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Significance of Role Reversals in the Family

QUESTION: I am a college student researching a paper on the significance of role reversals within the family unit, over the past 50 yrs. In your professional opinion what do you feel is causing many women to assume what used to be known as masculine roles ie. working, disciplinarian, and single rearing of children.

Perhaps the devaluation of the "feminine" values of nurturing have led women in pioneering directions for personal growth and independence. Certainly the needs and desires of women to extend themselves into work for financial gain is in part driven by security to have an equal "say" in the power balance in the family.

Decision-making has traditionally been based on deferral to the male in the family who held a "special" position due to his moneymaking role. Recent advances in feminine theories of development have proliferated the belief that men must give up their "privileged" role of decision-making and accept the value of the nurturance role in the family (male or female) as an equally powerful position if marriage is not to be experienced as devaluing by women who shoulder more of the caretaking responsibilities.

The "invisible" work of caretaking is just that! It is often the case that men and women who both hold down careers outside of the family still defer more of the running of the family to the women. This can lead to "overload" for the woman and result in female depression and/or divorce. In these situations, women who divorce often report having more time to themselves and less work to do, once divorce has forced an equalization of the work through division of the caretaking responsibilities in the family.

It is historically true that women's development which emphasizes the values of nurturance and caretaking is different from male development which emphasizes (in the last 50 years) the role of work outside of the family. Women become vulnerable to over-compromise because they are already primed to care for others. So when they come to the negotiating table, they are more likely to accede for the sake of others, while men are traditionally more likely to represent their sole interests as primary. This is one reason why mediation is often an unequal process for women, because it focuses on what the couple will agree to, and the woman is often more likely to compromise her needs for those of her children, than is the man.

Naturally these are generalizations and exceptions do abound! Particularly with the growing interest that men have in achieving a nurturing role to their own children which may help them forego their own needs more often for their children's sake.

The late Carl Whitaker, the founding father of family therapy, espoused that women are the "emotional leaders" in the family. So it is women who are more likely to see the value of raising children, even without a partner, and of attending parenting classes which may support their power as a nurturing AND disciplining parent ( which every parent needs to be). And women's ability to realize their potential and talents for other areas of work and career which lie outside of the home is a natural human desire that blossoms once given the opportunity and support to do so.

This is a very complex and exciting time in the development of women in today's society. But one thing is certain. The desire to parent remains a part of the unchanging mystery which women continue to embrace in traditional and non-traditional forms. Perhaps Dr. Whitaker was right! Women may be true pioneers of change in social norms of all kinds.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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