“First Steps, after Millet,” Vincent Van Gogh. Public Domain.

Men’s Care: Same or Different?

In recent years, numerous initiatives have been launched aimed at encouraging more men to join what Richard Reeves has usefully termed the “HEAL” (health, education, administration, and literacy) professions. As Reeves writes: “While women have moved decisively into many previously male-dominated occupations…there has been nothing like the same movement in the other direction.” As traditionally male-dominated blue-collar jobs are increasingly automated or offshored, being open to HEAL professions would provide men with more job opportunities.

My own academic research has focused on men working in childcare. The proportion of male childcare employees has remained stubbornly around 3 percent in the United Kingdom, almost unchanged for a quarter of a century, with only slightly higher numbers in the United States. In the UK, campaigns to tackle the underrepresentation of men in the childcare workforce have been advanced by government departments, educational institutions, and campaigning organisations such as “MITEY” (Men in the Early Years), which contends that “the job of educating and caring for our children is not ‘women’s work’: it is everybody’s business.”

But why are there so few male childcare workers in the first place? Should there be more? Within the family, what, if anything, is distinctive about the care that fathers provide?

Progressive arguments based on a social constructionist vision of gender fail to provide a compelling answer to these questions. That’s because they don’t take account of the embodied nature of care. To understand it, we have to take the body seriously. More specifically, we must take the sex of each human person’s body—always and everywhere either male or female—seriously. In caring for children, as in other fields, each person brings their own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, innate temperament and life experiences. Yet all of those experiences, and the care each person provides, is mediated and manifested through a male or female body.

Compared to the progressive gender paradigm, sex-realist feminism provides a better explanation for the distinctive importance of men’s care. Without falling into rigid or reductive stereotypes, it helps us to understand the uniquely valuable contributions of both men and women.

Strengths and Weakness of the Progressive Case

Campaigns for more male involvement in childcare tend to be based on a belief that gender roles and identities are largely socially constructed.

Just as there is no reason why a woman can’t take on roles traditionally confined to men, the argument goes, so there should be nothing to stop a man from assuming roles previously associated with women. The progressive case is also underpinned by a belief that men assuming a greater responsibility for the care of children will help to promote gender equality, both by freeing women from the “burden” of care that constrains their participation in the public sphere and by enabling men to develop the nurturing and expressive aspects of their humanity.

A belief in the dynamic nature of gender identities, allied to a passionate appeal for gender equality, is a clear strength of progressive arguments for a greater role for men in caring for children. However, I would argue that the progressive case also has a key weakness, which undermines the persuasiveness of its arguments. This weakness derives from the same source as its main strength.

If, as campaigners argue, gender is a social construct and there are no significant differences between men’s and women’s care, then why, one might ask, is there a need to recruit more men to work in childcare? Of course, an argument from simple equality of opportunity means that no barriers should be put in the way of men seeking to work in this field. Beyond that, what is the case for actively seeking to recruit more men? If men’s care for children is no different, in quality or kind, from that provided by women, then why shouldn’t we be happy with a daycare facility being staffed entirely by women, or for a child to be raised by two mothers? In short, do men bring anything to caring for children that is different or distinctive?

The dominant arguments for recruiting more men to work in childcare fail to provide an adequate answer to the question of what men are actually for. The ideological presuppositions of the progressive, social constructionist perspective on gender prevent its supporters, fearful of resorting to essentialist notions of innate sex differences, from suggesting that there is anything distinctive about men’s care. Instead, their arguments, rather than focusing on how men’s care might offer something distinctive to children, resort to political and pedagogic reasons for recruiting more men to these roles.

Political and Pedagogic Arguments

Reading the arguments put forward by campaigners, one often gets the impression that recruiting more men to the childcare and early education workforce is part of a wider social project to undermine any notion of sex-based differences.

One website suggests that “seeing more men in a childcare role could help smash up society’s automatic association of women with childcare.” MITEY proposes that “our children should be cared for and educated by …. men, women and people whose identities challenge the gender binary.” Jo Warin, one of the UK’s leading researchers and writers on men working in childcare, has argued that “the inclusion of more men in early childhood education” would constitute “a small step in the direction of ‘undoing’ gender and moving beyond the gender binary.” Similarly, in the course of a rather beautiful description of his own “hands-on” care for his young daughter, the philosopher and care ethicist Maurice Hamington claims that “acts of corporeal care by the father will break down the exclusive connection between motherhood and care.”

The means by which advocates of a more prominent role for men in caring for children hope to achieve this project of “moving beyond the gender binary” appear to be mainly pedagogical. The thinking is that seeing men in caring roles will educate the rising generation to view gender in a radically different way. In Hamington’s words, “caregiving … on the part of the father adds significance to the moral education of the child,” while Warin writes: “It is a way of showing them without words or explanations that both genders can be carers, can look after them and can be involved in the same way.” And Jeremy Davies from MITEY has suggested that “early year providers have a duty to show children from the earliest point possible, that men and women are equally capable of, and responsible for, looking after and teaching them,” adding that “recruiting more men is a stepping-stone towards a more gender-equal future for our children and grandchildren.”

In short, the primary aim of many campaigns for more men to work with children seems to be not so much enhancing the quality of care, or introducing a new or distinctive element to that care, but rather teaching young children something about the nature of gender. That “something” appears to be that there is no difference between men’s and women’s care—indeed, that sex differences in general are illusory and ought to be transcended.

But is it really true that there are no differences between men’s and women’s care? Isn’t there an argument to be made that men do, in fact, bring something distinctive to the care and upbringing of children? If so, articulating that difference would provide a better rationale for men’s involvement in caring for children, whether in the home or in the workplace, than arguments from political action and pedagogy.

Gender, Care, and Embodiment

One way of moving this debate forward is to focus on the embodied nature of care. As the sociologist Andrea Doucet has written, “the care of others is, quite simply, deeply embodied,” while Maurice Hamington, quoted above, has argued that “there are specific aspects of ethical understanding, such as a caring orientation, that find significant resources in the interactions of bodies, and yet the embodied aspect of morality has been largely ignored.” We can only care with our bodies, even if that “care” is expressed solely through our voices, the movements of our eyes, or the gestures of our hands. However, most care, including care for young children, demands a good deal more bodily engagement than this: it involves fundamentally embodied activities such as lifting, carrying, washing, dressing, feeding, soothing and comforting.

At the same time, it’s important to emphasise that in caring, as in other embodied human activities, we are not simply “using” our bodies as if they were neutral machines or instruments. Underlying the belief in care as an embodied practice is the sense that our bodies are inseparable from other aspects of our personhood. As Abigail Favale has written: “Bodies are not ‘just’ bodies. Bodies are persons made manifest.” Maurice Hamington has also written about “the embodied aspects of morality” and “the moral workings of the flesh”:

The hand on the shoulder during a conversation, the arm around the waist during a sad moment, the playful roughhousing that lightens up a situation—all of these interactions have a verbal and visual context that we have learned to attend to, but they also have a subtext of touching that also communicates volumes.

Hamington draws on the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to propose a “philosophy of the body” which would provide “a vehicle for finding deep meaning in the phenomenology of simply bodily interaction and movements.” However, I would suggest that Hamington fails to fully explore the logical consequences of an emphasis on the embodied nature of care.

If care is an inescapably embodied practice, and if our sense of ourselves as persons is bound up with our embodiment, then we must also acknowledge that, to quote the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa, “there are two bodily norms for human embodiment: the masculine and the feminine body.” This is not to deny that, as in other aspects of our humanity, men and women may be more alike than they are different. However, Heinämaa doesn’t shy away from the differences in male and female embodiment and their consequences for understanding sexual identity:

We can of course mould our bodies in many ways, and today we can even change the shapes and functions or our sex organs. But if Merleau-Ponty is right, then sexual identity is not reducible to any such organ or function. On the one hand, it is something more encompassing, and on the other hand, it is more minute. It is detectable not (just) in the shape of the organs, but also, and more primarily, in the postures of the body, in the gestures of the face and the hands, and in the rhythms of their movements.

Heinämaa draws on arguments from phenomenology to make her case for recognising the ineradicable nature of embodied sex differences. The psychologist Wendy Hollway relies on a different theoretical tradition—psychoanalysis—to support her contention that, because of fundamental differences between the sexes, “mothers and fathers cannot fill identical positions in early childcare” and that “the experience of care from the father or mother (or a surrogate carer, man or woman) is never going to be identical.” Like Heinämaa, Hollway locates that inescapable difference precisely in men’s and women’s distinctive experiences of embodiment:

I have argued that there are psychic reasons for the father, or any ‘not mother’ object involved in caring at this early stage, to be experienced as different. If we are talking about a man here, this gains significance through the experience of difference at the somatic level. Held against his chest, the baby is cushioned in a different way, receives the pulse of a different heartbeat, hears a different register of voice. When the baby puts her fist up to his face, she feels the bristly quality of his skin, in contrast to the mother’s.

Innate or Learned differences?

But even if one accepts that men’s and women’s different experiences of embodiment create inevitable differences in children’s experience of care from each sex, could it be that these differences are the result of the gendered ways in which boys and girls are currently raised, rather than the product of innate differences? Might it be the case, as Andrea Doucet has argued, that although there are inescapable “embodied differences between mothers and fathers,” these can be explained by gendered differences in children’s upbringing? As Doucet writes: “It should not be surprising that most fathers exhibit more traditionally masculine qualities in their caregiving, given that most boys grow up in cultures that encourage sport, physical and emotional independence, and risk taking.”

In my research with men who care professionally for children, I’ve often been struck by the influence of childhood experiences on a decision to engage in care work as adults. In many cases, it seems to have been an early experience of caring for a child—babysitting younger siblings, for example—that was a key influence in their later choice of career. This early experience of “hands on” caring appears to have habituated these young men to deploy their bodies in ways that are not part of most boys’ experience, so that choosing care as a profession came to feel like a natural thing to do.

It was almost as though an early experience of caring for another person developed in these young men a kind of “muscle memory” for care. As Maurice Hamington has written, care is fundamentally a habit, a “type of embodied knowledge”:

Do our bodies… know habitual activities of care? Of course. There are arms that know how to comfort, hands that know how to share joy, and faces that know to express rapt attention. These are not instinctual activities but learned (and learning) behaviours that exhibit care.

Perhaps if more boys were given opportunities to be involved in hands-on care from an early age, there would be more men coming forward to work in the caring professions, and more fathers willing and capable of taking their essential role in the care of their young children. If so, would the apparent differences between men’s and women’s care be overcome? Would gendered differences in a bodily orientation to care disappear if we raised boys and girls in a more gender-neutral way? Or are these differences written on the sexed body in ways that no amount of social conditioning, or change in gender relations at the societal level, will ever completely eradicate?

I would suggest that, if phenomenological writers such as Merleau-Ponty and Heinämaa are right, then there is something in the very nature of sexed embodiment which means that men’s and women’s caring will always entail certain inescapable differences. As Heinämaa writes: “Sexual identities are not and cannot be determined by will; they are experienced and formed already in the level of perception and motility.” Yet, even if those differences are “written on the body” in a fundamental and inescapable way, it does not necessarily follow, as some traditionalists might argue, that women are somehow “built” for care and that men are not.

A better way of framing the issue might be to say that men’s and women’s different embodiment means that their caring will inevitably be different, yet equally valuable. The ways in which a father or male caregiver interacts with a child might involve the “playful roughhousing” with which men are traditionally (and perhaps stereotypically) associated. This type of interaction, as Hamington notes, often “lightens up a situation” and more seriously, as Erika Bachiochi argues, can stimulate children’s development and help them to “more effectively regulate their feelings and behaviour.” Brad Wilcox has also suggested that, whereas mothers, and by implication other female caregivers “are more likely to offer support and security first,” the distinctive ways in which fathers and other male caregivers engage with children tends to “encourage risk-taking and embracing the new.”

However, it does not automatically follow that men’s care, or women’s care for that matter, will be all one kind of thing, due to their sex. The precise nature of a man’s care for a child cannot be predicted from his sex, any more than a woman’s can. There will always be individual differences in the way each man or woman expresses his or her embodied, sexed identity, and indeed there will also be similarities between men’s and women’s care, due to their common, embodied humanity.

In fact, as Abigail Favale has argued, “when sexed identity is grounded in the body rather than confined to stereotypical mimicry,” as in some versions of gender identity ideology, then “we are freer to be who we are.” Her argument is that differences in the ways men and women behave (including how we care) will arise spontaneously from our distinctive experience of embodiment, and we need not be too prescriptive in describing what those differences will look like. As Favale writes: “Part of countering the gender paradigm must be a greater openness to the variability within the categories of man and woman.”

Towards a Sex-Realist Perspective

A sex-realist feminist perspective, grounded in a sense of embodied difference, offers an alternative to the “degendered” approach of most current arguments for recruiting more men to care for children, whose roots in social constructionism render them unable to articulate a sense of what men offer to care work that might be distinctive. Although more work needs to be done in working through its full implications, a sex-realist perspective can also provide an alternative to the determinism shared by both traditionalist essentialism and the “new essentialism” of contemporary gender ideology.

An approach rooted in an understanding of the embodied nature of care, and of men and women’s different experiences of embodiment, can provide a framework for understanding both the distinctiveness and the equal importance of men’s and women’s care for children, without the need to resort to rigid stereotypes.