Parenting and Capitalism. Wait, I mean Gender. No, I mean Capitalism.
Sociological Meanderings Towards Collective Well-Being
Does the gender of parents matter? Yes and no. No: children need stable adults of any gender. Being male or female identified, or cisgender or transgender, isn’t what makes a person a good parent. That said, given the current gendered social structure, patriarchy does shape parenting: cisgendered male parents are more likely to parent in ways that reproduce patriarchy, while female identified parents are less likely to reproduce patriarchal norms through their parenting practices (Stacey and Biblarz, 2010). That said, social conditions shape these dynamics, as Veronica Montes highlights; immigration is one context in which some men break out of hegemonic norms and parent as whole people.
And, on top of that, because of “heterogender” (Ingraham) and the “traffic systems” of heteronormativity (Ahmed), heterosexual women have greater stressors in their relationships. These stressors emerge from the “cultural scripts” that expect “wives” and “mothers” to engage in more unpaid household labor (Check out Stephanie Coontz’ piece on this in the New York Times!).
They also have higher expectations placed on them. As Roksana Baddrudoja points out, there is no such thing as a “perfect” parent. And yet, circulating through society — in particular through “controlling images” (Collins) and what sociologists call the “normalcy project” (Fredrick) — are ideas and images aplenty that push people (especially mothers) towards the goal of perfection.
Enter capitalism: if we seek an unattainable perfection, we will be better consumers. We will buy all the products that are on the marketplace to help us achieve this unattainable goal. We will never stop buying and craving more stuff.
Now, what’s powerful about “controlling images” (Collins) goes beyond the mass media’s production of stereotypes; those images get written into policy. They control more than our ideas when they become law. A prime example of this is the assumption of a female homemaker and the impact that has on (our lack of) social policy around child care in the United States. Do we have affordable child care in the United States you ask? Yes, we do: the K-12 education system, as all parents in the COVID era know intimately. The lack of alternate, affordable child care is a policy (an outdated one) that assumes that households have someone at home full time to provide child care. A lack of paternal leave is another example of how “controlling images” (Collins) about who is the “better” parent get written into law.
One more thing about capitalism and gender and parenting: the expectation of the male breadwinner emerged during the industrial era and is a central component of economic patriarchy. Remember those lectures? A breadwinner isn’t just someone who is male identified and earning some money. A breadwinner earns enough in wages to support multiple dependents (a wife and a few children). As a result of these dependency relationships, the breadwinner is more exploitable, and thus beneficial, to the system of industrial capitalism. Of course, racism has significantly shaped who has access to breadwinning wages, making the breadwinner a gendered position, while also being a racialized and classed dynamic (Dill).
Gender functions socially to organize bodies, and more specifically, to organize the division of labor in industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism requires both exploitation and inequality, and patriarchal white supremacy produces a binary system to accomplish this. This system is maintained through the individual, cultural and institutional levels, as Risman points out. And, as Oyewumi pointed out, gender in the West is tied to the breadwinner/homemaker structure of the nuclear family. Everything comes back to this aspect of the binary (again, in the Western context). Our experiences with authenticity highlight how this binary is socially policed.
Both Baddrudoja and Montes highlight how we self-police in relation to this binary as well. We internalize gendered norms in ways that make us question our worth (as a mother, in Baddrudoja’s case). We internalize gendered norms in ways that are dehumanizing: All of us are emotional beings, for example, and yet as Montes highlights about hegemonic masculinity, there is a social requirement of emotional stoicism, which can cut men off from their full humanity.
So, does the gender of parents matter? So long as patriarchal white supremacy is an organizing structure of our society, the gender of parents will shape a whole range of consequences. But those consequences are social in nature — there is no such thing as a universal “maternal instinct” nor a “deadbeat dad” in terms of our hormones or chromosomes. These are social dynamics that emerge from how society is organized.
Illuminating the social nature of gender is an opening: an opening for reimagining, for reengaging, and for change. As Nikki Giovanni wrote:
as things be / come
then we can destroy
what we be / come
what we become
when we dream
Word Poem, by Nikki Giovanni, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 2007
Take good care of yourselves and each other.