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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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A second example of a ‘heroic narrative’ can be illustrated through the case of Mick, a 45-year-old transport truck driver and the sole-custody father of a 16-year-old daughter. Mick was jolted into becoming a primary caregiving father when Mary Kate’s mother left when her daughter was three years old. Interviewed in 2003, he told the story of how he learned of this state of affairs when he was out of town and received a distressed phone call from his father who lived with Mick’s family. As he described it, Mick then drove his transport truck over five hundred miles back to his home to find his pre-kindergarten daughter standing on the street wearing “her little summer dress with the

flowers” In his words:

“Mary Kate came home from school. She was in pre-kindergarten and her mother was not home. She was supposed to be there. My father called me. So I went to Windsor, I dropped the truck’s trailer, and I came from Windsor with no trailer, just my own truck. I came as fast as I could. When I came down the street she was in her little summer dress with the flowers. And she was standing there holding onto the street sign on our lawn. And my Dad was on the verandah, sitting there watching. I promised Mary Kate that never would I let this happen again. I parked my truck and ended up selling my truck. I never went back on the road again. I promised her that I would do that. That’s when it started”.

Mick’s narrative was filled with heroic statements about how he “had to do it”

and how he was “going to stick with my commitment, my damn commitment”:

“There is no way that I would have said—‘go to Children’s Aid or something like that.’ Her mother is not going to do it. Well damn, I am going to do it. I’m not going to let someone else do it. It is my job. It was a choice that I had to make. I knew that I had to do it. It was never a question. I was there and I had to do it.

There were days when I used to sit there and cry when Mary Kate was sleeping and wonder. It wasn’t a case of—‘Am I doing it right or wrong’? It was—‘I had to do it. I am going to get through it.’ [...] It is my responsibility. I took a commitment and I am going to stick with my commitment, my damn commitment’.

He also constantly referred to the misfit between ‘my transport truck in the yard’ and ‘folding Mary Kate’s underwear’; this counter-posing of a strong masculine and an equally strong feminine image was meant to convey a deliberate display of how, against many odds, he was still capable of such heroic efforts. Mick, along with Dennis, both low-income and sole-custody fathers used the interview process, and these heroic narratives produced therein, to convey the idea that their family forms ‘worked’.

(ii) Display of gendered domestic space A second example of the display of family through narrative and domestic objects emerges from my observations across two decades of visiting couples in their homes.

Women are more likely to display family and domestic life, as well as ‘good mothering’ through the presentation of a clean and ordered home while men are more likely to display their place in the family and their role as a good father through their work in household renovation. That is, domestic space and domestically acquired identities have different connotations for women and men (see also Young, 1997) One example of this is provided by Kyle, a Canadian stay-at-home father interviewed in 2004, who made a point to let me know that his wife Carole “did the vacuuming before she left for work today because she knew you were coming to interview me”. While Kyle admitted that he was “fanatical” about cleaning as well as a “neat freak”, he did not worry about the presentation of their home to others to the extent that his wife did. He confessed that he liked to keep the kitchen clean because he was the one who did most of the cooking: “If I'm going to cook, I have to do the shopping. If I'm going to cook, I have to make sure the counters are clean. I suffered many years ago from two bouts of salmonella, I don't intend to do that again”. In contrast, his wife Carol was more concerned about the house being clean, especially when it is seen by others. He

gave the example of people coming to assess the house:

“I was in the home show, met up with one of the real estate agents who offered to do an assessment. I said - 'Oh, ya, sure come on over at such and such a time'.

Carol was absolutely in a tizzy over that because, could she guarantee that the house would be perfectly clean when someone comes in to deliberately look in every corner? And I said – ‘So what?’”.

Across the four studies that inform this chapter, many stay-at-home fathers reconstruct the meanings of work and home to include unpaid self-provisioning work (Pahl, 1984; Wallace & Pahl, 1985), specifically “male self provisioning activities” which includes “building, renovation… carpentry, electrical repairs and plumbing, furniture making, decorating, constructing doors and window frames, agricultural cultivation for own use, repairing vehicles” (Mingione, 1988, 560-561). While some of these can be viewed as masculine hobbies, which these men would have likely picked up from their fathers or male peers, these are also activities which display or justify men’s masculinity and which seem to alleviate some of the discomfort men feel with giving up breadwinning.

(iii) Displaying ‘happy families’ in interviews Building again on Finch’s point 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, 73; see also Finch and Mason, 1993)., I would argue that men and women often engage in such displays of ‘happy families’ in interview settings. That is, in couple interviews, there is a tendency, as Duncombe and Marsden (1993) astutely pointed out many years ago, to present the ‘we are ever so happy really’ face to the interviewer and, more generally, to their social worlds.

Recognizing this persistent tendency in family research, while also echoing John Law’s broader point (2004) that particular methods produce particular social realities, I maintain that the close connections between issues of deeply held ‘moral’ identity and how families are displayed and judged by others requires that sustained attention is paid to the methods we use in family research. One commonly used strategy is that of interviewing different family members who can provide different windows into family realities (see Edwards et al, 2006; Mauthner, 2003). Even where couples are the center of the analysis, interviewing both couples and individuals can provide different angles on family life while longitudinal interviewing over time can pull forth and reconfigure varied understandings from participants (see McLeod and Thomson, 2009). Finally, an approach that focuses on networks of relations (see Hansen, 2007) can provide wider understandings of the meanings of family life that disrupt the smooth displays provided by some participants. In this vein, Karen Hansen path-breaking book Not So Nuclear Families: Class Gender and Networks of Care (2005) moves away from traditional interview studies of “independent individuals” to focus on “connected individuals who are part of a parent’s network of care” (2005:13). Working from four in-depth case studies, Hansen “focuses on a network, a web of people, rather than on a collection of separate individuals” as she probes “the interaction and interpretations and meaning people assign to their involvements and interactions with other people” (2005, 13).

Finch also maintains that display is different from performance in that the audience is not passive and indeed participates in the ongoing construction of meaning. She writes (2007, 77): “the concepts of performance/performativity – and the associated concepts of actors and audiences – are not adequate in themselves for understanding how ‘family’ meanings are conveyed”. While I agree with the general tenor of this argument, I would, however, argue that methodologically there can be a performative element that recurs in interviews so that interviews can be used as vehicles to display particular understandings of self and family life to interviewers and to the retelling of those stories to others (See Doucet, 2008, Presser, 2004).

(iv) Displaying masculinities In addition to displaying family in their narratives, men also work to display their masculinity in appropriate ways that resonate with hegemonic conceptions of masculinities. What seems very clear in most fathers’ narratives is their determination to distinguish themselves as men, as heterosexual males, and as fathers, not as mothers.

(Doucet, 2006a) Throughout my two decades of interviewing fathers, I have heard recurring interjections by fathers that confirm how they are adamant to ‘display’ hegemonic masculinity in which the devaluation of the feminine is a central part (see Connell, 2005). For example, in a focus group with stay-at-home fathers held in 2000,

Sam, stay-at-home father of two for five years, interjected several times, half jokingly:

“Well we’re still men, aren’t we?” Several years later, another stay-at-home father, Mitchell, made several pointed references to how he often worked out at a gym and enjoyed “seeing the women in lycra”. These men’s words support what theorists of work have underlined about men working in non-traditional or female dominated occupations (such as nursing or elementary school teaching) and how they must actively work to dispel the idea that they might be gay, un-masculine, or not men (Fisher & Connell, 2002;

Sargent, 2000; Williams, 1992).

From my research on fathers who are actively involved in care work, I have argued that these men are thus attempting to carve out their own paternal and masculine identities within spaces traditionally considered maternal and feminine (Doucet, 2005). A recent example of this tendency comes from an interview in 2009 with Sally, an engineer who is the primary breadwinner in her family; she notes that one difference between her experiences at home with two pre-school children and that of her husband Wilson was the


“Wilson was more about doing work and bringing Ryan along. So he would take him to like a job site where he was fixing someone’s radiator and he’d either bring a couple of toys or a book or let Ryan have a toy wrench. So Ryan went with him for the first couple of years to jobs. Or he was renovating the basement at the time so they would just renovate the basement together. The cutest videos of Ryan are where he is in diapers with a power drill - drilling holes in a piece of plywood that Wilson had set up for him”.


Finch (2007, 71) points out that: “The process of seeking legitimacy necessarily entails displaying one’s chosen family relationships to relevant others and having them accepted”. While she relies mainly on examples of non-heterosexual families, it is also the case that in heterosexual two-parent families as well as in single parent families, particular displays of family life are rendered more palatable than others. That is, families who adopt differing patterns around care and breadwinning can also face scrutiny. From my research, there are three recurring examples of how fathers seek public legitimacy as they work to display the acceptability of themselves as carers while simultaneously attempting to refrain from disruptive displays in community settings. their unconventional families. Specifically, my research demonstrates that fathers without female partners often work particularly diligently to convey that they are suitable caregivers and that they are ‘doing family’ in socially acceptable ways. Furthermore, I argue that some fathers need to manage their displays and that this is especially marked for fathers who display alternative masculinities, notably low-income or unemployed fathers, gay fathers, and fathers caring for the children of others3.

While I characterize these fathers as ‘groups’, I am not implying that they are homogenous ones. Rather, there are particular combinations of gender, class and sexuality that bring men to the point where they need to manage their displays of family so as to avoid negative community (i) Low-income or unemployed fathers To be placed in a position of primary caregiver without having achieved success as a breadwinner signals something out of sync with what many communities consider as a socially acceptable ‘moral’ identity for a male and for a father4. My argument here is that fathers need to work to display both their masculinity as well as their family in socially acceptable ways. From my study on fathers as primary caregivers and my recent work on women who are primary breadwinners, I would argue that fathers without jobs or those in low-income jobs, especially single fathers, can be viewed with particular suspicion within communities. For example, Henry, who was periodically out of work, highlighted how his lower social class and frequent unemployed status was one of the reasons why his

house was not viewed as an acceptable option for his daughter’s sleepovers:

“My daughter sleeps over at a friend’s place right across the street, and her friend never comes back. I push it in the sense that it isn’t fair. I actually try to mention it to the parents and stuff, but it’s no big deal. They live in a nice big detached house. The girl mentioned has two full sets of parents that both live in nice big detached houses with multiple cars, or that kind of thing. And I live in this townhouse co-op place”.

In contrast, Jacob, a physician in training, noted that sleepovers were never a problem at his house, either for his two sons or for his 11- year-old daughter. He reflected on how this and his acceptance as a frequent helper in his children’s schools may be

rendered unproblematic, partly because his occupation is one of high status:

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