Saturday, June 7, 2008

Dads take on 'executive' role at home

Anne Marie Owens, National Post (Canada) , 5 June 2008

More than 9,000 academics are in Vancouver this week to present research on everything from gender roles to the sociology of first names. In a week-long series on the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.

The men who make school lunches and take control of immunization schedules - and the women who let them - may be the vanguard of the most equal of parenting arrangements today.

With more men taking parental leave, a gradual increase in the sharing of household duties and fathers taking an increasingly active role in the lives of their children, the final frontier of shared parenting lies in the bureaucratic business of family life - scheduling doctors' appointments, overseeing teacher meetings and school communications, organizing play
dates and birthday parties, keeping track of homework and taking on lunch duties.

It is what those who examine the sociology of the family call "executive responsibility," and it is still predominantly the domain of women. But that, according to new research unveiled at Canada's largest academic gathering this week, is beginning to change.

In a paper called, "Who's Really in Charge?" sociologist Gillian Ranson explores the division of this particular form of labour in non-traditional families across Canada. Her findings are culled from extensive interviews with 32 couples across the country with breadwinner-mothers and caregiver fathers or dual-working/ dual-parenting partners.

It is an admittedly small sample, says Prof. Ranson, who teaches at the University of Calgary, "but by digging deep, you get a picture of life that helps demolish some of the stereotypes and raises the possibilities for how we might work together."

Included in her sample are a couple where the mother has completely surrendered this executive responsibility and is essentially on the sidelines, couples where fathers have taken on increasing roles but where mothers retain this key
family manager role, and the majority of those interviewed, where the couples are actively negotiating who does what.

In many cases, what that means is mothers letting go of control of an aspect of family life that is at once drudgery and minutiae, and yet also intensely critical to family functioning.

"It is, ideologically, one of the key parts of mothering," Prof. Ranson said. "These kinds of things help keep a handle on the emotional tenor of the family. They are very important."

Prof. Ranson discovered that those mothers who do cede some of this control to their spouses, however, begin to regard each other more thoroughly as partners in a shared venture. As one of the women she interviewed said, "I can talk to Matt about Emma the way I would talk to one of my girlfriends about our daughters. We can use the same language. We are absolutely on the same page."

An entirely different picture of modern mothering and fathering roles is conveyed by studying the dominant images in Mother's Day and Father's Day cards sold in Canada.

Two B. C. sociologists scrutinized more than 2,500 cards on display at stores in the province's Lower Mainland to see how gender and family work was portrayed in what the researchers describe as a valuable source for giving "a good indication of what people in our society currently recognize and value as important aspects of mothers' and fathers' roles."

What they found, and what they document in their presentation this week called "Angels, Heroes and Slobs: How Do Representations of Gender and Family Work in Mother's Day and Father's Day Cards Help Explain the Stalled Revolution?" are images still very much bound to tradition: mothers as
synonymous with home, busy with a daily juggling act of work, and fathers as protectors, providers and all-around hero figures.

They also uncovered a murky undercurrent in the Father's Day cards that reveal father as couch potato and, in a spin that runs counter to Prof. Ranson's cutting-edge families, a recurring theme of father as subordinate to mother.

"The egalitarian ideals of shared parenting - and sharing other forms of family work - are not being given as much attention in popular culture today," conclude the researchers, Alison Thomas of Douglas College and Elizabeth Dennis, of University College of the Fraser Valley.

"This has implications for the pace of change: If men's involvement in the home is so frequently minimized and/or ridiculed, while women's is praised, how much encouragement is there for people to take seriously the possibility of sharing family work more fairly?"

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