Apr 09, 2020

Women’s studies lecture talks parental identity

As part of the Women’s Studies Brown Bag series for Women’s History Month, assistant professor of sociology Dr. Jennifer Randles presented her research,“Repackaging the ‘Package Deal’: Promoting Marriage for Low-income Families by Targeting Paternal Identity,” at noon in the Henry Madden Library.

Randles’ research was based on a government-funded relationship skills program for low-income, unmarried families. The program was funded by money earmarked through welfare reform in the 1990s and aimed to help lower-class families thrive.

“With this research, I hope to provide insight into ways that government policies and programs can best support dads’ efforts to be involved socially, emotionally, and financially in their children’s lives,” Randles said.

Randles spoke about a three-pronged strategy aimed at reconstructing low-income fathers’ masculine identities by targeting paternal identity and reframing marital masculinity. The three strategies included reframing marital masculinity by redefining marriageability for men, emasculating mere financial provision and masculinizing parenting.

Originally government programs only focused on mothers, Randles said. This time, men were the main focus. The messages promoted by the program studied argues that if a man makes a commitment to someone he will be a better father.

“Yes, dominant social norms still hold men responsible for being a primary breadwinner for their children,” Randles said. “But increasingly men are taking a more direct role in childcare and housework as ways to be involved dads.”

Research methods and data analysis included an 18-month ethnographic study of “thriving families” with over 150 hours of participant observation in classes, instructor training for curriculum, and recruitment sessions. Three focus groups and 45 in-depth interviews with parents, 15 in-depth interviews with staff and instructors and analyzed field notes and interview transcripts using inductive coding techniques.

According to the research, most participants qualified as poor according to the federal poverty threshold and 84 percent received some form of public assistance. Most were racial minorities. Half had only a high school diploma or GED, 20 percent had some college and 30 percent had not graduated from high school. At the time of the interviews, only eight of the 23 mothers and five of the 22 fathers were employed.

Classes simply repackaged the “package deal” by posing that children and commitment, preferably via marriage, are necessary to get poor men seriously invested in the breadwinner ethic.

This case displays how state challenges to hegemonic masculinity can have paradoxical implications for poor fathers’ identities and can be deployed to reinforce those very notions of masculinity for disadvantaged men, she said.

Ultimately, there is a mismatch between fatherhood policies that promote gendered identities that channel men’s parenting toward marriage and providing men’s desire to create and maintain a relationship based on the direct nurturance and care of their children.

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