Recently I’ve been reading a number of books and articles about domestic inequality and how women (in particular mothers) do significantly more housework and caregiving than men. All the Rage by Darcy Lockman explores some of the larger societal reasons that this might be the case, and the idea that women are often considered to be “better” or “more natural” caregivers and, therefore, either are given or take on more carework themselves struck me an interesting idea—because I see it often in literature. I did post in May (around US Mother’s Day) about how a large percentage of mothers in young adult novels are actually dead, so clearly they are not providing any caregiving, but now I am wondering how many characters in books that do include parents or parental figures are women vs. men.
I have yet to make a large-scale survey of my reading (and if someone wants to do their own and post about it, feel free), but I was struck by the absence of involved fathers in the book I happened to read right after All the Rage, which was the middle grade fantasy Briar and Rose and Jack by Katherine Coville. The book contains three prominent characters who fill the role of caregiver—and all of them are women.
It is worth noting that Briar and Rose and Jack is a fairy tale retelling set in a fantasy world clearly inspired by medieval Europe. In that sense, it seems fair to me that there are some historically-inspired stereotypical gender roles in the book when it comes to labor: men are soldiers, men do the farming, women run the household, etc. Protagonists Briar and Rose are independent individuals and take charge of their lives, so it isn’t as if women are passive nobodies, but in terms of actual jobs, the book tends to stick to gender divisions that decently reflect what one might expect from medieval Europe (or a place like it).
However, I found I was bothered by the idea that all the caregivers in the book are women because that is not a distinction about tasks or chores; it’s a perpetuation of the idea that women are the caring, nurturing ones, while men are distant. The people who care for children, literally and emotionally, in the book are Briar and Rose’s mother, the nurse/fairy godmother, and Jack’s mother. Jack’s father is dead (we have no idea what he would have been like if alive), and Briar and Rose’s father is so horrid he disowns Briar entirely and then values Rose only for her beauty and political value. The other prominent adult in the story is the bishop, who tutors the children and seems to despise children in general, though Briar in particular. There are several examples of nurturing, comforting, actively involved women in the book, but no men.
Is this a problem? For an individual book, I’d say no, but I am very interested in taking note as I continue to read other books this year of how many female characters in them are “good” parents or parental stand-ins and how many men are. If books do the work of both reflecting and imparting values of our society, it would be a worthwhile goal to see active, nurturing father characters to help upend the stereotype that women are “better” at caregiving work.
What do you think? Are caring mothers more common the books you read, or are there caring fathers, too?