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Parenting against the grain


March 22, 2010

‘Functionally interchangeable’ parents may be a sign of things to come

The prevalence of dual-earner families has not significantly shaken notions that mothers remain ultimately responsible for children and family life while fathers are still in charge of financial provision. So University of Calgary sociologist Gillian Ranson went looking for signs of change—and found them.

In her new book, Against the Grain: Couples, Gender and the Reframing of Parenting, Ranson examines 32 couples living in cities across Canada who are going against the dominant understandings of mothering and fathering in all ways. In families where there is a genuinely equitable sharing of all the responsibilities, there also tends to be a blurring of gender boundaries. What’s taking place, she says, is parenting rather than mothering and fathering.

“It’s as if you took all the things you usually associated with mothering and all the things normally attributed to fathering, dumped them in a basket and shared them generally.”

Ranson says this change in Canadian families is slow, but persistent. And it’s not just about fathers staying at home while the mother goes to work. Rather it’s having each parent able to perform the same tasks as the other, on equal footing. “Instead of one parent mainly focused on the kids and the other one helping out, you have two parents who are really interested and involved. Over time this creates a functional interchangeability of roles between the two parents in the household.”

The benefits of this gradual transformation into equal parents, says Ranson, is that fathers are able to get involved in their children’s lives in ways they haven’t historically been able to. Conversely, it allows mothers to explore a variety of other options and career possibilities that weren’t there before.

Ranson admits that having fathers more involved in caring and raising their children is not easy. “In fact, the longer view provided by these families made it clear that achieving balance, as partners and peers was not easy. Conflict over child rearing, when both parents were equally invested also loomed large in some families.”

The evolution of mother and father into equal-status parents will also have “huge implications” in the workplace, as companies will have to come to terms with the notion of more male employees taking paternity leave and time off to be with their families. And it will also have a major impact on the family dynamic of the future, says Ranson.

“I think what it’ll mean is that everybody’s freed up to do more at work and more at home.”