Parental and Other Caretaker Roles

Caretaking and custodial roles in Iatmul culture are envisioned as forms of mothering. Mothers are associated with food, feeding, cooking, warmth, house-cleaning, flower gardens, dishwashing, laundering, and the like. Mothers breast-feed infants, soothe tears, teach toddlers to walk, bathe children, cleanse their urine and feces, and carry them throughout the village. When men assume these roles (e.g., the socializing mother's brother), they also act maternally. Motherhood is clearly idealized. Yet mothers and not fathers are primarily responsible for punishment, which can be brusque and rough.

In ideology, the father-son relationship is tense and oedipal. Thus it differs dramatically from the mother-child bond. Sons are said to replace their father in the political-jural order of society. Moreover, sons inherit from fathers a large domestic houseā€”a house that was not only built at considerable expense and labor by the father, but which also symbolizes a mother. Often, sons physically displace their father from his house-mother, consigning him to live out his days in a small shack. Why, then, do fathers build houses only to cede them to their sons? Because fathers fear ridicule, especially from their daughters-in-law.

Men and fathers, far more than women and mothers, tend to shoo children from their activities, especially at the cult house. They encourage children to return to their mothers. I myself was once chastised by a father to "Go walk with your mother! You don't walk with your father!"

Mothers abide by less numerous and restrictive avoidance taboos than fathers in regard to children. Mothers dominate early childhood in terms of education, physical proximity, care, time, supervision, and affection. Fathers have little normative role in formal child-raising other than bestowing magic and totemic names onto sons, arranging (and funding) children's marriages, and ensuring that sons are initiated or otherwise integrated into the male cult. The father is not a primary male socializer. This role belongs to the mother's brother, as a "male mother," and other men from the father's age grade.

Iatmul describe fathers as distant, tense, and unloving. But fathers can be, and often are, quite tender and nurturing. For both mothers and fathers, then, the ideology of parenting often clashes with actuality (see also Bateson, 1936/1958, p. 76; Mead, 1949, p. 114).

Iatmul children and adults highly value individual autonomy and initiative. Children may view daily school attendance as an unjust constraint. If Iatmul parents want their children to attend school regularly, which mainly occurs in urban settings, they may experience shifts in normative parenting. A father may become more active in the everyday affairs of his children. But since childcare is a female role, it is the mother who must discipline the children and restrain their autonomy. Thus she, not the father, clashes in a negative way with Iatmul norms for the parent-child relationship (Stanek & Weiss, 1998, pp. 322-323).

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