Sons: Distant Fathers, Close Mothers

What the majority of men emphasise in the depiction of their parents is the available mother and the distant father. There is a remarkable shift in the perspective from ‘who father is for the world’, which we found in the previous generation of men’s admiration for their fathers, to ‘who father is for me’, which we find in this generation’s more low-key and somewhat disengaged descriptions of their fathers. This may express both an increasing individualisation and an actual lack of knowledge of the father’s merits since he is working outside the home. His absence may in itself lead either to doubts about how successful he really is in the world or to more abstract fantasies of what it entails to be a man (see also Chodorow 1978).

Evidently, the fathers’ masculinity is seen as quite outdated in the eyes of their sons, whether it is the fathers’ public positions, work ethics or class identities. Knut, who held his own father in high esteem, has a son, Kjell, a working-class boy born in 1946, who says sarcastically: ‘Father was and still is the last worker in the country, I think. ’ Kjell finds his father’s proficiency as a handyman convenient, but it does not make his father an object of admiration, as in the previous generation. This may also reflect the social mobility in the middle generation: just to be an honest worker is nothing to strive for. The relationship with the father is described as more bland than explicitly conflictual. Einar—the man who was injured in the war and made huge sacrifices in order to provide for his family so well that his wife could stay at home with the children—is described by his son Egil in this way:

I guess he has never been the type to be very ... He has done his job differently when it comes to kids and childrearing. He made sure we had a place to live and money for food and clothes. It hasn’t been very ... He hasn’t been the type to have a lot of bodily contact or to express much emotion. Very firm, you could say ... There haven’t been any particularly serious conflicts between us. But not a very close relationship either, at least not in many, many years. But I have a lot of respect for him. He is a very sort of strait-laced person and honest and sincere and dutiful. And he has done quite a few things that command respect,

I think. (Egil, b. 1949)

What is wrong with fathers is not their authoritarian style, but their lack of communicative skills, emotional presence and openness. Kjell compares his father’s emotional closure with his much warmer and kinder maternal grandfather, who represented ‘ everything father wasn’t... attentive and caring. John’s son Jan, a working-class boy born in 1947, characterises his father as a fairly bad psychologist... there was nothing directly bad in him, but he is an egoist... selfish and takes himself pretty seriously. Among the middle-class sons there is more identification with fathers based on admiration for their knowledge and activities, but also they agree that their fathers’ strong side was not psychological insight. Helge, born in 1938 at the farm his father Harald bought, talks with pride about his father’s political activities and vast consumption of books, but adds that ‘I don’t think he has read any psychological novels’ .2 It is remarkable that the only men in this generation—Geir, Magne and Helge—who say that they admire and resemble their fathers are the sons of the three men who for different reasons spent more time with their children: Gunnar, [1]

Martin and Harald.[2] Geir stresses his father’s way with children and also sees himself as a sociable person, just like his father and grandfather (the tailor). ‘A lot of silliness in our bodies’, he says about the playfulness of all the men in the family. At the same time, the sons also report a positive relationship with their mothers and say that they resemble them too.

The majority of the men say that they are unlike their fathers and that they had a closer relationship with their mothers.[3] She was the one they went to and confided in when they had problems or felt miserable. The description of the mother is often characterised by a tone of tenderness. They acknowledge with gratitude the comfort and service she provided. What mothers actually do becomes much more visible here than in the previous generation of men’s often muted depiction of their mothers’ work. The men in this middle generation are also more aware of the potential fate of invisibility of their mothers’ services, like in Egil’s account of his mother:

Yes, she was very caring at home, afraid that we wouldn’t have everything we needed and was therefor us in all possible ways, but perhaps too kind, she didn’t demand enough from us. She fixed everything. It was like that, she cooked for us, made our packed lunches. Organised our clothes, tidied our rooms too. And kept an eye out and... She didn’t maybe get a lot in return. What can I say, she might have, since we have had such a good relationship all these years and we never had any big conflicts, so I think she was happy with how we turned out. But in everyday life she got very little attention and praise for the work she did.

(Egil, b. 1949)

There are still traces of the mother as the kind victim, but Egil knows much more about what his mother actually does and he emphasises the reward in terms of relationships his mother gained. In the wake left after the absent fathers, the mother and the kind of things she does have become more visible. The close relationships between mothers and sons appear to have contributed to an identification with care and the emo?tional aspects of life. Willy, a working-class boy (b. 1925), says: ‘I could almost read my mother’s feelings’ It may also lead to an incipient understanding that not only cooking but also care in general may represent a piece of decent work and a job to be done (see also Holter and Aarseth 1993). This does not, however, entail an identification with the housework she does or her position as a housewife. Whereas the men in the eldest generation felt empathy with their mothers who had to work too much, the men in the middle generation feel sorry for the potential lost in their mothers who were restricted as housewives with too little to do. Kjell puts it this way:

It’s a shame ... I would describe my mother as, well, how should I put it, I nearly said that she hasn’t been able to use her abilities. I actually think she has far superior abilities to my father when it comes to . well, maybe not the practical things, but more intelligence-wise. My mother is more intelligent than my father. But she has never, until recently she has never had the chance to exert herself outside of the house. She was always at home. And I think she maybe should have had the chance to work outside the house earlier than she did. I think she would have enjoyed it, I don’t doubt that for a second. (Kjell, b. 1946)

The sons in this generation do not show the same contempt for the mother’s weak position and the emptiness of her life that will become so prevalent among the daughters. There seems to be a new possibility for sons to identify with the mother’s emotional care work in this generation, without necessarily giving up the strength or autonomy usually associated with masculinity. Even when the mother is described as an energetic housewife with ‘dust on her brain’, she is seen as a powerful figure. The tone is humorous and the descriptions respectful, like in this account from the otherwise quite father-identified Geir:

Very thorough and dust on the brain, cleaning herself to death. Vacuuming and cleaning and when she does somethingg, it’s not bloody half-arsed. Then she does it 100 per cent. I don’t think you can find people like that today, when it comes to cleaning and tidying and order... But maybe she likes to be in charge. What can I say, the boss, but I don’t mean the boss in the strict sense of the word. But if she has said something, it’s smart to do what she has said.

Q: Did she have most of the power at home?

Yes, she has been the chief [laughs]. Absolutely, she has been the chief. (Geir, b. 1948)

  • [1] Holter and Aarseth (1993), who interviewed 23 Norwegian men between the age of 25 and 45 atthe same time as we did our interviews (1991—1992), find much of the same: two-thirds of the menhad negative or bland descriptions of their fathers—and their critique is not directed towards thefather’s authority but towards his absence and distance to the children. A Swedish study (Bengtsson2001) of men born in the mid-1960s indicates an increasing identification with mothers, compared to men born in the mid-1930s who only identify with their fathers.
  • [2] Holter and Aarseth (1993: 66) find the same: fathers whose work permitted closer contact withtheir sons are perceived as ‘good fathers’.
  • [3] Two men, both upper middle class, describe psychologically labile mothers and a relation of distance. These two men connect this to specific circumstances in their families and as somethinguncommon for the time.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >