The great divide

‘Equality of parenting is the greatest remaining barrier to equality between the sexes’ claimed Pru Goward in The Age (11 August 2003). Having recently read The End of Equality—Anne Summers’ lament to the deplorable level of progress made towards equality between women and men in Australia—I still see an astounding number of obstacles  in the way. The list makes for depressing reading: unequal rates of pay; social policy skewed against working mothers; increasing rates of domestic violence; an inadequate child care system; the vast under-representation of women at executive and board level of almost every major company and the largely ineffective representation of women by women in federal and state parliaments.

In the face of these many issues, equality of parenting has received little media attention. It is as if there is no further progress to be made in the movement—started in the 1970s—towards the greater involvement of fathers in the care of children. Certainly huge inroads were made into the remarkably durable belief that only a mother could properly care for young children. In 1979 the Family Court cast aside the assumption in favour of the biological mother which had operated in custody cases finding, with a somewhat ill-founded optimism, that ‘there has come a radical change in the division of responsibilities between parents’  (Gronow v. Gronow). As commentators noted at the time (and many more have pointed out since) the real picture was that despite the ‘new’ paradigm of fatherhood, women maintain responsibility for the majority of household tasks including the care of children, even when employed outside the home.

Nonetheless the profile of the father had shifted—the role of fathers in the care of children had increased in importance. The reality of the situation was that while many men subscribed to the new archetype of fatherhood, most continued in their role as provider. As Goward noted in her article, the work of raising children falls heavily, and in many cases solely, upon women. Mr Mom, or even a modified part-time version of him, is most certainly the exception not the rule.

Many barriers have remained in the way of a truly shared parenting role, not the least of which is the structure of the workplace and current social policy. Frank Castles (Eureka Street, April 2004) notes that Australian social and public policy is anachronistically and unfairly geared towards a family comprised of a male breadwinner and female homemaker. Goward also suggests other obstacles in the issue of mothers gatekeeping their roles, positioning themselves as all-knowing repositories of parenting knowledge and in the reluctance of many men, within the confines of the present workplace structure, to take up ‘family friendly’ work options.

Underpinning these policies and ideas are some deeply rooted cultural assumptions about the roles of mothers and fathers. The most powerful of these has been the belief that men and women have biologically predetermined, gender specific roles as parents. This belief found a ‘scientific’ basis in the work of British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby during the 1950s and 1960s. Bowlby took an evolutionary approach to the behaviour of the (non-human) primates he studied, finding that the dominating aggressive behaviour of males and the caring and nurturing behaviour of certain females were biological imperatives. In attributing the behaviour of certain species of monkey to humans, Bowlby established the ‘fact’ that to deprive a child, particularly an infant, of his or her mother’s presence endangers a child’s physical, emotional and intellectual development. This finding profoundly influenced maternal attachment theories in psychology and has as its concomitant the relegation of the father to a secondary role in terms of his inherent capacity to parent. How can a father compete with the truly primal and exclusive bond between mother and child?

Modern sociobiologists have skittled much of Bowlby’s theory. Aside from the issue of whether monkey behaviour can be directly attributed to humans, researchers have found less than benevolent maternal instincts in some primate species and other species of monkey where the father undertakes all caregiving activities for the infant other than feeding. In her enlightening book Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father (1997, Random House), Adrienne Burgess describes the more recent studies establishing the wide variation in parenting behaviours amongst males: they are ‘far from fixed … they do not so much vary in response to biological imperatives as to changing circumstances.’ Attachment theory has also had its challenges. Recent bonding literature producing evidence of the capacity of human infants to form strong attachments with five or even more caregivers, where one attachment does not undermine the strength of, or potential for another.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Bowlby’s theories had never been debunked. Despite the real, if slow, progress made since the 1970s towards the greater participation of men as parents, the idea that the father’s capacity to parent is inherently inferior to, and different from, that of the mother is deeply entrenched in Western culture. It surfaces frequently in advertising, in government family policy, in family law cases (despite the introduction of gender-neutral terminology) and in everyday conversation. More broadly, it is reinforced and perpetuated in popular culture each time the differences, rather than similarities, between men and women are presented as immutable. If men and women are to equally share in the parenting of children, it is time to abandon a mindset which embraces Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It is surely time to focus upon Burgess’s refreshing conclusion that ‘in terms of biology the difference between men and women is shatteringly small’.

True equality of parenting requires a radical refiguring of these gendered ideas of parenting: it calls for a rethinking of motherhood and fatherhood not as biologically predetermined roles, but as roles requiring the real work of caring for and nurturing a child. We may be born with some protective instincts towards our children but we are not born with the inherent skill to parent. It is an art born of the hard work of raising children. It is learnt in the time spent soothing a cranky baby, in mulling over a child’s behaviour, in mediating between siblings, in juggling competing demands. It calls for patience (knock-knock jokes), judgment (when to let go of the bike), energy (AFL Auskick football drills for sadly unskilled parents) and self-sacrifice (Rugrats in Paris versus Taggart). Parenting is not about being the mother or being the father, but about doing the work of nurturing a child.

Mothers do not inherently and automatically understand their child’s needs. The Australian sociologists, Lupton and Barclay note that differences in caregiving capacities between mothers and fathers may be a consequence of the more limited opportunities fathers have to be the principal caregiver for their child: ‘It may be because mothers generally engage as the primary carer from the start that this is how they come to “know” what the child “needs”’. Mothers become skilled through the sheer constancy and intensity of the work of anticipating and attending to the demands of a child. There is then no reason why fathers might not, with the same opportunity to spend time with the child, attain the same skill.

All of this points to the need to restructure the workplace in such a way as to foster opportunities for fathers to equally engage in parenting. It raises the need to address the relatively few opportunities for men to work part-time and the reluctance of men to avail themselves of such opportunities for fear of being perceived as not truly committed to their jobs.

In discussions of work and family the issue of equality of parenting should be no barbecue stopper. Most mothers would welcome an easing of the load. For policy makers obsessed with a solution to the ‘fertility crisis’ in Australia, equality of parenting deserves serious consideration. Women, especially those who wish to work, are far more likely to consider having children if they are not alone and unsupported in the real work of parenting. Social policy aimed almost entirely at women remaining in the home while their children are young, serves to economically disempower women and to deprive men of the opportunity to share in the invaluable experience of parenting their children. 

Virginia Bourke is a lawyer.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up