Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World

By LaRossa, Ralph | Michigan Family Review, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World


LaRossa, Ralph, Michigan Family Review


In virtually every society, the care and feeding of children are tasks entrusted primarily to fathers and mothers. That this is true does not mean, however, that the role of being a parent has been the same in all times and all places. In the militaristic societies of Sparta and early Rome, for example, "good" fathers and mothers turned their sons over to the army early on, depriving the youth of parental contact (but presumably making them better soldiers); while in other cultures you might hear it said that fathers and mothers who refuse to spend every free moment with their charges are "poor" excuses for human beings. (The super-baby movement, with its emphasis on almost perpetual child monitoring, comes close to this idea.) And who can ignore the variation in behaviors and beliefs across socioeconomic classes, racial and ethnic categories, and religious groups, not to mention the range across geographic boundaries and familial constellations (two parent compared to single parent, extended compared to nuclear, gay and lesbian compared to heterosexual)? It would appear then that what is defined as "ideal" has been, and continues to be, a product of people's collective imagination. Put simply, fatherhood and motherhood are social constructions.

The implications of this proposition are exciting to ponder, but also a little scary. Taken seriously, the proposition would suggest that we have the power to live in a world of our own making, but also the wherewithal to mess things up. Moreover, if fatherhood and motherhood are social constructions, diverse in their manifestations, then it is possible for parenthood to transform itself from one historical moment to the next--with significant consequences. "Parenthood and above all maternity are the pivots in the anatomy of marriage and the family," sociologist Suzanne Keller noted over 25 years ago. "If these change so must the familial organization that contained them" (Keller, 1971). Assuming Keller is right, changes in fatherhood and motherhood ultimately can revolutionalize--or, at the very least, restructure--family relations at both the institutional and experiential level.

These notions about the social reality of parenthood are what prompted me, upon being elected Program Vice President for the National Council on Family Relations, to propose "Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World" as the theme for the 1997 NCFR conference. These principles also influenced my wording of the theme:

* First, it may be asked, why "fatherhood and motherhood"? Why not just fatherhood? Or motherhood? Given my own interest in men's parental roles and the interest that others have in the topic of men and masculinity, I did consider adopting a theme that would focus exclusively on fatherhood, and in fact brought this consideration to the NCFR Board. But after thinking about it for a while and after discussions with several friends and colleagues, I concluded that focusing on fatherhood alone would have been too exclusionary. I wanted the theme to be broad enough to embrace and excite a large number of NCFR members. In order for that to happen, both fatherhood and motherhood had to be in the equation.

* In considering whether to have a conference theme on fatherhood--or on fatherhood and motherhood--I also reflected on the fact that my own research on fatherhood generally has included comparisons with motherhood and that, as a result of these comparisons, I have a better sense of how parenthood is a gendered activity. In a recently completed project, for example, I learned a great deal by comparing the history of Father's Day with the history of Mother's Day. Scholars who have focused on one holiday to the exclusion of the other--and more often than not it has been on Mother's Day rather than on Father's Day--have missed a lot (LaRossa, 1997).

* I should acknowledge, too, that I considered substituting "parenthood" for "fatherhood and motherhood," with the intention of playing down the distinctions between what men and women do. …

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