The ideology of gender equality is accepted as the norm in the Nordic countries. When asked to describe what they thought was required to be a good mother and a good father, Finnish informants (N = 387) showed uneasiness in describing good parents separately, however, often describing only a good mother. This article aims to explore the ambivalent stance toward gender equality reflected in these descriptions. The mother is seen as the model against which the father is compared. Moreover, the ambivalence noted could indicate a contradiction between how things are and how they should be. Ambivalence here is located between structural, sociological, and psychological levels, reflects the ambivalent rhetoric of welfare officials, and is possibly the result of social change.
Key Words: ambivalence, fatherhood, gender, motherhood, parenthood.
Family life and gender relations have undergone many changes in the Western world. Major changes have taken place in the role of women and in gender attitudes. For example, the fact that women's participation in the labor force has increased has to some extent resulted in the reordering of gendered positions in the reproduction of social and economic life. In many ways, these changes have led toward equality between men and women. Research reveals, however, that present-day family life can be viewed from two different perspectives, that of change and that of continuity (e.g., Irwin, 1999). For instance, despite the fact that women increasingly work outside the home, they continue to do the majority of domestic chores (e.g., Nätkin, 1997; Solomon, Acock, & Walker, 2004). Some scholars even suggest that women's role in childrearing has strengthened through economic independence, especially in cases of family dissolution, and that the gap between fathers and their children is widening (Jensen, 1995). The Nordic countries, including Finland, can be seen as pioneering countries in respect to changes in gender relations and family life and thus present an interesting subject for research on these issues.
Finland is a country officially committed to the ideology of gender equality. The ideology of gender equality is written into family policy (Phoenix & Woollett, 1991 ). It is reflected in how child care is arranged and in the possibilities for family leave (see, e.g., Kurtz, 1997). The rights of women to participate in the labor force and of men to participate in the home and in child care are ensured through legislation on both maternity and paternity leave (see Salmi, 2003). Moreover, Finland has an extensive antenatal and child health care center system. In addition, since the 1960s, fathers have officially been designated as a target of childrearing education and are expected to participate in parenting and to make regular visits to the child health care center (Kuronen, 1999). Promoting shared parenting is the official aim of parent education (e.g., Vuori, 2001).
Although the ideology of gender equality and shared parenting is accepted as the norm, when asked to describe what they thought was required to be a good mother and a good father, Finnish informants showed unexpected ambivalence (Perälä-Littunen, 2004). Alongside describing a good mother and a good father, many informants also commented on the uneasiness they felt, thus reflecting the prevailing ideology of gender equality and shared parenting. Nevertheless, the descriptions of a good mother dominated the informants' talk. In this article, the aim is to explore the ambivalence of these descriptions and to try to uncover what lies beneath this reported uneasiness in describing a good mother and a good father separately.
Various routes to the adoption of the ideology of gender equality in Finland have been suggested. Although, as Parvikko (1992, p. 89) remarks, Finland may have a reputation as a backwater of feminism, feminist ideas have had an effect on Finnish thinking. It may well be that the more radical feminist movements have not been visible in Finnish society and that individual women are hesitant to proclaim themselves feminists. Nevertheless, the promotion of gender equality has been built into the Finnish welfare system, and the welfare system is at least partly the result of the activities of women (see, e.g., Julkunen, 1994). The Finnish welfare system has been described as a "woman-friendly state" because women as mothers are financially supported by the state and because women work in large numbers in the public service sector (Kuronen, 1999).
The roots of the woman-friendly welfare system lie in maternalism (Nätkin, 1997). The matemalistic ideology saw mothering as the main task in a woman's life, and the strength and power of women were seen to lie in motherhood. At the societal level, the aim was to promote the welfare of mothers, and the route to attaining this goal was an increase in the political power of women (Nätkin). Women were thus allowed to work for pay, especially if they had no children, but motherhood was regarded as the most important woman's task.
On an ideological level, the idea of the nuclear family with a wage-earning husband and a stayat-home mother existed in Finland, for instance, in the family ideologies expressed in a popular Finnish family magazine, Kotiliesi, in which in 1947 the role of homemaker was presented as the ideal for a woman (Heikkilä, 1998). Nevertheless, this ideal was never achieved by many (Nätkin, 1997). Eventually, 30 - 40 years ago, the ideology of stay-at-home mother was replaced by the ideal of both parents working (Julkunen, 1995).
The issue of whether Finland has reached gender equality is controversial. Since the 1960s, the number of women working outside their homes has increased; in the early 1990s, 75% of Finnish mothers had jobs (Kartovaara & Sauli, 2000). Although the ideology of gender equality required that women were to receive equal treatment in the labor market, women have continued to remain responsible for household and child-care work (Nätkin, 1997) and to be paid less than men (Korvajärvi, 1998).
The ideology of gender equality, the adoption of modern ideas from developmental psychology, feminist thinking, and psychoanalytical approaches have brought about the ideal of shared parenting, which seems to dominate parenting ideals in the Nordic countries. Shared parenting was first introduced as a way of increasing gender equality between parents but later gained importance as a way of promoting the reciprocal development of father and child (Kugelberg, 1999). In the Finnish context, then, good parenthood is realized in the form of shared parenting (Nätkin, 1997). Nevertheless, perceiving the mother and her child as a unit and motherhood as the source of female power is not unknown in Finland.
Motherhood-The Source of Female Power?
Gender issues form the core of parenting, and gender has been conceptualized in several ways. In this article, gender is understood to be a social construction built around the perceived differences between women and men (e.g., Nakano Glenn, 1994). According to Connell (1995), gender determines everyday practices in the reproductive arena, some of which concern childbirth and infant care. Connell (2000) writes that parenthood is prescribed by the symbolic gender order, including the written norms of parental rights and responsibilities, the ways in which these norms are formulated and presented, and how they are understood by parents. These written and unwritten norms define what is expected of parents, what they can and cannot do in certain situations and contexts (see also Lammi-Taskula, 2003).
Gender, motherhood, and fatherhood are closely intertwined (e.g., Nakano Glenn, 1994). Gender is more decisive for women in general, and it is the factor that differentiates them from the "norm," the man, turning them into "the other" gender. The difference is especially highlighted in understandings of parenthood. A woman is faced with the idea of maternity regardless of whether she is or is not, whether she wishes or does not wish to become a mother. Motherhood seems somehow built into womanhood (e.g., Phoenix & Woollett, 1991). Kugelberg (1999) concludes that the association of a young woman with motherhood reflects a biological and psychological interpretation of women's behavior and supports the traditional view of the differences between men and women.
Gender issues are issues of power. In fact, Kimmel (2004) states that "gender is about the power men as a group have over women as a group," which makes it impossible to explain gender relations without understanding power. But do women also have power?
The power of mothers as the molders of future generations became a topic of debate when the Finnish nation and nationality were being constructed. For example, Snellman (1806 - 1881) and Topelius (1818-1898), whose ideas became widely known, even among the lower classes, strongly believed that virtuous mothers were the key persons in raising decent citizen with high moral standards for the benefit of the nation (e.g., Nätkin, 1997). According to the prevailing ideology at the time, men and women were very different by nature and thus their callings differed. Women, especially mothers, were morally superior to men. Juntti (2004) claims that for the emergence of the new nation, a new gender order was adopted that highlighted differences between men and women over differences in rank. This ideological framework idealizing motherhood and "the family" as social institutions was characteristic of Europe in the 19th century (Schütze, 1987).
The dominance of motherhood can be also explained by the ideology of the nuclear family, which assigns different responsibilities to mothers and fathers. Moreover, motherhood was affected by the change in the conception of the child as somebody needing special attention and care. Mothers became the main caregivers of children, whereas fathers turned into breadwinners who spent much of their time outside the home (e.g., Grant, 1998). The dominance of motherhood in parenting is seen, for instance, in the fact that mothering is taken as the parenting norm and fathering is compared against that norm (Ambert, 1994).
Genderless Parenting or Mothers and Fathers?
Despite the official ideology of gender equality, Finnish welfare state agencies have been found to support either mothering as the norm for parenting or to show a tendency to avoid gender issues altogether. Alasuutari (2003) showed that mothers were regarded as primary parents by fathers and by mothers themselves as well as by the advice literature and child-care professionals. In her data, consisting of texts written by family experts, Vuori (2001) uncovered two discourses dealing with the division of parenting. She named the discourses exclusive mothering and shared parenting. The discourse of shared parenting suggests that fathers should take more responsibility for child care. Nevertheless, mothers are made responsible for this sharing both in expert texts and by mothers themselves (e.g., Vuori). Eriksson (2005) reports on a similar situation in Sweden where welfare professionals make use of two interpretive models in dealing with postdivorce families. Families are constructed either as mother centered, meaning that the child is dependent on the mother who is seen as responsible for the relationship between the child and the father, or as symmetrical, meaning that the child is an individual and competent person with an equal need for father and mother. The mother-centered family model seems to reflect the exclusive mothering discourse, whereas the symmetrical model shares many features with the discourse of shared parenting.
In the context of intimate violence, Ronkainen (2001) elaborates the theoretical concept of "genderless gender." She maintains that the norm in Finnish public rhetoric is to avoid highlighting any social differences, including gender. For instance, violence by men toward women in families is called "family violence" and not "wife abuse," and collective wage bargaining is done in gender-neutral terms. The Finnish language makes gender concealment easy as it has no gendered third-person pronouns, that is, the same pronoun applies to both genders. Nevertheless, as in many other countries, women's wages are lower than those of men and family violence in most cases means that the husband batters his wife.
In general, the contemporary Western way of life has been described as individualized, more or less genderless, and focusing on individuals rather than on men and women. Individualization is a term used by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (e.g., 2002) in their analysis of contemporary ways of life (Zeitdiagnose). Individualization refers to the disintegration of previous social forms and to new forms of demands, controls, and constraints that are imposed on individuals rather than families, especially by various institutions in society. Individuals are forced to make decisions concerning their lives, and their lives are thought to be the result of their choice. Thus, people are held responsible for their success or failure in life (e.g., Beck & Beck-Gernsheim). Nevertheless, child care continues to be regarded as women's work (Beck-Gemsheim, 2002), at least in the sense that mothers are held responsible for the welfare of their children and themselves (e.g., Eriksson, 2005; Keskinen, 2005; Ronkainen, 2001).
Previous studies and theoretical formulations on the relationship of gender and parenting ideologies present a contradictory picture, and such contradictory and conflicting phenomena are difficult to conceptualize. I use the term ambivalence because it seems to describe best the contradictory nature of the talk in the data. According to Bauman (1991), ambivalence is an essential feature in the modern way of life. Modernity began when the divine "order" of things no longer was a satisfactory explanation, and thus, order in the world became something that had to be consciously reflected upon. As permanent stable order could not be attained, ambivalence emerged.
Ambivalence has been given various definitions, especially according to whether it is located at the level of the individual (psychological ambivalence) or at the level of society (structural or sociological ambivalence). Moreover, scholars have discussed the relationship between psychological and structural or sociological ambivalence (see, e.g., Connidis & McMullin, 2002; LorenzMeyer, 2001; Lüscher, 2002; Merton & Barber, 1976). Agreement on how the two levels relate to each other has not yet been found.
According to Lüscher (2002, p. 587), we can speak about ambivalence "when polarized simultaneous emotions, thoughts, social relations, and structures that are considered relevant for the constitution of individual or collective identities are (or can be) interpreted as temporarily or even permanently irreconcilable." What seems to be common in several definitions of ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of opposed valences (emotions, thoughts, motivations) (Lorenz-Meyer, 2001).
Glick and Fiske (2001) challenge the equation of prejudice with antipathy and suggest that benevolent sexism is also a hindrance to societal gender equality. The idea of motherhood as the source of female power and, simultaneously, the cause of female oppression has many analogies with the conception of benevolent sexism and the ambivalence it brings about. Ambivalence is not easy to capture using quantitative methods and questionnaires (Glick & Fiske). Ambivalence in the descriptions of good parents reported here was not originally sought; instead, the informants produced it without any prompting from the interviewer. A qualitative interview and qualitative analyses brought out the ambivalence that existed in the data.
In my study on the cultural images of a good mother and a good father, Finnish informants described their ideals in their own words (PeralaLittunen, 2004). The data were gathered during academic year 1994 - 1995 by 129 students of education in the Open University of the University of Jyvaskyla interviewing 387 informants. Three members of the same family, each from a different generation, were interviewed. The students chose the families and persons they wanted to interview, and it was permissible for them to choose their own family and to first express their own opinion in writing (about half of the interviewers were also informants). The students were provided with detailed instructions; for example, they were asked to record and then transcribe the interviews word by word preserving the dialect used. Students were also informed that their interviews would be archived, used for research purposes, and that the anonymity of the informants would be ensured.
Students come to the Open University from various regions across the country; the majority of students are from Central Finland and rural areas lying to the west and east of Jyväskylä. Thus, many interviewees came from rural districts.
The length of the transcribed interviews varied from about four to 15 pages because of the various ways the students produced their transcripts. Some students had handwritten transcriptions; others had used a computer or a typewriter.
The sampling in this study can be described as something between the key informant strategy often used in ethnographic research and convenience sampling, which makes use of cases ready at hand (Punch, 1998). In this study, it was thought that the students conducting the interviews would, in most cases, choose interviewees they considered would have something to say about childrearing. In this way, access to key informants would be gained. Further, as about half of the interviews took place within a family, in many respects the interviews resembled everyday family discussions. This is in line with the idea that everyday phenomena should be studied in contexts close to everyday living. Moreover, some information was received from within protected family boundaries, an entity that is often perceived as problematic by researchers (DaIy, 1992). In the remaining cases, students seem to have chosen to interview persons close to them, such as the family of a friend, a neighbor, and so on. For instance, one of the interviewers wrote, "I decided to interview my own grandmother, my aunt and my cousin."
The majority, 84% (325 women vs. 62 men), of the interviewed persons were women. The youngest generation was 18-35, the middle generation 38 - 64, and the oldest generation 58 - 89 years of age. Age of the interviewee was not used as a criterion for placement in a particular generation (Phoenix, 1996). Instead, generation refers to a person's position in the chain of generations, for instance, in the chain of grandmother, mother, and daughter. Thus, informants were divided into six groups according to gender and position in the generational chain. The numbers of informants in the different groups were as follows: 100 daughters, 29 sons, 110 mothers, 19 fathers, 115 grandmothers, and 14 grandfathers.
Among other things, informants were asked the question: How would you describe a good mother? And a good father? Answers to these questions form the data dealt within this article. The descriptions of a good mother and a good father produced by the informants were often lists of adjectives, such as "A good mother is a trustworthy, warm and loving person," or characterizations, such as "a good father is a person who cares about his family and listens to his children. " The qualitative analysis carried out here is best described as simultaneous meaning categorization and condensation (Kvale, 1996). First, I read through the transcribed talk on the topics of a good mother and a good father. Then, I wrote down the characteristics mentioned by the informants and, as soon as it was possible, established categories so that every subsequent characterization of a good mother or father would not have to be given a category of its own.
In forming the categories, the analysis reduced and structured the descriptions given by the informants. These categories were not established in advance but developed from the transcribed talk of the informants (see Kvale, 1996, p. 192). After all the answers had been read through, some of the categories were combined, resulting, finally, in 21 categories of a good mother and a good father in the data. The categories were given one-word labels to identify each category. Finally, I counted the number of occurrences in each category with an aim of finding the most frequent characterizations. The informants' talk about the similarity between a good mother and a good father was also analyzed qualitatively by searching for themes pertaining to differences between a mother and a father.
Characterizations Describing a Good Mother and a Good Father
Interviewers asked the informants to describe both a good mother and a good father, but the image of a good mother dominated the descriptions. Even when interviewees said that a good mother and father are alike, they often continued by describing a good mother. The good father was seldom described in detail. Of the interviewees, 28 did not actually say anything about the characteristics of a good father. Altogether, a total of 1,168 categorized descriptions were provided for a good mother compared to only 415 for a good father. The most often - mentioned characteristic of a good mother (loving, secure, etc.) was mentioned by 278 persons (72%) but the corresponding feature of a good father (spends time with the child, on the child's hobbies, together with the child) was mentioned by only 68 persons (18%). Nevertheless, some characterizations were used only to describe a good father.
The lists of characterizations comprising the image of a good mother and a good father in Table 1 show that the images are not exactly alike; they are not completely different either. There seems to be a core of characterizations describing a good parent regardless of gender. The categories comprising this core are love, listen, control, advice, time, patience, and model.
"Can I Talk About Good Parents?"
While analyzing the data, my attention was caught by the uncertainty and unwillingness several informants expressed when they were asked separately to describe a good mother and a good father. Huttunen (2001) also comments on this phenomenon in his study asking 12year-old Finns to write a description of a good parent. In the present Finnish interview data, a 19-year-old daughter from Family 16 says that
I do not like to talk separately of a good mother and a good father, instead, I would prefer to talk about a good parent, because otherwise it would sound as if the father and the mother had different tasks in childrearing. I think that childrearing is the job of both parents, in absolutely the same way, as long as they know what each other is trying to do and they follow the same principles.
In Family 39, an 18-year-old daughter is interviewing her mother (aged 48). The daughter first asked about a good parent but then she said that her mother could talk about them separately. The mother, however, replied that
... I would not separate a good mother and a good father, in terms of gender I mean, I would just describe what in my opinion a good parent is."
A majority (61.5%) of the interviewees explicitly stated that a good mother and a good father have the same characteristics or talked about good parents, implying a similarity between a good mother and a good father. Slightly more men than women produced statements to the effect that a good mother and father are similar (63.4% of women and 51.6% of men).
Similarity in the characteristics of a good father and a good mother was explicitly reported most often in the youngest generation, suggesting that this idea is more a product of that generation than brought about by the experience of parenting. Young women especially supported the idea of similarity (77%).
Several informants began their answer by talking about gender equality or saying that they were unable to differentiate between a good mother and a good father. For instance, a mother, aged 40, in Family 114 said, "In my opinion fatherhood and motherhood must be equal and evenhanded. Both parents are jointly responsible." Her son, aged 21, even criticized the question and asked, "Well, I can't think of a reason why we should talk separately about a good mother and a good father."
A daughter, aged 19, from Family 48, began her description of a good father by pointing out that the characteristics of a good mother and a good father were the same. She regarded a good father, however, as responsible for teaching the children gender equality by setting a good example. Moreover, she described how bad the situation could be without gender equality; the father lies on the couch and the mother does all the household work alone.
Some of the informants expressed their progender equality view with words "should" or "ought to," especially in relation to a good father and his participation in parenting. For instance, a grandmother aged 80, from Family 85, said, "The father should take care of his child and love his children in the same way..." or even more emphatically, a daughter aged 19 from Family 75 said, "A modern father should not be very much different from a mother, he should participate in childrearing similarly to the mother. " Thus, shared parenting and gender equality seem to be perceived as the norm, although the informants suspected that fathers do not behave accordingly.
The 43-year-old mother from Family 98 did not explicitly compare a good father and a good mother but her slip of the tongue can be interpreted to reflect her awareness of the gender equality discourse. When talking about disciplining the child, she said that
But in some cases, however, the moth ... parents, I mean, must be strict and not give in, even if the children tell you that you are a bad mother.
The mother here tries to comply with the gender equality discourse and talk about "parents," but she is unable to do so and she falls back to talking about the mother. Expressions such as the one above probably reflect a wish to promote gender equality, even if the idealized images contain different qualities for a mother compared to a father.
The fear of fathers turning into mothers is often expressed in connection with shared parenting and even with gender equality (e.g., Huttunen, 2001). Nevertheless, some informants were not troubled by the possible feminization of fathers or masculinization of mothers. A son, aged 25, from Family 103, said that
Well I think, although it may sound silly, but I think that if fathers were a bit like mothers and mothers were more like fathers ... it might be more pleasant all round.
Good Parents Are Equal But...
Very often when informants started their answer, they first described a good mother and then said that a good father is similar. When a good mother was described first, a good father was described as having features that differentiate him from the mother. For example, a grandfather, aged 79, from Family 70, first gave a list of the qualities of a good mother and then said, "The same things (go for a father) ..." though he finished his description by stating that "most of all securing the economic welfare of the family is the father's task." Thus, the mother is the primary parent but the father has some special tasks for which he alone is responsible.
There were also informants who gave a description of good parents in which the father was described as lacking some qualities that the mother had. For instance, a grandmother, aged 82, from Family 47, after having first described a good mother, said that
Well the characteristics should be about the same but fathers are seldom, well, so totally involved as mothers. A mother is always closer to her children than a father.
The description given by a 19-year-old daughter from Family 51 fluctuated between the ideology of gender equality and the belief in the mother as the primary parent. She said that
Well, a good father is similar (to a good mother). I don't think there's any difference, even though one is a mother and the other is a father. Of course the meaning of the mother in the family is greater, because the mother takes more care of the children and such like ...
This informant was one of the few to offer an explanation for the mother's primacy: The mother takes care of the children more than the father. The mother was also regarded as being closer to the children.
In the mothers' talk, the bond between the mother and her child was described as an emotional umbilical cord: When the mother feels bad, so also does her child. In the words of an 82-year-old grandmother from Family 47, "The mother is always closer to her children than the father."
Informants talked more about what constitutes a good mother. None of the characterizations of a good father were so prominent; most were mentioned with more or less the same frequency.
A Good Father Is Different From a Good Mother
When comparing a good mother and a good father, some informants pointed out features of a good father that are different from those of a good mother. As stated above, these informants often first described a good mother as the primary parent or expressed support for the idea that a good mother and a good father were similar and then added "manly" characteristics to the good father's image. The mother seems to be the parental norm, and the father is described by reference to features that differ from those of the mother. A mother, aged 45, from Family 100, said that
The father should be similar to the mother, but the father must be a tower of strength in the family. The father knows everything but he can also admit that he was wrong ...
Another mother, aged 50, from Family 126, acknowledged gender equality and the changes it has brought to the relationship between the mother and the father. Nevertheless, she wishes for a good father who would be the head of the family when she says that
On the other hand the father also should have a role as a kind of head of the family, although gender equality has changed things a bit, so that both parents are responsible for childrearing.
Providing the family with economic security is also one of these manly features. For instance, the 79-year-old grandfather from Family 70 quoted above considered the role of a breadwinner to be part of the image of a good father and said, "Most of all securing the economic welfare of the family is the father's task."
The good father was expected to be physically stronger and for this reason able to provide security for and to defend his family. This characterization was highlighted by both the 19-year-old daughter and the 52-year-old mother from Family 113, who first stated that a good mother and a good father were similar. The daughter said, "A good father has many features in common with a good mother, but the father is the protector of the home and the defender ..."
Several informants suggested that a good father should be the stricter disciplinarian and the authority in the family; "Well, in my opinion, a good father should have, should have kind of, in comparison to the mother, he should have more authority than the mother ..." said a mother, aged 48, from Family 41. Often, the mother in this context was presented as the more emotional and gentler party. For instance, a 19year-old daughter from Family 69 answered the question about a good father in this way: "... however, for me the father has always been the disciplinarian and the mother has been the gentler one and I think it's good that way."
The gender and age of the child were reported as playing a role in the expectations and characteristics relating to the image of a good mother and father. The good father should act as a manly model, especially to his sons, and sons have a closer relationship with their father than with their mother. For example, a daughter, aged 23, from Family 85, said that
Well, of course, the father must be a manly model for his sons although the mother is the female model. Sons always have a warmer relationship with their father and daughters with their mother.
The effect of a child's gender was connected to the child's age. When the child is young, the mother is thought to be more important; as the child grows older, the importance of the father grows. A 43-year-old father from Family 107, for instance, said that
And like I just told you, when the child is young then the mother's role in childrearing is kind of more prominent. When the children grow ... the importance of the father's role increases.
This kind of thinking is in line with psychoanalytical theories, but it is possible that the belief expressed in the father's increasing participation in the life of his child as well as the belief that
he should be a role model for his son originate in the older thinking of popularized ideas of developmental psychology.
When I Was a Child ...but Today
One of the themes underlined in the talk of many informants is that things are different today, especially that good fathers have changed and that parents are nowadays more equal than they used to be. An 80-year-old grandmother from Family 85 described the change: "In the old days men seldom took care of those things. Today young fathers take better care of their children."
This talk probably reflects the ideology of gender equality, at least in the case of a 40-year-old mother from Family 65, who said that
... the father had a stricter role before. Today, in my opinion, the features that define both a good mother and a good father are almost the same, there is equality in this matter, too ...
When the informants commented on the changes in the images of a good mother and a good father, the new, more involved fathers were praised for participating in childrearing. The change was described as a development toward a better way of leading a family life.
In their descriptions of a good mother and a good father, Finnish informants often made comments that reflect an ambivalent stance toward gender equality and shared parenting. The informants first maintained that they did not wish to describe a good mother and a good father separately. Nevertheless, it was the mother they mostly described.
A good mother was talked about much more than a good father. The mother seemed to overshadow the father. Similarly, some of the informants stated that a good father is never as close to the children as a good mother, commencing their descriptions with attributes of the mother and stating then that the father was the same, as if the characterizations of a good mother had exhausted all the characterizations of a good parent. It would seem that the mother is seen as the primary parent and the model against which the father is compared. Regarding the mother as the primary parent has also been reported in previous studies (e.g., Alasuutari, 2003; Ambert, 1994). This contradicts the idea first expressed by de Beauvoir (1952) that the man is the norm of a human being against which woman, the other, is compared. Similarly, gender equality is generally understood to mean that there are no differences between men and women; this view of equality leads to the adoption of maleness as the baseline (e.g., Parvikko, 1992). The mother, however, does not seem to represent "the second" gender; she is the parent, the norm. Thus, in parenting, it seems that femaleness and mothering are taken as the baseline against which fathering is compared and evaluated.
The ambivalence noted in this study could indicate a contradiction between how things are and how they should be. When the informants talked about the ideas of shared parenting, the realization of gender equality, they often used the word "should" or "ought to," thus implying that gender equality was not reality, at least for them. It seems possible that informants seek to comply with two contradictory ideologies, maternalism and gender equality. They do not wish to deprive mothers of their power or unique characteristics in dealing with children, yet they believe in gender equality.
This ambivalence is located between psychological and structural levels of ambivalence and reflects the ambivalent rhetoric of welfare officials and public rhetoric in general. The official rhetoric in the Nordic countries is genderless; that is, gender becomes hidden even in matters in which it is playing an evident role (e.g., Eriksson, 2005; Ronkainen, 2000). Paying attention to differences between people is considered somehow improper, and, as the analyses of present-day life suggest, people should be regarded as equally individual and responsible for their success or failure in life (see, e.g., Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). Nevertheless, mothers are regarded as the primary parents responsible for their children (e.g., Alasuutari, 2003).
Ambivalence has often been connected to social change (e.g., Bauman, 1991; Connidis & McMullin, 2002) or to the diverse negotiable ways of leading family life today (Luscher, 2002). According to some informants in this study, mothers are the primary parents but their simultaneous support for gender equality may point to a state of flux in their thinking. The elderly informants in particular often described differences between the parenting of their childhood and the parenting today. They were talking about a change they have noticed. Bjerrum Nielsen and Rudberg (1993) conclude that conceptions of change often end up stating that everything is different from what it was previously or that nothing has changed, although it seems more likely that minor changes take place and that the "old" and the "new" coexist at the same time. Moreover, as Connell (1987) points out, the concept of equality is absolute; there can be no compromises. As a practical criterion, however, it is useful if it is taken as indicating a direction of movement.
This study has several limitations. First, the results can be interpreted as presenting women's images because the large majority of interviewees were female. Nevertheless, mothers spend more time with their children and thus are the probable source of the gender and parenthood expectations of their children. second, the interviewers were students of education and they chose in many cases to interview their families. This is a possible source of bias as it is likely that the interviewed individuals represented enlightened families especially interested in parenting and upbringing. The material is not representative, as it does not cover the full range of all possible opinions that constitute good parents, nor does the study aim at statistical generalizability. Thus, the results can be described as indicative only. Nevertheless, the results raise many questions also of relevance in other countries espousing gender equality, suggesting that ordinary citizens' conceptions of gender equality would be a topic worthy of future research. Similarly, the ambivalent stance toward gender equality and shared parenting noted here suggests that ambivalence could be a useful concept to use also in other types of family research.
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