Parenting and Gender Roles
I could get stuck writing a book on gender and I’m sure I’ll write more posts in that theme in the future (it’s one topic students really do like to talk about). I will note, though, that in our society, gender remains one of the strongest cultural categories around. While many decry the evils of class and race, only a mocked and fringe-y few call for the elimination of gender (see the debates surrounding the Toronto parents that are attempting to raise genderless children). Gender remains as an intrinsic part of our culture that most well-meaning, thoughtful people still want to hold onto (I struggle with this one myself…would a genderless world be a better one as classes or raceless one would be? I just don’t know). Subsequently, gender provides one of the most important principles of social life.
One aspect of gender that has received a lot of critical attention over the years is the role of gendered parenting, that is which parent is and/or should be responsible for what in the raising of children. While we are all aware of the great number of women that have chosen to or had no other choice than to enter the labor force over the past 60 years, if a parent can stay-at-home with children, the overwhelming majority are women. A 2007 survey found that only 2.7% of stay-at-home parents were fathers.
While the article notes the explosive growth in the numbers of stay-at-home fathers, I’m shocked that the number is so low. I guess I bought too easily the idea of growing gender equality in most areas of life. Anecdotally, however, I can corroborate that during the workweek in the suburbs, men with kids are few and far between.
Back to my problems making friends. Throughout my days spent with my kids, I choose between a few options as to what to spend our days doing. In my neighborhood, the major alternatives end up being a playground, the local library, the pool, or the mall. Those are all quasi-public places that I can easily get to and can utilize without cost. Of course, those options are also attractive to other stay-at-home parents. Subsequently, they could serve as potential venues for meeting other adults and creating friendships that could mitigate some of the frustrations that being a stay-at-home parent generates. In my forays to these places, I would say a good 85% of the other parents I run into are women.
As a summer stay-at-home dad (and I don’t think I’m alone in this), the heterogendered nature of parent-to-other-parent interaction poses an obstacle to easy social exchange. I find it difficult to make conversation past the basic “hellos,” “how are you doings,” and “how old is your child-s.” I think a major reason for this difficulty is the dominant cultural narrative for inter-gender interaction in American culture is that of romantic, heterosexual relationships. This narrative takes many forms, from courtship to sexual conquest, though for the rest of this post, I’ll mostly only refer to the most general description.
Performing With and Without Scripts
Sociologist, Erving Goffman (1959) pioneered social analysis that employs the metaphor of performance to understand how all human beings interact. This elegant idea sees all people as playing roles based on particular scripts. Most human social behavior defines new interactions so that they resemble previous interactions, thereby making social life predictable and safe. In other words, every situation is another instance of similar situations that have unfolded before. Subsequently, people behave stereotypically, responding to cues offered by others, while sending their own cues to further the predictable, scripted interaction. Following Goffman, these repeated episodes can be thought of as plays within which the participants are actors, following a script, performing their roles. Of course, performers aren’t perfect and can go “off-script,” creating angst-ridden situations.
Things get wonky when the setting isn’t specified, when the scene isn’t clearly spelled-out, when you’re lacking a specific script. This is the stuff of the many embarrassing episodes of cross-cultural misunderstandings. But it also happens within contexts seemingly familiar to all participants.
Throughout much of my daily life, I have clear scripts to follow. However, at the playground, at the library, pool or mall, when I encounter other parents, we have no clear script for social exchange. It has never been spelled out for me because it’s a largely unknown zone. Instead we’re left to the most general of cultural contours (or a kind of cultural background noise) to make sense of the interaction. In this social vacuum, I think many of us fall back onto one of the most salient social identities Americans cling to—gender.
As this post concerns gender, I can see Goffman’s insights throughout my daily life in my interactions with women I do not know. I interact with women all the time; at the bank, the store, department meetings, class lectures and more. However, those interactions aren’t the difficult anxiety-ridden ones that I feel like I often encounter in my role as stay-at-home dad. I think it’s because a clear, specified context or script guides my behavior in those settings. At the store, I am a customer dealing with a clerk. At a department meeting, I am a faculty member talking with colleagues. In class, I am a professor lecturing to students. The specific script is clear and easy to follow. Also, in many of these settings is the gender of myself, or others the primary social distinction. I’m not arguing that gender plays no role in these interactions, just that there are more proximate rules to follow that downplay gendered identities.
Men and Women: The Usual Script
In this case of social cluelessness, or when I don’t have a script to a specific play, what can I fall back on to guide my social action? In American culture, I(we) fall back on the dominant discourse of women/men relations, which is sex and courtship/sexual conquest—part of the project of creating a heteronormative world. So, when I refer to heterosexuality here, I am very much emphasizing, because our culture does so, sexuality. Romantic, heterosexual relationships (especially their beginnings) are one of the most important cultural narratives we’ve got, and can be clearly seen in popular culture. Movies, television, books and music are full of stories and images of men and women pursing sexual encounters or relationships. I ask the reader to think of ten movies, popular songs, bestselling books and television shows. I would expect at least eight of each to focus significantly on romantic heterosexual relationships/encounters/pursuits. While we may look at much of this media disdainfully, it still reflects and constructs cultural categories, ideals and narratives.
Many of the genres I described in the previous paragraph represent the rosy, idealistic side of this cultural narrative. However, the nasty underbelly of this fixation on heterosexuality is the construction of sexual interaction as conquest and the gendered participants as intrinsically unequal. I think much heterosexual imagery in popular culture can be read in one of two ways. First, women are objects to claimed by men sexually. Or second, women’s ultimate meaning and worth are determined by their sexual attachment to a man (Prince Charming and all). Either way, these two scenarios both reproduce a sexist hierarchy.
I think that this cultural emphasis on heterosexuality predisposes men and women in relatively scriptless social situations to fall back on narratives of courtship and/or sexual conquest.
In my awkward teenage years, the cultural ideal of romantic heterosexual encounters tortured my young self as I was unable to personally situate myself in such a situation. But, when I looked at the culture around me, every form of art and storytelling focused on those relationships. Culture doesn’t have to focus so incessantly on romantic, hetero-gendered relationships, but ours sure does.
Trying to Bomb the Usual Script
So now, when I’m put into a situation without an obvious script and an unfamiliar woman, the major cultural discourse I fall back onto is that of courtship. But, I am happily married and am not seeking such a relationship. This creates a basic disconnect between cultural narrative and actual social goals. So my attempts at making casual conversation are fraught with my worry over what I assume is going on in the woman’s head.
Is this guy hitting on me? What a creep. I’m here with my children. I can’t believe he found some children to tote around with him so that he could score with stay-at-home moms.
The entire time, I’m trying to be personable in such a way that I can’t be thought of as hitting on the woman. I become much too conscious of how my behavioral cues might be interpreted by the unknown woman according to the assumptions of male/female interaction. I know there are ways around this, but I do believe that the cultural focus on heterosexual romantic relationships is a major stumbling block to easy human-to-human (as opposed to woman-to-man) interaction.
When I interact with unfamiliar women in the course of my stay-at-home dad life, it’s not that I’m attempting to pursue any kind of sexual relationship, it’s that I am ultra-sensitive to the idea that any interaction between a man and woman could be interpreted that way and I’m wary of having any of my actions interpreted as such. This, compounded with my underlying social awkwardness creates a dynamic where I find it difficult to develop new social relationships with the other adults that I encounter on a daily basis.
In the process of writing this post, I’m finding the narrative of the heterosexual romantic sexual encounter extremely powerful. As I write this post and consider posting it, I’m concerned that any reader will simply think that I am simply a horny guy who is trolling for moms to stray from my wife with.
Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.