While making the interview questions for my stepfather, I continuously went back and forth between whether he was more active in child rearing, or whether he restricted some family obligations to my mother. I remember him participating in all aspects of my childhood, but in comparing his influence to my mother’s influence, my mother comes out ahead in nearly all arenas. Until I read through my interview, I did not realize that the contrast could be reconciled by understanding the difference between practicing personal ideals, and unthinkingly practicing learned traditions.
My stepfather, Ernie Borkowski, was born near Scranton, PA about forty years ago. His father worked full time in a factory, drank frequently, and did not often participate in family life. His mother stayed home but was invalid during Ernie’s teenage years. Thus, Ernie, his identical twin brother, and their older sister equally split all of the household work that their mother was incapable of doing. All three siblings went to separate, small colleges and became registered nurses. Ernie spent most of his adult like as a nurse in Atlanta, GA, San Francisco, CA, Denver, CO, and finally outside of Philadelphia, PA close to where both of his siblings live. He had one previous wife before he married my mother thirteen years ago. When they decided to get married, she was a registered nurse who was eight years younger, had never been married, had a six-year-old daughter, and was pregnant with his child. He now has a 19-year-old stepdaughter, a 13-year-old daughter, and a nine-year-old son.
Because Ernie’s mother was invalid, Ernie learned the level of work that maintaining a household requires. He frequently notes the cooking that he had to do for his mother. While Ernie’s father’s work was “central to his being a father,” (Townsend 116) as he talks about his father’s tedious factory job to keep the family alive, Ernie does not seem to appreciate or remember his father more than his mother, who was only able to help around the house in his childhood.
Therefore, when asked whether his parenting differed from his father’s parenting, I was not surprised by his response of “Yes, I was sober.” He went on to explain that his father was more “result-oriented. He wanted As and Bs but he wouldn’t help you get them. He’d just hit us.”
Ernie describes his own parenting as much different. Through our lives, Ernie has been involved in most of the household activities including cooking and doing laundry. When my brother and sister were infants he did a significant amount of the feeding and diaper changing because “I had to. Your mother was working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and sleeping during the day. Don’t forget, we don’t have Monday through Friday jobs. Most things are done based on who’s around.” Ernie is also even more involved than my mother with helping us with homework and teaching us basic skills like how to ride our bikes or tie our shoes. He also attends our sports games and various performances just as often, if not more often, than my mother.
However, my brother and sister and I would all agree that my mother consistently does more housework than Ernie. She is also more aware of payments, appointments, and technology that needs to be replaced. My mother definitely knows “more about what [her] children are doing and feeling” and she does “control the flow of information” to Ernie (Townsend 116). My brother, sister, and I will almost never approach Ernie with a problem unless our mother recommends that we go to him. While Ernie insists that he has an equal part in all of the decision-making in regards to his children, he admits that my mother is usually more intimately involved. He specifically referenced their decision to hold my sister back a year because she would only whisper in class. Ernie said that my mother addressed the problem and scheduled the appointment while they both attended the conference and both made the decision to hold her back. Ernie agrees that he never makes any appointments stating that “that’s not the way I am. I couldn’t even tell you whether I’m working on Monday. I’ll check this weekend.” Ernie also rarely takes us to rehearsals or sports practices unless he is going to help out in the sport or my mother tells him to take us.
Ernie also seems to equate marriage with children. While nothing that many other factors were involved, Ernie states that part of the reason for his divorce was because his previous wife was note ready for children. This is supports the idea that “children provide structure and cohesion to a marriage, and that romantic love alone, without the cement of shared parenting… is a slender thread on which to hang a lifetime together,” (Townsend 108). Additionally, Ernie started dating my mother, who already had a five-year-old daughter, before his divorce finalized. They were married in less than a year, and had another child in less than two years.
When asked about whether he socialized his son to be a boy, he responded with a resounding “no.” However, he proceeded to speak quickly about when he tried to get my brother involved in sports. Ernie briefly explained that my brother told my grandmother about how he hates sports and that Ernie stopped pushing my brother into sports thereafter. Ernie also said that while he was more protective with his daughter than his son, he definitely did not encourage my sister to act more like a girl. He just wanted her to be “responsible and happy.” He summarized the whole subject by saying “if [my son] decides to be a florist with a make-up shop in front, all the power to him. If [my daughter] wants to be a construction worker, I just want her to be the best instruction worker she can be.”
While Ernie clearly values equality of the sexes, and believes that he is not gender biased, in reality, and even in the interview, he does reflect some inner conflict on the subject. According to the interview, he seemed to be upset about my brother not wanting to participate in sports. He said, however, that he accepted my brother’s disinterest in sports. It is true that when my brother was younger he did not enjoy playing football or baseball and was afraid to tell Ernie. However, my brother quickly became interested in professional baseball, so much that he knows more baseball statistics and players than Ernie, wears baseball caps nearly everyday, frequently watches and attends games and laughs at people who do not know baseball players and teams. Ernie and my brother clearly bond over the sport and my brother resumed playing baseball last summer. My sister and I have no such need to bond with Ernie over sports. It is also noteworthy to say that Ernie got very upset when my brother experimented with nail polish, and he did remind my sister and me, as young girls, to sit with our legs shut. On the other hand, he participates in all household chores, and he does not consider his profession as a nurse to be unworthy for a man.
When discussing parenting broadly Ernie says that “guilt has a larger place in parenthood than it did when I was a kid. Back then, if you didn’t have something the kid wanted, that’s just the way it was.” He goes on to say that nannies doing the mechanics of child rearing, like diaper changing and homework supervising, makes parents compensate by giving the children everything they want and not wanting to be disliked by the child. “My parents didn’t have as much stuff. They didn’t have payments on two cars and we didn’t take big vacations. And my parents didn’t do a lot of overtime to get extra stuff. My dad did three weeks of overtime a year to take us to a Philly’s game. That’s it.”
When asked what makes a good father, Ernie replied with ideas of being involved, being consistent, not being afraid to discipline the child, being supportive, and making the home a “soft spot to land all the time. Let [the child] know that they can always come home and it’ll be okay.” However, he strongly emphasized that the most important part of being a good father is to “keep in mind that everything you do is going to affect this child, for better or for worse.”
While Ernie made his proclamations about fatherhood seem almost obvious, his view on fatherhood shows that he inextricably links his entire life and actions with the outcome of his child’s rearing. He believes that a man’s role in his child’s life is so critical that any mistake will unalterably change the result of the child’s life. These thoughts, as well as the entire interview, show an enthusiasm for parenting which disproves the idea that “fathers are more likely to distance themselves from the parenting role while mothers are more likely to embrace the parenting role,” (Hewlett 45).
Overall, I would say that fatherhood, especially in Ernie’s case, has changed. Ernie not only wants to be more involved with his children than his father was with him, but he actively makes sure that he is more involved. While male and female roles were clearly distinguished for his father and mother, Ernie clearly does not believe that males and females should have separate roles in the home or the work place. I would attribute these views as a result of recognizing the amount of work it takes to run a household in his teenage years, having the exact same profession as his wife, and living in both liberal and conservative parts of the United States and thus experiencing drastically different viewpoints. However, Ernie is distinctly less involved in parenting than my mother, although he seems to think the distinction is subtle and based on his individual personality rather than a social trend. Ernie believes that he has the same expectations for all of his children, but treats girls and boys slightly different. He associates marriage with children even though bother roles are performed, in his eyes, by both people. Therefore, I would argue that, based on Ernie’s lifestyle, the mindset and ideals for fatherhood have become more egalitarian between the sexes, but the tradition of separated men and women still plays a part in child rearing.
Hewlett, Barry S. “The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. 37- 47.
Townsend, Nicolas W. “Fatherhood and the Mediating Role of Women.” Gender in Cross – Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. 105-117.