Hard Labour: the Sociology of Parenthood

Gatrell, Caroline
Open University Press, Buckingham
2004
0335214894 (pb)

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Cover of book This is an interesting and well-written sociological account of parenthood in the twenty-first century. Written at a time when there is greater political, policy and academic interest in fatherhood, as well as motherhood, this book draws on the accounts of mothers, and fathers, who combine parenting with paid work. As such, it makes an excellent empirical contribution to the study of sociology, the family, gender and employment.

The book consists of ten chapters organised into two parts. The first part 'The Sociology of Parenting and Paid Work' provides a review of the literature on the sociology of motherhood, fatherhood and the family, as well as a review of women's employment and employment data. There are five chapters in this part of the book, which draw, in particular, on functionalist and feminist approaches to gender and the family. The second part of the book 'Doing it All (and having some of it)' which contains the remaining five chapters provides an analysis of Gatrell's research project on parenthood and focuses on five key areas: (1) coping with the transition to parenthood; (2) combining paid work, parenting and household duties; (3) the concept of 'commitment' to children and paid work; (4) experiences of mothers and fathers in relation to equal opportunities at work, and (5) the implications for policy.

In many ways, this is a delightful book, which depicts an honest account of combining parenting with paid work. It is difficult to do justice to a book, which is so rich in content and analysis. However, I have picked out two of my favourite sections:

Chapter six 'Baby, you changed my life' explores the transition to motherhood. In this context, Gatrell explores women's responsibility for domestic labour. Echoing much of the previous (and old) literature in the field, the fathers interviewed in this study admit to their role as household 'helper' rather than 'manager'. For example, one father states: '[My wife] will prompt me by saying 'the bath hasn't been cleaned for ages', which usually means, 'Charles, go and clean the bath', and I'll do it. But I won't do it then. I'll do it when I've got a free slot' (emphasis in original text, p. 121).

Another of my favourite sections is also in Chapter six in a discussion of laundry and shirt-ironing which, as Gatrell argues, is metaphorical of 'wifework'. As in the example I have picked out above, the book explores the power struggles and games between men and women who work and parent. Gatrell notes that in the majority of interviews, the subject of laundry and ironing was mentioned without prompting, as one mother states: 'I do all the washing and ironing except for [my husband's] he can do that himself!' (emphasis in original text, p. 127).

Although this is a wonderful book, the research project itself is not discussed until the beginning of the second part of the book on page 97. I have no doubt that this was a deliberate decision on the part of the author and/or her publisher, however, I did keep wondering about how the book came about. The research for the book was carried out between 1999 and 2001 and is based on in-depth qualitative interviews with 38 participants (20 mothers and 18 fathers) from around the UK. The majority of the participants described themselves as 'White' and were drawn from a broad range of professions, for example, law, medicine and education. I still do not know whether the project was carried out as part of a PhD and, of course, whilst this makes little difference to the quality of Gatrell's work, it highlights the fact that the book hardly mentions the research process. Although this is an engaging and interesting book, it does not really acknowledge the relationship between research process and product, and it does leave the reader wanting to know more about how and why the research project was carried out.

Sarah Earle
The Open University