Gender, bodies and care

In the previous post, I posed the question as to whether men’s care – and specifically men’s care for children – is different in any way from women’s. I suggested that if the answer to that question is ‘no’, then arguably it undermines the case for recruiting more men to work in childcare, or for fathers to play a more active role in the day-to-day care of their children. I noted that what I labelled the ‘progressive’ case for a greater role for men in childcare tends to focus on pedagogic or political aims, rather than claiming that men offer something distinctive in their caring.

On reflection, I should perhaps have given more weight in my post to arguments from simple justice and gender equity. For example: the argument that, in the interests of women’s equality, men should take on an equal share of the ‘burden’ of care. Or the argument that, just as women are increasingly allowed to take on jobs and roles previously confined to men, it’s only fair that men should have access to roles once thought of as exclusively ‘women’s work’. 

Nevertheless, I believe my fundamental point still stands: that most arguments for a greater role for men in childcare, and in care more generally, tend to shy away from any suggestion that men might bring something different to the practice of care – mainly, I think, out of a fear of reproducing stereotypical notions about innate gender differences. As I noted in my post, we seem to lack a language for articulating gender differences that’s compatible with a belief in equality between the sexes.

In this post, I want to suggest that one way of moving this debate forward might be to focus on the embodied nature of care, and to explore whether the fact that men and women are differently embodied offers us a useful way of understanding, and talking about, their (possibly) distinctive contributions to care. Once again, I’ll be drawing on arguments from my book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities, supplemented by some more recent reflections.

‘The care of others is, quite simply, deeply embodied’. Image from Open University course, ‘Communication in health and social care’ (2007)

As my own research on men and care has developed, I’ve increasingly come to see the importance of viewing care as an embodied practice. I agree with the sociologist Andrea Doucet (2006) that the care of others is, quite simply, deeply embodied’ and with the care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2002) that ‘there are specific aspects of ethical understanding, such as a caring orientation, that find significant resources in the interactions of bodies, and yet the embodied aspect of morality has been largely ignored.’ We can only care with our bodies, even it’s just with our voice, our eyes, or our gestures. But most ‘care’, including care for young children, the sick or the elderly, demands a good deal more bodily engagement than this: it involves fundamentally embodied activities such as lifting, carrying, washing, cleaning, feeding, dressing, soothing, comforting. As Hamington notes, care typically involves ‘the interaction of bodies’.

However, it’s important to emphasise that in caring, as in other embodied human activities, we are not simply ‘using’ our bodies as if they were neutral machines or instruments. Underlying the belief in care as an embodied practice is the sense that our bodies are inseparable from other aspects of our personhood, making it possible for Hamington to write about ‘the embodied aspects of morality’ and, elsewhere about ‘the moral workings of the flesh’. According to Hamington, our bodily actions in the context of care are not simply physical gestures but express something of ourselves:

The hand on the shoulder during a conversation, the arm around the waist during a sad moment, the playful roughhousing that lightens up a situation – all of these interactions have a verbal and visual context that we have learned to attend to, but they also have a subtext of touching that also communicates volumes.

Hamington draws on the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to propose a ‘philosophy of the body’ which would provide ‘a vehicle for finding deep meaning in the phenomenology of simply bodily interaction and movements.’ According to Robert Sokolowski (2000), Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach ‘stresses the prereflexive, the prepredicative, the perceptual, the temporal, the lived body, and the life world’. This approach rests on Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological insights into the ‘expressive body’, the sense that, in the words of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa (2003), ‘the living body forms an expressive whole’.

But if care is an inescapably embodied practice, and if our sense of ourselves as human persons is bound up with our embodiment, then we also have to accept that, to quote Sara Heinämaa again, ‘there are two bodily norms for human embodiment: the masculine and the feminine body’. This is not to deny that, as in other aspects of our humanity, men and women are more alike than they are different. The Czech philosopher and care ethicist Petr Urban (2015) has glossed Heinämaa as meaning that ‘we can understand sexual difference as a difference between two styles of intentional life’. However, Heinämaa doesn’t shy away from the differences in male and female embodiment and their consequences for understanding gender identity. She writes:

We can of course mould our bodies in many ways, and today we can even change the shapes and functions or our sex organs. But if Merleau-Ponty is right, then sexual identity is not reducible to any such organ or function. On the one hand, it is something more encompassing, and on the other hand, it is more minute. It is detectable not (just) in the shape of the organs, but also, and more primarily, in the postures of the body, in the gestures of the face and the hands, and in the rhythms of their movements. These behaviours are not under the control of the will. Rather, volitional acts are dependent on them.

For Heinämaa, the consequences for understanding gender identity are clear:

To suggest that we decide to be men and women is to commit an intellectualist fallacy. Sexual identities are not and cannot be determined by will; they are experienced and formed already on the level of perception and motility.

Of course, this emphasis on the embodied nature of sexual identity is a challenge to the currently fashionable view that gender can be reduced to a matter of subjective identification – to an essential, inner identity which may conflict with an individual’s objective bodily reality. As Abigail Favale writes in her recently published book (which I’m currently reading and plan to review here at some point), this paradigm tends to lead to the denigration of the body, since ‘the concrete reality of the body puts a limit on choice, a limit on self-improvisation, a limit on social construction.’ What Favale calls the gender paradigm, and others term gender identity ideology, ‘ultimately holds a negative view of embodiment’. 

However, if there are indeed significant differences in men’s and women’s caring, resulting from their being differently embodied, do we have to see these as innate, or might they be the result of the different ways in which boys and girls are taught, or encouraged, or given opportunities, to deploy their bodies? Might it be the case, as Andrea Doucet argues that, although there are inescapable ‘embodied differences between mothers and fathers’, these can be explained by gendered differences in children’s upbringing? According to Doucet:

It should not be surprising that most fathers exhibit more traditionally masculine qualities in their caregiving, given that most boys grow up in cultures that encourage sport, physical and emotional independence, and risk taking.

In my research with men who care professionally for children, I’ve often been struck by the influence of childhood or teenage experiences on their decision as adults to engage in care work. In many cases, it seems to have been an early experience of caring for a child – babysitting younger siblings, for example, or being offered a work experience placement in a nursery – that was a key influence in their later choice of career. To begin with, I thought of this as a purely rational process: a young man realising at an intellectual level that caring for children was something he was capable of and enjoyed doing, and therefore wished to pursue further. However, the more I’ve reflected on this over time, the more I’ve wondered whether what these men were describing was actually an early bodily habituation to care, rather than a primarily mental process. Could it be that through this early experience of ‘hands on’ care, these young men became used to deploying their bodies in different ways – ways that are not part of most boys’ experience – so that choosing care as a profession as an adult came to seem a ‘natural’ thing to do? Did an early experience of caring for another person develop in them a kind of ‘muscle memory’ for care? Hamington (2004) draws on the work of Merleau-Ponty to suggest that care is a habit, a ‘type of embodied knowledge’:

Do our bodies…know habitual activities of care? Of course. There are arms that know how to comfort, hands that know how to share job, and faces that know to express rapt attention. These are not instinctual activities but learned (and learning) behaviours that exhibit care.

In reflecting on the findings from my research, I’ve also been influenced by my personal experience. Although, before entering academic life, I worked in what might broadly be called the ‘caring professions’ – working in community education projects with socially disadvantaged groups – I would say that my ‘care’ in these roles, if you could describe it as such, was very much on an intellectual rather than a physical level. That’s to say, a good deal of it could be characterised as ‘counselling’ rather than ‘hands on’ care. In fact, my experience of ‘embodied’ care for others is limited to two experiences – one extended and the other quite brief. 

The author as a young (ish) dad

The first, and more significant and transformative experience, was becoming a father, thrown into the day-to-day care of our two young children – washing, feeding, changing, carrying, comforting, rocking to sleep – all of which involved a complete engagement with the ‘other’ on a physical as well as an intellectual and emotional level. The second experience was helping to care for my elderly mother-in-law when she came to live with us, in the later stages of her terminal illness, and before she moved into the hospice where she died. Since, at the time, I was the one who worked from home, a good deal of the daytime care feeding, lifting, taking to the bathroom, making comfortable, fell to me.

I recall both of these experiences as taking me dramatically out of my personal comfort zone. They called on me to move my body in unaccustomed and often uncomfortable ways. Suddenly finding myself, in my mid-thirties, responsible for caring for small children, particularly at those times when I was left to do so on my own, felt like a major change to what I had been used to, and a significant challenge to my habitual ways of moving through the world. (Incidentally, I wish I’d known back then about autoethnography – though I’m not sure autoethnography was even a ‘thing’ at the time – and had recorded some of my immediate ‘sense’ impressions of hands on care, rather than having to rely now, a couple of decades later, on my inevitably fading memories of how it felt.) Now, was this simply because I’m a somewhat introverted person, used to enjoying great swathes of time on my own – reading, writing, reflecting, just being – or perhaps because I am, I have to admit, a fairly lazy person? Or was it, I’ve often wondered, because I’m a man, and therefore that my body, my whole being, just wasn’t oriented to ‘care’ in the same way that (say) my wife’s was? 

Of course, I can only speak for myself. Maybe other fathers, or other men who have been involved in ‘hands on’ care, don’t share my experience of radical bodily disruption and reorientation. And of course, it may be that the experiences I’ve described are also shared by women. Certainly, mothers experience a bodily disruption of a more radical nature when they bring a new life into the world. But does caring for that new life come more ‘naturally’ to women, because of the way they are made? Are the essentialists right that women’s bodies are simply ‘built for care’ in a way that men’s aren’t? 

Or perhaps the better question to ask is, whether women become habituated to care through early experiences in their upbringing – girls usually being asked to take on caring roles within families more often than boys – and then by the embodied experience of birthing and becoming the primary carer of a young child?  If more boys were involved in hands on care for others from an early age, would there be more men coming forward to work in the caring professions, or more fathers willing and capable of taking a full and equal role in the care of their young children?

In short, is the difference in a bodily orientation to care between men and women – if it exists – something that would change if we raised boys and girls differently, in a more gender-neutral way? Or are these differences – again, if we agree they exist – ‘written’ on the sexed body in ways that no amount of social conditioning, or change in gender relations at the societal level, is ever going to eradicate?

I read psychologist Wendy Hollway (see this post) in her 2007 book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity, as tending towards the latter position. Hollway suggests that ‘mothers and fathers cannot fill identical positions in early childcare’ and that ‘the experience of care from the father or mother (or a surrogate carer, man or woman) is never going to be identical.’ And she locates that difference precisely in men’s and women’s different embodiment: 

I have argued that there are psychic reasons for the father, or any ‘not mother’ object involved in caring at this early stage, to be experienced as different. If we are talking about a man here, this gains significance through the experience of difference at the somatic level. Held against his chest, the baby is cushioned in a different way, receives the pulse of a different heartbeat, hears a different register of voice. When the baby puts her fist up to his face, she feels the bristly quality of his skin, in contrast to the mother’s.

For me, it remains an open question as whether differences between men’s and women’s caring (if indeed they exist) can be attributed to differences in our current ways of bringing up boys and girls – or whether there are more fundamental differences in male and female embodiment which mean that caring will always remain, in some way, inescapably ‘gendered’. I’ll probably have more to say on this in future posts, and I’d be interested to hear other views on this question.


I had a further thought on the embodied nature of care. It’s not especially relevant to the debate about gender and care, but I thought I’d include it here anyway.

In the same way that I was initially tempted to intellectualise my research participants’ accounts of early experiences of caring, and overlook the impact on them as embodied individuals, on reflection I also tended to ignore the physical impact of being cared for in men’s (and maybe women’s) early lives. I keep coming back to something ‘Sean’, one of the participants in my study of ‘hands on’ fatherhood, said about his mother’s influence on his own fathering practice:

I think that my mum, certainly in the sense of emotional connection for, or practical needs being met, I would certainly perceive those as coming mostly from my mum.  And, you know, the fact that I might have to get my young daughter up and wash her and give her a meal and make that some kind of experience that’s nurturing, I wouldn’t really be able to recollect a memory from having had that from my father. So I would be using memories or experiences from my mother to remember, you know, how that was accomplished and what that felt like and what might be nice about it and so on.

It’s tempting to interpret Sean’s remembering of his mother’s care as a purely intellectual process: that’s to say, he had a mental image of his mother caring for him in a certain way, so he decided to imitate that when it came to caring for his own daughter. But it’s easy to overlook the little phrase ‘what that felt like’ towards the end of this extract. Could it be that Sean’s process of remembering was actually less a conscious mental act and more a ‘felt’ memory – a memory written on the body, a ‘muscle memory’, if you like? As Hamington (2004) writes about his ‘hands on’ care for his daughter:

I not only communicate care but also model a habit that her body catches. If she is exposed to this model of caring repeatedly, she will likely employ this habit when confronted with a similar circumstance. In this manner habits of care pass embodied knowledge from parent to child.

Isn’t it the case that when called on to care as adults we draw on less on specific conscious memories than on unconscious, bodily reflexes imprinted on us through our own early experiences of being cared for? And does this mean that adults who don’t have this imprinted, embodied memory will struggle to care for others? Perhaps that’s a subject for another time.


Doucet, A. (2006) Do Men Mother? Fathering, Care and Domestic Responsibility, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Favale, A. (2022) The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory, San Francisco: Ignatius Press

Hamington, M.(2002) ‘A Father’s Touch: Caring Embodiment and a Moral Revolution’, in Tuana, M., Cowling, C., Hamington, M., Johnson, G. and MacMullan, T., Revealing Male Bodies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Hamington, M., 2004, Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Heinämaa, S. (2003) Towards a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference: Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

Hollway, W. (2006) The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity, London: Routledge.

Sokolowski, R. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Urban, P. (2015) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Sexual Differences’, paper presented at the Third IASPES (The Edith Stein Circle) Conference, 23-25 October 2015, Vienna – Heiligenkreuz, Austria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s