This is a guest post from Julie Hartley-Moore, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. She taught at BYU for 9 years, was a Dean at Elgin Community College in Illinois, and is now director of the Utah State University Campus in Tooele. She is a wife and mother of two.
I want to thank Nathaniel Givens for his willingness to share his parenting experiences in this post. His stance stirred up a lot of heated debate. But what most caught my attention in the original post and some of the ensuing comments was the mistaken notion that “across both time and cultures, women tend to be nurturing caregivers and men tend to be physical providers and protectors.” As an anthropologist, I would like to address a few of the misconceptions in that belief.
These misconceptions start with the premise that the working dad/stay-at-home mom dyad constitutes “the traditional family.” Some of the statements even invoked hunter-gatherers as examples of this pattern. The truly traditional human organization was indeed in foraging groups, but those groups were structured as small bands of related individuals, not as nuclear family units. Hunter-gatherers were nowhere near a primitive version of the Leave It to Beaver household with dad as the great and wise provider and mom just a warm, fuzzy nurturer guarding the hearth. Here’s why.
First, hunting is hit-or-miss, but gathering is fairly reliable. Except in extreme climates like the arctic, women can gather up to 80% of a group’s food. It is as appropriate to say Woman = Provider as it is to say Man = Provider.i
Second, hunting itself is not an exclusively male activity. Foraging women engage in small-game hunting of everything from rabbits to turtles to turkeys. Specialization and intensive time commitments are only required for big game hunting, and then it does tend to be men who are hunters–although there are plenty of exceptions.ii
Here’s the catch, though. A specialized big game hunter’s success may not translate into better support for a wife’s child-rearing endeavors; in fact, it actually may be the other way around. Studies of foraging societies have found that men are able to specialize as big-game hunters only when women take on a larger proportion of the other necessary labor, including gathering, shelter building, tool production, food processing, care of young children, etc. The economic support that women (and older children) provide allows hunters to specialize. It also allows them to parlay their skills into greater social status: observations of foraging groups show that hunters share their catches with everyone in the band. While the hunter may thereby become Mr. Popularity, his wife and children may not actually end up with more meat than anyone else. The debate rages on as to whether hunting actually improves men’s reproductive success or if it just gives them better chances of attracting a mate.iii
(By the way, we see this same pattern of women’s labor allowing men to specialize and gain social status in our workforce today. A male executive with a stay-at-home wife who does his shopping, cooking, and laundry, cares for his offspring, and hosts fancy dinner parties for his boss is freed to devote more time to his career than he otherwise could. He also has a competitive advantage over men and women who have to participate in their own daily maintenance work.iv)
The degree of gender stratification in a society correlates well with the degree of job specialization place. In foraging and horticultural societies–horticulturalists grow their own food, but don’t need things like plows and draft horses to pull it off–women play a primary role in food production and gender stratification is much less pronounced. Intensive agricultural systems produce an excess of food and can support a large population, which allows for a great range of job specialization from farmers to potters, carpenters, artists, priests, and kings. Agriculture is necessary for the development of cities and large civilizations and, later, industrialization. But this kind of extensive specialization results in hierarchies and extreme stratification based on all kinds of categories, including job, caste, and gender. We think that throughout history, women have become disadvantaged by agriculture. Men have controlled access to land through laws banning women’s ownership or through inheritance systems that disqualify female heirs (any Downton Abbey fans here?). Male leaders have had more or less exclusive access to the social authority required to organize labor and raise armies, with a few exceptions. They have also been able to monopolize access to the means of production, like plows or factories. Women still labor in agriculturally based societies, and, in fact, throughout history most families could not survive economically without women’s labor, but their work has been assigned a lower value and status than men’s.v
Intensive agricultural systems also develop organized religions, often with an exclusively male priesthood, that teach women their proper roles and reinforce male supremacy. Women who violate their assigned gender norms are seen as deviant and dangerous. Economies that confine women’s labor to the home correlate with the greatest gender inequalities. This pattern even has its own name: the domestic-public dichotomy. In these societies, women’s labor becomes invisible and unacknowledged; the behavior and clothing appropriate for women is very proscribed and limiting; and women’s ability to participate in the public realm is restricted.vi
Industrial societies were built on the backs of these pre-existing agricultural hierarchies and gender ideologies. Interestingly, though, during early industrialization, most factory workers were young women. This allowed families to assign agricultural labor or skilled crafts to the males and have female labor generate supplemental income. As males increasingly competed with females for factory work, though, (as happened following waves of immigration in the U.S.), public rhetoric began defining paid work as unfit for women–or, at least, unfit for “decent” women. This conveniently cut the competition male workers faced. Of course, that rhetoric changes based on industry need: insert Rosie the Riveter here; push her back into the household when the soldiers come home. Women still worked in industrial settings and their income remained crucial for working class family survival; however, the rhetoric shift enabled discrimination against them in terms of pay and eligibility for better positions.vii
I’ve spent a lot of time going on about “providing.” What about “nurturing?” The main point of the original post was that mothers have an unfair advantage over fathers in bonding with their children because of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is indeed important in infant bonding, but it is not the only way bonding occurs.
American nuclear families are slightly dysfunctional. It’s unusual cross-culturally and historically for mothers to go it alone in the isolation of a single-family household while dad goes off to work. It’s very difficult to figure out how to be a mother for the first time, without someone more experienced there to coach you along the way and give you lots of breaks. The isolation and the overwhelm contribute to maternal depression rates. Less atomized family structures don’t have those problems. People in a band or an extended family or a small horticultural village have a mutual interest in the survival of an infant and they are all right there to help with their care–mothers, fathers, older children, grandparents, aunts, and uncles alike. It is not unusual in foraging groups for women to breastfeed other mother’s babies as needed. In fact, the developmental psychologist Ann Cale Kruger set out to time how long !Kung babies cried before being comforted and found that it was someone other than the mother who comforted the baby the majority of the time.viii One of the defining characteristics of humans as a species is this kind of cooperative support, called “alloparenting.” Indeed, many physical anthropologists think this is what gave us our adaptive advantage over other species (note: they think alloparenting did it, not hunting). Mothers with stronger social support networks are much more likely to see their infants survive into adulthood, where they can perpetuate their socially-inclined genes in the gene pool.ix
Even in our nuclear households, though, breastfeeding mothers are not the only parents who experience a hormonal incentive for bonding with infants. Men who spend time with babies develop elevated levels of prolactin and oxytocin, the bonding hormones. Men who care for young children also experience lower testosterone levels. Through what is called a positive feedback loop, the more time a man spends with children, the more his hormone levels change, and the more inclined toward and adept at nurturing he becomes. The same pattern works with adoptive parents. It isn’t breastfeeding per se that gives a mother a bonding leg-up, although that helps; it’s the time spent in proximity with the baby that does the trick.x
In addition, infancy is a short period in the unusually long, nurturing-intensive human childhood. It is expected in many societies around the world that fathers will respond throughout the day to their children’s needs. Some cultures have egalitarian parental roles.xi But even in societies with stratified gendered divisions of labor, boys typically learn their roles and their work alongside their fathers, because they wouldn’t be able to learn the specialized skills they need from someone of a different gender. Industrialization may have tried to foist off the responsibility for childrearing onto mothers and schools so male workers could devote their lives to their jobs, but many fathers still choose to actively parent their own children, especially Gen X-ers and Millennials.xii This is good. Children with “nurturing” fathers have higher rates of positive intellectual and cognitive development than children with more a emotionally distant father and caregiver mother. In societies that allow fathers to parent, “paternal warmth” or nurturing is recorded at equal levels as “maternal warmth” and has equally important effects on child development.xiii Here’s something that should worry fathers who leave the childcare exclusively to mom: girls whose father’s are physically present in the home but disengaged from their children have the same problems of sexual promiscuity and abusive romantic relationships as girls raised without fathers.xiv
There is nothing biological stopping fathers from becoming active parents. Sometimes, however, their wives engage in what social scientists call “maternal gatekeeping”–a way of distancing dad from the kids so that mom can gain status within the family. A gatekeeper mother limits the father’s chances to learn how to interact with the children by monopolizing child-related labor and time, setting rigid standards, and criticizing the father’s efforts so that he is never comfortable in the caregiver role. He’s not a dad, he’s a babysitter (and an incompetent one at that). This pattern is associated with mothers who base their own identities in strictly defined, gendered ideologies. Not coincidentally, some of the best research on maternal gatekeeping comes out of BYU. [See Note 1]
So, from a cross-cultural and historical perspective, the basic premise behind the original post is just wrong. It’s like saying, “My wife plays the piano and I don’t. All the piano players I know are women. Therefore, women are natural piano players and are divinely created to be so.” It ignores the fact that piano players acquire that skill by taking lessons and spending hours practicing; anyone could learn by investing the same amount of time, although there will still be varying degrees of individual talent. If a father does not spend time with his children, other than to babysit occasionally when the “real parent” is gone, he will never learn how to nurture them, and consequently his children will not look to him for comfort. Those choices to adhere to strict gender roles in parenting essentially rob men of some of life’s greatest experiences and rob children of beneficial support. The good news is, it’s a pattern that’s within our power to change. All that men have to do is get more involved–and perhaps convince their wives to let them.
Note 1. S. M. Allen and A. J. Hawkins, 1999, Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family Work, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp 199-212. Available here.
i For details on hunting and gathering, see
- B. Hiatt, 1974. “Woman the Gatherer,” in Woman’s Role in Aboriginal Society, Edited by F. Gale, pp. 4–15. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies;
- K. Hill and A. M. Hurtado, 1996, Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine;
H. Barry and A. Schlegel, 1982, Cross-Cultural Codes on Contribution by Women to Subsistence, Ethnology 21: 165–88;
- C. Ember, 1978. Myths about Hunter-Gatherers, Ethnology 17: 439–48;
- R. L. Kelly, 1995. The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.;
- Frank Marlowe, 2001, “Male Contribution to Diet and Female Reproductive Success among Foragers” Current Anthropology, vol 42, no. 5, 755-760;
- F. Marlowe, 2000, Paternal Investment and the Human Mating System, Behavioural Processes 51:45–61.
- K. Hawkes, J. F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton-Jones, 1991. Hunting Income Patterns among the Hadza: Big Game, Common Goods, Foraging Goals, and the Evolution of the Human Diet, Philosophical Transcripts of the Royal Society of London 334:243–51.
For more on women’s hunting contributions see
- R. Bliege Bird, 1999, Ecology of the Sexual Division of Labor, Evolutionary Anthropology, 8:65–75.
- R. Bliege Bird and D. W. Bird, 2008, Why Women Hunt: Risk and Contemporary Foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal Community, Current Anthropology Volume 49, Number 4;
- F. Dahlberg, 1981, Woman the Gatherer, New Haven: Yale University Press;
- Cooperation and conflict: The behavioral; Bruhns and Stothert 1999;
- A. Estioko-Griffin and P. Bion Griffin, 1985, Women Hunters: The implications for Pleistocene Prehistory and Contemporary Ethnography, in Women in Asia and the Pacific: Toward an East-West dialogue, ed. Madeleine J. Goodman, 61–81. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
For details on male specialization as hunters see
- N. Waguespack, The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies: Implications for Early Paleoindian Archaeology, American Anthropologist, Vol.107, No. 4,pp.666–676;
- K. Hawkes, J. F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton-Jones, 1991. Hunting Income Patterns among the Hadza: Big Game, Common Goods, Foraging Goals, and the Evolution of the Human Diet, Philosophical Transcripts of the Royal Society of London 334:243–51.Frank Marlowe, 2001, “Male Contribution to Diet and Female Reproductive Success among Foragers” Current Anthropology, vol 42, no. 5, 755-760;
For studies on the competitive advantage of having a stay-at-home wife see,
- J. C. Williams and H. Boushey, 2010, “The Three Faces of Work-family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle,” Center for American Progess, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/report/2010/01/25/7194/the-three-faces-of-work-family-conflict/
- L. K. Stroh and J. M Brett, 1998, The Dual-earner Dad Penalty in Salary Progression, Human Resource Management, Volume 35, Issue 2, pages 181–201;
- J. A. Schneer and F. Reitman, 1993, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4, Aug., 1993.
For a quick overview of the development of agriculture and gender stratification, see this textbook: http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072500506/student_view0/chapter11/faqs.html
On the domestic/public dichotomy, see
a. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture, and Society, Stanford University Press, 1974.
b. M. Thornton, 1991, The Public/Private Dichotomy: Gendered and Discriminatory, Journal of Law and Society
Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 448-463 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1410319?uid=3739648&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103315454331
A. C. Kruger and M. Konner, 2010, “Who Responds to Crying? Maternal Care and Allocare Among the !Kung,” Human Nature, Vol. 21, No. 3.
For more on alloparenting, see
- S. B. Hrdy, 2009, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1999, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon;
- K. Hawkes, 2003, “Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity”. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400;
- E. L. Charnov. 1998. Grandmothering, menopause, and the evolution of human life histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 95:1336–39.
For studies on dads and hormones see
- A. S. Fleming, C. Corter, J. Stallings, and M. Steiner, 2002, Testosterone and prolactin are associated with emotional responses to infant cries in new fathers, Journal of Hormonal Behavior, 42(4):399-413.
- L. T. Gettlera, T. W. McDadea, A. B. Feranlic, and C.W. Kuzawaa, Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 108 no. 39, http://www.pnas.org/content/108/39/16194
- I. Gordon, O. Zagoory-Sharon, J. F. Leckman, and R. Feldman, 2010, “Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans,” Biological Psychiatry, Vol 68, No. 4
On egalitarian parenting see
- B. Hewlett (Ed.), Father-child relations: Cultural and biosocial contexts (pp. 281-295). Chicago: Aldine.
On Gen X parents see A. Hurlbert, 2004, “Look Who’s Parenting,” New York Times, July 4, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/04/magazine/04WWLN.html
For research on caregiving fathers and parental warmth, see
- N. Radin, 1981, The Role of the Father in Cognitive/Academic and Intellectual Development. In M. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (2nd ed., pp. 379-427). New York: Wiley.
- N. Radin, N., & G. Russell, 1983, Increased father participation and child development outcomes. In M. Lamb & A. Sagi (Eds.), Fatherhood and family policy (pp. 191-218). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- R. Rohner, 1986, The warmth dimension: Foundations of parental acceptance-rejection theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- R. Rohner and R. Veneziano, 2001, The importance of father love: History and contemporary evidence. Review of General Psychology, 5, 382-405.
J. M. Del Russo, 2009, Emotionally absent fathers and their adult daughters’ relationships with men. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. udini.proquest.com