Parenting culture and gender equality: the case of Iceland

Sunna Símonardóttir writes about her research on parenting and gender, based on the example of Iceland.

Studies typically point to the Nordic countries as examples of countries that have placed a strong emphasis on gender equality in the construction of their family policies, and that have achieved high fertility rates. This Nordic ideal of gender equality brought with it the vision of shared parenthood, in effect that we should strive for a society characterised by couples where both parents/partners are active in the labour market, and both take care of their children.

Iceland enjoys a reputation as one of the most gender equal countries in the world. The female labour force participation in Iceland is almost comparable to that of males. This contributes to putting Iceland on top of the Global Gender Gap Index, compiled by the World Economic Forum, a position the country has held for a decade. The country has also received much attention for an innovative approach to parental leave where fathers have enjoyed a non-transferable parental leave quota since 2000.

The ideal still not achieved?

Nevertheless, whilst the state has actively attempted to involve fathers, my findings suggest that the general discourse equates motherhood with parenthood and promotes an ideology of intensive mothering, which emphasises women´s innate character as primary nurturers (Símonardóttir, 2016; Gíslason & Símonardóttir, 2018; Símonardóttir & Gíslason, 2018). How parenting culture impacts fertility decisions is an important, but somewhat overlooked area of fertility research.

Sharon Hays’ (1996) analysis of the ideology of intensive mothering has been very influential for research on parenting. Many scholars have picked up on Hays’ concept of intensive mothering to describe the contemporary parenting experience in Western countries (Elvin-Nowak & Thomsson, 2001; Lee et al., 2014). They recognised the paradox that this intensive, expert-led type of mothering coincides with women’s increased participation in the labour force (Kanieski, 2010).

Embedded in the cultural script of intensive mothering is a considerable expansion of mothering but this expansion has also been linked to broader ideological shifts in our perception of children as social capital to be invested in (Vandenbeld Giles, 2014) and neoliberal ideas about mothers as managers of risk through informed decision making (Murphy, 2003).

The theory of attachment was originally developed by British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The main tenet of the theory is that an intense and constant emotional and physical attachment between mother and child is needed for the healthy development of the child (Bowlby, 1969, Bowlby, 1973, Bowlby, 1980). My study on attachment theory discourse present in educational materials for Icelandic parents has shown that these materials incorporate classic ideas about the primacy of the mother and the intensification of motherhood. At the same time, little effort has been made to incorporate fathers into the discourse or to include them as meaningful agents when it comes to attachment and bonding or to promote a culture of shared parenthood (Símonardóttir, 2016). Although most of the educational materials simply address mothers directly, some effort has been made to introduce a more inclusive, gender-neutral language of ‘caregivers’ or ‘parents’. However, still, more often than not the language reverts to the ‘mother’ language. Fathers are simply not expected to fully inhabit the role of caregiver in the same way as mothers are.

Breastfeeding and maternal self-identity

The focus on exclusive breastfeeding in Iceland is also an important factor when it comes to parenting ideals and the lived experiences of parenting. The prevalence of breastfeeding is traditionally very high in the Scandinavian countries where we have witnessed an upward trend towards higher breastfeeding rates and duration. Almost all Icelandic mothers initiate breastfeeding. Both policy and practice are in line with the World Health Organisation recommendations.

My study on the experiences of Icelandic mothers who had struggled with breastfeeding or been unable to breastfeed reveals how closely linked their self-identity as mothers is with being able to breastfeed. It also shows how often they have to account for their infant feeding practices to friends, family and even strangers. Mothers who are unable to breastfeed often feel that their mothering capabilities and devotion to their child are being ranked and compared, especially by other mothers who judge them both consciously and unconsciously (Símonardóttir, 2016b). This substantial focus on exclusive breastfeeding and the prevalence of attachment theory discourses – and overall adherence to the ideology of intensive mothering – indicate that there are competing discourses at play. Powerful biomedical discourses proclaim that motherhood should be regarded as natural and outside social formations. At the same time, feminist or other gender egalitarian discourses have been unsuccessful in addressing and providing parents with counter discourses that challenge the highly gendered elements of this discourse and its link to idealised versions of motherhood.

Fertility in Iceland

The fertility rate in Iceland has been among the highest in Europe, even among the other Nordic countries. Now there are clear signs that this is changing. In 2020, the total fertility rate was measured at 1.7 children for every Icelandic woman, a figure that has not been lower since records began (Statistics Iceland, 2021).

The average age of first-time mothers has also been steadily going up in recent decades. The relatively recent drop in fertility in Iceland, therefore, presents an ideal case study for understanding how and why couples and individuals decide to have fewer children than before. As previously stated, structural factors influencing fertility have been deemed positive in the Icelandic context; family policies in Iceland, including paid parental leave for both parents, and affordable quality day-care for children.

Faircloth (2013) has noted how intensive motherhood has been imported from the US and UK to other cultural settings where its interpretation and representation can be very different. In France, as Badinter (2012) and Faircloth (2013) have shown, where there is rich feminist history and historic recognition of women’s identities beyond motherhood, intensive mothering is seen as a threat to the feminist cause and women’s liberty.

A theoretical gap is present in the literature when it comes to the context of Icelandic fertility (Jónsson, 2018). Therefore, I believe that it would be particularly important to examine the parenting culture of the Nordic countries and the coexistence of shared parenting and intensive mothering narratives whilst critically engaging with the pull towards intensive mothering within the context of Nordic feminism. This enhanced focus on parenting culture could help to integrate feminist perspectives into fertility explanations, providing a valuable understanding of how shifting opportunity structures for women and men influence fertility and how gendered parenting ideologies and circumstances affect decisions regarding the timing and number of children.

Sunna Símonardóttir is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iceland. She completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Iceland in 2017 and has published widely on parenting and gender. This blog post is based on her PhD thesis. In her current project she uses qualitative methods to examine fertility intentions and behaviour in Iceland.

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