Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

"New Fatherhood" in Practice: Domestic and Parental Work Performed by Men in France and in the Netherlands

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

"New Fatherhood" in Practice: Domestic and Parental Work Performed by Men in France and in the Netherlands

Article excerpt

In most European countries today, the division of labour between men and women shows a new aspect. The main difference lies in the increasing participation of women, including mothers, in paid work. In recent times, such work has been performed in accordance with methods that emphasised flexibility in women's work, particularly the development of parttime work among the female working population. Much of this part-time work does not reflect a deliberate choice, and often involves irregular hours that make it even more difficult to juggle the constraints of family life with those of work life.

At the same time, particularly under the aegis of the European Union, the question of reconciling paid work with private life has been placed on the agenda of public authorities. The problem is basically discussed in terms of women, even though EU lawmakers are constantly trying to make their discourse neutral from a gender standpoint.

In this context, the idea of studying male practices in the area of housework and parental work is rooted in questioning how men have reacted to these social changes: if they are no longer the sole breadwinners in the family in any social classes (working-class women have always been in the paid workforce) how do they divide up the work with their spouses? The question of male housework and parental work has already been discussed in recent work by various European authors and in other developed societies. In our view, some of this research is flawed, inasmuch as it assigns more importance to the way men "feeF'about the space of family life and its cleaning (the "clean and tidy" feeling, according to Welzer-Lang and Filiod, 1993) than to actual changes in practice. In contrast, others bring out the contradiction between men's aspirations and their practices in this area (Van Dongen, 1995). Some approaches examine, as we shall do here, the real material changes in the division of labour (McMahon, 1999; Brachet, 2004).

For our part, we were interested in determining, as directly and concretely as possible, what has actually changed in the practices of "new fathers" in two European societies in which this collective representation has been flourishing for at least twenty years. With the passing of time, to what extent has the phenomenon of "new fathers" actually materialised?

This questioning is part of a research programme on how the social relationship between the sexes operates, from the angle of the specific role played by men.

Men are viewed here as a social group active in changing or maintaining the social inferiorisation of women, rather than from the standpoint of recomposed masculine identity or forms of masculinity (Pleck, 1974 and 1981;KimmelandMessner, 1989;Duret, 1999).

In our research thus far, we have studied the relationships between the sexes, firstly in terms of their three modes of action: the division of labour and the division of power between the sexes and how they shape social categories, and secondly, from the point of view of their properties, namely their across-the-board, dynamic and antagonistic characteristics. While the first two modes of action have been clearly identified by the considerable body of feminist research that has brought them into the open, the third deserves to be defined more precisely. The shaping of social categories resulting from the social relationships between the sexes sets up a hierarchy of men and women as individuals and of their activities, and determines the social value assigned to them. For example, social relationships between the sexes define what is work and what is not work among the activities of women and men. Thus, for a long time, the domestic and parental work performed by women was described socially as "outside of work" inasmuch as it was the "natural" continuation of the function of biological reproduction. These social relationships also indicate what is socially legitimate and what is not, what women can hope to change and what it is vain for them to expect. …

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