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Move to more traditional views reflects conformism with how work, leave arrangements, public services for children, schools and social networks are arranged.
When their first child is born, men and women grow more traditional in their gender attitudes towards mothering, as well as about who does housework and caregiving, according to our study of nearly 1,800 new parents.
But these changes in gender beliefs are significantly different for men and women. New mothers are also conflicted within themselves about their views on work and motherhood.
“This shift means reluctant mothers have less opportunity to renegotiate intensive roles that may not fit them and make it more difficult for enthusiastic fathers to be as involved with their children as might benefit everyone.”
Our findings should concern policy makers because these differences may indicate that couples face extra stress at a difficult time in their lives – the first birth –which is typically associated with deterioration in the quality of couple relationships. This shift by both sexes towards supporting traditional gender roles around motherhood – reflecting and reinforcing typical social, employment and cultural structures– may also have downsides for children. It leaves reluctant mothers with less opportunity to rethink intensive roles that may not fit them, their partners or their children. More traditional attitudes on gender may also make it more difficult for enthusiastic fathers to be as involved with their children to a degree that might be better for everyone. In short, our society is not providing a full range of opportunities and choices for either men or women in the field of parenting, to which we should be attracting the most able and willing talents.
In our study, new parents gave additional priority to women’s roles as mothers. Both sexes changed their previous views to support more strongly the ideas that a woman’s main role is being a mother, that mothers should work only if they need the money, and that young children should not stay in childcare for prolonged periods of time. However, despite the apparent contradiction, women also believed more strongly than they did before the birth that working women can be just as good caregivers as stay-at-home mums. We found that new mothers became less likely than before to say that working mothers care more about their careers than about their children.
New fathers became more consistently traditional in their views on gender roles. They were less likely than before to agree that men and women in dual-earner couples should share housework and childcare equally. They were more likely to agree that a working mother is less able than a stay-at-home mother to establish a bond with her child.
New mothers, then, seem to hold onto a broadened personal identity, albeit with some internal contradictions, given the difficulties of combining paid work with their ideal of stay-at-home mothering. In contrast, new fathers appear to shrink women’s identities as workers, shifting to a more traditional view of women as caring mothers and housekeepers. We studied Australian new parents, but data from other countries suggests that many Western societies – the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada – would see similar results.
Why does this sexist shift happen around the first birth when gender equality is a major theme of Western public life? Such changes are consistent with other research showing that transitions, such as leaving home, leaving school and getting married often mark important turning points in how people organise their lives and, potentially, their attitudes. Attitudes are not stable over the course of someone’s life.
As a sociologist, I am disinclined to support a biological explanation, because such sexist shifts do not occur in some, particularly non-western, societies, where care of young children is more equally shared, not just between men and women but across communities. It seems more likely that the way we organise work, parental leave arrangements, public services for children, schools and social networks create structural barriers to involved fatherhood and also encourage the traditional social construction of women’s mothering role. Whether you are male or female, you have to be very confident and persistent against overwhelming odds not to conform amid such powerful messaging.
An explanation rooted in social pressure also fits the apparently contradictory attitudes that many women express about work and motherhood. Welfare benefits introduced by most western governments prioritise the mother’s role around the birth. However, they also encourage women to go back to work, even when they are single parents and their children are quite young. This confusion in policy seems to mirror contradictions in women’s identity.
I am currently also studying the construction of male gender identity in Australia and the UK when men become new fathers. Both male and female constructions of fatherhood seem riddled with contradiction. They say a good father is a breadwinner, but also that a good father is someone not in paid work and who is actively involved in the day-to-day care of the child.
There’s still a lot that we don’t understand. We don’t know what happens to gender attitudes in the longer term. Do they revert back to pre-birth views? What happens when children grow older or when relationships break up? Nevertheless, the conflicted identities that both men and women clearly display at this crucial time in their lives, when they have great potential impact on the next generation, should raise questions about public policy. Can we allow both men and women sufficient options to feel at ease in their roles, as well as to negotiate household and childcare arrangements that best suit their families?
Baxter J, Bucher S, Perales F & Western M (2014), A life-changing event: First births and men’s and women’s attitudes to mothering and gender divisions of labor, Social Forces, 93.3