Why study love? Researching involved fathers and the everyday

 

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For the past ten years, one of the few things that I’ve kept with me while I travelled across Europe has been a box of family photographs. One picture in particular stood out and has kept me company, perched near my desk throughout the process of writing my doctoral thesis. It is a photograph taken in 1992 of me, my father and my younger sister in one of the many central parks in Bucharest. My father smiles back in a restrained yet confident way at my mother who was engaged in taking our photograph. Back then, he was a young father of just 27 with two daughters aged one and five years-old. He was working in what would now be considered a typical working-class profession, but back then, in the fragmented socialist landscape, it was an ordinary, relatively well-paid job for a company manufacturing airplane parts in a large European capital.

I’m focusing on it now because to my mind this photograph speaks about relationships and emotions: my father’s own relationship to his masculinity, his class position and his sense of power and powerlessness, in what were uncertain political and economic times after the fall of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. It is also about my father’s relationship to my mother (a seemingly ‘invisible’, yet essential presence to our ‘picture-perfect’ trio), to myself and to my sister. His interactions with us were also underscored by the relational legacy he had received from his own parents. But this picture is also about love, the love we shared and continue to share as family members. A love complicated by our combined biographies and asymmetries of age, gender and generation, and by our everyday experiences as members of the same connected group. This love incorporates power, shown in the protective grip in which my father is holding my younger sister’s body, but is  extended to the protection he bestowed upon all of us, whether physical or financial. Finally, the photo’s landscape alludes to what it meant to raise children, according to a certain type of cultural ideals of that time, and ties into a set of practices dependent on our class.

Stripped bare of all its abstract wrappers, my thesis on love and fatherhood is an investigation of men and their emotions, inspired by the theoretical work on Ian Burkitt on emotions and Esther Dermott on intimate fatherhood. It is populated by the voices of 47 involved fathers from Scotland and Romania. These men have spent an hour and a half of their lives between the winter of 2014 and the summer of 2015, talking  to me about what love for their children means to them. Their stories revealed similarities that transcended the borders of their middle-class and working-class positions, as well as parenting practices; however, these stories also illuminated differences that simultaneously served to reinforce these borders. During our interviews, I witnessed them holding their children in their arms, negotiating with them as their patience was tested and frantically trying to keep them occupied. I’ve seen them break down in tears because they felt both their work schedule and personal limitations did not allow them to change the system which keeps them apart from a life of more involvement with their family members. But I’ve also seen them question my authority as a female researcher and express a wider array of choices, such as being able to ‘opt out’ of parenting when tired from a long day of paid work, or to delegate their parenting responsibilities because they considered themselves less ‘naturally’ able to provide care, which members of my sex cannot so easily assume.

Being an involved father is not only a social role, but also an emotional identity. Amongst emotions, love is perhaps one of the most powerful expressions connected to the role of a parent. As a relational force it can help transform social roles, not necessarily by overcoming obstacles, but rather blending the boundaries of the real and the imagined as they are expressed in the mundane everyday. My research then is about how fathers themselves, as men, restrict not only what they are but also what they can be, and how this is then resisted or supported through their everyday relationships. If perhaps there is something to take from my research and how it can impact the world, it is that ordinary experiences of love, power and vulnerability are meaningful to how social scientists understand change.

The study does provide evidence for the social construction of love, not as something ‘natural’ but practiced until it becomes ‘naturalized’. My study shows that by defining love as a type of ‘doing’ and as a relationship, an involved father’s love is built upon his  masculine sense of self. This means that a ‘messy hybrid’ is formed in which men experience both power and powerlessness, and shift between intimacy and stoicism in their parenting. Therefore masculinities are flexible and not at all unidimensional, as the privileges experienced by some men (such as Scottish middle-class fathers) are not enjoyed equally by all men, even if they are white and European, as some groups remain economically and culturally marginal (such as working-class Romanian fathers).

Both women and increasingly more men can contribute to accomplishing a world where not necessarily all inequalities are transformed into ‘equalities’ by eradicating diversity, but by allowing for the existence of a multitude of ways of existing emotionally. In such a world we all have the responsibility to care and to create the social changes we want to see happen around us. There is a need then for more research that tells the story of people’s common daily struggles, because it is this ‘everydayness’ rather than the exceptional, which weaves the fabric of our mutual actions and dreams.

Alexandra Macht is an early career researcher in the field of sociology of emotions and family and personal relationships, with a secondary interest in men and masculinities, class and culture issues. She has studied at the University of Bucharest (BA) and attained a Masters degree in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and is in the process of receiving her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh (thesis submitted). Her academic experience includes teaching on the topic of love, power, masculinities and parenting. She is based at the Centre for Research for families and Relationships in Edinburgh. She uses the Twitter handle (@Alexandra_Macht) to promote personal or academic material. Her PhD research project is funded by a grant provided from the Economic and Social Research Council. For further contact: amacht@exseed.ed.ac.uk.

 

Recommended Readings:

Burkitt, I. (2004) Emotions and social relations, London: Sage.

Dermott, E. (2008) Intimate fatherhood: a sociological analysis, London; New York: Routledge

 

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