The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Parent = Mother

Posted by Leah on October 3, 2009

For ages I’ve been meaning to write about the issue of sexism in regards to male and female parental responsibility (for the record, I’m only discussing heterosexual, dual parent households here), and was finally spurred into action by this report yesterday about parents whose extreme neglect killed their daughter – the mother has been given a life sentence for murder while the father has been sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter.

Admittedly there may be details about the case that explain why the father – who lived in the same house – has been given a much lighter sentence. However, these (as far as I can see) haven’t been explained in media coverage, which to me is indicative in itself of a wide spread presumption in our society that, for better or worse, mothers are more responsible for their children than fathers are.

I say ‘for better or worse’ because depending on circumstances, mothers can be heaped with praise or damned for their actions…either way, the father is often left out of the equation and receives neither praise for a healthy, happy child nor damnation for a neglected, unhappy child.

Obviously this division of responsibility between parents can actually reflect reality in families where the mother takes the primary caring role for children – and I’m not arguing that every family should split responsibility 50/50, I think that’s for each couple to work out themselves. What I’m focusing on here is the presumption so often reflected in the media, workplaces and the courts that women should be more responsible for their children than men are.

A few cases in point. I recently was on the staff team negotiating my workplace’s Enterprise Agreement. I argued (in vain) for greater equity between maternity and paternity leave. Women in my workplace currently get more than 6 times the length of leave than men when they have a baby. I understand the argument that women have usually been through the physical experience of pregnancy and labour and that deserves time off on top of baby-caring leave; however, in my workplace mothers who adopt also get the full female entitlement, thereby showing the presumption behind the  unequal leave is based on one’s sex, not on whether one has just gone through pregnancy and labour or not. Surely dads have a right to care for their babies just as much as mums – not to mention the benefit to the mother and baby of having more ‘hands on deck’.

Victorians may well remember the case of baby ‘Catherine‘ who was abandoned outside a hospital in Melbourne. The entire media coverage presupposed it was the mother, not the father, who had left the baby there, and vilified her for this, while the role of the father was almost entirely ignored – many of us will remember the infamous Herald Sun headline ‘How Could She’.

My partner alerted me to this story by the BBC about research showing ‘Children whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives than those with “stay at home” mothers.’ Yes, it’s all about the mums. Never mind fathers’ responsibility for their children.

Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, said they had not looked at fathers in this study because fathers employment levels had not changed whereas the numbers of working mothers had increased dramatically.

So, if I follow the argument correctly, it goes something like: ‘because men have always been absent, they’re not responsible…mothers used to be present, so, damn it, they still should be!’? A comment on the story by Naomi of Sussex echoes my point:

I’m cross on so many levels, but mainly a personal one! I work, my husband doesn’t, he is our daughter’s main carer…Why do people insist on saying ‘mother’ when they often mean ‘parent’. It’s wrong on other levels too of course, but for me it’s the stupidity of assuming a mum should stay at home and a dad should work – are we still in the 50s?

My point is simple: however couples choose to take responsibility for their children is their business and, unless no responsibility is taken i.e. the child is neglected, others should reserve judgement. I think this can best be done by the media, courts, workplaces and other important institutions taking as neutral a stance as possible i.e. making no assumptions and when an assumption is unavoidable (e.g. when deciding on maternity and paternity leave provisions) assuming equal rights and responsibilities between women and men.


9 Responses to “Parent = Mother”

  1. Laura said

    Yes! I totally agree and it is infuriating!

    Once the baby has been born I see no reason why the caring/nurturing instincts should not be felt just as strongly by both parents. Some fathers would like nothing better than to stay home with their new baby, if only there were financial provisions for them to do so.

    Great post, Leah!

  2. Deborah said

    I find the assumption that the father is somehow less responsible pretty hard to take too.

    But there’s another thought here, with respect to the amount of support that parents of children with autism get. In this case, it seems to be none. If we were just a little more proactive about ensuring the people with disabilities and their caregivers get enough support, then maybe tragedies like this wouldn’t happen.

    There was a case back in New Zealand about a decade ago; a mother shot and killed her late-teens daughter who had autism. The critical factor seemed to be that the mother simply could not get any respite care for her daughter. It was a massive fail on the part of social support services in NZ.

  3. eilish said

    The idea of equal parenting is relatively new and radical. What’s the bet the judge comes from a family where Mum was the carer; and Dad was Provider,Protector and Occasional Player-of-backyard-footy? It’s going to be quite a while before the memory of those roles are gone from our social mindset. They’ve been there a very long time: look at the “good” dad in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ who bears no responsibility for twice abandoning his children in the forest, while the stepmother who encourages him to is irremedially evil.

    Women who transgress often get heavier sentences than men. They break the law and the social construct of women as nurturers. It’s a double whammy for us and them.

  4. Altissima said

    I thought the same when I heard the report on the neglect case this afternoon – why did the mother get a harsher sentence?

    A recent conversation with a colleague also highlights the mindset of sexism regarding parenting – we were trying to arrange a time for an evening meeting, and a male colleague said Thurs night wouldn’t suit because he was “babysitting”. Later i asked him who he was baby sitting – answer his own daughter! From the ensuing discussion it merged that he regards any time alone with his 7 year old daughter as “baby sitting”!

  5. A couple of years ago I was staggered when a male colleague returned to work within days of his partner giving birth to their first child. I expect men to be more than a peripheral presence in the child raising process, and wish that this expecation/support was shared by society at large.I agree that the default assumption that women are ‘more’ responsible is letting fathers off the hook (and often ignoring or minimising the role they do play).

    While I agree that greater parity between maternity and paternity leave is desireable, I also don’t understand why men like my former colleague don’t take unpaid or holiday leave to ensure they have a good amount of time at home with their newborn. (If you want kids, what could be a more important time to do this??). They need to take responsibility for making this happen, not just accept that labour laws only deem their presence at home necessary for a few days or a week after the birth.
    And I don’t understand why more couples aren’t aiming to both return to work part time after the birth of their kid/kids. If I sprog, that’s the expectation I’ll have for both myself and my partner.

    Since studies have shown that men tend to do less one on one time with their children than women do, I do have a bit of a problem with men who aren’t making a significant contribution to parenting, whether it’s through working part time or

  6. Scott Collingwood said

    If mothers get more than fathers in matrimonial settlements, including custody time, then mothers should also wear being held more culpable than fathers for neglectful child-raising.

    The thing is, what future does a civilisation have that pits the very genders against one another?

  7. Leah said


    Your first point might hold true in the case of one couple, although even then, a mother who has majority custody can hardly be held more responsible for a neglected child than an abusive father who may have less time with the child but can do a lot of damage in that short amount of time. And this argument holds if you reverse the genders, I was just using the example you set up of a mother getting a greater share of custody. I had a friend whose father had custody but his abusive mother still managed to have a very negative affect on him…and no one ever tried to say the father was responsible for the kid’s hurt simply because he was the primary carer.

    So, while your first point may hold true in the individual cases of some couples, I hardly think you can generalise the same point about all parents! If you did you would be arguing: ‘because SOME women get a greater share of custody in relationship breakdowns, ALL mothers should be held more responsible than ALL fathers for neglected children.’ Which would be ridiculous!

    By the by, I presume you hold that mothers shouldn’t get a greater share of custody, or money from a settlement, than fathers simply because of their sex – I agree with that. I think every case should be taken on its merits without gender stereotypes prejudicing the outcome.

    In response to your second point, I think that to varying degrees civilisation has always pitted the genders against one another, and that is very unfortunate. Women have, to varying degrees, been oppressed since we crawled out of the swamp, and I hope this will end one day with true equality that I think will be a massive improvement not only for women, but for men also. As the men at my work who don’t get much leave when they have a child will tell you, or men who are marginalised in the parenting process, gender stereotypes and sexism suck for men as well as women.

    • eilish said

      The idea that women experience privelege in front of a judge is a load of old cobblers. Custody and financial settlements are focussed on what is good for the children. The idea is to come up with a resolution that provides the most stable environment for them after a huge emotional upheaval. When a judge is having to settle the arrangement, it’s because the parents haven’t been able to agree, and cannot put aside their bad feelings towards each other. The personal becomes the political, and someone gets blamed. Custody arrangements reflect care arrangements before the break-up, not an outrageous bias in favour of women. Scott contends women should be punished more harshly by courts in cases of neglect because of 60/40 divorce settlements with the woman getting the 60%. Not exactly a logical conclusion, and nothing to do with the question of parenting responsibilities of mothers and fathers.

      If Scott would like to see a world where men and women are not pitted against each other, he can make a start by not viewing women as the enemy himself. In the meantime he could try to address the topic of discussion.

      I’ve been thinking about Deborah’s comment, about lack of access to services for parents of children with special needs. Allegedly, three agencies had this family on their books. Should the focus of the story be on resourcing our health and welfare systems?

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