Valuing Motherhood pt. II – The Reality of Family Lives

2.1 Primary care giving, and gendered parenting roles

In the majority of families mothers take ‘primary responsibility for every child rearing duty’(4), even when both parents work full time’(5) and when joint residency is ordered by the courts(6). Primary caring involves not just direct caring and associated tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, but also being responsible for
organising the child’s activities and other child care.

Primary caring is dependent on the carer’s ability to empathise with the child, and thus identify their needs(7). The term ‘primary care giver’ is therefore also referred to as the ‘psychological parent’ by some researchers.

When fathers are involved, their input tends to be additional to, or in support of, children’s continuous care needs. In a recent study, only a minority of mothers saw fathers as being ‘very involved’ in their child’s everyday activities prior to separation(8).

These gendered roles have been agreed – explicitly or implicitly, between both parents as being the best way to meet their child’s needs’(9).

UK family law, based on the Children Act 1989 is based on gender neutrality – but in the reality of women and children’s lives, parenting is never gender neutral or equal.

When mothers do not promote the father child relationship, the reasons behind this need to be understood as an interplay of social and psychological factors, and not as a failure of care. In most cases, reluctance to promote contact is intrinsically linked to mothers seeking to protect their child and themselves from perceived physical, psychological and financial harm. Until these factors are understood, barriers to contact will not be overcome.

4 The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Sharon Hays,1996
5 This finding is supported by numerous research projects, and is consistent over time e.g. Hochschild 1989, Eichler 1997, Coltrane 2000, Silver 2000, from Child Custody, Law, and Women’s Work, S Boyd, 2003; Fathers’ involvement with their secondary school aged children, Welsh et al, 2004; Women and Medicine, Royal College of Physicians, June 2009
6 Leaf 1996, from Child Custody, Law, and Women’s Work, S Boyd, 2003
7 The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Sharon Hays,1996; The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen, 2004
8 10-37%, Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms, R Kaspiew et al, 2009
9 Maccoby 1999, from Child Custody, Law, and Women’s Work, S Boyd, 2003

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