4.13 Gender and parenting
Other feminist writers have used psychodynamic ideas to support their argument that gender differences, while ‘real’, are not inevitable but the result of the ways in which children are socialised in contemporary western societies. Nancy Chodorow, for example, claims that the isolated nuclear family in contemporary capitalist society is responsible for creating ‘specific personality characteristics in men’:
For children of both genders, mothers represent regression and lack of autonomy. A boy associates these issues with his gender identification as well. Dependence on his mother, attachment to her, and identification with her represent that which is not masculine; a boy must reject dependence and deny attachment and identification. Masculine gender role training becomes much more rigid than feminine. A boy represses those qualities he takes to be feminine inside himself, and rejects and devalues women and whatever he considers to be feminine in the social world.
Chodorow, 1978, p. 181
Chodorow argues that the experience of being parented by a woman makes women more likely to seek to be mothers, while the same experience leads to men experiencing themselves as separate from others: ‘Men … do not define themselves in relationships and have come to suppress relational capacities and suppress relational needs. This prepares them to participate in the affect-denying world of alienated work’ (p. 207). These ideas may sound close to those propounded by Tannen and Gray, the key difference being that Chodorow locates their cause in the way society is currently organised and children are brought up, rather than in some kind of essential and universal masculinity or femininity.
Jessica Benjamin is another feminist and psychoanalyst who argues that gender differences are the result of ‘current gender arrangements’ and that it is possible to imagine the situation being otherwise. She cites psychodynamic writers who describe boys as losing the sense of a ‘vital source of goodness inside’ when they separate from their mothers, and thus needing to substitute the conquest of ‘outer’ space for access to inner space (Benjamin, 1998, p. 163). She claims:
The denial of identification with the mother …tends to cut the boy off from the intersubjective communication that was part of the primary bond between mother and infant. Emotional attunement, sharing states of mind, empathically assuming the other's position, and imaginatively perceiving the other's needs and feelings -these are now associated with cast-off femininity. Emotional attunement is now experienced as dangerously close to losing oneself in the other; affective imitation is now used negatively to tease and provoke. Thus the intersubjective dimension is increasingly reduced, and the need for mutual recognition must be satisfied with mere identification of likeness … The devaluation of the need for the other becomes a touchstone of adult masculinity.
Benjamin, 1998, pp. 170, 171
Benjamin also suggests that ‘the changing social relations of gender have given us a glimpse of another world, of a space in which each sex can play the other and so accept difference by making it familiar’ (p. 169).
Social constructionists would agree with these feminist writers that it is possible to imagine the disappearance of gender differences, in the context of changed gender relationships in society. Gender relationships in the family and in society at large are changing and there is often a greater emphasis on equality in both the home and the workplace, even if the reality has yet to catch up with the rhetoric in some instances. Earlier in this course you were introduced to the social constructionist idea that people construct their everyday experience in the context of powerful ‘discourses’, or ways of thinking and talking about particular issues. For example, discourses concerning gender and caring have altered considerably in the past 30 years or so. The entry of women into the paid workforce in large numbers has contributed to a reassessment of men's roles within the family, and to a greater emphasis on men's involvement in the care of young children. Government and the media have helped to shape a new discourse in which men's practical and emotional involvement in child care is now seen as ‘a good thing’.
This involves an important change in ideas about masculinity. In British society masculinity was once associated with being a breadwinner, with patriarchal authority and with keeping a certain distance from child rearing. Now increasingly being a (real) man is seen to involve taking some responsibility for activities, such as child care and household chores, that would have been deemed ‘unmanly’ in the past. This is powerful evidence for the social constructionist argument that gender identities – in this case masculinity – are fluid, dynamic and shaped by social and cultural context. In this changing context, men are beginning to reshape their sense of themselves as men.
The final activity in this section draws on research into fathers' identities as an example of the ways in which men's gender identities are changing, and how this process reflects wider social discourses.