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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Rumsby

Humanising Parenting

Hello dears, I wanted to share the introduction to a recently developed and published special issue that myself and Melissa Nolas put together. The below is a repost from the Sociological Review website - do check out the whole issue! Charlie Rumsby and Sevasti-Melissa Nolas

11th June 2024

Contemporary parenting is influenced by a dizzying array of factors, from popularised psychological knowledge to technological advancement and economic aspirations. It can feel competitive, disorienting and lonely. The constant stream of anxiety-inducing articles about feeding, sleeping, playing, educating, protecting, caring for and creating secure attachments in the next generation mean that just trying to keep up can feel overwhelming.

Most of the contributions in this issue focus on the experiences of mothers. Yet, we recognise that parenting also includes fathers and is not limited to traditional nuclear and heteronormative configurations of families. In putting this issue together, we wanted to bring to light the everyday realities of being a parent of any gender, sexuality, racial group, class or ethnicity: realities that are often hidden, or experienced alone or in the sometimes muted company of family, friends and healthcare professionals.

When we put out our call for contributions, we did not expect to be so affected by some of the parenting experiences our authors have shared. We laughed out loud and wept when reading the contributions. The sometimes raw emotions ­of doubt, grief, guilt, joy and judgement, interlaced with sociological theory, shine a light on the individuals who parent and, in turn, humanise parenting. Taken together, the telling, sharing and publishing of these stories makes a statement, a manifesto perhaps, that our worlds as parents are not to be compartmentalised into boxes: a parenting box, the worker box, the homemaker box, the consumer box. For, if nothing else, this issue reveals that parenting is leaky and sticky, harbouring a vital force of its own. Any attempt to contain it, to tame it, to make it more palatable and more polished – that is, any attempt to put order in this habitat of mess – is nothing but the cunning strategies of capitalism and what Yvonne Su calls “benevolent sexism” at work.

The raw emotions of­ doubt, grief, guilt, joy, interlaced with sociological theory, shine a light on the individuals who parent and, in turn, humanise parenting.

In this issue, we aim to anchor this thing we call parenting to bring it back to the human level with a focus on people and their experiences. We ask: what does it feel like to parent, understood as a verb? How do we parent in the everyday realities we inhabit? What guides us and where do we find inspiration as we grow and learn together with our children and each other? The answers contained in the articles are sometimes surprising, always moving and often funny. There is something gentle about using a joke when trying not to declare your real emotions, says Jenny Lee. Her Parents’ Dictionary defines the unsayable, one letter at time.

Individual voices and choices

We asked our authors to bring themselves and the parents from their research into their writing, to foreground their stories and voices. By courageously offering up their personal parenting accounts, they help us see how parenting plays out in all its different realms: the physical, the relational, the demographic, the societal, the institutional, the political and the geopolitical. We witness how becoming a parent can be a hope fulfilled as well as dashed. It is not always a choice, or perhaps the timing of it is not, and as Lisa Ballesteros poignantly notes, we don’t always get to choose the co-parent, which might end up being the state itself.

For women, the choice to become a parent can become more complex with age, societal judgement whispering its verdict on the “right reproductive age”. Tracy Jenson explores the concepts of having a “last chance baby” and being of “advanced maternal age” in a parenting landscape that still prizes and privileges youth, health and “natural” fertility. She reflects on how her sociological imagination enabled her to reframe the negative messaging about being an older mother. Carrying another baby is a gamble, but Jenson has wisdom on her side in her parenting journey.

Parents (mostly mothers in this issue) experience the daily challenge of being judged “good” or “bad” against societal standards. Francielli Dalpra discusses the self-surveillance born of the societal pressures placed on mothers within her research. This was a reality she later experienced firsthand after having her first child.

Mothers are criticised, sometimes passively so, when they diverge from heteronormative and patriarchal expectations of what a parent should be. In this context, we have at our fingertips an array of books, manuals and guidance on how to parent.

Charlie Rumsby, one of the issue’s two guest editors, recalls:

“When I was at home in the first three or four months after my daughter was born, I often held my baby in one hand and Gina Ford’s The Contented Little Baby Book in the other. Ford was my instructor, providing a timetable and template for retaining the structure and independence I was after as a mother. I did not shout about reading and relying on it, though, as I soon learned in mother and baby circles that she was “extreme” and “not to be trusted”. Many mothers (in person and online) expressed disapproval; they would not dare let their child “cry it out”. Yet here I was, following this childless parenting guru.”

Technology: friend and foe

Melissa Nolas, one of the issue’s two guest editors, says:

“When I gave birth to my son, I could not have been more clueless. In those early days, only my smartphone and social theory saved me from completely unravelling. My phone kept me connected – to friends, to work, to entertainment, to music, to books. I breastfed, browsed and listened to the world from my sofa, making plans to pound London’s pavements in the company of baby-filled strollers, other mums, my sister and my friends: a less than graceful dance, especially with a heavy pram we euphemistically referred to as a tank. The “ergonomics of motherhood”, as Clare Qualmann’s piece beautifully illustrates, drawing on Lisa Barraitser’s Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption, are anything but graceful. With my outer world nourishment mediated through my phone, it was social theory that gave courage to my inner world. As it happens, it was also Barraitser’s book, and the social and philosophical theories it draws on, that was my doula, normalising ambiguity for me and reminding me to stay open to the surprises and unknowns of parenting.”

Technology is not always cast as a friend in parental narratives. Companies market technologies of intimate surveillance and, more recently, AI-based technologies are promoted as the must-have solutions for parenting. However, as Giovanna Mascheroni and Andra Siibak observe, they can create further challenges, causing bewilderment to parents and children alike and sometimes creating tensions within families. As with manuals, these technologies present a prescriptive, business-oriented ideal of a good parent to which many fail to conform.

At the same time, and viewed otherwise, technology makes diasporic parenting possible. Approaches to family and parenting are simultaneously embedded in everyday spaces and practices, as well as in ancestral homelands and traditions. Cultural heritage within families is shared through stories and lived memory. Technology can act as a conduit between activities at home here and at home over there – wherever “over there” might be. Mobile phones, VOIPs and social media are the everyday platforms of transnational family life. They are a means of connection, a way to share the joys and sorrows of family goings-on, offering a way to keep ancestral cultures alive and interesting to children. But what happens when those cultures and identities come under attack? How do we explain to a child who is just discovering their heritage that here they are safe, even if the children over there are not? That the shelling over there cannot reach them here even if the fear and uncertainty might? This point is poignantly explored by Ala Sirriyeh, as she reflects on passing on her Palestinian heritage at a time of crisis.  

Sociology: a surprising doula 

Sociological theory – in various guises – was the surprising doula in several pieces in this issue. While not your typical parents’ little helper, sociological thought and related disciplines enabled many of our authors to process, analyse and make sense of life with infants and children. Being a parent and being parented are examined in this issue through the sociological gaze and the sociological imagination: a voice that speaks to us, explains things, supports, activates and births new understandings. To speak, then, is to open the windows of our unshared realities. As we look through those windows, we can make sense of what we see and reimagine the world around us. We can validate our feelings, invite solidarity and say no to the structural violence and the superfluous and often unrealistic standards of parenting perfection.

Sociological thought and related disciplines enabled many of our authors to process, analyse and make sense of life with infants and children.

Our sociological imagination also acknowledges the existence of ambivalence in our lives. Cecilia Serrano offers us wisdom – to not do away with ambivalence. When wisdom speaks, it often does so in a whisper. Our learning does not always make sense in the moment, but at another time it may provide the alchemical antidote to our worries and stresses. It offers us a platform from which to speak to ourselves, to our children and, for those of us who teach, to our students.

This issue’s illustration is by Netherlands-based artist Marika Marini. Offering a creative take on family “fridge drawings”, Marini depicts the “many bodies” feeling that comes with providing care while balancing countless tasks as a parent. She reminds us that learning how to practise parenthood is a constant process. As we acknowledge the wisdom offered by the sociological imagination, and its role as a doula to parents, we must give pause to wonder how that wisdom will be passed down to future generations, especially given the defunding of the arts, humanities and social sciences in the Anglo-American academy. 

Cite this work

Rumsby, C. & Nolas, S.-M. (2024, June 11). Introduction to June’s theme: Parenting [Online]. The Sociological Review Magazine.


© 2024 Charlie Rumsby and Sevasti-Melissa Nolas. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please consult the Creative Commons guidelines for information on how you may reproduce and re-use the content of this article.

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