On March 31, 2011, I delivered the 42nd Annual Sorokin lecture at the University of Saskatchewan.
Pitrim Sorokin (1889-1968) was a Russian émigré who became a world-renowned sociologist and the founder of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. He published over 30 books and attracted the attention of Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy as well as an eclectic mix of followers and critics, including political activists, military and peace proponents, and even ‘new age’ communities. According to the archive of his work that is lodged at the University of Saskatchewan, he is considered one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century.
It was an honor for me to share a poster that included both our names.
As I was speaking about breadwinning mothers and caregiving dads in my Sorokin lecture, I was interested to read in his memoir that after the death of his mother when he was three years old, Pitrim Sorokin and his two brothers were raised by his father. As he wrote in his memoir, this arrangement led to a life that alternated between happiness and despair.
“Of my father I had and still have two different images. In his sober stretch (lasting for weeks and even months) he was a wonderful man, loving and helping his sons in any way he could… Unfortunately the stretches of soberness alternated with those of drunkenness… In his drunken state he was a pitiful figure; he could not care for us nor help us; he was depressed, irritable, and, once in a while, somewhat violent in his treatment of us”.
His story moved me. Without saying it explicitly, Sorokin pointed to the challenges faced by his father, a single dad raising three boys at the beginning of the 19th century in Russia.
That story also brought me back to another story about a single father raising three; it was the story that initiated my research on primary caregiving fathers. I wrote about this in my book Do Men Mother and in a journal article in Qualitative Sociology.
This is a shortened version of that story. It is actually the long answer to the question: What instigated my interest in fathering?
When I began a study of primary caregiving fathers in 2000, the motivation for undertaking this research seemed clear to me. My interest was explicit and often articulated since many of the fathers that I interviewed asked me how it was that I—as a woman, as a mother—came to be interested in studying men’s lives.
I told a simple story. The initial impulse came out of my own first experiences of parenting and my observations of my husband as he took on the primary care of our eldest daughter at varied points in her early years. His recounting of the excruciatingly painful details of sitting sidelined in a ‘moms and tots’ group in Cambridge, England over several cold winter months awakened my curiosity in the lives of fathers who challenge conventional gender norms.
As my research progressed, however, I became increasingly aware of, what Avery Gordon calls, autobiographical ‘ghosts’ in my research.
Throughout the process of interviewing over 100 fathers and especially while deep into the process of analyzing those narratives, I entered the stage of physical and emotional exhaustion that most qualitative researchers come to know well.
It was here that the words of fathers filled my waking and sleeping hours and rolled through my conscious and unconscious mind. Their faces and their fathering stories mixed inextricably with the ghosts of fathers I had known throughout my life, particularly in the 17 years when I was growing up in a small town on the north shore of New Brunswick.
After months of analyzing interview transcripts, I awoke one night from a dream and suddenly remembered a long-forgotten memory.
I remembered my childhood home, a large wooden house on the Baie de Chaleur, a small bay that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It was also the house in which both my grandfather and father grew up.
It sat on Main Street in the working-class, Catholic side of town, just down the street from the pulp and paper mill where my father worked long shifts as a laborer for most of his working life.
And then there was the house across the street.
As a child, I would often look out from the verandah of my house, and constantly observe what my mother called ‘the comings and goings’ of that other house. It was an up and down duplex and it belonged to Ozzie Aubie, a lobster fisherman*.
In the upstairs apartment of that duplex was a family of six: a single mother Penny Melanson, and her five daughters. The story was that her husband had just packed up and left one day, leaving Penny to scrape together a living for her daughters. The people in the town talked. More specifically, my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts talked. Penny was pitied for not having a man to provide a family wage.
Yet, as they sat on our front verandah drinking coffee, smoking Du Maurier cigarettes, and looking across the street to Penny’s house, this is what I remember them saying: “Penny was a good mother. Her children were lacking nothing”.
Meanwhile, in the downstairs apartment of this duplex was a family of four—Ozzie Aubie and his three sons, Billy, Johnny, and Harry. Other than the infamous story of Pierre Trudeau taking on custody of his three sons, we had never seen a family living in a house without a mother.
Again, my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts talked. “Where was their mother? How could she leave? Those poor Aubie boys. How would they ever turn out without a mother to raise them?”
Indeed, everything that went wrong with Billy, who was in my grade at school, was blamed on the stain of being a mother-less boy. In Grade Two when he called me names, in Grade Three when he chased me home from school lifting up my skirt, in Grade Four when he threw my newly knitted winter hat so high into our maple tree that it could never be recovered—each of these incidents was met with the same lamenting sigh and response from my mother and my aunts. “Well, what do you expect? He has no mother.”
I grew up with the mystery of Billy’s missing mother and the wonder of how it was that the town embraced Penny Melanson’s fatherless family living upstairs. And yet, they harshly judged the motherless family of Ozzie Aubie that lived downstairs.
From my nighttime dream of Ozzie Aubie and his three sons, I realized that these autobiographical ‘ghosts’ had partly led me to deep personal and academic curiosity in the lives of fathers who are primary caregivers.
And even more specifically, this story brought me into a long research journey focused partly on the relationship between a primary caregiving father and the community within which he lives, works, cares, and is judged.
*All names and identifying details of the two families in the “house across the street” have been changed.
*Image: “What is Guiding Me” courtesy of Christine Martell www.christinemartell.com