finch, 2007, 70; see also Finch and Mason, 1993). In addition to how families can be displayed through narratives, there are, as Finch argues (2007, 77), “ways in which such displays are supported” by particular domestic objects or what “we might think of as ‘tools’ for display”. Several examples emerge from my research on how fathers display particular conceptions of family through narratives as well as through domestic objects. Four examples will be discussed in this section.

(i) Display of family and fathering through heroic narratives First, in relation to display through narratives, my research on primary caregiving fathers reveals that ‘heroic narratives’ are often employed by men in order to display their families as ones that work, in part because of their extraordinary efforts towards making them work in social environments that often assume men’s incompetence in caregiving.

Heroic narratives are defined as ones that are framed partly by a telling of a ‘heroic tale’ that is “oriented around some heroic struggle” (Presser, 2004, 92; see also Doucet, 2008).

Two examples of such heroic displays of family can be mentioned here.

The first is from Dennis, an ethnic minority and low-income single father of a 10year-old girl. In his interview with me in 2003, he told a story of a father facing considerable strain and difficulty as he balanced a heavy debt load, long hours working as a cook in a fast food restaurant, a highly conflictive relationship with the mother of his daughter who lived two thousand miles away, and living in a small apartment that he and his daughter shared with two male boarders. Sitting with me in his kitchen with a basket of perfectly folded laundry beside him, two constant themes in his interview were how he said he wanted to be on the Oprah Winfrey show and how people kept telling him: “‘I can’t believe your daughter is so good. I’ve never seen a kid this good.’” However, such exuberant statements of believed, or hopeful, heroism were out of sync with much of his narrative as well as with my sense of this father as gleaned from the interview setting and from the detailed field notes that my research assistant and I took after the interview.

Looking back to this interview, and drawing on Finch, I would argue that Dennis wanted to participate in my study because he wanted to display that his version of family worked. Moreover, his desire to appear on Oprah, and his constant references to others’ comments on how his daughter was ‘so good’ could be viewed as instances of displaying and legitimating family through narrative. My case study of Dennis also revealed objects of family display; I refer here to the basket of perfectly folded laundry, which he had beside his chair. Dennis deliberately displayed this as part of his family life while other less noticeable aspects of his home and family life – such as the peeling wallpaper in the kitchen or the entrance of the two male boarders who lived in his basement – were objects and subjects that Dennis tried to downplay and, indeed, not to display.

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