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CIOS - Stay-at-Home Fathers: Masculinity, Family, Work, and Gender Stereotypes
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006

STAY-AT-HOME FATHERS: MASCULINITY, FAMILY, WORK, AND GENDER STEREOTYPES

David John Petroski
Southern Connecticut State University

Paige P. Edley
Loyola Marymount Universit
y

Abstract: This paper examines the stay-at-home father and how society responds to nontraditional gendered family roles. We explore the concept from our own lived experience and theorize the complex notion of fatherhood among nontraditional gender roles, work, and caregiving responsibilities. The first author (Dave) was a stay-at-home father while writing his doctoral dissertation and during his search for a full-time faculty position. The second author (Paige) experienced the phenomenon through her spouse’s role as stay-at-home father after corporate downsizing. Together we theorize the intersections of power, gender, work, family, and identity from the standpoint of the stay-at-home father and question how masculinity, fatherhood, family dynamics, work, and society’s resistance to nontraditional gender roles are produced and reproduced in everyday life.

 

Today’s changing demographics and shifting social norms often call for alternative, nontraditional enactments of gender, work, and family in order to survive. In our cases, the first author (Dave) performed such a “nontraditional enactment” as a stay-at-home father and primary caregiver to his son while writing his doctoral dissertation and during his search for a full-time faculty position, and he paced the floors late at night with his newborn daughter throughout multiple stages of this paper. The second author (Paige) has experienced the stay-at-home father phenomenon through her spouse, who has been a stay-at-home father both by choice (voluntary early retirement program) and by force (corporate lay-offs) at alternate times throughout their marriage. However, no matter how necessary these nontraditional gender arrangements may be for the well-being and survival of families such as ours, society as a whole is still steeped in traditional, gendered expectations of caregiving within the 1950s family model of father as breadwinner and mother as stay-at-home nurturer of the children by which such families, and the fathers within them, are judged (Coontz, 2000/1992).

Yet if we concentrate not on traditional gendered expectations but instead the reality of work-life arrangements today, we see that about two million fathers in the United States stay home to take care of their children while the children’s mother works outside the home (Allen, 2001; Fisher, 2000; Gill, 2001). Hence, critically examining the role of stay-at-home fathers and nontraditional gender identities is necessary in order for us to effect social change in the status quo. Moreover, we need to transform society’s biases and language choices for discussing the role of fathers in a more relational, interactive way. If we do not address the changing demographics and changing gender roles within families, we then run the risk of perpetuating a 1950s mentality that hinders the development of progressive, non-gendered policies in the workplace, as well as in the judicial system.

Whether the decision for fathers to become primary caregivers is by choice (e.g., desire for child to be cared for by a parent, mother has a higher salary) or by force (e.g., corporate layoffs), these men take on the role of caregiver for their children and perform their role with a sense of commitment to the health and well being of their families. However, as they go about their day-to-day activities of accompanying their children to the school bus, to school activities, to doctor appointments, and to the grocery store, they are given quizzical looks by stay-at-home mothers, school officials, and grocery clerks. Behind their backs, and sometimes to their faces, stay-at-home fathers are questioned and criticized for taking on the role of responsible fathers who take care of their children and keep the family home running smoothly, or at least as smoothly as today’s hectic lifestyles allow. This is not to suggest that all men, or women for that matter, who stay home to take care of their children are ideal parents. What we are suggesting is that men can be just as effective at taking care of their families as women, despite societal views of “normal” and acceptable performances of gender roles. When Paige’s family moved across country for her job, people automatically assumed they moved for her spouse’s job. They could not understand why he would move for her job without having one of his own. Explaining that he was taking care of their son and that her career brought the family to California was difficult for new acquaintances to understand.

Societal views of caregivers are that of the female caregiver, whether she is the mother, grandmother, or nanny. In this essay we answer the call of Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, and Buzzanell (2003) to address the diverse voices in work-family issues and also the call of Edley, Hylmö, and Newsom (2004) to address alternative and nontraditional gender constructs within the context of work-life communities. Furthermore, Morgan (1992) argues that because of the importance of work in men’s lives, in order to study men and masculinities it is imperative to study situations in which masculinity is challenged, such as during times of crisis, during temporary work changes such as layoffs, and when they assume primary childcare responsibilities.

Hence, the purpose of this essay is four-fold: (a) to synthesize the literature on fathering, gender, and nontraditional family structures from a communication perspective; (b) to theorize the construct of the stay-at-home father; (c) to develop a model to understand a constitutive view of the tensions of fathering discourses and gender discourses at both the societal and relational levels; and (d) to privilege the standpoint of the stay-at-home father as a valuable alternative model for 21st century families. This essay is a collaboration in which we theorize the concept from our own lived experience of nontraditional gender roles, work, and caregiving responsibilities. Together we explore the intersections of gender, work, family, and identity from the standpoint of the stay-at-home father and question how society’s resistance to nontraditional gender roles is produced and reproduced in everyday life.

Family, Gender, Stay-at-home Fathers, and Fathering

The complex theorizing of masculinities by sociology and critical management scholars, such as Morgan, (1992, 1996, 2001), Connell (1995, 2000), Collinson and Hearn (1996), Katz (1995, 1999) and Kimmel (1987), as well as communication scholars, such as Hanke (1990, 1992, 1998), Mumby (1998), and Trujillo (1991), is valuable to our theorizing of the construct of stay-at-home fathers. As Morgan (1996) suggests, parenting and work are both gendered constructs that need to be examined within the complex social webs of gender, work, family, relationships, and identity. He prefers parenting over the terms mothering and fathering in that it (a) can be used to smooth over gender differences and (b) also suggests the work of parents is something to be shared between mother and father. He asserts there is gendered work in family relationships and calls for more research to explore the gendered connotations of family. Furthermore, in 2001, he argues:

The stories of family and gender would seem to be, like all good stories, capable of infinite variation and re-telling, reflecting as much upon the narrator and the circumstances of narration, as on the supposed entities themselves.

This implies an increasing emphasis upon fluidity and diversity, both in relation to [“family” and “gender”] and the supposed interconnections between them. The idea of “family” as a complex cultural and ideological construction representing a set of processes rather than a thing is not a new understanding and has already been presented in these terms in the context of feminist, and other critiques. (Morgan, 2001, pp. 229-230)

Based on our lived experience we recognize some serious and awkward inconsistencies in the way society views fatherhood. People often assume the stay-at-home father is “helping out” with childcare or that something is wrong with him. He is stereotyped in the image of Michael Keaton as a “Mr. Mom” figure. It is not an issue of being “Mr. Mom;” such comparisons reframe stay-at-home fathers as the “new mothers,” which of course implicates fundamental male identity issues. However, today’s stay-at-home fathers are not mothering and, in fact, they resist this stereotype (Fisher, 2000; Gerstein, 2003; Gill, 2001) as well as other stereotypical constructs of father as “baby entertainer,” “bumbling assistant,” and “part-time father/mother as main parent” (Sunderland, 2000). Stay-at-home fathers are parenting on a full-time basis rather than a part-time basis. They are fathers—not mothers’ helpers.

Stay-at-home Dads (SAHDs)

As the number of SAHDs (Stay-at-Home Dads, as they refer to themselves) increases, so do the cultural artifacts that trace and reflect their experiences. For example, multiple popular press books exist, including: (a) Eddie’s (1999) Housebroken: Confessions of a stay-at-home dad; (b) Gill’s (2001) Stay-at-home dads: The essential guide to creating the new family; (c) Hudler’s (2002) Househusband; and (d) Roark’s (2001) Keeping the baby alive until your wife gets home: The tough new “how to” for 21st century dads. The Internet provides further access to SAHDs through websites targeting the hidden population of stay-at-home fathers, such as Fatherville.com, Fatherworld.com, slowlane.com, and others. In addition, there is a magazine entitled Fulltime Dads, and a newsletter edited by Peter Baylies entitled At-home Dad.

It is clear that SAHDs do not want to be referred to as Mr. Mom. They are not mothering—they are parenting. The fathers parent differently than mothers do, but it is still a loving, supportive role that they play. Clinical psychologist Offra Gerstein argues against the stereotypes of Mr. Mom and suggests that we move beyond the views of “laziness, irresponsibility, ‘wimpiness’ and unmanliness [that are attributed] to Mr. Mom” (Gerstein, 2003). These stereotypes lead some people to construct a stigmatized role of the stay-at-home father.

There are people who look askance upon males who are not the primary breadwinners…Some see the stay-at-home dads’ role as “doing nothing,” perhaps being an incompetent employee or a henpecked husband. Other misguided notions are associated with disrespect for a male who burdens his wife with the financial responsibilities of supporting a family. Yet others discount the value of men at home and see the children as being deprived of maternal love. (Gerstein, 2003)

Even when stay-at-home fathers re-enter the workplace, they are produced and reproduced in a gendered politics of masculinity and work versus femininity and caregiving. Balancing work and family responsibilities is viewed as women’s work.

Terms describing gender politics, such as “domesticating patriarchy” (Vavrus, 2002), “hegemonic masculinity” (Kimmel, 1996), “marketplace masculinity” (Kimmel, 1996), “domesticating masculinity” and “ masculinizing domesticity” (Gavanas, 2004), suggest stay-at-home fatherhood is a complex construct of gendered politics of identity, what constitutes women’s work and men’s work, and the feminization of the family. This complex and gendered work/family identity is not only historically situated but also a dynamic social construct that is also politicized by race, class, and the state of the U.S. American economy. What is happening in the lives of many stay-at-home fathers is often one or more of the following factors: (a) his own job loss; (b) his own illness, injury, or disability; (c) a change in his employment status due to return to (or graduation from) school; (d) his partner’s higher salary; (e) his partner’s steady employment; (f) a desire for children to be cared for by parent; or (g) his desire to start his own business or work from home in order to be present for children’s needs. Decisions to stay home are complex and taking on nontraditional gender roles is also a complex process of performing gender.

Fathers and Masculinity

It is important for stay-at-home fathers to maintain their masculine identity rather than be subsumed into a feminized Mr. Mom identity. Doucet (2004) found stay-at-home fathers involve themselves in fixing up the house and coaching children’s sports teams, which are activities that are masculinized forms of house work and community service. Doucet (2004) argues:

Many stay-at-home fathers view coaching and assisting in children’s sports at school and in the community as a venue that makes their fathering more enjoyable for themselves while also easing community scrutiny of their decisions to give up work….this involvement reflects the way in which fathers seek to distinguish their caring from mothering and to reconstruct particular kinds of [what Brandth & Kvande (1998 ) call] “masculine care.” (p. 292)

An argument can be made that the “fathering” issue is tied to a change in the nature of work and work expectations. Mackey (1985) argues the father/mother split of parental responsibility is greatly tied to physicality—men, biologically, were capable of work that required brute strength (plowing, hunting, etc.), which left women as caretakers of the children. Mackey suggests that in the absence of work that requires a gender split, parenting is approached in a more balanced way. He found that “laborer” fathers had strained parent-child relationships, particularly where the child was female. By contrast, non-laborer fathers had more balanced relationships with their children. If this holds true, then perhaps the growing emphasis on information-based work is causing a redefinition of parenting. The dilemma is that the discourses constrain this redefinition along historical and cultural expectations. Thus, the “new” father is bound by the traditional notions of what fatherhood is.

Scholars, such as Connell (1995, 2000), Fiske (1987), and Mumby (1998), remind us that masculinity is tied to work and is constantly linked to achievement and successful performance, as in the performance of the male breadwinner. This is often referred to as “hegemonic masculinity” or that which is not feminine, by Connell (1995), Hanke (1990, 1992, 1998), Kimmel (1987), Trujillo (1991) and Vavrus (2002). Fathers are feminized if they are the caregivers, because caregiving is feminine work.

On the other hand, other models of fatherhood do not feminize the father but rather construct him as inadequate (Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997; Doherty, 1991). Even the 1998 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development included “time spent with father” in their definition of “time spent in childcare” (cited in Hirschfeld, 2000, p. 40). These inadequate father models are perpetuated in mediated sources and thus commodify the inept father.

This problematic stereotype regularly emerges in the media, in the form of commercials, television characters (e.g., Jim Belushi’s character in According to Jim and Ray Romano’s character in Everybody Loves Raymond), and parenting magazines that continuously infantilize men and perpetuate the same incompetence stereotype. These examples establish the mother as the primary caregiver. Hence, the media influence societal attitudes and perpetuate the Mr. Mom stereotype of the bumbling stay-at-home father. As these media sources perpetuate the stereotypes, they sell more magazines and more advertisements, but more importantly, they both commodify and influence gender politics. The inadequate father model is akin to what Wood (2005) refers to as the “male deficit model” that positions men as incapable or at least deficient in their capacity for engaging in relationships. These models of male inadequacy are flawed in that they perpetuate the static view of the male as relationally inept. When these models of inadequacy as perpetuated in the media then emerge in macro-level discourses, they in turn influence organizational policy and decision making regarding employee benefits of working parents, such as health benefits, flex time, telecommuting policies, work schedules, childcare benefits, and other organizational policies (Hanke, 1990, 1992, 1998; Vavrus, 2002).

The problematics of gender stereotypes are not only ripe within organizational policies (Kirby, 2000; Kirby & Krone, 2002); they also are present in the everyday politics and unwritten rules of organizational culture practices (Kirby, 2006/2003; Kirby & Krone, 2002; Levine & Pittinsky, 1997; Medved, 2004). “Work family balance” is a gendered issue (read: a woman’s issue) as many issues that women and men might both be concerned about become gendered by the very presence of women’s interests. Feminists have long held that gender issues are often interpreted as being only about women, because patriarchal interpretations suggest gender is an essentializing category where, put simply, gender equals women. Men are apparently not gendered; they are the norm. Women are “the other,” the second sex, and can only be compared to the masculine normative standard (de Beauvoir, 1952). As Ashcraft and Mumby (2004) assert, women are “visibly gendered ‘others,’ while men are erased as the genderless norm” (p. xiv). Thus, by interpreting the meanings of gender, the essentializing perspective then highlights the categories of “femininity” and “woman” as communicating gender rather than those of “masculinity” and “man.”

As noted, despite the gendered stereotyping of inept fathers and feminized stay-at-home fathers, close to two million men are the primary caregivers for their children. Men are performing nontraditional gender roles, but they are not necessarily feminized in the process. Following Butler (1989, 1993), we argue these men are performing a multiplicity of masculinities—not just a fixed form of masculinity, or femininity, for that matter. In fact, we posit that men perform multiple masculinities throughout their lives and the stay-at-home father role is an example of a nontraditional, but nonetheless viable, performance of masculinity, just as the performance of the family breadwinner and the performance of the bumbling Mr. Mom are also performances of masculinities.

Unlike Buzzanell and Turner’s (2003) suggestion that “real men [who experience job loss] do not cross the public/private divide” (p. 44), we argue that men experiencing change in job status do cross the (false) dividing line between public and private spheres. Buzzanell and Turner also cite Gergen and Gergen’s (1993) similar finding that men who lose their jobs have fragile identities and that all family members work to reify their traditional (read hegemonic) masculine identities. We argue this is not always the case; changes in job status and other life changes can result in families adopting nontraditional family practices and atypical gender roles such as the stay-at-home father masculine identity. In the following section we theorize a constitutive model of parenting that reconceptualizes fathering as dynamic, masculinized parenting that is created in a communication space.

Communication Space for Modeling Parenting

Feminist and pro-feminist scholars such as Gavanas (2004) and Digby (1998; cited in Gavanas, 2004) argue that masculinity and domesticity do not have to be mutually exclusive. In addition, Doucet (2004) and Vavrus (2002) find the two constructs linked in the process of fathering, especially for stay-at-home fathers. Furthermore, Risman (1986, 1998) argues that “mothering” is not a gendered act, but rather an interactional relationship that is just as likely to be performed by participative fathers, both single and married. In fact, according to Risman, men can mother. It is a matter of turning traditional gender roles on their heads. Risman calls for a post-gendered family structure in which hierarchy and gender structures are erased. Hence, we seek to answer Risman’s (1998) call to discuss family in terms of interaction as opposed to gender roles and biological determinism.

In an attempt to reconceptualize fatherhood, and by extension parenting, we draw upon the theoretical construct of communication space—a dynamic, fluid space in which the building blocks of relationships and identities co-construct each other. Rather than simply a physical space where actors come together, communication space refers to the communicative possibilities available to actors in interactive moments as conditioned by social discourses and as defined through individual reflection. Put another way, when actors come together in an encounter, their activities, combined with the physical presence of environmental features, carve out a conceptual and tangible space. It is at once physically bounded (by architectural features) and socially contingent (reliant on the constant definition and redefinition of the situation by actors). It centers on and comprises communicative activities and their associated practices and processes.

The Communication Space

Within the communication space actors engage with each other, with themselves through self-reflection, and with their surroundings in moments of communicative potential. “The communicative moment occupies the intersection of the psychological and the social, within always present, yet changing and socially modifiable, biological and physical environmental constraints” (Mokros, 1996, p. 4). It is in these moments that actors learn about their relationships to other actors and their environment, and, perhaps more importantly, about who they are. Communication space can therefore be recognized as the circumstances of interaction (i.e., where, how, when, and with whom an encounter occurs), but also as the process of mutual influence between personal reflections, established practices, and social norms and values through which identities are forged and social institutions are perpetuated (Mokros, 1996). Fundamentally, communication space is the interactional system that exists when individuals encounter each other in a particular locale. Communication space is emergent through interaction and is descriptive of the character of the interaction. Since it defines what is possible or not for interactants (Petroski, 2003), communication space has great potential utility for reconceptualizing fatherhood.

To begin, communication space allows for the simultaneous recognition of broad, macro-level understandings of discourses along with micro-level interactions, such as individualized practices. As Scheff (1990) posited, much of our understanding of the world happens through a rapid shuttling back and forth between macro and micro levels of experience, what he labels “abduction.” Gender identities exist at the institutional, individual, and the interactional levels, all at the same time (Risman, 1998). Incidentally, the families Risman (1998) studied, in what she calls fair families or those practicing egalitarian and non-gendered family roles, the fathers and husbands are “pioneering new forms of masculinities” (p. 154).

In an example from the lived experience of Paige’s brother-in-law (Drew), one recognizes the constraints of cultural and institutional expectations of performances of gender identities. When Drew too k family leave from a large telecommunications company after the birth of his second child, his co-workers were amazed that a man was going to stay home for an extended period with his newborn. While he was on leave, he called Human Resources to check on his benefits and the person that answered his call said, “Oh, you’re the GUY who took family leave!” as if it were so unusual that he could not believe it. Actually, it was unusual. He was only the second man in the history of the company to take family leave. Bateson (1996) suggested social science research should have an appreciation for “part-whole” understandings. As part of the whole, Drew knew that he was doing what was right for his family. He was able to spend both quality and quantity time with both his children. And in the long term, whether he realized it or not, he was an important model for his two-year-old son Sam’s view of family and the important role of a participative father in the greater whole of his future relationships with his own family.

Drew’s lived experience illustrates that while much of the research previously described examines the larger social mechanics that contribute to conceptions of fatherhood, fatherhood is enacted by individuals who have particular notions of what parenting means. Rarely are these two levels reconciled in research, nor are they approached in a way that is consistent with our everyday experience of the world. An exception to this is Kirby’s (2006/2003) case study of an expectant father’s dilemma in reconciling his wife’s desire for him to take family leave when their twins were born with his own day-to-day experience of working with people who thought taking family leave was “what women do.”

In addition to allowing for multi-level communication research, the concept of communication space also draws upon a constitutive view of communication (Mokros, 2003), which makes apparent a fundamental paradox in our lived experience. Since our worldviews are established and maintained by our communicative activity, it is difficult for us to shift our perception of communicative activity so that we are not under the influence of those understandings. This implies that understanding “constitutiveness” is an elusive process, which involves interrogation of our predispositions about our worldviews. In questioning what we perceive to be the concepts (e.g., gender, work, family) that frame our understanding of the world, we may come closer to understanding communication constitutively.

Theoretical consideration of communication without the interrogation of the social and personal processes which contribute to the development of worldviews often tends to treat communication as an instrument or “informational” phenomenon. This informational view of communication, while at times suggesting a complex system of interactions, offers a very limited conceptualization of the function of communication. Mokros and Deetz (1996) argue:

Viewed in this way, communication is a tool by which persons, as self-contained, autonomous agents, exchange conventionally defined linguistic and linguistic-like signs. These signs provide labels to an already extant universe of objects, reasons, motives, and affections so that we might say that these signs represent and thereby “reflect” reality “out there.” (p. 31)

Those who approach communication from an information transfer model make broad assumptions about the semiotic structures they describe and generally ignore that they use the concepts and vocabularies derived from the same semiotic systems they seek to understand.

By adopting a constitutive perspective, our focus on SAHDs, or any discussion of parenting we might have for that matter, needs to interrogate the assumptions that underlie the parenting situation. Though our initial exploration of SAHDs led us to look upon this particular parenting situation positively because of our personal experiences and predispositions, we needed to examine more carefully the social landscape in which fathers, mothers, and children interact. Towards this end, the construct of communication space offers a way to investigate parenting constitutively.

Communication Space of Fathering Model

What we have found is that much of the existing research approaches the study of fatherhood informationally; there are assumed understandings of “fathering” that largely go unquestioned (exceptions include Doucet, 2004; Gavanas, 2004; Kirby, 2006/2003; Morgan, 1996; Risman, 1986, 1998; Sunderland, 2000; Vavrus, 2002). What many do not realize is that “fatherhood” is a part of a discourse that defines parenting through sedimented gender roles. During a previous research project, Paige interviewed an employed mother who works an opposite shift from her husband so that their three children do not have to spend time with sitters or in daycare. She spoke of her husband’s incredulous reaction to someone who referred to his time spent with his children as babysitting. He said, “I’m not BABYSITTING! I’m their FATHER! I am PARENTING!” However, because “fathering” is defined through a gendered discourse, new labels cannot neutralize the existing influence on those preconceptions.

Therefore, simply changing the label for parent-child relationships to “parenting,” though apparently gender neutral on the surface, does not account for the immediate inclination for us to gender the relationship. Our first question in seeking more information about the child would likely be, “Is it a boy or girl?” Our first question raised about the parent would be, “Is it a mother or father?” A further assumption is that actors are perpetually cognizant of their own behaviors. “Self-report bias” is a common weakness in many communication studies, let alone those that deal with parenting specifically. We cannot presume that parents will be able to fully explain their child-rearing behaviors, particularly in a way that neutralizes gendered discourses. Moreover, one might presume that these parents would respond honestly about their childrearing, but self-reports might be exaggerated in “the presentation of self” in terms of social desirability (Goffman, 1959).

Since the identity of parent is constructed in interaction with the child, a parent’s description of her/his parenting practices is not the best method to study parent-child interaction. Lannamann (1995) argues “an appropriate unit of observation for the analysis of social interaction is the dialogical process” (p. 122) rather than the self-report data to which communication researchers often resort. He stresses the importance of focusing on the “constitutive role of social interaction in the construction of personal identity” (p. 122). Similarly, Leeds-Hurwitz (1995) defines the social approach to communication research as that which “describe[s] events occurring between people in the process of interacting rather than reporting how events are perceived through a single person’s understanding” (p. 6). Leeds-Hurwitz emphasizes the importance of “direct observation of actual behavior” which she argues does not preclude the use of extended interview techniques but “does make a few traditionally accepted methods, such as questionnaires, highly unlikely choices” (p. 9).

We argue that our focus on nontraditional gender roles and alternative family practices can only be studied from a social interaction perspective (see discussions in Lannamann, 1995; Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995; Shotter & Gergen, 1989). The construct of communication space lets us examine the gendered biases of discourses and self-concepts by focusing on interaction. While it seems logical to examine interactions between parents and children to determine “how parenting is done,” our focus here is more on interactions where parenting is the primary focus or “topic of discussion.” The communication spaces we are interested in are those where the parent, namely the father, has cause to engage with others about his fathering activity(s).

Goffman (1967) argued that when individuals enter an encounter, they are bound by social etiquette to participate actively. The “involvement obligation,” as he called it, requires actors to attend to the encounter, providing appropriate contributions to conversation, when necessary, but otherwise making an active show that they are engaged with the other participants. Goffman suggested when an actor fails to fulfill the obligation, there is a sense of unease which can jeopardize the interaction and associated relationships, and further discussed that:

Social encounters differ a great deal in the importance that participants give to them but, whether crucial or picayune, all encounters represent occasions when the individual can become spontaneously involved in the proceedings and derive from this a firm sense of reality. And this kind of feeling is not a trivial thing, regardless of the package in which it comes. When an incident occurs and spontaneous involvement is threatened, then reality is threatened. Unless the disturbance is checked, unless the interactants regain their proper involvement, the illusion of reality will be shattered, the minute social system that is brought into being with each encounter [i.e., the communication space] will be disorganized, and the participants will feel unruled, unreal, and anomic. (p. 135)

Encounters, then, reinforce self-concept and discourse structures (e.g., gender) and substantiate worldviews that include stereotypes and biases. In cases where the interaction is jeopardized or fails, the encounter will likely be disconfirmatory and wholly detrimental to the interactant’s self image and future encounters. Further, since Goffman was speaking generally about the nature of casual, spontaneous encounters, it follows that when interaction is with an individual or group where there is an established, ongoing relationship, the “social bond” is much stronger and the stakes for inattention to involvement obligations are greater (Scheff, 1990).

Figure 1: A Model of an Interaction Focused on Fathering

A model of an interaction focused on fathering

Figure 1 illustrates an encounter between a parent (a small circle in the center of the figure is labeled Father) and some other person (another small circle labeled as Other, that which is not the father [1]). A larger circle intersects the Father and Other circles, which represents the focused attention of the two interactants. It is important to note that there are no extraneous physical or social distracters that interfere with the encounter shown in the model. Goffman (1967) labeled this type of situation, where the interaction is the single focus of cognitive and visual attention, “focused interaction.” An arrow between the two actor circles represents the constant exchange that occurs between them.

When actors are in focused interaction, they are completely immersed and involved in the encounter to such an extent that the actors will be “carried away by it, oblivious to other things, including [themselves]” (Goffman, 1967, p. 137). This suggestion is akin to Scheff’s (1990) idealized notion of “attunement,” where there is a “perfect understanding” between the actors. When actors are focused in this way, there is a strong sense that they are in a separate reality—the reality of the communication space.

The “communication space” is represented in Figure 1 by the largest circle that surrounds the two actors and their interaction. The outermost circle in the figure represents the communication space that emerges through the interaction of individuals, self-reflections, and discourses. The communication space is elastic and can be thought of as having a shape or character that is contingent upon the encounters and interactions present within, around, or composing it. Thus, while Figure 1 represents the communication space as a circle, a more accurate depiction would display the boundaries as fluid and amorphous.

The communication space represented in Figure 1 is also “split” by a line to indicate that the upper hemisphere is formed by the activity, reflections, and discourses the Father brings, either knowingly or out of his awareness, to the encounter, while the lower hemisphere forms through the activity, reflections, and discourse the Other brings, similarly with or without awareness. Together, these combine to form one cohesive experience of interaction. Furthermore, it is also worth noting that the double-headed arrows are intended to suggest the systemic nature of a communication space. Any modification of one of the components has the potential to change all of the other elements, and by association, the communication space itself. These lines suggest the system of interaction through which discourse and self-reflection function to create and reify the space. These fields are in flux—constantly interacting with one another and the participants in the encounter.

In addition to the interaction between the actors, both actors bring with them preconceived notions of what fathering, masculinity, and family are like. These discourses are represented by the circles to the right side of Figure 1 and are labeled Discourse [F] and Discourse [O]. These social discourses constrain and guide the encounter. Discourse, in this essay, can be understood as culturally appropriate rule sets against which social activity is gauged. It represents the social appropriateness of the encounter and includes systems of gender (masculinities and femininities), etiquette (politeness), power (authority), and history (tradition). These discourses influence the interaction by setting a social standard against which fathering behavior is compared. If there is a poor match between the exhibited behavior (either the literal activities or the ways the actors talk about those activities), there may be a negative impact on the interaction. At the same time, the discourse also suggests what topics (e.g., gender, work, and family) are open for discussion and how those topics may be discussed.

As an encounter proceeds, both actors reflect upon the interaction and how they, as individuals, fit in to the exchange. More specifically, they monitor their own behavior and compare it against the discourses that have contributed to shaping the space. These “self-reflections” are represented by the two circles on the left side of Figure 1, each pertaining to one of the two actors present. To reiterate, self reflection refers to the coordination of concepts of the self with the social environment. In the self-reflexive moment, gender identities are realized, possibilities are determined, and individuals are focused towards their familiarities with roles and settings. It is partly characterized as the individual’s “inner speech” (Vygotsky, 1986), where an individual connects meanings and experiences. Thus, each actor considers what activity is acceptable in this social setting. The comparison of their own behavior against what is “acceptable” results in possible changes in behavior or, at the very least, reveals implicitly the direction in which the conversation should proceed.

Practical Application of the Model

We now offer an example to help clarify the model represented in Figure 1. Let us assume that a father enters a conversation with someone about his fathering activity. The two talk back and forth, revealing a bit more about themselves as the interaction unfolds. The Father eventually states that he is a “stay-at-home dad.” The Other compares what she understands fathering behavior to be like, perhaps with the understanding that fathers are not supposed to “stay home.” She is thus perpetuating the socially entrenched view of the father as breadwinner. The Other then must feminize the father and suggests he is taking on the role of “Mr. Mom.” The Father defensively explains that he is offended by the statement because he is simply being a “Dad.” Similarly, in Kirby’s (2006/2003) case study of Bob’s dilemma as to whether or not to stay home for six weeks with his twin daughters, he worries what his co-workers and his boss will think of him. He worries that he will be judged as a slacker, as not carrying his weight at work. He worries that he will be feminized by the Other. Even his father advises him not to take the time off from work because it is his job to earn money for the family (Kirby, 2006/2003). And in the case of Paige’s brother-in-law, Drew is constructed as gender deviant—“Oh, you’re the GUY who took family leave!”

In our example of the model of the “stay-at-home dad,” the father’s identity also is judged by both actors as an acceptable topic for discussion. There is a divergence where the Father’s self-concept of masculinity is called into question by the “Mr. Mom” statement. The Father considers what he does (self-reflection) and compares it against what is said by the Other (interaction). Simultaneously, the Father considers the implication of the Mr. Mom statement against other relevant discourses, perhaps falling back on gender discourses that imply that men should not be called “Mom,” a feminine term. This mismatch calls the Father’s self-concept of masculinity into question at which point the Father becomes defensive. Dads do not “mother” in the gendered concept of the word. Rather, as Risman (1986, 1998) argues, men and women both can mother. Using more neutral language, they parent. Men parent in a masculinized, interactive manner, which is still a form of nurturing, a viable form of interactional, relational parenting (Doucet, 2004).

Brandth and Kvande (1998) argue fathers’ caring practices are “‘adopted by the hegemonic form of masculinity’ so that, rather than challenge hegemonic masculinity, caring becomes incorporated into it” (cited in Doucet, 2004, p. 281). This suggests that as fathering practices evolve through interactions, the dominant discourse is influenced and, with persistence, changed. However, discourses are monolithic, partly because the discourses themselves are reified through interaction. While a father may engage in activities that diverge from the norm and move understandings of fatherhood in a different direction, each mention of stereotypes like “Mr. Mom” draws attention back to the dominant notions of what fathering is.

Resistance against dominant discourses is further complicated by the notion that media representations reinforce and perpetuate stereotypical conceptualizations outside of fathering interactions. Though the original film Mr. Mom was released in 1983, the stereotype has been perpetuated in other contemporary films, such as Daddy Day Care (2003), and in popular music—the band Lonestar reached number 1 on the Billboard “Hot Country Singles” charts in 2004 with a song titled Mr. Mom. Interestingly, this music reference was brought to our attention when Dave’s nephew received a Lonestar DVD as a holiday gift. As Dave edited this paper, his nephew unwittingly played the Mr. Mom video for his son on the other side of the room. He found it a rather sobering experience to struggle with articulating the position that fathering should not have to conform to dominant discourses when his own son was giggling at the humorous animated video that further sedimented the stereotype of the inept father.

The tension between work expectations and the role of the father was particularly pronounced for Dave in writing and editing this paper because he was in the process of  making a choice about whether or not to take family leave after the birth of his second child. Though willing to take on the mantle of SAHD, Dave notes that it was not really a viable choice. Since the family leave policies of his and his wife’s employers both require a leave of absence without pay, it was financially impossible for both him and his wife to stay home. So even though Dave may have wanted to father differently from social expectations, the discourses as manifested in the rules of his employing organization made that choice difficult, if not impossible. With that option closed off by discursive (and material) structures, Dave has noted that he feels his ability to father effectively has been undermined. Upon writing this paragraph, it became increasingly clear (and unsettling) that the parenting discourses are so strong and subtle that Dave did not realize that he and his wife did not even question who would “stay home.” It seemed “natural” that it should be her.

Implications for Fathering

By using communication space as a theoretical framework, we may be better able to address fundamental questions surrounding fathering. Through this approach, we might ask, “How does the discourse surrounding fatherhood shape parenting practices and self-concept of parents?” We suggest dominant discourses “say” we (should) do fathering one way. If a father’s behavior does not adhere to those conceptions, the father is labeled as “odd.” This manifests in statements like, “He’s being Mr. Mom.” To a father, this label does not match his activity or experience. To take this a step further, we might also say that inconsistent labeling is not just about a match/non-match between fathering practice and discourse, but rather that it is about searching for labeling for the unknown through the language of the known. The discourse defines parenting one way—that mothers are the primary caregivers while fathers are not. While it may not fit experience adequately, it seems logical that an observer would label a “stay-at-home dad” as Mr. Mom simply because parenting discourses center on the importance of the mother.

This begs the question, “How can we reconceptualize parenting so that it is not defined through ‘traditional’ mother and father roles?” Golden (2001) argues the plurality of role identities may be an answer; drawing upon Giddens (1991) and Berger, Berger and Kellner (1973), Golden suggests the condition of modernity “force[s] the individual to move through a wide variety of social contexts, to assume myriad roles, and to interact with individuals whose values, attitudes, and life choices are often at variance with his or her own” (p. 10). The result is an identity constructed of multiple selves that correspond to and are revealed in certain social circumstances. In this view, the father selects the appropriate self to match the situation. Golden’s (2001) perspective is not entirely incompatible with the position adopted in this paper, but it suggests identities are constructed through agency, and, by implication, purposeful strategic choices. The approach we prefer is more in line with the notion that identity is a byproduct of communicative action in everyday lived experience, whether that activity is strategic or not (Mokros, 2003). Thus, identity is constructed largely out of the awareness of the father and is only realized in ongoing interactions, where repeated actions become lasting fathering practices.

By using communication space as a framework, we place an emphasis on the relationship and how it is enacted in interactive moments. These moments are not exclusively tied to exchanges between a parent and child, even though that connection is critical. In addition, we must begin to look at how parenting is done in other interactions as well. For example, how do fathers talk about their fathering behavior?

In Figure 1, each of the arrows shown is accompanied by a relevant question for the interrogation of the space that surrounds interactions involving fathers. Primarily these questions attempt to make assumptions and influences explicit in the way that the interaction is approached. This has the greatest utility for the study of father-centered interactions, but we might also turn the approach to reformulating our day-to-day understandings of parenting. Any parenting encounter, whether directly with a child or someone outside of the family structure, might be considered through the question, “What kind of space are we engaging in?” Our model has utility in that it provides a way to address such an approach to parenting relationships.

Conclusion

Many depictions of “fatherhood” are indicative of one particular point-of-view regarding the role of the father: Fathers are not much help and they are not around when they are needed most. Essentially, this sort of position frames the father as the “helper” who assists mothers in doing the parenting rather than a competent parent in his own right. The role of the father seems to be viewed as different and in contrast to that of the mother, which in a sense is natural. Hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1995; 2000; Hanke, 1990, 1992; Trujillo, 1991) positions masculinity as anything that is not feminine. However, the father is placed in a double-bind in that he can only act in relation to the mother’s activity and yet is faulted for not acting independently. He cannot step in and “father” when the mother is “mothering.” She is the active parent, so he is left to do the “fathering” when the mother is not the active parent. He is regarded as essentially “filling in” as the mother while she rests or works or whatever. Hence, he falls into the stereotype of Mr. Mom.

Drawing upon Mackey (1985), we find the comparison of mothers to fathers is fundamentally flawed. If fatherhood were defined through a labor split, where the male did strength-based work, then it is inappropriate to compare mothering to fathering. Equally flawed is the assumption that parenting is about “work.” Much of the time we discuss parenting in terms of divisions of labor, such as “Who is changing the diapers? Who is feeding the baby?” What might it mean to think about parenting not as work but alternatively as a relational construct? That is what we offer in our alternative communication space model of parenting.

Moreover, it is important that parenting be conceived as something the mother and father do together (Morgan, 1996). We need a new language to discuss the erasure of gendered roles in parenting. The important issue is that both parents’ involvement is imperative in constructing the child’s sense of self and her/his ability to form close relationships with others. If we construct parenting as a relational construct within the communication space, then we can understand the building blocks of human interaction as constituting the self of the child as well as the parent. Their relationship co-constructs each other’s socially constituted self.

The relational construction of child and parent is instrumental in viewing the father as an active agent in parenting his children. Implications for future research should include an exploration of the day-to-day interactions of the stay-at-home father and his children, in terms of how they co-construct each other’s self as well as how the father’s identity as parent emerges as not just a “mother’s helper” or “babysitter,” but as an active agent in co-constructing his own identity and that of his child. We want to emphasize that these men are not “helping;” they are parenting. They resent the stereotype of the incompetent “helper” and the idea that fathering is a part-time job, like that of babysitter.

Our purpose in this essay was to theorize the construct of stay-at-home fatherhood. We iterated the communication space for parenting model as an alternative to the static views of family and gender that are perceived as frozen in time and space. We strove to shed light on the voice of the father within the negotiation and balancing of gender, identity, work, and family, as he encounters the gendered politics of parenting. It is new and intriguing to think through this issue of how we conceptualize fatherhood as a gendered issue. It is always in comparison to motherhood. But what does a father (or a mother for that matter) really do? And how are they valued? By theorizing parenting as a relational co-construction of mutual selves within the family context, we problematize the stereotypes of the stay-at-home father and construct him as an active agent in relational parenting.

In conclusion, we have touched upon the everyday politics of gender and parenting, as well as the media’s role in perpetuating these politics, and the gendered organizational policies and cultural practices that we have experienced. We have barely scratched the surface; this is just a starting point. So what does this mean for fathering? We are not really sure. Change in society’s perceptions and the gendered politics of parenting will not occur overnight. Change is happening. Stay-at-home Dads are an example of one group through which the dominant discourses are being redefined. For now we are advocating for fathers’ voices to be addressed in the ongoing conversation of balancing work and family. We challenge other scholars to turn the work-life balancing agenda on its head with other alternative work and family identities that emerge in a world of changing values and meanings of work, family, masculinities, and femininities. There is much more research to do on this important family dynamic in the constant and continuous negotiations of work and family balancing and the politics among work and family intersections.

Author’s note: This paper was prepared for the special issue of the Electronic Journal of Communication, with special guest editor Erika Kirby. A previous version of this paper was presented at the National Communication Association annual meeting in Chicago, IL, November 2004. We would like to thank research assistants Beverly Badoy and Katie Widdowson, as well as guest editor Erika Kirby and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments.

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Note

1. Our concept of the Other is rooted more in the works of George Herbert Mead (1934), in the perspective of the other in relation to the self—where the other is also constituted as that which is outside of the self—rather than Simone de Beauvoir’s (1952) theorizing of the Other as that which was not male.


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