Sons: Fathers as Doers, Mothers as Talkers

The men in the youngest generation resemble their grandfathers in that they talk much more about their fathers than about their mothers. Almost all of the young men are fond of their fathers and describe in detail their personalities and activities, their good sides and where they have potentials for improvement. For instance, Egil’s son Erik, who is lower middle class, says about his father that: ‘He is quite sorted. He pretty much knows what he’s doing. He has quite a good temperament, I do too, actually. He goes on to describe his father’s abilities in sports and how he has supported Erik without putting pressure on him. He thinks their relationship is good, but also that his father works too much and that they could spend more time together.[1] The young men tend to see themselves more on a par with their fathers. Whereas the oldest generation talked about personal traits as being ‘transferred’ to them down the generational chain and the middle generation used the phrase ‘to be like’ one’s father or mother in a more personalised way, several of the middle-class men in the youngest generation turn the generational hierarchy upside-down. Magne from the middle generation talked about how he inherited moral values from his father, whereas his son Morten says about himself and his father: ‘We are different people, but he is quite like me in many ways.

Some of the older fathers are targets of much of the same critique as in the previous generation concerning their outdated masculinity and emotional closure, but the critique is more conciliatory because the sons now know them better as persons. Rune, the son of the upper middle- class Ragnar who described a rather distant relationship with his sons, confirms that they do not talk a lot, something Rune wishes they did. He says his father has a certain ‘air of a general-director’, but also that he is ‘of the old, kind sort’. Anders says about his old working-class father Arne:

He is like the definition of a 1950s—1960s type dad, who likes detective novels, and his car, and fixing things, or building things ... He is a man totally devoid of interests, in a way, I’ve never understood that about him, I’ve never quite gotten him ... It is hard to describe him, very kind, very practical, conservative. (Anders, 30)

The fathers are described as much more present than in the previous generation. This presence not only make the sons’ critiques of them more balanced, but also allows for a more uninhibited identification with what they feel to be positive sides of their fathers’ masculinity. Glenn says that he likes his father’s authority and that he has more respect for him than for his mother. When his father sends him or his brothers to their rooms, then he knows who is in charge: ‘you just know that he’s been there’. He identifies strongly both with his father Geir and his grandfather Gunnar: ‘Ibelong with them.’ Another father-identified son is the middle-class boy Trond, the son of Trygve, who worked part-time to care for the children in the family. He describes his father through his love for nature and hiking, his rationality and intellectual orientation, and as one who defines happiness as ‘having a family:

He has many of the traits that I have, I think. He reads this intellectual Danish newspaper [laughs]. He is—I think he is a sort of man of reason. He is halfway intellectual. And... he is quite wise, I think. He has a lot of wisdom. I have a very positive view ofhim, he can help me with essays and many weird things ...

He has meant a lot. He has maybe—he has influenced me a lot. Many of the thoughts I have, I have probably adopted from him. (Trond, 18)

The present father is a doing father, not a talking one—or if he talks, it is about sports, politics or intellectual issues. The middle-class sons see their father as knowledgeable and intellectually stimulating discussion partners, as we heard from Trond, but they rarely talk about personal or emotional things. At 30, Paul says that he and his father like each other’s company and that they discuss a lot of political and moral issues, but he still find the father’s emotional intelligence limited. Paul judges himself to be more in touch with his own feelings and better at ‘seeing’ other people. Even the three young men who grew up with the participating fathers—Trond, Henrik and Vegard—find their fathers somewhat emotionally limited. Henrik, for instance, thinks that his father ‘doesn’t get to show a lot of his feelings’.

The lack of communicative skills shown by fathers seems to be relatively unchanged, in spite of the fathers’ critique of their own fathers in exactly this respect. For middle-class boys, this is seen as a shortcoming, whereas working-class boys appear more comfortable with it because they see themselves in much the same way. Erik says: ‘It’s not like—-father and son sitting down having a father-to-son talk in the evening, we have never done that. Never been big talkers, any of us really.’ None of the sons report a negative relationship with their mothers, and the middle-class boys in particular think they resemble her as well in some ways: ‘I have gotten a bit from mother and a bit from father, Trond says. This identification with both parents may also be the case in families where the mother has a more traditional role in the family or the father’s masculinity is seen as outdated: Morten says that he is ‘a dreamer like my father and that they share many fields of interest, but that he is more like his mother, who was a stay-at-home mum for many years, when it comes to logic, structure and leadership. Anders finds his mother more intelligent and interesting to talk with than his old-fashioned working-class father. Still, the mothers’ qualities are seldom elaborated upon and analysed in the same intense way as those of the fathers. The description of the mother is less pronounced and sometimes laced with a somewhat condescending tone. Mothers are more often than fathers described primarily in the context of the sons’ needs: she is kind, she may help with school work and she is often the one with whom they can talk about emotional issues. Most of the sons feel emotionally closer to their mothers than to their fathers. Where fathers emerge as the parent who does things, mothers emerge as the communicative ones. On the more negative side comes the mothers’ obsession with tidiness or a tiresome tendency towards control and nagging. But in contrast to what we saw among the grandfathers, we do not hear about the subdued mother for whom to feel sorry. In the narratives of the sons, she is rather taken for granted as the kind and understanding person she is. This may be a result of their young age, but it probably also reflects the fact that modern mothers who have their own life outside the family rarely fit easily into the role as victim.[2]

In spite of working mothers and more present fathers in this generation, the different roles of mothers and fathers in the eyes of their sons are surprisingly unchanged. Fathers do, while mothers talk and feel. Even when a father does his half of the childcare and housework, his mascu?line assets of knowledge, wisdom and tough outdoor activities take up most of the description of him. But talking and feeling are not inherently perceived as incompatible with the masculine doing; rather, it is something the young men value and would like to see more of in their fathers. Yet it is something that comes in addition to the doing, not something that should replace it.

  • [1] According to the Gender Equality and Quality of Life survey carried out in 2007, men from cohortsthat match our middle and youngest generations say that they would have liked their fathers to bemore present in the family. For those born from the mid-1980s onwards, the number drops—probably reflecting the fathers’ increased presence in childcare from this period of time (Holter et al.2009). See also Brannen (2015) for similar findings among men in the UK.
  • [2] Margot Bengtsson (2001: 169) finds that the mother is generally seen as the dominant personalityin the family in this generation.
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