Sexual politics in the 90s: Mothers and fathers - The ties that bind

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Families are plagued by"classic" stereotypes: the tyrannical and distant father, the over-wrought mother, the intractable adolescent. Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed and research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, believes that analysis of the mother-son and father-daughter bonds has been weighed down with Oedipal baggage, saying: "The balance needs to restruck."

Matt, 28, can't recall having conscious sexual feelings for his mother, but remembers, "My mother is extremely fond of me, probably fonder of me than my sister, and I have always been tactile with her, more so than with my father, who is quite reserved. But all my affection goes towards my girlfriend now." He refutes the idea that his girlfriend is a substitute mother figure. "My mother likes to think of me as a bit of a `mummy's boy', though I'm a bit resistant to that now. She is trying to persuade me to move nearer her home, but I'm not keen."

Sons can often be embarrassed by motherly sentimentalism. David, 26, a designer, has a passion for motorbikes and, since her recent divorce from his father, so has his mother. He finds this a bit disconcerting. "The roles have completely reversed since the divorce. I suppose she's busy proving her independence, but it's a bit awkward. She wants full immersion in my lifestyle. When I was young, she banned me from having a bike, and now she's got one. I think she really wishes she had a daughter who she could talk to properly."

What about the father-daughter relationship? Ben, 59, an English lecturer with four grown-up children (three girls and one boy), is very comfortable with his involvement in his daughters lives, believing their relationships to have improved as a result. "I've learnt a lot about the way they think by seeing them with their friends, and I've become privy to unbelievable discussions. Our gender difference doesn't reduce our levels of communication - in fact, I find them more articulate. There is always that air of boyish reticence with my son." Although he believes the notion of the protective father is a bit of a cliche, he admits he used to fret at the thought of predatory men, chuckling to himself, "although experience has shown that they scare the pants off men". But do they ever intimidate Ben? "Yes, I'm quite wary. Together with my wife, they are four strong women with four strong characters. You can't pull the wool over their eyes."

So, can fathers and daughters enjoy a close bond without the problems that can afflict mothers and daughters. Rachel, 25, a singer-songwriter, sees her father as "the only one in the family who makes any sense. I have a special affinity with him. He's far easier to be affectionate with. Mum and I are somehow too familiar. I'd want the father of my children to be exactly like my dad, though I don't think I could find anyone who could live up to him."

Burgess believes Rachel's case to be exceptional and the father-daughter bond a myth "Their closeness just isn't born out by research. The mother is in the driving seat with parenting, and the father spends so much less time with his children, especially when they are infants." So, is gender really an issue within the family? "Certainly," says Burgess. "It's the mothers who remain the confidantes to their children. Our research has shown that they are closer to both sexes. They are calling the shots."

Fiona Sturges

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