Idealisation and Ambivalence

What feelings of gender did this division of work leave in the children who grew up with it? And is it possible to see social patterns in such feelings related to gender and social class? Both women and men have most to say about the skill sets and activities of same-sex adults, but in the relationship with their own same-sex parent, this is not without emotional ambivalence. They also share an idealisation of the opposite-sex parent, but the sons’ idealisations of their mothers are less intense than the daughters’ idealisation of their fathers. Ambivalent or not, the fathers represented a world outside the family that the sons knew they would become part of, whereas the daughters knew that their main access to the outside world went through marriage.

Sons: Respected Fathers and Invisible Mothers

Across social class, most of the men in the eldest generation talk extensively and with great pride about their fathers, the respect they had for him, how clever or how sociable a person he was and the positions he held in the community. Fathers are perceived as persons with authority: Knut, from a smallholder family, says:

I had a lot of respect for my father. Maybe not as much for my mother, because she was quieter and calmer. But it was my father who could discipline us a bit, you could say. But we weren’t scared of him. (Knut, b. 1925)

It is not primarily, or hardly at all, the stern and punishing father who emerges in the stories of the male informants. The father—and men in general—are depicted much more as the social gender, and as those who were creative and adventurous (see also Rudberg 1983). Several of the sons use the expression ‘jack-of-all-trades’ when they characterise fathers, grandfathers and uncles, and in this image they seem to condense a feeling of a special combination of skills, creativity and pleasure associated with masculinity. Only Anton describes his father as more socially withdrawn, and here the son-father identification seems to be weaker. The main pattern is that fathers are seen as impressive people having things (a car, a beard, friends), doing things (making tools, repairing things, singing, playing instruments) and enjoying a good time (drinking and smoking, playing cards, talking, telling jokes). Gunnar offers this vivid image of his father sitting cross-legged on his tailor’s table, while other men dropped by for a chat and a drink:

You know that the joker in the deck sits in that position, because it was one of those long, old-fashioned tailor tables. And he tended to use snuff while he worked, because he couldn’t smoke then. And then he smoked a pipe whenever someone came by ... But he knew how to sew, because there was a lot of crafting skill going into his seams. Then he’d just sit on the table, talking excitedly. He kept going like that until he was almost 70 years old. (Gunnar, b. 1926)

The contrast is huge compared to how he describes his kind but invisible mother, who actually did much of the precision work in the father’s tailor shop:

It was totally like, ‘sorry Im alive’... And, well, I actually remember less about her, because she always made herself so invisible, to put it like that. Couldn’t make time for anything, you know. Anything called leisure time—I never saw her sit down.

Gunnar’s mother died when he was only 13, so that might partially explain the faint image he has of her, but we find the same pattern in other men’s stories. Compared to the vivid and detailed depictions of their fathers, they have surprisingly little to say about their mothers. The mothers are mostly described briefly as extraordinarily kind and hardworking, but at the same time as rather anonymous. Mothers emerge mainly as persons to feel sorry for. ‘Mother was the kindest creature in the world, Knut says. Mother always did her best, Anton says. When asked directly, the men may remember that she was the one who both comforted them when they were miserable and who punished them when they did something wrong. But her services—the sweet as well as the sour—are taken for granted. One could interpret this as a defence against having to admit to their dependency on her, which may also be a reason for the need to exaggerate her weakness or her harmless kindness. They do remember their mothers’ hard work, but imply that she worked too hard for a woman.

Even though women’s work is seen as proper work in this generation, it stays within the borders of gendered work. Some mothers had to perform what the sons understand as men’s work, and this calls for their compassion and may even trigger some critical remarks towards the otherwise admired fathers. In these cases the mothers emerge as stronger objects of positive identification. Einar describes his mother in very positive terms: she was strong and tough, but also a person who could allow herself a drink and a dance. Thus, she embodies both the strength and some of the fun normally attributed to men. But he thinks she had to do too much of the hard work on the small farm and says ironically about his father that ‘he was afraid of getting dirt on his fingers'. The compassion and identification with the mother here override the fact that the father worked most of the week as a road worker, which evidently also makes your fingers dirty. The working-class boy John, whose father died early, describes with a mixture of admiration and compassion his mother who ‘worked like a man’. She was ‘her own boss’ and became unusually strong:

I could see mother was strong. We lived on the fourth floor and there were no washing machines back then. The washboard was the washing machine. Making a fire in the washhouse and everything. And a hand-driven mangle, and large and small wringers that thundered on. Mother picked up that tub like it was a basket of feathers and carried it up to the attic and hung the laundry. She was strong. But she must’ve made herself strong. You see that a woman can be strong too. (John, b. 1919)

Because she was such a kind person in life, the chapel was crowded at her funeral in spite of her having been just ‘a regular, simple person’. She is described through her generosity and hard work, yet John offers a much more colourful and enthusiastic description of his father who died from a venereal disease when John was only five. His father had been very clever in everything he did, and even bought a car! In the accounts of Einar and John the mother emerges as a visible person because the gender order went wrong in one way or another. But no matter how strong women may be, they are still seen as victims of circumstance. Only the upper middle-class boy Harald depicts his mother in her own right without making her into a person to feel sorry for. She is described as an intelligent and educated woman who taught him to read and write, and who also maintained strict discipline among the children, sometimes with corporal punishment. However, in keeping with the other men in his generation, Harald is still much more elaborate in his descriptions of his father and his public positions.

Most of the men say they resemble their fathers, but the identification is rarely without some ambivalence. Questions of authority and competition seep into their stories: how well did they do in their own lives, compared to their fathers, uncles or brothers? Masculine competition appears to be an important underlying issue here. For some of them, the ambivalence is connected to an unfinished settlement with authority: Knut, who says that he admired and respected his father, also stresses that he himself is a less controlling person and a better craftsman than his father. He sees more similarities between himself and his paternal grandfather, who, he says, was kinder and better with his hands. On several occasions during the interview, he emphasises his own independence and support of equality. He has ‘never grovelled for the boss and unjust treatment makes him extremely angry. This energy has made him very active in the union.

Hence, we may discern a class-related pattern of feelings of gender among the men in eldest generation where the mothers’ strength is reinterpreted as weakness and disowned as feminine. Skilfulness, work and fun, but also issues of authority and competition are emotionally connected to masculinity, and they identify with this masculine world. The emotional meaning of femininity is associated with being a victim of hard social conditions or is idealised as a faint and abstract goodness, except when connected with enjoyable memories of food. It calls for their compassion because they are fond of their kind mothers, but not for engagement and positive identification, unless the mother also embodies some of the masculine values. The general pattern is that the identification with the mothers is split off, and they try to be like their fathers—including the ambivalences that this identification entails.

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