Moms vs. Dads
Overlapping Toronto parenting conferences agree on little
Craig Offman firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Just like mom and dad, motherhood and fatherhood scholars might not concur on every domestic issue, but they do agree on two things: mothers are stereotyped for doing too much, and men for doing too little.
A motherhood conference this weekend at Toronto's York University conveys that very message, invoking revolutionary goals of maternal independence, creativity and spontaneity -- all in an effort to push moms out of the house and onto the streets. Across the city at a downtown hotel, however, scholars at a groundbreaking conference on fatherhood discussed topics that sounded a little more domesticated: "The Importance of Infant Sleep for First-Time Dads," "How Children Affect Fathers' Health" and "Father Involvement in the Context of Breast-Feeding."
While some of these topics might sound like send-ups for clueless guys, conference organizer Kerry Daly begs to differ.
Prof. Daly, who teaches family relations at the University of Guelph, emphasizes that the emergence of these issues proves that fathers are answering their partner's call to lighten their domestic workloads. "Men have been responsive to the feminist cry of the double day," he said. "To say that dads don't chip in is unfair and inaccurate."
Ending yesterday, the 2008 Father Involvement Research Conference is an unprecedented event in paternity's checkered history, the first time that scholars from around the world have gathered in one spot to discuss the progress that men of the house have made.
If the recent preponderance of ads of balding dads nuzzling babies is any indication, the nurturing father is gaining momentum, crossing the wimpy divide into a more accepting world.
Still, experts say, negative stereotypes prevail. "Look at the connotations," Prof. Daly said. "When you say mothered, you think of nurturing, warmth and comfort. When you say someone is fathered, you think of sperm."
While the trope of the buffoonish, useless Everyone Loves Raymond kind of dad is rampant, Prof. Daly observes that men have steadily devoted more time to parenting and household chores. "They are working longer hours, but they are still trying to find a complementarity of contributions."
There is a growing recognition among mothers, he adds, about how time spent with children is evaluated. A father, for example, taking a child to a softball game could be considered as meaningful as the time a mother might spend carpooling.
Andrea O'Reilly, a York University professor who organized the motherhood conference, said that she faced an entirely different set of obstacles when she started a local motherhood movement. "We had to prove it was legitimate, when most people saw motherhood as biology or instinct."
In contrast, she added, many perceive fatherhood as a choice, a novelty, a disembodied biological experience that many see as being inherently less instinctive. "You can step out of fatherhood at any given time, but with motherhood, you can't."
When read some of the topics being discussed across town, she sounded a little incredulous. "If I had written for a grant and I had 'baby time' as one of my categories, it would have been tossed."
Beginning with the emergence of DNA testing, however, several trends over the past decade have influenced the way that mothers and the motherhood movement look at their male counterparts --and vice versa.
Invoking a phrase from Mary O'Brien's influential book, The Politics of Reproduction, Prof. O'Reilly said that fathers would suffer from "alienation from the seed," but that might have changed with the advent of genetic testing.
Men once had to trust women that the baby they were carrying was theirs; now it could be verified, perhaps altering, on a subconscious level at least, a father's sense of responsibility. "It's only been 10 years since we've been able to prove who the father is," Prof. O'Reilly said.
Around the same time, academics began to realize that mothers would often judge their partners' performance on their own terms, what experts call a "deficit model of parenting." In other words, they focused on men's inadequacies as parents--a phenomenon that could be called a form of reverse sexism: when it comes to parenting, men are useless.
"It was looked at through a matriarchal lens," said Carleton University professor Andrea Doucet, who spoke yesterday at the fatherhood conference on "I'm Still Their Mother: Fathers Mothering and Maternal Gatekeeping."
But Prof. Doucet, the author of the book "Do Men Mother?", noted that women typically discounted activities such as coaching, or driving to sports, because they were considered "fun," when instead they potentially could involve crucial developmental moments.
In 1996, however, a landmark collection of essays, Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perspectives, helped shift the paradigm in the academic world, showing that men could offer varied, positive approaches to parenting. Invisible fathering traits such as risk-taking -- and even a little rough-and-tumble play -- could be positive for a child's development.
Prof. Doucet said that while mothers are still in the driver's seat, doing most of the planning and organizing, they need to find ways to encourage men to step to the plate -- all of which makes communication and negotiation between fathers and mothers all the more important.
"It's important to talk about them in relation to each other," she said, unwittingly raising a point about the segregated nature of these two conferences.
If communication is so important in this increasingly equitable relationship, how could it be that the two parenting events with a few days of overlap cold have no interplay whatsoever? Symbolically at least, what does it say about motherhood and fatherhood?
Both organizers said that neither knew the other was planning a conference until it was too late.
Or as Prof. O'Reilly aptly put it, "We're just a busy couple and we didn't check in with each other."
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