Faith and the Duty Work of Fathering

When I teach sociology I usually think about daily life examples to stress the value of concepts in sociology, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy blogging here, to test these examples and connect them to concepts. One of the big draws to sociology for me was the importance that good concepts can have in rethinking how our daily lives function. This is actually a key matter when we think about religion. Religion as a way to view reality, a worldview, changes the way we think about how we live life. As many a religious leader has noted, religious people make real decisions that radically alter the way their lives run. We’re invited to reconsider our priorities in life and how they mesh (or fail to mesh) with our lived reality. In the world of evangelicals they use phrases like “walk like you talk” or “having a consistent witness.”

Sociologist Mark Chaves noted however that this is a bad assumption to start with regarding the personal lives of religious people. We’re highly inconsistent or “incongruous” when it comes to what we believe and what we do. At its worst it’s popularly defined as hypocrisy and at best it’s being a “goody-goody” at some things but not others. 

When it comes to religion and daily life then, few things are more applicable than the simple day-to-day routines of being a parent. How do moms and dads live out their faith when it comes to bringing up baby? Believe it or not, there’s not a lot of research out there on this point given that these two social institutions of family and religion are so fundamental to society. So it surprised me when one of the only religion studies to show up last year in the top sociology journals tackled this very topic. Alfred DeMaris, Annette Mahoney, and Kenneth Pargament examined data derived from 169 English-speaking married couples in a Midwestern US city that were in their third trimester and attending childbirth classes as they awaited the birth of their first child. Unlike other studies, the couples were not interviewed once, but 4 different times at the 4th, 7th and 13th month. They accomplished this for every couple between 2005 and 2008.

Daily tasks in infant care included the following: changing “poopy” diapers, changing wet diapers, putting the baby to sleep, getting the baby dressed, bathing, getting up at night to care for the baby, feeding, soothing when in distress, and play. It’s exhausting just reading that list isn’t it? So they used this as a way to determine whether religion helps dads become more involved and thus reduce the “gender gap” in infant care.  

The researchers asked each parent how much he or she did of the aforementioned tasks, and then asked them to rate their spouse on his or her task accomplishments. Further they introduced questions that one doesn’t normally see in surveys. They asked a series of questions that tap into what they call “theistic sanctification” which refers to their view of whether God played a large or no role in the pregnancy, delivery and care of their baby. Their second unique measure refers to “spiritual investment” which picks up on each spouse’s view of their religious behavior regarding their child (e.g. “I have prayed for my unborn child”).

They also included other important characteristics such as “spouse’s knowledge of infants,” infant temperament, marital satisfaction, and a key scale, “sex-role traditionalism,” an established set of questions that identifies whether each spouse has a fairly traditional view of the roles & responsibilities in the relationship (e.g. wives are nurturing, more involved in the private sphere and subordinate in the relationship). God bless these couples for answering all these questions.

The upshot: no effect for theistic sanctification on infant care. Sigh. As they conclude: “In sum, all these efforts revealed only one consistent effect: The more religious the couple, the greater the gender gap ‘in favor’ of moms” (363). For those not familiar with this kind of language the quotations mean this: more religious couples usually exhibit greater infant care from the mom rather than a leveling out between mom and dad. Further they state, “To the extent that religiousness promotes a traditional gendered division of labor with respect to child care, then, our evidence suggests that it hinders rather than furthers the goal of gender equality in parenting.” (365)

Some of the main factors that do affect father involvement in daily tasks:

Time spent at work: more time at work, less infant care. More time spent by mom at work, the lower the gender gap in infant care.

Knowledge of infant development: the more mom knows about taking care of baby, the greater the gap.

Mom’s traditional view of sex roles: more traditional the views of mom, the greater the gap.

Fussy babies: more fussy, the greater the gap.

What’s striking in this study are the implications and suggestions for what religious communities and couples might make of this study. They suggest that religious communities that want fathers to be more involved should consider “parenting workshops focused on increasing knowledge about child development that coincide with religious naming rituals for infants.” (367)  

Couples should consider the costs and benefits of trading time off from work in order for dads to bond more with their infants at this early and vital stage.

As with other good studies, they close with a half dozen caveats. For example, a minority of moms that are “home centered” would find these results reflective of their experience. Their findings don’t jibe with some other research that finds that religious fathers are actually more involved and their response is that this may be due to the specific time frame in a child’s life that is examined here. It’s possible that religious dads are way more involved when a kid gets older but when it comes to changing poopy diapers and the like, they’re nowhere to be found. In fact they state that the very necessity of these duties might be one reason why personal faith doesn’t make a difference, as opposed to empowering knowledge of childcare that some moms exhibit.

What do you think about their implications? If father involvement is a priority for Christians, what sort of ways could Christian communities get more faith-informed dads to be more involved in baby duty? (doodie?)