Study of Father's, Mother's Day yields surprises

June 09, 2003

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass., June 9 (AScribe Newswire) -- Families make less of a fuss over Father's Day than they do over Mother's Day, yet dads are more satisfied with their special day, according to a study that casts a light on how stereotypical gender roles play out even in familes where both parents work outside the home and advocate an equal division of domestic labor.

Nicole Gilbert, who recently received her master's degree in psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College, wrote her study, "Flowers for Mom, a Tie for Dad: Doing Gender on Mother's and Father's Day," after interviewing 53 couples to learn how the two holidays are celebrated and what those celebrations say about what society values in motherhood and fatherhood. Her study is one of few to compare the holidays.

Gilbert found that families reported celebrating Father's Day an average of 3.5 hours, or about two hours less than Mother's Day. She also found that fathers are less likely to receive gifts - eight of the 53 fathers got no presents, compared with just one of the 53 mothers - and that those gifts tended to revolve around his role as the provider (neckties and wallets, for example) and individualistic hobbies (such as golf clubs and fishing rods). And fathers are less likely to be taken out to dinner. (It's the mom who is seen as needing relief from the chore of cooking.)

Yet dads were more satisfied with their special day than were moms. On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest, dads rated their days a 4.6, while moms gave their days a 4.27.

Why is Dad happier? Gilbert suggests three possible reasons:

-- Many fathers say that simply having time with their families is valuable and a change from the routine.

-- Fathers have fewer expectations. Unlike Mother's Day, which tends to be highly scripted around the woman's value as parent and nurturer, Father's Day is more loosely structured.

-- Research indicates that men are not defined by their role as fathers, while women are defined by their role as mothers. Therefore, recognizing their contributions as parents is not as crucial to their self-identity as it is for women.

Gilbert's work is grounded in the idea that "gender is not something you are, but something you do," and she notes that Mother's Day and Father's Day are rare among holidays because they are "occasions through which gender is created." The two holidays are events in which society's "normative conceptions of masculinity and femininity" play out in the family home, even among families that might disagree with those conceptions.

"It is true that Mother's and Father's Day interrupt our routine; however, I will argue that, instead of ridding people of 'everyday roles,' they are reminded of their positions as mothers and fathers and as a result may even behave more stereotypically on these two days than on nongendered occasions," Gilbert says.

In practice, it means that the way household chores are done is much more likely to change on Mother's Day than on Father's Day, because the chores are considered the mom's responsibility. Gifts given on the two holidays are much more likely to be stereotypically masculine or feminine than the gifts given to those same mothers and fathers on their birthdays - it's not the man as an individual, but the man in society's role of the father, who's honored on Father's Day.

Gilbert, who plans to present her dad with a flowering plant this Father's Day, has no desire to throw a wet blanket on the holidays. "I am certainly not arguing for a movement to abolish Mother's and Father's Day, but I am hoping that one day these celebrations will not be as gendered. Perhaps in the future when children think about gifts to give on these occasions they will not be so eager to give Mom flowers and Dad a tie."

Gilbert was advised by professor of psychology and education Francine M. Deutsch, the author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works (Harvard University Press, 1999), the result of her qualitative study focused on how couples transformed parental roles to create truly equal families.

Father's Day is celebrated on June 15.
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Media Contact: David LaChance, Mount Holyoke College Media Relations, 413-538-2030; dlachanc@mtholyoke.edu

Mount Holyoke College
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