Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mommy wars vs. daddy wars

Elisa over at Mother Talkers recently posted on a Salon article that asked whether we're going to see "daddy wars." My hunch is that the answer is no.

When I think of all the stay-at-home dads — or even really involved dads — that I know, none of them are parenting like the overachiever moms described by Judith Warner. These dads aren't overscheduling their kids or parenting in what Warner described as an “excessive, control-freakish way." They're not fixated on the choices of other dads (or moms for that matter), and don't feel the need to "prove" they are better parents.

Why is that?

Why would men, who are raised in and subjected to the same societal expectations and definitions of success, but who decide to stay home with the kids, have such a different parenting style?

My best guess is that it is all about different gender expectations and the different pressures men and women face in our competitive, individualistic society, and especially in the context of middle and upper-middle class America.

A dad who decides to stay home full-time with his kids has to make a major identity shift. He has to reject society's expectations of him as a male, and change his identity from one focused on "achieving" in a material sense to one focused on "caring." He's giving up a career, money, status and prestige, in short, everything by which our society defines success, in order to care for his kids.

(Of course he still has his male privilege, that is, he still knows that, push comes to shove, he's still a guy, that society values him as a guy, and he can choose to get back into the professional workforce somehow.)

The SAHD has already decided to reject society's definition of "achievement" and "ambition," he's already surrendered himself to a different mode of being. So his time with his kids reflects that different mode.

No need to be the perfect overachieving dad. No need to overschedule the kids, no need to compete with other dads (or moms), no need to prove in the realm of parenting that he's successful in those traditional terms. Dad can accept that parenting is not about ambition and achievement because he's had to move to a different place in order to be a SAHD.

If a mom decides to stay home full-time, it's also a serious, hard decision. Like the dad, she too is giving up career, money, status and prestige. For these moms too a key part of their identity is society's definitions of achievement and ambition. As Warner explains,

We saw ourselves as winners. We'd been bred, from the earliest age, for competition. Our schools had given us co-ed gym and wood-working shop, and had told us never to let the boys drown out our voices in class. Often enough, we'd done better than they had in school. Even in science and math. And our passage into adulthood was marked by growing numbers of women in the professions. We believed that we could climb as high as we wanted to go, and would grow into the adults we dreamed we could be.

She's clearly talking about a class-specific group here, but let's set that fact aside for the moment (since many SAHDs are from that same class).

For women from this class background, maybe it is much harder to make the shift that the SAHDs have made. Success for women of this class is defined in the traditional masculine, materialistic way: power career, climbing the professional ladder, high-status jobs, more money, high-status lifestyle.

This is a big change from the past, when expectations for women were quite different, when women were oppressed by a traditionally subordinate and dependent role. So we have progressed as a society because women can now be as ambitious and successful as men.

But do they have a choice? Can a woman feel successful if she does not meet the traditional masculine measures of achievement and success in our competitive, materialistic society?

I think maybe that it's hard for these women to do what the SAHD's do (that is, shift out of this achievement mode), because for women, more is at stake. Foresaking a career and the dominant definitions of achievement seems to mean reverting to that oppressed, traditional role described so well by Betty Friedan. And once you revert, there's no going back.

So maybe what's happening among some women is that they are hanging onto society's definition of ambition and success, and just transferring it to their roles as moms. That definition of ambition and success is so central to their identities, in part because if they give it up they fear reverting to the old, oppressed roles and identities described by Friedan.

So momming becomes competitive, it becomes focused on achievement, especially achievement of their kids as the measure of their own success.

I think since the stay-at-home dads have had to make a decision to downshift, and because they have that male identity to fall back on, they are in some ways more able to shift into that non-achievement oriented mode of caring, outside of and different than the competitive definition of "success" that dominates our society.

The question then becomes, how can women downshift without reverting to the past. How can they do what SAHDs have done, how can they come to terms with an identity that is not in line with society's definition of "success" and "achievement," how can they shift to an identity that values caring and defines success in noncompetitive and nonmaterialistic ways? I do know some SAHMs who seem to have done that, who are not parenting in the ways described by Warner. While they are highly educated, they also tend to be much more counter-cultural than Warner’s moms. I’m not sure, this seems like it would be a great area for some research.

On a final note, Warner is right about the need for societal support for families and children. But based on the above hunches, I don't think that alone would do anything at all to relieve the anxieties and overachieving parenting style of the moms she focuses on.

What it would do is provide needed support and relief to moms and dads who just want to spend more time with their kids. And that's an important first step.

Reposted in slightly revised form from daddychip2


Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"No need to be the perfect overachieving dad. No need to overschedule the kids, no need to compete with other dads (or moms)..."

I'd also factor in that many SAHDs find themselves on the outside, socially -- this is something discussed extensively elsewhere, and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence for the proposition that the social isolation of SAHDs is real, not imagined (I've had my mind changed about this; I used to think the isolation was primarily a product of SAHD insecurity). This almost certainly reduces social pressures of all kinds -- for many guys, it's just them and their kids all day, and, if they're lucky, a few relatives and a couple of friends. There are few daddy groups, etc. and almost nothing in the way of positive and negative role models and media images.

Atena said...

I think you've made some important observations here - it's interesting to hear more from the SAHD perspective.

I don't know many SAHDs, but you paint quite the rosy picture. I hope it's as nice and balanced as you make it sound.

I think, though, that you fail to realize that "momming" has always been competitive. This competition isn't a symptom of displaced ambition, and lack of a career arena (for some maybe, but not necessarily most) - it has existed among all kinds of moms, whether they ever had a job or not, and it goes back further than the mass induction of middle-class women into the workforce and their subsequent return to domestic work.

Piggybacking on the comment of Jeremy Smith there, I'd lend a lot of credence to the idea that because there hasn't been much of a consistent context for SAHDs, that isolation and distance among and between fathers who are primary caregivers create much of the differences that you note here concerning SAH mom styles vs. dad styles.

SAHDs have had less time and opportunity to build the kind of social matrix that exists for SAHMs. I imagine that after more time goes by, there'll be more to speak of regarding competition and ambitious parenting. I guess we'll see.

Chip said...

I understand both of your points. Yes, there has traditionally been isolation for SAHDs (glad you've seen that jeremy), but I don't think that's the major factor.

Men are definitely socialized in different ways than women are. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. And for a guy to become a SAHD he has to buck part of that socialization and fundamentally transform at least part of his own identity, and step away from the competitive status stuff. And for me anyway it was a major shift. I'd guess it is a significant adjustment for most guys.

So when SAHDs get together with each other, this different structure of gender identity will, I believe, lead to a different outcome.

I wouldn't call it "rosy", because it's not rosy. It's just a reality as I've observed and experienced it.

I'd only add that I have experienced the SAHMs that are the type Warner describes, but I also know SAHMs who are not like that. The main difference that I see is that the latter have consciously rejected much of the dominant culture's values, as I noted in the post.

Chip said...

One more thing on atena's point that momming has always been competitive. That is true, but I think what Warner is describing is way beyond any of the competitiveness among moms of my own mother's generations. They didn't mother in the ways Warner is describing. Though I'm very critical of much of Warner's argument, I do think that she has pointed to something that is qualitatively different compared to the past.

Anonymous said...

This was a really great post, Chip. I just found it this evening. I'm a SAHM, one who has struggled with the competitive atmosphere of being a SAHM and who has found ways to stay out of it. (Mainly by not hanging out with the competitive SAHMs that I know.) I don't see SAHDs ever having to deal with that sort of thing for the reasons you describe. Plus, I agree that the competition goes back far beyond our modern-day construct of being a SAHM. It's because women have always been judged by their children--it's their "product" and so it becomes our identity and value in many people's minds. It's hard to fight against it. I'm glad that SAHDs don't deal with it as much--it's not fun.

YourFireAnt said...

Very interesting post. I am writing as a child now, and I would not've liked my father to be home all day. On the other hand,I would've liked him to stay around longer, but he died young. So, in retrospect I would've liked him to be around all day SOME of the time, though he did not have the oomph necessary to do it without a "work break". My mother was home when we were young, but she was running a business, looking after students who lived upstairs [two meals a day, all that laundry, etc.] for the first 7 or 8 years of my life. However, we were six kids in all, and tended to look after each other, which made my parents's busy life possible, or at least bearable. At least most of the time. Maybe.

I wonder, did your kids ever comment on your being home with them rather than their mother.

Chip said...

yourfireant, I was home full time with my daughter for the first two years of her life; then her mom was home full time with her and then her brother for the next few years, and once little bro went to K'garten mom went back to school and then worked full time.

I do and have spent lots of time with them. I think it's not a big deal to them, there are lots of involved dads, lots of dads at their elementary school, and I think my daughter thinks it's cool I took care of her when she was a baby.

They were never confused. It was other people who at times had a problem with a dad caring full time for a baby.

Anonymous said...

I think that you are missing out on the fact that SAHD and involved fathers get much more positive feedback than mothers. When my son was born, my husband worked full-time and would change an occasional wet diaper or hold the little lad if I needed to get something done. Because he seemed to notice that he had a child, everyone credited him with being a great dad. Now that he is a SAHD while I get my PhD, he is labeled a 'Super Dad'. When I stayed at home, there was no such accolades. In fact, I think that in order to earn the title 'Super Mom' I would have to pull my own arm off and beat an assailant off my son or maybe lift a car off of him.
SAHM do not get praised much by anyone simply for being involved with their children -- it is expected and assumed. A dad who simply shows an interest is surpassing societal expectations and that is 'super'.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Hi Betsy. Thanks for stopping by.

Based on a combination of personal experience and empirical research that I've read, I don't agree that SAHDs get more social approval than SAHMs. They do stand out more, I agree, and that triggers more comments, both positive and negative, but many SAHDs do not get much support.

Some do. They have supportive families and friends, they stand out in their community, and they might have personalities that allow them to overcome barriers between SAHMs and SAHDs.

And, of course, there is always the stray person who calls the SAHD a "pioneer" or "Superdad" and the like. It's nice to hear, but sometimes, to the ears of the dad, it sounds very patronizing.

Many dads simply don't let the negative or patronizing comments get them down. They hunker down and focus on the kid(s). Good for them.

But it's important to recognize that many SAHDs get a lot of shit from a lot of people. This is not to say that SAHMs don't, especially when it comes to re-entering the workforce. But I think most reasonable people would agree that a mom staying home is considered normal and healthy in our society, while a dad staying home is still considered suspicious by many people.

There's actually a flip side to this story which I don't think gets nearly enough attention: the burdens faced by breadwinning moms who work to support their husband and kids. In many ways, I think these women are much more alone than their husbands.