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Gender and Parenting Culture: Intensive Fatherhood?

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A key idea informing our discussions is that we live in a time when child-rearing has become ‘intensive’. Unprecedented demands are made on parents’ time, energy and emotions under the auspices of raising happy, healthy children. Key accounts of the development of this sort of parenting culture have emphasised how it influences mothers in particular – the ‘Mommy Myth’ is how Douglas and Michaels describe the prevailing ideology informing childrearing, whilst Hays titles her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.

Yet British culture and has manifestly witnessed a turn toward a new construction of the ‘good father’. New fathers are routinely encouraged, for example, to improve ‘bonding’ with their children by attending classes that show them how to play with their children or how to read to them. Recently fatherhood has become politicised as some claim better ‘work-life balance’ policies are needed to make sure father can be more involved with parenting. Dads should spend more time at home with their children and less at work, it is claimed, as a means to mend what has been called ‘the broken society’.

In this light, this seminar asks: How far have constructions of the good father shifted in, for example, law and policy? How do fathers feature in policy in ways different to mothers, and how does that shape their experience of parenting? Have we seen the emergence of intensive parenthood – and, how intensive can fathering really become, given the embodied care infants are said to require in this framework? What does research about the lived experience of fathers tell us? How have men experienced the transformation of ‘fathering’ from a label denoting their relationship to their child to one denoting their identity? Are some fathers more influenced by contemporary parenting culture than others? What do recent developments suggest about the continuing valance of the idea of intensive motherhood?

Further, we will ask what assessment should be offered of contemporary ideas and policies about fatherhood. Hays argued that the emergence of the intensive father would offer no solution to the cultural contradictions of motherhood. She suggested, through reference to Arlie Hochschild’s work The Second Shift, that moving the focus from intensive mothering to intensive parenting is only a partial solution to the contradiction between the demands of home and work, and one that does not begin to address larger cultural contradictions. If men and women shared the burden of the contradiction, the larger social paradox would continue to haunt both of them and would grow even stronger for men.

Hays asked, ‘Why don’t we convince ourselves that children need neither a quantity of time nor “quality time” with their mothers or their fathers?’ Does this polemical point of view have merit? Should we welcome or critique the rise of the ‘intensive father’?

This talk is part of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproduction Forum series.

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