Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: Do Men Mother?

[Andrea Doucet. Do Men Mother? Fathering, Care, and Responsibility. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.]

This academic monograph by Andrea Doucet, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Carlton University in Ottawa, makes an important feminist contribution to understanding how the lives of contemporary Canadian men who take on significant parenting responsibility are experienced, organized, and regulated, and how they navigate their social terrain. Reading this from the position of someone whose role in domestic and caring labour over the last six year would have qualified me as a participant in the research and of someone with my own particular pro-feminist take on gender issues, I found the book at turns both fascinating and frustrating.

Do Men Mother? is based on a detailed ethnographic study of more than 100 Canadian men who have, in one way or another, played a significant role in the everyday parenting of their children. Some understood themselves as stay-at-home fathers, some as joint-custody fathers, some as single fathers, some as gay fathers, and others understood their roles in other ways. The author did detailed interviews with most of these men, though a few participated in focus groups and a few provided information online. Some of the men were interviewed more than once, and a small number were interviewed both on their own and with their female partner. The author had the interviews transcribed and went through what sounds to be painstaking multiple readings in a structured way, as well as involving multiple people with various kinds of expertise and experience in interpreting the interviews.

The book begins with a bit of a review of the various academic literatures on which it draws. I'm a big fan of being transparent about your political and intellectual influences and ancestors, and about how your work relates to what other people are doing, but there is something that sometimes bothers me about the standards for doing this in many kinds of academic work -- something to do with the way in which there is an embedded expectation that authors talk about work that has come before in part based on the status and influence and institutional location of its authors rather than based on what is actually useful and interesting. I don't blame the author for this, as it is part of knowledge production in the academy, but I don't particularly enjoy it, either. However, I did really appreciate the book's reflections on epistemology and methodology in qualitative research -- I'm not sure if my own life and work will ever come back to interview-based research, but if it does, I will want to revisit that section as I think about doing that kind of work in politically responsible ways. I also appreciated the political importance of her efforts to defuse the possibility of her work being read into patriarchal fathers' rights discourse.

In analyzing the interviews, Doucet employs a number of useful concepts. Building on earlier work by other authors, she divides parenting into emotional responsibility, community responsibility, and moral responsibility. Her emphasis on "responsibility" is to denote planning, organizing, and decision-making, a higher order of participation in the lives of children than mere accessibility, engagement, or 'doing' in ways organized by someone else. "Emotional responsibility" is seeing need and vulnerability in children and responding with care and nurturing. "Community responsibility" is about "coordinating, balancing, negotiating, and orchestrating" the connection of children with other adults and children -- their integration into the social [141]. And "moral responsibility" does not mean 'right and wrong' as in the most common lay understanding of "moral" but is rather about fathers and "how they act in concurrence with deeply ingrained moral responsibilities and with wider societal expectations of them as men, as fathers, as earners and caregivers" [176]. (My own emphasis in thinking about this last is its regulatory and potentially oppressive function, which she does not neglect, but which she does not foreground as much as I would either.) These three categories form the basis for the three chapters in which the bulk of the data analysis is done. Among other things, in each of those chapters she pays attention to "borderwork" -- that is, moments of embodied parenting practice in which there are real distinctions made by parents and/or the people who surround them based on gender -- and "border crossing" -- that is, moments of embodied parenting practice in which gender is irrelevant or distinctions can be/are brushed aside.

The research finds a number of interesting things. She finds that men do this work, and men are able to do this work, which is consistent with a lot of past research. She finds greater space for men to do these things than even a decade ago. She finds, however, that men most often follow the lead of women in their lives in doing this work -- some do a great deal of labour without taking significant responsibility, in the sense meant above, and others do take responsibility but largely do so in ways that is very tied up with the choices and modes of parenting that their female partner or other female co-parenting figure takes. She finds that, probably not surprisingly, Moms who work for pay in families with two adults of different genders are much more likely to be actively engaged with parenting and the domestic sphere than Dads who work for pay in families of a similar configuration. She finds evidence to support widening the usual scope for understanding domestic work and responsibilities to include work that happens not just in the home but that happens between households, between home and institutions, and in the community more broadly. She also emphasizes the importance that immersion in the responsibilities of everyday parenting can have for personal transformation and growth by fathers, and the cumulative impact that this can have over time on ideologies that socially organize gender relations when it comes to caring labour and parenting practice.

Her answer to the question that forms the title of the book is both yes and no. I find the way she presents this conclusion to be a bit puzzling. I mean, I basically agree with her. She means "yes" in the sense that men are perfectly capable of doing the work and taking the responsibility when they choose to take on that role or are forced into it by circumstance, though obviously relatively few do even today. She means "no" in the sense that people who move through the world as men have their lives organized and regulated in some similar but also some different ways from people who move through the world as women, which shapes the now differently in gendered ways and which sediments differently into differences in subjectivities over time. Difference is not essential, but, in all its socially produced complexity, not trivial either. Based on this, it is hardly surprising that there are gendered differences in the experience, organization, and regulation of parenting. This conclusion seems to flow quite naturally from a particular understanding of what gender is, how it happens in the real world, and how gendered relations of power work. I talk about some of my own take on those questions in these two posts, and what I have to say is consistent with where this book ends up, so the conclusion is what I would've guessed to begin with. In the book, though, the journey to get there feels kind of belaboured, which I don't quite understand. Perhaps it reflects a personal journey by the author. Perhaps it is done in the service of rhetorical efficacy, to more successfully engage feminists with other ways of understanding gender. In any case, regardless of this, the rich ethnographic basis she provides for this understanding is very important.

My puzzlement about how the journey to the conclusion is presented relates to my ambivalence about the title of the book. The question "Do men mother?" is very evocative and I'm sure it is useful for triggering discussion. The dissonance caused by the juxtaposition of men as mothers is a good starting point to get people thinking about what we mean when we talk about gender and when we use a gender-specific term for a given set of practices. Perhaps the pedagogical value of the question is enough reason for centering it, especially given that I basically like where she goes in taking it apart. However, I had moments in reading the book where it felt like its organization around that question kept it tied to more essentialist understandings of gender just enough to make its conclusions a bit less clear than they could've been, especially depending on how the book is being read. Perhaps, though, it is more that while I find this area of research important and very personally relevant, I'm not sure I would see this as the most important question that it can help us understand. Personally, I'd rather focus more on examining the ways in which parenting practices are organized and regulated, in gendered ways but in other ways as well, in the service of constructing more just and liberatory parenting practices. This difference in priorities is, I think, tied in with many of the rest of the comments I have about the book.

I found reading Do Men Mother? to be much more emotionally challenging than reading your average academic book. This was, of course, because of its direct relevance to my own experience. I was unable to completely prevent myself from reading it in reference to my own parenting practice in quite personal and at times self-judgmental ways. As Doucet writes, "When fathers feel judged by the metaphorical Court of Fatherhood, it is often based on perceptions of their incompetence as caregivers" [188]. This is true of me. I am certainly oversensitive to this particular way in which I face micro-level interpersonal social regulation and sometimes I see it when it is not really there, but I am oversensitive to it because it is a very real thing that I have faced. And one way I related to this book -- not helpful, but not avoidable -- was that, at moments, it drew my attention to areas in which I really am not as competent as I would like to be. I intellectually recognize we all have strengths and weaknesses as parents, but that didn't prevent moments of visceral squirming about my own weaknesses.

The experience of reading research of which I was an object was a peculiar one in other ways. I realize that it was peculiar in part because of privilege -- middle-class white guys are seldom the object of research in the way that, say, people who experience homelessness are, or indigenous people are. I also recognize that as far as research methodologies go, this one was about as sensitive as you can get to the epistemological violence that gets done when lived experience is turned into research findings. If you want to be able to talk about how the experiences of high-involvement fathers are put together, you are going to run into a certain amount of objectification, a certain amount of erasure. And I do want to know how it works for "the average father", whatever that means. Perhaps tweaking the orientation of the analysis would help -- shifting somehow the ways in which it talks about parenting practice being organized and regulated. I don't know. All I know is that for all its sensitivity, there was still a certain reification of the lives of the people it studied, and a certain amount of erasure of their realities. I know this because there were moments when I felt that it failed to capture my experiences. For instance, there were a number of things that the book identifies that "most fathers" in the study did or said that just do not apply to me, things like having a rough-and-tumble style of play with babies and toddlers or of building networks of support as a parent through male-centric spaces like sports teams. Or having particular political understandings of gender and masculinity and how those relate to ongoing decision-making around everyday practices. And please note, I'm not raising this in a "poor me, poor me" way, but more to draw out a facet of knowledge production that is relevant to how this text (and many others) can and should be read.

This actually ties in to one of my few more substantive criticisms of the text. In some ways, it is very attentive to "diversity." It is obviously an issue that the author has thought a great deal about. She has also put a great deal of energy and care into making her sample of fathers as "diverse" as she can manage, and more diverse than most similar research, as well as into appropriately interpreting the significance of the various kinds of difference thus incorporated. The sample includes men of various class backgrounds, men with different experiences of racialization, men whose understandings of themselves and the world were formed in a handful of different cultural contexts, and gay men. However, the book's discussion of diversity felt somewhat theoretically limited. I did not feel that it did a particularly thorough or rigorous job of articulating why difference matters, why it should be dealt with in the way that this book deals with it, and what the limitations are of that approach. I am not saying that this particular piece of research should or could necessarily have done more, but I think a much more complete understanding of what it is missing would be an important addition. I think there is lots more to be said about the specificities of being a high-involvement father who is racialized or who is queer than can be picked up in the particular instrument that is this study, even given that the central question organizing the research was a question about gender. I obviously can't know exactly what that content would be, but I have some guesses. For instance, there are sure to be specificities faced by Black men parenting in predominantly white environments, or even parenting white children, that are different from those faced by Black women. And what about gendered dimensions of the particularly oppressive historical and ongoing relationship between indigenous people and child welfare authorities? Surely that is highly relevant to studying gender and parenting in ways that truly grapple with social organized difference. And I also had the sense that, though some important things came through, there was also a lot of nuance that was not captured about experiences of parenting and gender in queer families of various configurations. Again, I'm not saying this study should have done more than it did, but I think a more thorough exploration of what it couldn't do would've been important.

So. None of this is news: Research on a population, even extremely thoughtful and politically sensitive research such as in the current case, inevitably reifies the population it studies and creates (or at least reinforces) a centre and a margin in how it constructs that population. I'm not sure it is possible to avoid that and still do what the author was trying to do (which is, as I've said, a useful and important thing to be doing). However, it seems to me -- and I acknowledge I have much less experience in such things, so I may not be saying anything useful at all -- that there are at least two potentially useful strategies. One is an even greater focus on the ways in which parenting practice is regulated, and more attention to the multiple strategies that parents use for navigating that regulation that resists the temptation to collapse them into what "the fathers in the study did" in a general sense. The other is a greater focus on the ways in which parenting is organized, regulated, and constrained by oppressive social relations by examining the challenges faced by marginalized families. That is, not including "diversity" in a sample in which the centre is still primarily white and straight, but exploring social organization and regulation and gendered social relations in the context of parenting from different angles by more exhaustive focus on the what racialized and queer parents struggle against. I say this more with activist intent than scholarly intent, but I think that starting from exhaustive attention to different specificities and mapping how they connect is likely to tell us more that is politically useful than starting from a predictable centre and pushing the margins out further to be more "inclusive."

Just imagine, for instance, what we could learn about gender and about parenting by focusing much more exhaustively on queer families, and on families which involve women who do masculinity and men who do femininity in pronounced ways. Imagine what we could learn about strategies for parenting that resist gender oppression at the individual, household, and collective levels -- strategies that all of us who try to take up critical gender politics could learn from and employ.

All of that said, this remains an important book that distills an immense amount of work and a very thoughtful framework into a fascinating exploration of the everyday lives of men who are highly involved in parenting.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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