Our member, Dr Martin Robb (Open University, UK), talks about his book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities (Routledge, 2020).
Men’s role in the care of children, whether as fathers or as paid childcare workers, continues to be a topic of intense public interest, and stands at the intersection of important current debates about gender identity, equality, and care. There is a need for a clear understanding, informed by robust research and critical thinking, of the fundamental issues and questions informing those discussions.
This book aims to contribute to that understanding, by exploring the ways in which men’s care for children has been represented in popular culture and the media, analysing the key social discourses framing current debates, and examining the ideologies and theories that inform those representations and discourses. It also draws on recent empirical research in order to connect these issues to the everyday experiences of men and their children, and to analyse the ways in which men develop a capacity to care. Reflecting a wide range of influences and experiences, the book doesn’t set out to promote a particular ideological position, but rather to present clearly the range of ideas and discourses that come into play when the issues of men, children, and care are represented and discussed.
I’ve been researching and writing about men, masculinity, and care for the past twenty years or so, beginning with small-scale studies of hands-on fathers and male nursery workers and leading eventually to major studies of young masculinities and caring relationships. Although the field of fatherhood studies has expanded enormously during that period and there have been a number of important recent studies of men as childcare workers, I believed there was an urgent need for a book that brought together these two topics and at the same time explored the underlying questions surrounding men’s role in caring for children more generally.
The book also grew out of my dissatisfaction with some of the ways in which the topic of men’s care for children is currently theorised, and a wish to move beyond existing orthodoxies to develop a perspective that was true to my own personal experience and to the findings from the research in which I’ve been involved. So the book represents my own search for a better understanding of issues that continue to be of concern to me as a parent and researcher and could be viewed as an ongoing debate with myself. The conclusions reached at the end of the book should be regarded as tentative, at best, and as work in progress, rather than anything resembling a final and definitive word on the subject.
So far this chapter has explored two ideological positions regarding men’s role in the care of children. What has been described as the conservative or traditionalist perspective on the one hand, and the progressive or egalitarian perspective on the other, are arguably the two dominant positions in discussion of the issue, whether in the policy context or in political, media and popular debates. It has been shown that there are important differences between the two perspectives, in relation to ideas about the nature of sexual or gender roles, the nature of the family and personal and intimate relationships, and the priorities for public policy as it relates to men, women, children and family life generally.
It has also been demonstrated that each position has a number of key strengths when it comes to debating men’s role in the care of children, but also some significant weaknesses. The conservative position’s firm belief in more or less fixed sexual differences and in the complementarity of gender roles provides a powerful advantage in arguing for a distinctive role for men, whether as fathers or professionals, in the care and upbringing of children. This core belief also strengthens and motivates traditionalists’ critique of absent fathers, family breakdown and the apparent decline in the numbers of men in certain professions in contact with children, such as teaching. However, the main weakness in the conservative rhetorical armoury is the absence of an understanding of masculinity as something distinct from universal maleness, and consequently the lack of a sense of the dynamic and plural nature of masculine identities. This makes it difficult for those approaching the issue from a conservative perspective to be critical of some men, for example for their absence from family life, without being seen to criticise all men, and simultaneously makes it difficult for them to understand that men’s presence may not always be a good thing, or to criticise certain kinds of masculinity as being bad for children and families.
By contrast, the progressive or gender-egalitarian perspective, because of its core belief in the constructed nature of gender, has a well-developed understanding of the dynamic and mutable nature of gender identities, which is a powerful driver in arguing for change in gender roles, and specifically for men to be more involved in the care of children. One of the strengths of this perspective is its grounding in an analysis of the social and historical variability in gender identities, and also an understanding, based in feminism, of the way that power operates in sustaining gender divisions. At the same time, this very constructionist belief is responsible for a central weakness in progressive arguments for a greater role for men in the care of children. Those arguing from this perspective find it difficult to describe a distinctive role for men in the care of children, without either reducing it to an argument for social change, or falling back on stereotypical views of gender differences.
At the same time, it has been noted that those arguing from both perspectives share some beliefs and priorities in common. Both conservatives and progressive argue that men have an important role to play in family life and in work with children. Both perspectives also have in common a tendency to argue, at least at the level of policy debates, for the importance of male role models, particularly for boys, though their arguments on this point derive from very different starting points. Whereas conservatives maintain that boys need positive models in order to become healthy, ‘masculine’ men, progressives argue that both boys and girls need to see models of men caring for children, in order to bring about a changed future in which men’s care for children is normalised.
Is it possible to move beyond this binary opposition, based on a clash between essentialism and social constructionism, and to identify a way of thinking about men’s care for children that addresses the weaknesses in each of these two positions, while building on their strengths? This section of the chapter and the one that follows will suggest that the flaws in each of the perspectives already discussed might be addressed by having recourse to alternative theoretical resources. This section will explore the contribution that a psychosocial perspective might make to debates about men’s care for children, while the next section will draw on insights from phenomenology.
Psychosocial studies is a dynamic field of intellectual inquiry that has been growing in influence in recent decades. According to the website of the Association for Psychosocial Studies (undated), a psychosocial approach ‘studies the ways in which subjective experience is interwoven with social life’:
Psychological issues and subjective experiences cannot be abstracted from societal, cultural, and historical contexts; nor can they be deterministically reduced to the social. Similarly, social and cultural worlds are shaped by psychological processes and intersubjective relations.
In other words, a psychosocial perspective shares with a social constructionist approach a concern with the ways in which subjective experiences – for example, of gender identity, or of care – are shaped by social contexts. But those working within this framework would suggest that a purely constructionist analysis risks reducing such experiences to the social and overlooks the vital role of intersubjective relations, including those early in life, in shaping experience. As Stephen Frosh has put it, a social constructionist view risks ‘flattening’ out emotional life and reducing it simply to the interplay of social forces (Frosh, 2002, 189). A psychosocial perspective seeks to combine a sense of the importance of social context with the insights of psychoanalysis. According to Wendy Hollway and Tony Jefferson, common to all psychoanalytic schools is ‘the idea of a dynamic unconscious which defends against anxiety and significantly influences people’s actions, lives and relations’ (Hollway and Jefferson, 2000, 19). Those working within a psychosocial framework would argue that these unconscious and intersubjective influences cannot be overlooked in attempts to understand issues relating to gender and care.