/ Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World


This introduction to Michigan Family Review's issue on "Fathers and Families in a Diverse and Changing World" is written by the chair of the National Council on Family Relations 59th annual conference held in Arlington, Virginia, from November 7 to 10, 1997. By selecting this theme, the editors recognize the collaboration of the Michigan Council on Family Relations, an NCFR affiliate, in contributing to our understanding as interdisciplinary family professionals of the importance of fatherhood and motherhood in a diverse and changing world.

Key Words: fatherhood, motherhood, diversity, social construction, family history

    1. Portions of this article have appeared in the Call for Abstracts for the November 1997 Conference of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and in the Spring 1997 NCFR-sponsored Men in Families Focus Group Newsletter.return to text

    2. Ralph LaRossa, Ph.D., is Professor, Department of Sociology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, 30030, and the 1997 Program Vice President for the National Council on Family Relations. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to socrel@panther gsu.edu.return to text

    In virtually every society, the care and feeding of children are tasks entrusted primarily to fathers and mothers. That this is true does not mean, however, that the role of being a parent has been the same in all times and all places. In the militaristic societies of Sparta and early Rome, for example, "good" fathers and mothers turned their sons over to the army early on, depriving the youth of parental contact (but presumably making them better soldiers); while in other cultures you might hear it said that fathers and mothers who refuse to spend every free moment with their charges are "poor" excuses for human beings. (The super-baby movement, with its emphasis on almost perpetual child monitoring, comes close to this idea.) And who can ignore the variation in behaviors and beliefs across socioeconomic classes, racial and ethnic categories, and religious groups, not to mention the range across geographic boundaries and familial constellations (two parent compared to single parent, extended compared to nuclear, gay and lesbian compared to heterosexual)? It would appear then that what is defined as "ideal" has been, and continues to be, a product of people's collective imagination. Put simply, fatherhood and motherhood are social constructions.

    The implications of this proposition are exciting to ponder, but also a little scary. Taken seriously, the proposition would suggest that we have the power to live in a world of our own making, but also the wherewithal to mess things up. Moreover, if fatherhood and motherhood are social constructions, diverse in their manifestations, then it is possible for parenthood to transform itself from one historical moment to the next—with significant consequences. "Parenthood and above all maternity are the pivots in the anatomy of marriage and the family," sociologist Suzanne Keller noted over 25 years ago. "If these change so must the familial organization that contained them" (Keller, 1971). Assuming Keller is right, changes in fatherhood and motherhood ultimately can revolutionalize—or, at the very least, restructure—family relations at both the institutional and experiential level.

    These notions about the social reality of parenthood are what prompted me, upon being elected Program Vice President for the National Council on Family Relations, to propose "Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World" as the theme for the 1997 NCFR conference. These principles also influenced my wording of the theme:

    • First, it may be asked, why "fatherhood and motherhood"? Why not just fatherhood? Or motherhood? Given my own interest in men's parental roles and the interest that others have in the topic of men and masculinity, I did consider adopting a theme that would focus exclusively on fatherhood, and in fact brought this consideration to the NCFR Board. But after thinking about it for a while and after discussions with several friends and colleagues, I concluded that focusing on fatherhood alone would have been too exclusionary. I wanted the theme to be broad enough to embrace and excite a large number of NCFR members. In order for that to happen, both fatherhood and motherhood had to be in the equation.
    • In considering whether to have a conference theme on fatherhood—or on fatherhood and motherhood—I also reflected on the fact that my own research on fatherhood generally has included comparisons with motherhood and that, as a result of these comparisons, I have a better sense of how parenthood is a gendered activity. In a recently completed project, for example, I learned a great deal by comparing the history of Father's Day with the history of Mother's Day. Scholars who have focused on one holiday to the exclusion of the other—and more often than not it has been on Mother's Day rather than on Father's Day—have missed a lot (LaRossa, 1997).
    • I should acknowledge, too, that I considered substituting "parenthood" for "fatherhood and motherhood," with the intention of playing down the distinctions between what men and women do. This choice was a real dilemma for me. On the one hand, I believe that we should think in more generic terms when we contemplate what child care is all about. On the other hand, I was afraid that, at this point in time, a conference on parenthood might mean that fatherhood would be neglected. Even a casual observer can see that people tend to equate parenthood with motherhood. By phrasing the theme in terms of fatherhood and motherhood—and by listing the terms alphabetically (which is not the norm)—I was trying to hammer home the point that, at the 1997 conference, fatherhood as well as motherhood would be on the agenda.
    • Last but not least, let me say something about the phrase "in a diverse and changing world." This addition may have made the theme longer than most, but it also conveyed the message that the 1997 conference was one where diversity (variations by class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) and change (not only large-scale historical change but also small-scale transitions) would be important. And putting "world" at the end was intended to encourage global perspectives and cross-cultural sessions.

    It is always hard to know what effect a theme will have on a conference. Will it excite people the way you had hoped? Will it make a difference in the proposals that are submitted? With the advantage of now being able to see the program in its final form, I can reveal the shape that the conference took. Beginning with the numbers: there were 643 proposals sent in—an increase of 109 proposals over the previous year and the highest number of submissions in NCFR history. Cindy Winter, NCFR Conference Coordinator, noted that it has been her observation that the number of proposals is proportionate to the attendance at the conference (Winter, 1997a). Her prediction held true; the 1997 conference "broke attendance records" (Winter, 1997b).

    Looking at the presentations, the conference was substantively strong. The titles of the three major plenaries were: Daddy Strategies for the 21st Century; Producing the Mothers of the Nation: Race, Class, and Contemporary U.S. Population Policies; and Looking Back, Moving Forward: Attachment from One Generation to the Next. Also on the schedule were RUPs (Research Updates for Practitioners) on Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children; Corporal Punishment in the Discipline of Children in the Home; and Parental Involvement with Children's Education. In addition, there was an "author meets critics” session on the hotly-debated topic of whether "life without a father" adversely affects a child's well being.

    Equally—if not more—impressive were the sessions that the section chairs and NCFR members organized. I cannot cover every one, but among the offerings were presentations on the conceptualization and operationalization of fatherhood and motherhood; racial and ethnic variation and parenthood; intergenerational relationships in a cross-cultural context; boundary ambiguity and parenthood; the transition to fatherhood and motherhood; parental identities and parental behaviors; parental socialization and education; religious beliefs and practices and their connection to fatherhood and motherhood; feminism and parenthood; public policy and parenthood; and therapy and parenthood.

    If I had to name one outcome that I would like to see emerge from the conference, it would be this: that attendees would have gained a greater appreciation for the multitude of ways that humans parent, and that they would have left with an increased understanding of how cultural, political, economic, and technological forces (among others) significantly influence people's concepts of fatherhood and motherhood and the actions of fathers and mothers themselves.


    Keller, S. (1971) Does the family have a future? Journal of Comparative Family Studies. Spring.

    LaRossa, R. (1997). The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Winter, C. (1997a). Conference comments. NCFR Report. March.

    Winter, C. (1997b). 1997 Conference Broke Attendance Records. NCFR Report. December.