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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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“I am involved in the school. I help out on field trips. I go in and help to read whatever I can. I am also the head lice coordinator. Once or twice a month I go and look at heads! I know the teachers and the principal and a lot of the kids. I also know them from ringette and hockey. I feel very accepted. […] Being a doctor may be part of it. It might be different if I was a plumber”.

Stay-at-home fathers, fare slightly better, although not working can still spark community alarm bells if it seems that the father may have lost his job and is not in his caring situation due to a family ‘choice’. For example, Theo, who left his job in the high tech sector told me in 2004: “Everybody assumed I was laid off”. James, a gay and

divorced father who took a four-month paternity leave also commented in 2004:

“I think there is still a stigma for men with staying-at-home particularly around other men. I can't tell you how many times people ask as a first liner; ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ When I answered ‘I stay-at-home’, most wondered – ‘well what happened?’” What is at issue here is how a key resource of hegemonic masculinity – that of social status acquired through being a family provider, especially in a high income or high status profession - helps to increase fathers’ ability to display socially acceptable fathering within both families and communities, while also cushioning them from being judgments.

I am using ‘moral’ in the symbolic interactionist sense of the ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’ of socially acceptable behaviour of men and women (see Finch and Mason, 1993).

viewed with suspicion. What is playing out here are the links between hegemonic masculinity and earning. In effect, the economically unsuccessful male caring for children represents a form of double jeopardy because he is judged as being a “failed male” (e.g. not a breadwinner) (Thorne, 1993, 161) and as a deviant man (e.g. a primary caregiver). On the other hand, a male who is visibly providing economically for his family, or has temporarily left a career that allows him to do this, is involved in more acceptable displays of both masculinity and fathering practice.

(ii) Gay fathers and the display of heterosexuality as a ‘resource of masculinity’ The constitution of gay families is incredibly diverse with varied configurations of men raising children with other men and/or with other women, often across several households (see Dunne, 2001). What emerges from my interviews with a small sample of 16 gay fathers over the past decade is that space and community setting matter for the public legitimacy of these diverse family forms. Nevertheless, issues of social acceptability are especially acute for gay fathers, many of whom can face extra scrutiny over their role with children. They can confront ‘multiple jeopardy’ (King 1990; cited in Ward, 2004, 82) in that intersections of gender, class, sexuality, as well as geographical location can facilitate particular kinds of exclusion and social judgment for some gay fathers. One good example of this expressed by Jean Marc, a French-Canadian 43-yearold gay and divorced father of seven-year-old twin boys; I interviewed him in 2004. He lived in a small town in Ontario and his ex-wife had sole custody. Although he had taken a four-month parental leave when his twins were infants and was very involved in their

lives, his ‘coming out’ led to him being shunned by his wife and her family:

“I thought that she would be accepting and that she would understand this. It was the opposite. The kids were removed from the house. I was told to get out. I cried for a week. I was clinically depressed for quite some time. What really helped me was Gay Fathers of Toronto. And I got some counseling. It really hurt me that Monique didn’t want joint custody. That really cut me to the chase. I think she was absolutely terrified of me taking the kids to Toronto and maybe bringing them into some kind of immoral life style”.

Even though Jean Marc gradually became more involved with his children over time, he remained disinclined to ‘come out’ to the school and the wider community because he feared that community members, particularly teachers’ knowledge of him as

gay, would lead them to think he was “riff raff off the street”:

“I think it’s important that I go and meet their teachers. I have not met any of their teachers yet (long sigh). […] I am perhaps somewhat timid. I don’t know. I just didn’t know what to expect. It’s a situation where their teacher is married to a police officer in the town. Everybody knows me. I will go. […] I want them to know that- ‘hey I am a good father. I am involved. And you may have heard that I am gay and that is absolutely correct. But I am not some riff raff off the street’”.

Several gay fathers were less concerned about managing their displays of fathering and the key factor here was when there was greater community acceptance of diversity in parenting, combined with organizations that have provided both support and information for gay fathers in their ‘coming out’ processes. Such resources are more available in larger urban settings where there is a rich heterogeneity of lifestyles, and a positive acknowledgement of such choices. Bernard, for example, (interviewed in 2005) who lived in Toronto and shared custody of a four-year-old son with two lesbian mothers, found his situation is palatable since “there are other children at the school who have two dads or two moms. So he is not alone there. We live in a progressive area”. Similar stories of acceptance were told by Ray and Carson (interviewed in 2004 and again in

2006) who adopted two infants over the course of four years and were “embraced by the community”. What is demonstrated here is that in order to facilitate family and fathering displays that are treated as ‘normal’ or acceptable, gay fathers often have to demonstrate that they can blend into parenting settings so that gender and sexuality lose such critical significance.

(iii) Fathers and the children of others Across two decades of interviewing fathers who are primary, or shared primary, caregivers, I have noticed that a dominant father-daughter narrative revolves around the hidden, unspoken sense of dis-ease that fathers can face when they are caring for the children of others. For example, this sense of dis-ease can occur when fathers are babysitting, are caring for children where issues of undressing are involved, and where fathers are supervising girls’ sleepovers.

Babysitting children is an issue that has come up often in my interviews with men and this is a theme that first arose in my first study on mothers and fathers in Britain in the early 1990s (Doucet, 1995). More recently, in 2003, a Canadian stay-at-home father Jess, spoke about how he could only babysit the children of a very small group of friends and that this barrier was caused by his gender: “It’s kind of bad for men to be interested in other children”.

Caring for children where it involves physical tasks such as changing diapers or young children’s clothes also leads men to manage their displays of care so as to avoid srutiny of their alternative family arrangements around caregiving. Again, this theme runs throughout a long trail of my interviewing fathers over many years. A recent example comes from David, a stay-at-home father of three in a suburb outside Toronto, Canada. While he was clearly the primary parent of their three children while his wife Bonnie worked long hours as a pharmacist, he still found that there was one area where

he had to manage his displays of care. He says:

“Well right now, like changing Molly(7 years old), bathing her, it just doesn’t sit right. Or her friends come over, right. Get undressed, put on costumes and stuff and they call me for help. It doesn’t sit right”.

Finally, girls’ sleepovers are the window through which many men see the need to be very careful around their teen daughters and their friends. As Ryan, a sole-custody

father of a son and a 12-year-old girl put it in 2003:

“I have purposefully not had anybody to sleep over, especially girls, because I’m really leery of the possibility that somebody might think something bad.”


My third and final argument on fathers’ display of family and care work is informed by 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 Finch (2007, 72) points to how these changed circumstances can be when “new individuals – new relationships – come into the picture”, she also notes that such changes can involve particular changes such as when “a woman who has previously focused on caring for children takes a fulltime job”. Set against hegemonic conceptions around gendered paid and unpaid work, many women and men still point to how they are judged and observed and thus there is a constant sense of intensity to their displays of family. The ‘intensity’ is thus not related to change in particular family circumstances but a disjuncture between what is expected of men and women and thus some intensity to their need to display that “this is my family and it works” (Finch, 2007, 75).

I argue here that the need for display that family ‘works’ is especially intense in relation to the gendered arrangements for the care of infants. Quite simply, it is assumed that women will care for infants and will take time off from work, either through unpaid leave or through maternity or parental leave.

(i) Fathers caring for infants Across the two decades that I have been researching fathering, the issue of men caring for infants recurs as one that invites scrutiny, and well as public judgment. Craig, for example, a Canadian stay-at-home dad who has one twin son with physical disabilities (interviewed in 2002), reflected on how an ongoing issue for him as a father is that “the incompetence thing comes into play”, and how social onlookers “very much want to make sure that the babies are okay”. He remembers how he was often “approached with offers of help. It was very much like the incompetent father needing a woman’s help to get the job done”.

Peter, a stay-at-home father of two sons (interviewed twice in 2003 and again in

2010) also points to how community sentiments of assumed incompetence on the part of fathers are particularly strong with young or preverbal children because onlookers may worry about the baby’s care, while also assuming that the father is a secondary, and less competent, carer; he also highlights how this perception wanes as the children grow


“When he was a tiny baby, there was always that sense that I was babysitting rather than taking care of my child like I do everyday—where I had to understand his wants and needs because he can’t speak. That’s where I felt it was very different from women. There was a bit of an assumption that I felt like I was just tiding things over until the real mother showed up, or the person who really knew what they were doing would show up”.

At the end of his interview in 2003, Peter gave a frank assessment of the social

acceptability of fathers as carers:

“Even in a society where people believe that men and women are equal and can do just about everything, they don’t really believe that men can do this with a baby, especially a really tiny baby.” (ii) Women giving up the care of infants Assumptions about men as secondary caregivers also filter into men’s desire to take parental leave and women’s decision to give up some of their parental leave time to fathers. That is, when women give up primary caregiving to focus on breadwinning, either through not taking all of their allotted leave quota or through prioritizing work over caregiving, they also must work to dispel community judgments that they are not doing family in appropriate ways. For example, when Arianna (interviewed with her husband Brandon in 2006) returned to her job as a schoolteacher, she was confronted by

disapproval from her colleagues:

“I think it’s becoming more common, but it’s not common at all, really…People kind of think…that somehow that I’m not as good a mother cause I wanted to go back to work and I’m ok with letting my husband stay home. It was kind of like, ‘ok, that’s weird’… (It was) mostly women”.

This systemic sense that infant care is women’s care is strongly demonstrated in my co-authored work on couple decision-making around the take up of parental leave (see McKay and Doucet, 2010; Doucet et al., 2009). While Canadian policy now has a six month gender-neutral entitlement that is available to both mothers and fathers, many parents still refer to this as ‘maternity leave’ and there is a strong sense on the part of both mothers and fathers that this is ‘her leave’ (McKay and Doucet, 2010). When such dominant norms are violated, families feel an intense pressure to display that their family still ‘works’ even though they have gone against the grain of strongly rooted norms around infant care.

(ii) Fathers in child centered spaces There is an intensity of display required of fathers who find themselves having to work against community notions that men do not always belong in child-centered community spaces. The quotations at the beginning of this chapter from men, across two decades and three national contexts, aptly capture this sense of community judgment and surveillance that men can experience when they take on care work. As indicated in these fathers’ narratives, men who take on full-time care work can sometimes find themselves under a community spotlight, where they feel that they are viewed as ‘sissies’, potential pedophiles, or a ‘freak show’. It is important to note that class, sexuality, locality, as well as time also mediate community judgments around men and care. There is thus some intensity to the need to convince community members that men doing care represent acceptable forms of care work and family.

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