Born in the Welfare Society: Individualising Gender

With Monica Rudberg Towards Degendering Work and Care

They take turns doing it, it depends who is busy, they’re very good at... taking turns. He’s mums dishwasher, as she likes to call him since my dad often does the dishes. He vacuums if he’s got time off, or if mum hasn’t had time to do it, but... it’s mostly mum who does it since she’s at home during the day, she usually works evenings and nights. So during the day the flat is empty and then it’s very easy for her to do it while nobody is running around ... My brother and I always have to vacuum and tidy and dust our rooms ourselves, mum doesn’t touch them. The only thing she says is, ‘you’re not allowed out of this house until you tidy your room, because now it looks bloody awful’.

Q: Are you thinking about leaving home?

It’s sort of in the back of my mind ... but... not something I’ve sort of gone and wanted to do, because things at home are quite nice and all right, sort of. (Beate, 18)

Beate comes from an urban working-class family. In her family both parents have always worked full-time and they have also shared the care for © The Author(s) 2017 H.B. Nielsen, Feeling Gender,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95082-9_7

their children and the housework in their small city apartment. Beate perceives it as equally shared and mainly as a practical matter, but indirectly conveys that her mother is the main person responsible. She also thinks her mother is the boss at home. Beate does not mention any unequal treatment of her and her younger brother, whereas her mother Berit admitted in the interview we had with her that she tended to ask Beate to help more at home than her brother because she is so much easier to ask. Beate tells us that the family members have a lot of fun together when they go out to eat or on holiday, but also at ordinary weekday dinners at home—which are not every day as some of them may be at work or busy with other activi- ties—when they can all sit and tell jokes and laugh their heads off for hours.

All the 34 informants in this generation are born around 1972 and grew up in Oslo. We do not find any clear class differences in how the parents share work and care. What they describe mirrors the mixed practices that we just heard about from their parents, but with less attention to the gender divisions. Many in the youngest generation have been taken care of outside the home before they started school at seven, reflecting the high prevalence of working mothers. The different variations of private and public care they talk about reflect the lag in daycare facilities in the 1970s. Full-time kindergarten was the most prevalent solution in our middle-class families, whereas being at home with the mother before starting school is seen more often in the working-class families, albeit not in the majority of cases. In some of the more gender traditional middle- class families, the mother also stayed at home for a few years.[1]

How did the parents’ historically new gender practices and their struggle with gender equality affect the young generation’s experience of work and care in the family? A first observation is that the mothers’ work outside the family is as visible in the interviews with this generation as the fathers’ role in upbringing and care. Yet there is a tendency for fathers to be more in charge of following up the offspring’s sporting activities and driving them back and forth to leisure activities, and for mothers to do more of the daily nitty-gritty care work, like checking homework and making sure there are clean clothes to wear to school (see also Holter and Aarseth 1993; Aarseth 2008). Behind the assumed gender neutrality, it is the mothers who in most families are described as having the main responsibility for the housework. Still, for the youngest generation there is nothing strange, comical or special about men doing housework, as was the case in the previous generation. Housework is not per se feminised, even though women do more of it than men. The organisation of work and care in the family may explain the lack of explicit gendering of money and consumption, which we saw in their parents’ generation. Even though fathers in general earn more than mothers—because mothers more often work in the public sector and fathers in the private sector, or because there is more part-time work among mothers—this is not associated with and not primarily understood as a gendered pattern.

Having two working parents, or living with a single parent, also means that this generation of children assist much more in the household compared with what most of the parents did at that age. This is also confirmed in studies of time use from the period when this generation grew up.[2] At 18, both women and men in the youngest generation say that they help out at home with things like tidying up, vacuum cleaning, emptying the dishwasher and cutting the grass. Paul, who is upper middle class and the only one with a mother at home (she ran her own business from home), is the sole informant in this generation who says he never helped out at home. At 30, he regretted this as it had taken him so long to learn these necessities of life when he moved out. Daughters more often than sons mention specialised tasks like doing laundry, cooking and baking, and some of them complain about the low level of their brothers’ proficiency in housework. However, only one young woman, Tonje, said that she was expected to do more work than her older brother. Sons of fathers who participate on a more equal footing with the mothers tend to give more detailed descriptions of their own chores, which may indicate a higher level of skill: they occasionally may cook dinner, clean windows, clean the bathroom or hang out the laundry. Helge’s son Henrik, who is upper middle class, even knows how to knit. But also the ‘in principle men’ of the middle generation appear to be quite active in making their sons do their household duties. The working-class father Geir, who admitted he did less at home than his wife, monitors his son Glenn on his duty to vacuum the house. In spite of the girls' generally higher level of skill, it seems fair to say that taking part in the housework is relatively degendered for this generation of children. The chores may be felt as more or less boring, but none of the young men describe them as feminine or something they should not do because they are boys.

All this indicates that gender norms with regard to housework have moved, even if practice is lagging behind. Housework has become less gendered partly because mothers now combine it with paid work outside the family and partly because the other family members participate, or think they ought to. This may lead to a masking of practices that are in fact still gendered, but it may also contribute to a degendering on a symbolic level when such gendered practices are interpreted as an expression of individual preferences. In fact, the youngest generation’s quite paradoxical feelings of gender reflect both. They praise their mothers’ skills (more than their fathers’) in gendered areas like cooking, gardening, childcare and interior decoration (in addition to her career), but are very careful to assure us that this is not an expression of a gender order. Daughters say that even though their mothers may like housework, they do not have ‘dust on their brains’, and sons describe their mothers’ greater share of housework as an expression of their individual likes and dislikes.

Some of the young men and women from middle-class families remember elements of the non-sexist education of the 1970s, for instance, in the kind of toys they were allowed to have (no Barbies for girls, no guns for boys). These rules may testify to the intentions some of the more radical mothers had of giving their own children a more gender-equal upbringing than they had had themselves. Many of the fathers also seem to have adopted this educational goal, for instance, by supporting their daughters in sports and criticising their sons for being too lazy with housework. However, the pressure towards more gender-equal norms in the family may also sometimes come from the children themselves. The gendered division of work and care has lost legitimacy in the eyes of most of the young women and men, and not to share the housework has become a sign of injustice and being embarrassingly outdated. Mothers who stayed at home with the children when they were little or fathers who do too little around the house are criticised—or explicitly excused by reference to unfortunate circumstances—by their children, or both. It is especially the middle-class girls at 18 who are very sensitive towards the mismatch between norms and practices. They criticise both lazy fathers and inconsequential mothers. Guro, whose parents share the housework relatively equally but do different tasks, remarks caustically that her father ‘makes himself helpless in the kitchen and has to be told 15 times how to turn on the dishwasher. In the interview at 30, however, she thinks that they were ‘unusually gender equal for that generation. Hilde, whose parents share the work meticulously, is critical of her mother’s limited insight into the family economy and of her father playing more football with her brother than with her when they were younger: ‘it was because I was a girl, I’m sure of that! Tonje, the daughter of Turid, who finally had to give up getting her husband to participate in household work, tried to make work schedules where all household tasks alternated between the family members. To her indignation, her father just signed the schedule as ‘Sisyphus’. Frequently it is the mother who is made responsible for the lack of gender equality in families with a traditional division of work. Pia says this about her mother, who tried to get her husband to participate more, but eventually gave up:

I like to call mum a really good gender equality theoretician, but not so good as a practitioner. She has been in the gender equality committee at work and stuff, but I don’t think she’s been quite as good at it in practice at home. (Pia, 18)

For most of the men in this generation, and also for those of the women who grew up working-class and later became middle class, the critique of their parents’ gendered division of work is rather formulated as adults and in light of their later experiences. For instance, Morten, who comes from an upper middle-class family with a traditional work division, says at 30 that he had liked the fact that his mother stayed at home when he was little, but that he later realised that it didn’t make him independent enough. Anders, who grew up working class, had a mother who stayed at home until he was 16. In the interview at 18 he said, with a little laugh, that this was quite nice because ‘then you got food. In the second interview, at 30, he distances himself from that kind of old-fashioned gender pattern, but also partly excuses it as a possible preference of his mother’s:

There were husband tasks and wife tasks, according to the old standard. She did everything. Cant remember having seen my dad vacuum a single time ... but my mum likes to keep things tidy, so she ... it wasn’t exactly terrible. They did the dishes together, otherwise she mostly did everything. (Anders, 30)

Stine’s working-class mother, Solveig, stayed at home with the children for many years, and Solveig emphasised herself in her interview that she was not a housewife in the same restricted way her own mother had been, but was engaged in the local community. At 18, Stine was very supportive of her mother’s choice and wanted to do the same. At 30, however, when she has become a preschool teacher, she is more critical of her mother and says that she is a quite controlling figure in the family, and that she is not able to see things outside of her own perspective.

In light of the parents’ gender battles and the many divorces, it may be surprising that their children actually describe their families in a much more positive way than the parents described their own stable parents. In this generation the relationship between parents and children has moved towards partnership and support rather than being a relationship of authority.[3] We see this in the many negotiations between parents and children and the exposure to the adults’ quarrels, as well as in the allowance for the children’s critiques of the parents (for instance, as we have heard, not living up to the standards of modern gender equality). We see it in the children’s empathic perspectives on their parents’ problems, whether it is divorces, marital problems, difficulties in their jobs or hav?ing chosen the wrong profession. Vilde’s way of describing her middle- class father, who actively took part in the childcare, exemplifies the tone:

I feel, and I think dad does too, that he hasn’t been able to do what he wanted to do because he hasn’t listened to himself. He has done what others, when he was young, advised him to do. [So when he applied for a new job it was] a way of realising his dreams. (Vilde, 18)

The atmosphere of this new partnership in the family is also present in the way that the daughters especially describe the family first and foremost as a relational universe. It resembles Gidden’s concept of “pure relations”, a modern logic of love and intimacy between spouses where one stay together not because of practical reasons or moral or material necessity, but because the relationship is experienced as emotionally satisfying in itself (Giddens 1992). The idea of pure relations may also have contributed to the deconstruction of generational borders: as emotional and vulnerable human beings, we are all equal. The marked lack of expressed sibling jealousy in this generation also points in this direction. Some of those with divorced parents feel that the parents are softer and less demanding towards younger half-siblings, but they also ‘understand that the context has changed and appreciate being seen as grown-up.

The mutual obligations of partnership combined with busy, working parents have also, as we have already seen, brought children’s work back into the family, but tasks are related to what is needed in the family rather than gender. In this way one could say that the mentality of individualism that we saw emerging in the middle generation has now actually acquired some traits of collectivity: everyone should do what they want, but since some work simply has to be done, everyone should also contribute. This does not necessarily work smoothly between children and parents: after the debate about the appropriate time to come home at night, the most frequent topic of quarrels between parents and teenagers is the issue of tidying up. The debate is not about whose responsibility it is, but about who has the right to tell others when and how it should be done. The process of degendering work tasks also leads to the necessity of considering a more general principle of justice.

New norms of gender equality influenced not only families in the 1970s and 1980s, but also, and much more explicitly, schools. Gender researchers in and outside of Scandinavia provided the first descriptions of male dominance in the classroom in the 1970s, and in the Nordic countries the 1980s became the decade with a strong official gender equality policy at school. Girls assumed a stronger and more active position in the classroom in this generation (Ohrn 2002; Nielsen and Davies 2008). In our sample, many of the men in the youngest generation report either being unruly in school or having academic problems (working class) or being too lazy, but still clever (middle class), whereas only a few of the women felt uncomfortable in school. Still, both women and men in this generation share the understanding of the necessity of an education. The young men who experience academic problems at school know that there are few alternative routes to success. For the young women, the necessity of an education is experienced almost as a duty in a context where it is expected for a girl to be autonomous and have a career. The women aim higher than their mothers: they want good educations and good careers, and in this way they display higher ambitions and a stronger achievement orientation. The favourite educational choices of their mothers—secretary, teacher, librarian and nurse—are almost nonexistent in the aspirations of their daughters. So are the efforts to adapt their career plans to a future family. When asked why she entered high school, Jorunn’s daughter Jenny, who is middle class, answers: ‘ 'Well, that’s what you do, isn’t it?... and if I was doing it, why not choose the best school? Their choices of education after high school are more varied than what we saw in their parents’ generation. Nevertheless, the majority still chooses relatively gender-typical or gender-neutral educations and the class difference is clear: both girls and boys from middle-class backgrounds go for more extensive education than working-class girls and boys.[4]

  • [1] A radical shift in attitudes to daycare occured in the 1980s, the decade of mass movement ofmothers into the labour market. Whereas in 1979 only 21 per cent of parents with pre-schoolchildren thought daycare was good care for children, 50 per cent thought so a decade later. The risereflects a cohort replacement, but is also related to the mother’s education. The fact that a majorityof our youngest generation attended daycare in the 1970s reflects the high educational level ofmothers and that they grew up in Oslo, where the daycare coverage was best (Ellings^ter and Gulbrandsen 2007: 663—665).
  • [2] In the mid-1980s, Norwegian 10-12-year-olds helped out in the household nine hours a week onaverage. Children with working mothers or highly educated mothers did more than children withstay-at-home mothers, and girls did two hours more work a week than boys (Solberg and Vestby 1987).
  • [3] Bengtsson also describes this distinctive new kind of relationship between parents and children inher generational study. The young women and men born around 1970 describe an emotionallyopen family: ‘They talk about open conflicts and antagonisms between the generations, but alsoabout much warmth, happiness, freedom and humour between parents and children’ (2001: 178,my translation).
  • [4] These patterns of educational choice are also found in national statistics (see, for instance, NOU 15 2012).
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