A briefing paper prepared by Emily W. Kane, Bates College, for the Council on Contemporary Families Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Despite fifty years of significant change in gender relations, social definitions of good parenting remain so deeply gender-based that we still think of mothering and fathering as very different activities, and we continue to valorize white, upper-middle class, heterosexually-partnered mothering and fathering. The gender of our kids also plays a pivotal role in how we parent them, a trap we continue to fall into even though many parents want to loosen gender constraints on their sons and daughters. All these patterns take place in the context of an increasingly privatized family, with each American household expected to do the hard work of raising the next generation with less public support than in the past, and much less than in other affluent industrialized democracies.

Adaptations to pressures from everyday life.

The transition to parenthood still leads to inequality in the division of household labor between mothers and fathers. Women take on more hours of housework and child care as well as coping with the expectations of “intensive motherhood.” Parenthood also heightens the gender wage gap for women, because their earnings are hit by what social scientists call a “motherhood penalty.”

These gender inequalities are not so much the result of choices made based on personal preferences as they are adaptations to pressures from the everyday world and the lack of institutional support for shared care-giving and breadwinning from employers and government. The most economically privileged families can buy themselves out of some of these constraints by outsourcing household labor and child care, often to poorly-paid women of color, sometimes undocumented immigrants. In these privileged families, heterosexual partners lessen gender inequalities by taking advantage of intertwined inequalities of race, class, and gender elsewhere in the population.

Intersections between inequalities of gender, race, and class.

Focusing only on the work-family issues of economically advantaged, heterosexually partnered families leaves out the vast majority of parents, from single parents to LGBTQ parents, from low-income parents to non-residential parents, and from transnational parents to incarcerated parents, all of whom face similar constraints from gender expectations that are compounded by other intersecting inequalities. The inadequate levels of public support available to low-income women raising children on public assistance force them to operate with “both hands tied.” Non-residential fathers in low-income neighborhoods face stereotypes about “dead-beat dads” even as they struggle to “do the best they can.” Incarcerated mothers are vilified with little recognition of the social factors that contribute to their problems and little support offered to help them establish more secure lives for themselves and their children. African-American mothers navigate treacherous terrain as they try to protect their sons from dangerous racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. Immigrant domestic workers try to offer emotional as well as material support to children left behind in their home countries as they care for the children of affluent American families. Meanwhile, diminished public services and a declining safety net leave individual American families “cut adrift” to survive on their own, a trend that burdens families across the economic spectrum but leaves low-income households especially vulnerable, widening inequalities in the educational and enrichment activities to which children have access.

At the same time that these gender and other inequalities shape the work of parents, children’s gender also shapes the way we parent. My research demonstrates that even the many parents who want a less gender-constrained world for their kids often find themselves trapped into reproducing gender patterns in the way they raise their sons and daughters, with particularly limiting expectations placed on sons. At the same time, scholars are beginning to document the paths forged by parents of transgender children, as they follow their children’s lead in new and less constrained directions.

Parents and children in the contemporary United States face a range of limitations, including gender-based expectations, economic inequalities, and other inequities based on race, sexuality, and citizenship status. Individual families need the kind of collective support that can allow us all to contribute to the socially critical work of raising the next generation with fewer constraints. The scholarship reviewed in my Handbook chapter, “Parenting and Gender,” helps chart a path toward that greater public support and more equitable, inclusive possibilities.


Emily W. Kane, Professor of Sociology, Bates College, ekane@bates.edu. She is author of “Parenting and Gender,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.