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Parenting challenges – Are there differences between fathering and mothering?

Parenting, fathers day

I noticed an interesting fathers day trend on my social media feeds this year.

One woman lamented “Fathers Day is the worst.” She wanted to share the pain of navigating fathers day as a single mom who’s ex (her child’s father) was abusive.

Another woman wanted to say “Thank you to the fathers who do not have inappropriate relationships with their children.”

And then there were various versions of “Let’s celebrate the fathers who know how to be nurturers and caregivers.”

Aside from the first example (I feel for you, but no, I’m not personally on board with the idea that fathers day is “the worst,” even though I can imagine why that would be the case for you and many others), it’s pretty easy to get generally on board with many of these messages. Yes, obviously it’s good for fathers to not have “inappropriate” relationships with their children, and yes, let’s celebrate nurturing fathering. Simple. No-brainers.

And yet I remain curious about the context, mostly because I’ve never seen these sorts of messages around mothers day, and contrast tends to catch my eye.

Can you imagine seeing mothers day memes that say “Thank you to the mothers who do not have inappropriate relationships with their children”? Or “Let’s celebrate the mothers who know how to set boundaries and hold their children accountable”? I think these messages would pretty much universally be seen to be in very bad taste on mothers day.

What to make of this? What is the meta-meaning of this phenomenon?

Is mothering harder to screw up? Does mothering just come more naturally? Are there that many more “bad” fathers than “bad” mothers?

Many of the mothers who see me in couples counselling have a difficult time understanding or tolerating their partner’s fathering style when it includes rough-housing, risk-taking, aggression, competition, brusqueness, and so on.

I’ve observed too that some mothers have a difficult time allowing the father to manage his own relationship with the children; there’s an impulse to step in and intervene, to criticize or control. I’m also aware that speaking about gender differences period, including mothering as potentially distinct from fathering, is not always welcome. When I posted a brief perspective about fathering on my facebook page, two commenters were quick to respond.

One suggested “Sexist much?”

The other declared “F*ck gender norms.”

Here’s the original post

Fathering is sometimes different from mothering. Yes, fathers can be nurturing, and this quality of fathering is valuable and needed, but good fathering also includes challenging, setting boundaries, and having expectations. Mothers can sometimes be uncomfortable with this, but a function of good mothering is making room for fathers to bring their own gifts to parenting, and allowing fathers to manage their own relationships with the kids. #fathersday

We live in a time when explicitly confronting or calling out the dark side of the archetypal father (masculine) is socially sanctioned, while confronting the dark side of the archetypal mother (feminine) is less acceptable. I chalk this up partly to the swing of the pendulum; one could say that the feminine has been on trial by the masculine for a couple thousand years and it’s time for fair turnabout.

A result of this pendulum swing is that so-called masculine traits have been made “bad” while so-called feminine traits are enjoying a time of broad and unquestioning glorification. For example, many mothers have terribly inappropriate and damaging relationships with their children, but if these inappropriate relationships resemble “nurturing” or “caring” in some ways, their inappropriateness can easily be missed or forgiven.

The dark side of nurturing (yes, nurturing has a dark side) includes smothering, poor boundaries, passive-aggressiveness, co-dependency, martyrdom, and even sexualization or inappropriate eroticization of the child… but it’s easy, almost encouraged in our cultural climate to de-emphasize or ignore this shadow.

On the other hand, a parent who “challenges” their child or holds them accountable, or assumes an appropriate developmental hierarchy in the relationship (ie – I’m the adult, you’re the child, I get the final say) will often be viewed with suspicion if not outright derision, when in fact all these qualities are an important foil to the “nurturing” that has been historically associated with mothering and which now seems to be held in absolute esteem.

In other words, certain qualities historically associated with masculinity and fathering have been reduced only to their shadow aspect; their appropriate, necessary, and positive aspects have become invisible, not because they don’t exist, but because our culture currently has a difficult time recognizing them, which perhaps comes as no surprise given the brutality that the dark masculine has inflicted.

Whether men or women are naturally more nurturing, and what should be done about it, is not a topic I’m interested in taking a position on. What I do take a stand for is the necessity for parents to allow each other their own, unique, and often differing parenting styles, and to allow each other to develop and manage their own relationships with the children, for better or for worse (obviously if there are genuine concerns about abuse, appropriate action is called for).

It’s also crucial for children to have boundaries set for them, to be challenged as well as supported, and to have expectations placed upon them. Traditionally this has often, though not always, been the role of the father. If an individual or couple – hetero, same sex, gender fluid, whatever – would prefer to “F*ck gender norms,” then please do. Switch up the roles. Mix ’em up however suits you. But please do not jettison altogether the value of boundaries, challenge, and expectations in parenting. Nurturing is wonderful and should be celebrated, but it does have its own dark side, and even at its very best nurturing is probably not entirely sufficient on its own.

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