Book news

I’m writing a book on men, masculinities, children and care, to be published by Routledge in 2017 (all being well). The idea for the book grew out of the research I’ve done over the past decade or so with fathers, male childcare workers, and most recently with vulnerable young men.

Although research on fatherhood has expanded in recent years, much less has been written about men as professional carers for children, and there’s been very little work that brings the two together. What’s more, I’ve felt for some time that discussion of both topics has lacked a proper theoretical underpinning and has often been characterised by muddled thinking. And I’ve lost track of the number of emails I’ve received from students wanting to do an undergraduate or Masters dissertation on some aspect of men’s care for children, and asking me to recommend a good general book on the subject. I wasn’t sure there was one: so I decided to try to write it myself. I’ve edited or contributed to a number of books in the past, most of them published as part of Open University courses, but this will be my first attempt at a single-authored book.

Via all4desktop.com

Father and son (via all4desktop.com)

My plan for the book is that it will begin by posing the question as to why the subject of men and childcare has become such a hot topic, in both policy and popular discourse, in recent times. Why is there so much focus on fatherhood in our time, whether it’s moral panics about absent fathers, or government initiatives to encourage men to take paternity leave and take an equal role in childcare and family life? And what lies behind the repeated initiatives, both in the UK and elsewhere, to recruit more men to work with children, and the accompanying anxieties about the supposed lack of men entering teaching, particularly in primary and the early years? By examining policy documents, news stories and media representations, I intend to identify some of the key strands in dominant discourses about men and childcare. More specifically, I want to explore the tensions and contradictions between a discourse of gender equality, which represents men as equally able (and indeed, increasingly, as morally obliged) to care for children, and the equally powerful discourse of men as a risk to children, which has been fuelled by a number of high profile sexual abuse cases, including some in childcare services. How have these often competing discourses framed public policy, professional practice, and popular ‘common sense’ in relation to men’s care for children?

Moving on from discourses to theories, the book will explore and critique some of the key perspectives that underpin current debates about men, children and care. At this stage, I’m unsure which perspectives I’ll focus on, but it’s likely this section will include an examination of the debate between traditionalist models of family life, which draw on essentialist notions of gender identity, and progressive or egalitarian models, which suggest that gender identities are socially and historically constructed. The latter tend to be influenced by sociological or social constructionist thinking, but I also want to look at the insights that psychoanalytic theory, and particularly the ideas developed by psychoanalytic feminism, might provide into these issues. I’ll probably end up making the case for a psychosocial – or even a biopsychosocial – approach that attempts (perhaps over-ambitiously!) to resolve some of the tensions and differences between these different schools of thought.

Male childcare worker (via www.spiegel.de)

Male childcare worker (via http://www.spiegel.de)

Having set out the discursive and theoretical terrain in this way, I’m hoping that the book will then focus on some key issues that I don’t think have been tackled adequately elsewhere. One of those issues is the meanings that children have for men. A lot of writing about fatherhood tends to focus on the impact of father involvement (or alternatively of father absence) on children’s development and wellbeing. There’s been much less work on men’s subjective and affective experience either as fathers, or as paid carers for children, though this has been rectified to some extent in recent years by some landmark empirical studies (such as those by Miller, Doucet, Dermott et al). But I think we still lack a deep enough understanding of either the social or psychic meanings of children in men’s lives, or the influence of those meanings, whether explicit or unconscious, on men’s capacity or willingness to care.

Another key issue that I want to explore in the book is the factors that influence men’s intention or desire to be involved in the care of their, or indeed other people’s children. What part is played by early experiences and relationships, and what role is there for education, in developing ‘caring’ masculinities? Here, I’ll probably draw on some small-scale research that I did some time ago on boys’ relationships with their mothers, as well as on the findings of our recent Beyond Male Role Models study.

I’ll post more details about the book, and provide updates on my progress, as I go along. I’d certainly welcome feedback on my ideas, particularly if anyone is working in similar areas, or is aware of other interesting work in this field, either in research or practice, that you think I should be aware of.

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‘Parenting and personhood’ conference

Last week I attended a conference on ‘Parenting and personhood: cross-cultural perspectives on family-life, expertise, and risk management’, hosted by the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The conference was organised in collaboration with the project Parenting Cultures and Risk Management in Plural Norway at Uni Research Rokkansenteret in Norway.

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

Conference delegates (via Ros Edwards on Twitter)

My colleague Lindsay O’Dell and I presented a paper on ‘Parenting and distance’, which we’d developed with a number of our colleagues in the Children, Young People and Families research group at The Open University. The paper introduced our new research project, exploring three case studies of parenting at a distance, and shared some initial findings from one of those exemplars, looking at the experience of parents with a disabled child living away from home for extended periods. I also managed to smuggle in a reference to my own recent research on my great grandfather’s wartime letters, which I believe provide an interesting example of a man ‘doing’ fatherhood at a distance, under conditions of extreme anxiety. You can download the slides from our presentation here:

Parenting and distance slides

The conference was truly international, with most delegates coming from outside the UK, and with speakers representing a variety of European countries, as well as North America, South Africa and Australasia. Highlights for me included the opening keynote lecture by Frank Furedi, a report on the Norwegian project from Synnøve Bendixsen and Hilde Danielsen, and panels on fatherhood and parenting online, where I learnt a new word: ‘sharenting’ – the phenomenon of parents sharing intimate details of their children’s lives and their own parenting experiences via blogs and vlogs.

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

Presentation by Synnøve and Hilde

As always, one of the best things about the conference was meeting new people and sharing ideas and experiences. I enjoyed making connections with colleagues doing research on various aspects of parenting in Norway, Denmark, Canada and the USA, and I look forward to keeping in contact with them as our own work on parenting and distance moves forward.

Thanks to Ellie Lee of CPCS for a superbly organised conference.

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‘Father figures’ seminar and new research project

As advertised in my last post, I helped to organise a seminar on 3rd June on ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children.’ The seminar, a collaboration between The Open University and the Family Matters Institute, was designed to launch a new joint research project on social fathering.

You can read all about the seminar, and find out more about the project, at the new blog that we’ve created:

https://fatherfiguresresearch.wordpress.com

And you can follow the project’s progress, and get involved in the discussion on social fathering, on Twitter:

@fatherfiguresOU

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Free seminar on ‘Father figures’: register now!

There are still some places available at this seminar. To register, email:

Hsc-Research-Admin@open.ac.uk

Seminar invitation screen shot

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Reflections on the American Men’s Studies Association Conference

I arrived home on Monday from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. It was a rather different affair from last year’s conference in New York City. That was a big, high-profile event, coinciding with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and featuring celebrity guests such as Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. It was deliberately aimed at gender equality activists as much as researchers, and as such was certainly a heady and inspiring few days. However, it  could be argued that academically it was somewhat less satisfying, and specifically that there was little in the programme to appeal to those from a humanities background.

Flag pole on the 'Diag', University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

Flag pole on the ‘Diag’, University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

This year’s conference was smaller, more intimate, with a greater emphasis on academic research, and an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. From such a stimulating programme  it’s perhaps invidious to mention only a few presentations. However, highlights for me included the opening plenary in which three literary academics talked about masculinity in American novels, the keynote lecture by linguist Scott Kiesling discussing the ‘masculine stance’ in language and the history of the word ‘dude’, and a couple of fascinating papers analysing gender relations in popular television programmes. The poster presentations were very good too: I was particularly pleased to link up with Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD student at Ann Arbor, who is researching the use of social media by fathers, including some of the British ‘dad blogs’ that I’ve started to follow.

Preparing for the panel on fatherhood

Preparing for the panel session on fatherhood

My own paper, analysing faith, fatherhood and masculinity in the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War (see my last post), was part of a panel session first thing on Saturday morning. I was presenting alongside Joyce Lee, another Ann Arbor PhD student, and Carol Watson-Phillips, a retired researcher from Massachusetts, both of whom were examining aspects of contemporary fatherhood. Despite the early start, the session was well-attended and the questions were intriguing, even if being asked to extend my analysis to my relationship with my own father was somewhat challenging!

Networking at the AMSA conference

Networking at the AMSA conference

The School of Social Work at the University of Michigan were excellent hosts, and I made some useful contacts and had plenty of memorable and stimulating conversations. Ann Arbor itself was a fascinating town to explore: not just the university campus itself, with its imposing architecture and impressive art gallery, but the Art Deco theatres, the multitude of bookshops and restaurants, and the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The weather was (we were given to understand) typical of Michigan: spring sunshine one day, biting wind and snow showers the next (though not the deep drifts we had to contend with last year in Manhattan).

I don’t yet know where AMSA 2017 will be held (somewhere warmer perhaps?), but if the programme is as interesting as this year, I hope I’ll be going.

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The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.

[…] 

(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 

[…] 

One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 

[…]

The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via www.nationaljournal.com)

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via http://www.nationaljournal.com)

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.

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Presenting our research at the Houses of Parliament

Yesterday Brigid Featherstone and I gave a presentation at the Houses of Parliament to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood, on ‘Beyond Male Role Models’, the ESRC-funded research study that we worked on with Sandy Ruxton and Mike Ward (with support from Anna Tarrant and Gareth Terry) between 2013 and 2015. The study, which was a collaboration between The Open University and Action for Children, explored the role of gender in work with vulnerable young men.

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

The presentation seemed to go well and prompted some interesting questions from members of the audience, who included policy-makers, practitioners and service users, as well as other researchers. We also received many requests for further information – the pile of reports that I’d brought with me certainly disappeared very quickly – and we made some great contacts in the networking session at the end of the meeting. It was also good to see friends there from Working With Men, one of our other partners in the research, including some of the workers and young service users who had featured in the film we made as part of the project (and which you can view here).

Perhaps the most challenging question came from David Lammy MP, who chairs the APPG. In our talk, we had emphasised that the young men we interviewed valued the personal qualities of support workers – including respect, care, consistency and commitment – far more than their gender identities. David wondered whether we thought that the young men who used services needed to earn respect, rather than simply expect it. I think we acquitted ourselves well in our answer, in which we argued that unless workers offered unconditional respect to young men, many of whom have been treated with a lack of respect by professionals in the past, then it would be difficult even to begin to form a productive working relationship, in which young men’s behaviour could certainly be challenged further down the line. Anyway, we were encouraged that David Lammy asked for more information about our research, and by the suggestion that it might find a place in the review that he is carrying out, at the request of the Prime Minister, into young black men in the criminal justice system.

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the blue shadow is because I was standing in front of the screen)

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the strange blue shadow is due to the fact that I was standing in front of the projector screen)

There were two other presentations yesterday besides our own. Elina Einiö from the University of Helsinki in Finland shared the findings of her research into mortality rates among men who had been young fathers. Her large-scale population study certainly showed a connection between young fatherhood and early mortality, but it was difficult to draw conclusions about the precise causes. Was it because young fatherhood produced additional economic and emotional stresses, diverting men from investing in their own wellbeing? Did it mean that more support should be offered to young fathers, or conversely did the research demonstrate that early fatherhood should be discouraged? It was interesting to hear about Elina’s findings in the context of the conclusion, from our own study, that young fatherhood could actually have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable young men, acting as a catalyst that helped them make the transition to a ‘safer’ and more responsible adult masculinity.

The final presentation, by Shane Ryan from Working With Men, reported on moves to establish a new Fathers’ Development Foundation. I attended the first meeting of the foundation at Kings Place, London, back in February. At the moment, the group is really a loose coalition of individuals and organisations with an interest in fatherhood matters, but the hope is that it will coalesce into a body that can have a positive influence on public policy, particularly in relation to the most marginalised and disadvantaged fathers.  According to the foundation’s website, an official launch is planned for next week.

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