Record: Lee Garth Vigilant, Tyler C. Anderson, and Lauren Wold Trefethren, “‘I’m Sorry You Had a Bad Day, but Tomorrow Will Be Better’: Stratagems of Interpersonal Emotional Management in Narratives of Fathers in Christian Homeschooling Households,” inSociological Spectrum 34, no. 4 (2014): 293-313.[Abstract Here]
Summary: Vigilant, a sociology professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and 12 year homeschooling veteran, here with two of his former undergraduate students, continues a line of research the team initiated in a 2013 publication laying out Christian homeschooling fathers’ ideologies. This article draws from the same sample of 21 white, Christian fathers whose wives homeschool, all from North Dakota or Minnesota. Father age ranged from 29 to 56 years, with a mean age of 46. Average number of children was 4, though family size ranged from 1 to 9 children. Mean number of years homeschooling was 8, with the range being 1 to 19 years. Fifteen of the 21 fathers were college-educated professionals, and the rest were blue-collar workers.
Vigilant and his co-authors begin with a lit review that focuses especially on the work of Jennifer Lois, who in a series of articles culminating in a fascinating book, looked carefully at the emotional lives of homeschooling mothers. Vigilant wants to do the same for fathers. Building off of Lois’ insights, Vigilant interprets the fathers he interviewed to be focused mostly on trying to help their wives deal with the emotional strain and potential burnout that can easily come from spending all day every day homeschooling children. Fathers described four weapons in their “interpersonal emotion management arsenal” (p. 304) to help them do this:
- Soundboard and Release Valve. These Christian fathers have learned that at the end of a tough day their wives need an adult to talk to about the challenges they faced. Though fathers’ instinct is to try to fix whatever problems their wives have, repeatedly they explained that they have gradually come to learn that their wives don’t want solutions–they just want someone to listen while they blow off steam.
- Break Time Placeholders. After work or on week-ends fathers take the children for a few hours so that mothers can have a little time to themselves. The fathers in this study recognized that this was little more than a token service, but they thought that their wives appreciated the break nonetheless.
- Disciplinarian and Chores Enforcer–Fathers repeatedly stressed their role as the “principal” or “superintendent” of the school. Though all of them acknowledged that they did very little by way of curriculum and instruction, they claimed that they had their wives’ backs when it came to enforcing discipline and the family chore schedule. These fathers also claimed to do a good bit of housework (many spoke of cooking dinner and cleaning the house themselves) in addition to enforcing chore routines established for the children.
- Mentoring Relationship Quality–Finally, fathers recognized that homeschooling can all too easily “override and strain” the relationship between husband and wife. Here Vigilant draws on the work of Anthony Giddens, who argues that late modern relationships are reflexive and pure, meaning that each party engages in continuous monitoring of the relationship’s quality and commitment level, that having a relationship is the whole point of having the relationship. These fathers try to show through their attentiveness and intimacy that they remain committed to their wives as friends and lovers, not just as teachers of their children.
At root all four of these strategies are tools fathers use to try to help mothers stay true to what Vigilant calls “the vision,” the ideological belief the couple shares (or at least that the fathers claim the couple shares) that God’s preferred method of education is homeschooling, since it is most likely to result in the children growing up to be godly adults themselves.
Appraisal: Vigilant and his young colleagues have once again done a wonderful job of articulating, documenting, and organizing tendencies that most anyone who has spent time among fathers like these will recognize. He has also again done a model job of providing trustworthy analysis and rigorous science methodology despite his own insider status as a father of homeschooled children. I have no critiques of his methodology or his descriptions summarized above. I do have two comments on a couple of the more interpretive things he notes along the way.
First, Vigilant mentions in passing that though these men ostensibly have fairly patriarchal views about men’s and women’s roles in the family, and while their family structure is that of the conventional breadwinner father and stay-at-home mother, the strategies of emotional management that homeschooling requires of them have the perhaps unintended consequence of making these men a bit less conventional. They admit themselves to cooking and cleaning–jobs that earlier generations of patriarchs would have relegated to the women. More interestingly for Vigilant, they also frequently speak of their role as homeschooling father in language the Bible ascribes to Eve rather than Adam: they are the helpmates, the servants doing whatever they can to ensure their wives’ success. Technically these fathers may describe themselves as principals and superintendents, but behaviorally they are more like support staff. Their wives run the school; the men are just there to help out when asked. Vigilant here is noticing something that other students of Evangelical gender roles have been finding for over a decade now: for all the talk of male leadership and wifely submission one hears from Evangelical pulpits, in practice families that claim to live by this creed look quite a bit like the egalitarian families of more liberal Americans. The reailty belies the rhetoric. Now, having said that we must be quick to note that there are pockets of homeschooling fathers who remain some of the most doctrinaireand despotic patriarchs one can find in this country, but for men like those in Vigilant’s sample at least, homeschooling seems to have a softening, domesticating effect on conservative Christian men.
Second, Vigilant himself rightly anticipates the most obvious objection to his findings here. They are based entirely on the self-reporting of men. Jennifer Lois, whose workVigilant has clearly read carefully and used to good effect in his analysis, cited many examples of homeschooling mothers complaining about how little their husbands actually did around the house. It could very easily be the case that the fathers Vigilant interviewedthink they are helping out a lot more than they actually are. Several times his subjects claim to use some of these strategies “every so often.” One claims that he takes his wife out on date nights, “although we haven’t had one lately.” Another leaves encouraging notes around the house, though “I haven’t done this lately,” he acknowledges (p. 308). I’ll confess to being somewhat incredulous about some of these claims fathers were making. They reminded me of studies of conservative church attendance or giving patterns, both of which have found that people think they go to church or give a lot more than they actually do when these behaviors function as identity markers. The same might be going on here. The only way to find out would be to get their wives’ side of the story.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College