Father Time

Are social roles based on gender differences, biologically or socially determined? With regard to male/female differences in behavior as parents, the history of social and cultural roles has in the past shaped what was expected and considered acceptable.

Historically, the expectation that women have a caretaking role has been based on biology: women carry babies in their bodies and nurse them after they are born. Psychological thinking then added a new dimension; the psychological and feminine attributes of mothers were deemed to have great importance for the nurturance and development of young children.

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby, drawing from his early interest in animal behavior, focused on what he saw as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of the early theoretical thinking that emerged was based on the mother as the important attachment figure. In the present era in which the role of women has changed along with the emphasis on attachment theory, it has become essential to expand the list of those able to fill that need. It is time for fathers to step up in sharing the parenting role.

At the same time, the consensus among women is that the mother remains the primary caregiver, the one called by the school nurse if the child is ill. This pattern is reinforced by the work world when a father remains the higher earner with greater time constraints, pushing families into older divisions of labor.

Nevertheless, fathers can be found more often in what once were considered mother arenas. My own observations are that a father or two does turn up in parent-child groups formerly populated by mothers or caregivers. A recent example provided cause for speculation. The father of a two-year-old girl in a group I observed several times was the only father in a group of mothers. The group met in a large room and although children and parents met in a circle sitting on the floor in a circumscribed area, the space provided an inviting invitation for children who needed to break away to either explore or run around.

The teachers understood that such young children are not always able to stay focused on the group activity led by the teacher and are accepting of a child roaming. However, safety requires some monitoring of children who are wanderers. In most instances the mother of a wandering child will, when appropriate, retrieve the child and help her return to the group.

In this group, the child of the one father was a wanderer. It was clear observing him that he was trying in many ways to get her back, reaching out his arms, signaling her to return, but at no point did he actually get up to go and get her. I later learned that the teachers were feeling irritated by this fact since the child would at times engage in behavior that needed attention. They were somewhat judgmental of the father, concluding that he was simply ignoring what he should have known was his responsibility.

My own impression was that this father’s feelings were hurt by what appeared to him to be his daughter’s disinterest in staying with him. He was perhaps also embarrassed by what might have seemed to him his daughter’s “bad” behavior in leaving the group, a feeling mothers often experience. Did he, perhaps, also feel that it was the little girl who should be coming to him. rather than he running after her?

Was this a gender difference in parenting, personality, or simply inexperience in a new role?