Gender Equality or Primacy of the Mother? Ambivalent Descriptions of Good Parents

By Perälä-Littunen, Satu | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Gender Equality or Primacy of the Mother? Ambivalent Descriptions of Good Parents


Perälä-Littunen, Satu, Journal of Marriage and Family


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. …

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