In an effort to define the difference between mothering and fathering, Darrell Milton explores gender roles and their impact on parenting.
I didn’t give birth to either of my kids, and I didn’t breast feed them either. Those roles went to my wife back when she had exclusivity on the mothering role.
Since then, I’ve bathed them. I’ve fed them. I’ve changed dirty nappies. I’ve changed dirty and soiled clothes. I’ve sat on the floor playing with them before they could move. I’ve watched them as they learned to crawl. I’ve helped them as they learned to stand, and then walk, and then toddle, and then run.
Now, I cook for them. I clean up after them, and clean their dirty faces. I make breakfasts. I make school lunches. I do the school drop offs, and the pickups. I take them shopping for new clothes, and new books, and new toys. I take them out for lunch, out for a play, out for the day. I put them to bed. I read to them and have them read to me. I switch off their lights as they fall asleep. At the end of the day I sit down and think about all those roles I have done throughout the day – throughout the years. I think about the things I need to do tomorrow.
These parenting tasks are challenging. These parenting roles are tedious; but, these parenting roles are rewarding. Tonight, it dawned on me: while I spend a lot of time parenting, I don’t know if I spend enough time merely fathering. What made me think of that? Seeing another mother talk about her role of mothering.
So what is mothering? I turned to my old friend Google for the answer; verb – mothering;
- bring up (a child) with care and affection. “the art of mothering”
Hmmm. Interesting. Mothering is to bring up one’s child with care and affection. Now, clearly, I am going up to bat for myself and many of my fellow fathers when I suggest that we fathers also bring up our children with care and affection. But I digress…
So what is fathering? Once again I turned to my old friend Google for the answer; verb – fathering;
- treat with the protective care associated with a father. “the two males share the fathering of the cubs”
And therein lies the difference between mothering and fathering. Whilst mothering involves care and affection, the care one gives while fathering is more protective.
And yet we often hear of the Mother Bear mentality (aka Mama Bear): the notion that a seemingly “normal” passive mother would go absolutely mental and destroy anyone who would dare hurt her children. That sounds, how do I put this? Protective? Is that the word I’m looking for?
Maybe the only way to make some sense was for me to look at the umbrella term for the collective of both the mother and the father doing these roles in tandem:
verb – parenting;
- be or act as a mother or father to (someone).“Exhaustion is incompatible with good parenting.”
That is a true statement, you know. Parenting is very exhausting. It is almost as exhausting as having the debate with mothers as to the difference between mothering, fathering and parenting beyond those two tasks that we fathers will never be able to do – give birth and breast feed.
I do remember back in the Eighties when I was “childing” my way through family life (“childing” should be a word, right?). I remember being taught those distinctive gender roles from some, though not all, of my neighboring families. For example, the family that lived to the back and left of us – the mother was a home-maker and the father was the breadwinner. The son and daughter were the children they were ever so hoping would make it big in the fields of baseball and softball respectively.
I remember both kids being quite the feisty and misbehaved children that one might expect children who were pushed to their limits by their parents could be. I remember vividly that phrase – that phrase I remember being shouted so loud that you could hear it half a dozen houses away. A phrase shouted so loud that you could almost feel the sound-waves from the other side of the neighborhood fence (I’m changing the names of the children to protect the innocent):
“GEOFFREY, You wait until your father gets home!”
“TINA, You wait until your father gets home!”
In that household there was a definite distinction between the role of the mother, and the role of the father. The mother cooked and cleaned, and cooked and cleaned, and cooked and cleaned, and cooked -and then she cleaned! Her role was keeping the house in order, and keeping the children alive, just enough, until of course, their father got home.
Inside the home, when he was not working, the role of the father was to punish the kids. It seemed like a daily occurrence, and that’s not really an exaggeration. Here was a household where, based on the neighbors to my left, the neighbors to my right, and the three houses that backed onto each of ours, was the only household where the mother wasn’t out at work full-time, and yet despite their 1950’s lifestyle, their kids were the epitome of post-new-millennial bratty kids, well before their time.
From what we could hear, and from what we could sense, the punishment dealt out by this father was two-fold. First there was the corporal punishment. I’ll let you imagine what a 1980’s father could produce behind closed doors. This was followed by relentless hours of throwing a baseball or softball back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth until it would stick. Pitching practice in that backyard would last for hours. Yes, this IS 1980’s suburban Australia I’m talking about. I’m not trying to paint the picture of some backward town in the mid-West USA. This was the 19-freaking-80s my friends. Yes, there was a gender divide that you could hang your hat on and say; there’s her mothering roles, and that’s his fathering duties. I am so glad that the scene I described is a distant memory now. Well it was, until I just wrote about it.
Birthing and breastfeeding aside, 1950’s housewife and evil dictator father aside, do we still have these gender roles that should be given separate titles? Do we need to have someone do the “mothering” and another person do the “fathering” within a household when raising children? If that’s the case, that hardly seems fair to throw our stereotypical gender roles on same-sex couples who are doing a great job raising their children.
What about single parent households? Are mothers in these households doing enough fathering? Are the fathers able to even cope with an ounce of mothering, or are their penises getting in the way? It seems very archaic to me for us to use these gender specific terms to describe roles of people who are basically doing the same role, just with different appendages. The person who drives the garbage truck that picks up our recycling every second week is a woman. It would obviously be a faux pas for me to suggest that she’s one of the most reliable garbage men I’ve ever had pick up my bins. As a non-gender specific garbage collector, she definitely is one who seems to have her run down-pat. You could almost set your watch to her if, you know, you were living back in the days when people actually wore watches.
The days of calling people mail-men, companies advertising for a salesman, or a barman seem to fit back in time when we all did wear a watch. Back in the days well before smart-phones, or any sort of mobile phones. I remember starting at a company the year before mobile phones started being seen on the street. I applied for a job that was advertised as an internal sales role, but with a lot of secretarial and general office dog’s roles thrown in together.
I can remember the very 1950’s mindset driven male chauvinist boss sitting me down at the interview and asking what appealed to me about a job where the term “secretarial skills” was used in the job description. A job whereby (his words): “an office bitch with half a brain that could learn a few things about our products” was on the table. Why was a “boy” like me applying for a role like that? Why would I apply for a job that had previously been filled by a woman, and another woman before her.
To be honest, like most fresh faced youngsters, I really needed a foot in the door, and seeing that I have the typing speed of the “ladies down in the typing pool,” and the ability to smash the Dewey Decimal System or other filing systems out of the ballpark, I didn’t see the point of not going for the job.
Gender roles haven’t been a part of my vocabulary for years. I don’t get the need for us to give separate titles for certain fields. I have often thought that maybe we should scrap the best male actor and best female actor divides and let Meryl Streep come up against Jack Nicholson to see who should win the Oscar for the best overall actor. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the best male vocal performance and best female vocal performance categories and have the gender neutral best vocal performance category. I mean, we’re already happy to have had the all-female group of the Dixie Chicks take on the all-male Rascal Flatts in the Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal category and beat them, so why not let individual women take on the individual men?
When it comes down to it, that’s exactly how we’re being judged within our household. When my kids are pissed off at me they’re not looking and thinking “let’s be happy with this guy; after all, he is the best at fathering in this household.” No, they’re not looking at that. What they are doing is scanning the house to see which of us is being the hard-arse parent and which is being the push-over parent on any given day.
Child 1: “I think Dad’s parenting skills are very strong tonight. Let’s focus on Mum. She seems to be relaxed on that whole parenting thing tonight!”
Child 2 : “Agreed. Mum is all parented out from last night. But Dad’s parenting was very relaxed back then.”
That’s just how they see it. That’s just how I see it. And that’s just how it is, isn’t it?
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