Sunday, August 20, 2006

Parental Identity and Behavior - And the Difference Between the Two

From Ash:

I promised some of the additional research related to our Gatekeeper Moms piece for Time, and so, finally, here it is. (Sorry for the delay: I got waylaid – first, with our subsequent piece about technology as the bearer of bad news, and then going to Montreal.)

As we were reading about Gatekeeper Moms, both Po and I were fascinated to learn about the relationship between parents' identity as parents and their behavior – an issue particularly acute in the Gatekeeper Mom household. Po went into some of this in his post on new fathers – but he tackled a lot in that one, so, just to make sure I'm not going to lose anyone with jargon, I'm going to back up a bit.

What I'm referring to here as "parental identity" is how people are asked to list the various things that define them (e.g., husband, father, employee), then they rank them in terms of what is the most important. "Parental behavior," on the other hand, is actual participation in caregiving activities.

It turns out that a woman's identity as a mother is tied closely to her behavior. The stronger her identity as a mother, the more stuff she does. If she doesn't have a strong identity as a mom – she also says that her career is a large part of her identity – she does less caregiving.

The opposite seems to be true for fathers.

Fathers may have a strong identity as a father, but that doesn't necessarily increase their caregiving. The two just aren't as tightly connected.

A man who always changes diapers doesn't necessarily have a stronger identity as a father than a man who's never touched a baby wipe. And, conversely, a father working an 80-hour a week may miss his children and wish he was with them – and but his absence doesn't weaken his identity as a father. In fact, it's quite common for men to see spending time at work as fulfilling the breadwinner role, and they think that's the most important part of his role as father. So a dad who spends all his time at work might even have a stronger view of himself as a father, because he sees that time as a sacrifice for his family.

If paternal identity doesn't influence a father's caregiving, what does?

The wife. It’s how a father sees himself through his wife’s eyes - that’s the key to both his identity as a father and his involvement with the kids. If he believes she thinks he should be involved in caregiving, he will be. If he thinks his wife sees him as the most inept dad since Fred Flintstone, then he’s less likely to be involved, and he’ll do less, too.

It's to the point that one sociologist sort of argued that, in order to change a father's involvement in the house, the one to go after isn't the father, but the wife. That's an oversimplification of the report, but not all that much.

Interestingly, this really only affects paternal caregiving. Dads still see themselves as breadwinners. Period. A mom's view of a father as breadwinner doesn't really effect him on that front.

Note that it is not the wife's actual opinion that counts: it's what he believes she thinks of him that counts. So if she carps all the time about how he's a terrible father, but secretly admires him, it's her carping that he responds to.

And, in case you're wondering, yes – mothers also change their behavior because of how they perceive their husbands's opinions of them. For them, fathers' perceived opinions affect both the mothers' caregiving and her breadwinning – because although it's increasingly necessary, her role as breadwinner still isn't the cultural given compared to her caregiving role.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, what you are saying is that people actually "live up" to expectations.

Still chewing on thoughts regarding this recent essay.


7:51 PM  

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