Family labour: Responsibility and control


The collection of papers that feature in this edition of the Journal of Family Studies challenge, extend and explore care provision and domestic labour within families and provide insight into the ideas of control and responsibility that these roles entail.

First, Leung and colleagues’ article on the effectiveness of a Chinese parenting support program extends the notion of ‘parenting’ to include grandparents who take on significant responsibility for childcare provision. The adaptation of the evidence-based mutli-level parenting support program ‘Triple P’ to meet the needs of grandparents reflects the division of caring labour required in instances where both parents work. As their article reveals, approximately a quarter of Hong Kong children aged 6 to 48 months were cared for mainly by their grandparents during the day. But Leung and colleague’s work highlights issues around control and responsibility for children when care provision is split intergenerationally. Prior to the intervention, grandparents reported wanting more skills in managing the behaviour of their grandchildren and communicating with the child’s parents; issues that other literature and the current study identify as causing significant stress. While grandparents often have the responsibility for providing discipline and meeting the daily care needs of children, the ultimate control for child rearing remains with the parents. As the authors report, different perspectives regarding whether grandparents were ‘partners or assistants’ to the parents was a significant source of grandparent stress, but one that was successfully lessened over the course of the intervention.

Second, Adamson and Blight’s study of child behaviour and parenting at meal times confirms the important role that fathers play in feeding behaviour (Fraser et al 2011; Snethen et al 2008). In setting up their study of mother and father reports of meal time problems, the authors note the inconsistent findings of others studies regarding: the gendered distribution of responsibility for meal preparation and feeding; fathers’ more critical appraisal of their children’s feeding than mothers; and a more a forceful approach to feeding practice. In their analysis, the authors find little or no difference between maternal and paternal reports of mealtime behaviour. However, the authors did find a difference in the responsibility assumed by mothers and fathers at mealtimes, with mothers self-identifying as the primary feeding provider, with fathers more likely to report either shared or maternal responsibility. While the gendered nature of assumed responsibility for caring tasks seems to persist, this finding indicates a small but perhaps important shift in the perceived caring roles of mothers and fathers towards shared responsibility. As the authors note, more research is now needed to unpack the notion of shared responsibility and understand it within the context of actual mealtime parenting practice.

Continuing the exploration and critique of fixed notions of parenting, domestic labour and care, Miller and Bowd’s analysis of the distribution of ‘work’ within families with teenage children also shows the entrenched and gendered nature of domestic work. Rather than focusing on the individual as the unit of analysis, as is commonplace in studies of household labour, the authors use Maher and colleague’s (2008) notion of a ‘family time economy’ to examine the ‘total social division of labour’ (Glucksman 2005) within the household unit. The authors note that total labour equity may be enhanced when women are not in paid employment, as these women avoid the ‘double shift’ that is so frequently reported in the literature. This statement is made on the back of the finding that while the number of women not participating in paid work halved between 1992 and 2006, the distribution of domestic work among such family members was distributed less democratically over the same time period. Only when families included a teenage daughter was greater equity achieved, with daughters creating less work than sons, and being more ready to substitute for their parents in dealing with necessary household tasks. While the authors suggest that their findings indicate the ‘gender revolution has stalled’, they do note that the few families who had a more equitable gender and age division of labour were not predicted by household income or parental education, and were spread throughout the population.

Moving on from debates over responsibility for and control over domestic and caring tasks, the final two papers in this issue provide polar examples of family functioning and control. First, Pietkiewicz draws on interviews with members of the Polish Jehovah Witness community to examine the influence of strong cultural norms on individuals within the family context. This research speaks back to normative accounts of family life by presenting both positive and negative implications of strong family and community norms, with respect to deviance, alcohol consumption, and other ‘risky’ behaviour; but also of the psychological pressures faced by those who exist at the boundaries between these two opposing cultures. This research describes in detail how methods of control are embedded across the community, and the responsibility borne by individuals for upholding and policing appropriate behaviour, thought and values.

The close, closed and authoritarian culture described by Pietkiewicz seems in places to mirror, and in others to diametrically oppose the family culture described by Haverfield and Theiss in their analysis of adult children of alcoholics. While the secrecy and control experienced within families with an alcoholic parent may in places mirror the authoritarian nature of Jehovah Witness family life, the lack of a strong moral discourse or logic guiding family interaction and behaviour led children of alcoholics to seek physical and emotional distance from their parents; whereas in Jehovah families, children most often sought to honour their parents and uphold their family way of life. In families with alcoholic parents, Haverfield and Theiss’ analysis describes children lacking a strong role model and the psychological and emotional difficulties this produced for children in their adult lives. By participating in online forums with other adult children of alcoholics, participants were able to seek empowerment through support and work through their issues of low self-esteem and insecurity and anger and resentment.

Finally, the articles presented in this issue span a methodological continuum that provides an interesting insight into how researchers can go about unpacking the workings of family life. Methods used in the studies contained within this issue range from naturally occurring ‘talk’ as recorded in online discussion sites, in-depth interviews with Jehovah Witness members, where an initial lack of researchers trust and rapport meant that interviews were necessarily participant-led, the mixed-methods study of a grandparenting support program that combined survey instruments with qualitative interviews around fixed topics, and the survey research of parenting feeding practice and analyses of large-scale time use survey data. Each study design holds with it a different configuration of control held by the researcher(s) when choosing what questions to ask in surveys, interviews or analyses, and how to package together the different ‘elements of talk’ or ‘variables’ to make a case for a particular topic or respond to a particular hypothesis. There is no one right answer here, as each paper demonstrates and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of their particular approach. A multitude of analytical and conceptual tools are required to investigate the diversity of family configurations, roles, functions and outcomes such as are presented in the pages of this issue.

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