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ore than twenty years ago, Nancy Fraser (1994) suggested that if men combine work and childcare in the way women do in their daily lives, there could be radical change towards greater gender equality in the world of paid and unpaid work. More active participation of fathers in childcare could signify a shift in the geographies of inequalities, work, care, and gender as we currently know them. Yet to this day, men’s participation in childcare in the UK is still estimated as minimal and policies do little to encourage it. Paternity leave is only at a tokenistic length of two weeks, while the more recently introduced Shared Parental Leave does not actively promote fathers’ primary caring—something Scandinavian states did better at with a “take it or lose it” approach.
Between 2014 and 2015, I spoke to fathers who do childcare in the UK in order to watch Fraser’s suggestion at work. Early into my research, I realized that the problem was actually not with social reproduction, but with work’s position in a capitalist, post-Fordist society. Kathi Weeks (2011) has pointed out that work’s centrality creates a supposed binary of work and family. This is reflected in, for example, how a healthy combination of work and childcare is structurally inhibited by eight-hour workdays. This arrangement was first introduced to facilitate a male breadwinner/female homemaker family model. In this distinctively gendered model, time and space are strictly split and allocated, and work is structured for people who are exclusively breadwinners and have no caring responsibilities.
Although women have always made up part of the labor force, thus making this binary more normative and conceptual rather than actual, the breadwinner/homemaker workdays did not change even after women’s mass entry in the labor market. In my research, I set out to discover if the practices of caring men destabilize work’s centrality or otherwise challenge this rigid binary distinction between work and care. One of the things I discovered was how it was not merely first-time parenting or fathering experiences that caused a rupture; the experience of caring itself was what destabilized the binary and decentred paid work.
Queering care through becoming-carer
Making “women’s current life-patterns the norm for everyone” (Fraser, 1994: 611) is a suggestion that still stands and still has the potential to challenge the conceptual binary of production/social reproduction. Instead of breadwinner/homemaker and similar distinctions based on polarized structures, this arrangement speaks of Fraser’s universal carers who combine care and work. In my study, I use the concept of “queering” in order to discuss this breaking of hierarchically organized binaries such as male/female and work/family, in which one pole of the binary is considered central and important, while the other exists only as its absence. Queering in this context is a methodological tool and refers to a process of challenging the self-evidence of clear distinctions between binaries. It is thus a queering of the concepts, which are often binary, via the messy practices, which are multiple and unfold in complex ways.
This queering happens by way of “becoming”: a process of walking between identities instead of on them, a position that is not fixed but always in motion (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004). Identities can be static and limiting, but becomings are fluid and open. As an alternative to binary thought, Deleuze and Guattari recommend multiplicities, in which distinctions are made without hierarchies, and difference exists as having value on its own and not in comparison to something else, as lack and absence. I call this process a becoming-carer: I argue that by assuming the marginal position of a carer the participants challenge and queer the binary of work/family.
Between 2014 and 2015, I carried out 27 in-depth semi-structured interviews in Southern England and London with men who were the main carers for their children. The participants had varied work-care arrangements: they were stay-at-home dads, part-time workers, full-time workers, dads on shared parental leave, and single dads. A surprising number of participants had an occupational background in the arts (8) while the rest varied between being employed in private companies, sales, running own businesses, academia, social work, and the banking sector. The participants were largely middle class, with high levels of education. Seven out of them were non-British and six were same-sex and/or gay fathers. These demographic features could mean that some fathers are more likely to take up care compared to others, and that the participants found themselves in a situation that might have actually enabled them to take up care. For the purposes of this article, I share the case studies of two families that best illustrate a becoming, a moving between identities of worker and carer.
Two case studies from Bristol and London
George and Maria, alternating work-care patterns in Bristol
George and Maria live in Bristol and for more than a decade they have been alternating the roles of caring for their three children, and working. The arrangements vary according to their needs. Whenever one of the two wants to go back to work, one finds a job and the other takes the backseat. Or whenever one wants a break, the other takes up more career responsibilities. They have both been through various career changes, deciding to move from one job to the next every time they faced exhaustion with the field or employer. George was initially disappointed with his job in the music industry, then moved to marketing, which he hated, and ended up doing various jobs in the public sector. Maria has worked in several positions in the private and third sector. They have also benefitted from Bristol’s thriving local community and good support with childcare. George (46) explains:
I guess we’re unusual because both of us have been through such tangent career changes. Two of them were imposed on me and one wasn’t. I’ve been through three different industries and people usually plough into one career, but we’ve been quite flexible.
This openness and flexibility towards paid work allowed them to detach from rigid, work-based identities, and experiment with various arrangements. What George is describing is a process of not taking root, of continuously adapting, of becoming. While this neoliberal flexibility is associated with women in the workforce and often exploited, in the case of male primary carers it seems like it can offer more opportunities rather than constrains. This points to both the fathers’ more privileged position when compared to mothers in the same place, as well as to the possibilities to re-imagine the work-care continuum through these work-care arrangements.
George also mentioned how being the homemaker has actually been rather stressful, although not as stressful as a full-time job he hated. When Maria was the breadwinner, he felt bad at how when she returned from work the house was often a mess. He admitted that childcare is inherently chaotic and keeping the house in shape was almost impossible. However this did not stop him from feeling like he was not keeping his end of the bargain. Reflecting on this, he says:
It was only an issue for me when the roles were polarized. […] If we’re both working or both childrearing it doesn’t matter …. But when you’re polarized in those roles you don’t have the insight… […] Clearly it doesn’t work with us when we have those delineated roles so clear. One of us is really happy and the other is utterly miserable. Maybe that’s why we haven’t done more of those absolute black and white roles.
For them, an alternating breadwinner-homemaker model has been stressful. A dual earner pattern, when both worked full time, was actually their worst experience. The arrangement that makes them the happiest is when both are involved in care and work. This sometimes means that both work part-time and their income is limited, but they prefer things this way. True balance came when the “absolute black and white roles” were muddy and shifted according to their needs and desires. As part-time work rises, often at the expense of workers, there is still the opportunity that people will experiment the way George and Maria did and reach the same conclusion. Most of the parents I interviewed were new parents, so it is exciting to think that they might follow patterns similar to George’s and Maria’s in the future.
John and Matthew: re-visiting binary practices in London
In the second case study, Matthew and John were a gay couple in London that also alternated caring/working responsibilities– first with John’s one-year adoption leave and then with Matthew’s choice to leave his academic job and take up caring for a while. John (34), who works in the banking sector, discussed how he finally had time to reflect on work and it completely changed his views on it:
I’ve been working since I was 19, full-time, always working. I wondered what value I added to the world, which is a question I probably wouldn’t have asked before. Work was important and you need to push, and fight and put all your energy into it. That’s totally gone away. I feel like the biggest insight was ‘it doesn’t matter.’
John works in a privileged sector and never came to question the value of paid work or the importance a job had in his life. This centrality was questioned for the first time, but this did not happen through family values. John distanced himself from views that exalt family as naturally “the most important thing.” The process, the immersion in caring, the becoming-carer is what brought this shift.
In the following vignette, it is clear how the experience of caring, and not simply fatherhood, is what changed him. Here he describes his co-worker’s understanding of fatherhood through throwing one’s self into work:
I was trying to explain it to this very ambitious guy and very tough [guy]. And he’s not done the caring – I don’t know if that makes difference – and he does have a baby. And everyone [at work] thought maybe he will chill out now that he has a kid, that he’ll be a bit more understanding and he was like “if anything, I feel more driven. Now that I have this child I’ll make more money, be more successful and throw myself at work so I can provide for my family.” And I can see that, but to me that’s not providing. Because then you’re just never there! Maybe that’s because I was home. I wouldn’t have felt that way.
From a life to which work is central, John moved onto a life in which he cannot connect to the values of his male colleague. Here, the binary between breadwinning fatherhood and caring fatherhood is blurred, as John challenges via daily practices what a fathering identity is supposed to be like. Although he sounds uncertain about his own shift from a breadwinning fatherhood towards a more caring fatherhood, after watching his partner Matthew, he thinks this was definitely the case with him.
John was interested in becoming the main carer from the beginning; Matthew was not. John described how, at first, Matthew was like that colleague at work in terms of wanting to spend more hours and thus identifying with a breadwinning masculinity, where good fatherhood means providing. Yet Matthew’s own caring experience was crucial:
Looking at Matthew and comparing myself I think that’s how he felt that first year, throwing himself in [like that guy at work]. And now that he’s home he’s like 'I don’t even want to go back to work. I like this! Or if I have a job I want a job where I can still be the caregiver.'
Through this experience of becoming-carer, both John and Matthew dis-identified with breadwinning masculinities, which form part of a binary system that imagines fathers exclusively as breadwinners and mothers as the quintessential carers, and more fluid subjectivities emerged via this immersion in caring practices.
Matthew, however, noticed in his interview how they repeated a traditional breadwinner/homemaker model because one works full-time while the other is a stay-at-home parent, reminding us that the dangers of binary structure persist. However, this experience has been akin to a transitional phase. Because both experienced a shift, it is likely that in the future they will seek ways to follow patterns similar to George and Maria’s, where they can combine the best of both worlds (Matthew expressed this desire, even though it will be difficult to have those flexible part-time jobs the other couple favored, as working hours are stricter for them). Just as work in the caring masculinities literature argues that identities of care rather than dominance might emerge from these practices (Elliott, 2015), this oscillation between identities has been a becoming that shifted attitudes, de-centered work, and opened up their experience.
Conclusion: After the Universal Carer?
This study captured only a fragment of possibilities, limited in Southern England, and in Bristol and London in particular. As I encountered primarily middle-class parents who were caring by choice, there is still a lot to learn about parents living in different areas and coming from different backgrounds. Because of structural constraints, these alternating patterns might not be available to everyone but only to those who presently can afford parental leave and fewer working hours. Moreover, more intensive part-time work and the entrepreneurial attitude that many of the participants showed are perfectly aligned with neoliberal transformations of work. What this study revealed was that there is still space to move within this system and to subvert it; that time spent outside paid work can be time spent acquiring experiences previously unavailable. This opens a window to new practices that can de-center work and, ultimately, queer the divide of production/social reproduction that is built on the hierarchical binary of work/care that privileges the first and casts the second as its absence. I argue that the subversive potential of the experience remains the same, even though it currently seems to be accessible only to a few. This is by far the biggest and most important limit in male primary caring experience: as long as primary care by men is not enabled, it will remain a sporadic practice, available only to a few people.
This means that the need to change work and working cultures is pressing. Without a change in work, a change in social reproduction cannot occur, and vice versa. Work-life balance policies are a good start but are not enough as work will always be prioritized; anti-work politics are needed. This can only start from questioning work’s centrality—and this is what these primary carers do. They gives us examples of how fathers can be both carers and workers, using the limited opportunities they have in a world in which identities such as worker and carer try to remain fixed and gendered. Becoming carer means they deviated a little, they queered the meaning of work in their lives.
Weeks (2011) also crucially warns us that over-emphasizing the need for family-time over work-time runs the danger of dismissing free time in general: non-work time that is not centred around the family. To Week’s warning, I add another danger: that of perpetuating the binary through an opposition of work versus family. It is crucial to consider care and social reproduction that happens outside the family, and to also include in a sustained anti-work politics all the things that constitute life outside work, such as community and free time outside the family.
In a world that puts tremendous pressure on workers to justify career breaks and not lose their skills, taking time out of work sounds daunting, and maybe is not for everyone. But effectively what these examples illustrate is that the experience of becoming-carer can reshape working lives. Through immersion in caring practices we can re-evaluate the pressures of paid work and move onto post-work demands. The notions are binary, splitting family and work life, but reality is multiple. Immersion in the experience of caring, even for a while, can be the key in changing the way we think about work, life, and gender.
 Pseudonyms are used to preserve anonymity.