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August 31, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

There’s a new study about maternal gatekeeping that adds to our knowledge of the practice. Here’s an article about the study (Yahoo, 8/7/15) and here’s the abstract of the study itself (T and F online, 7/31/15).

The news media and the commentariat routinely criticize fathers for not playing a larger role in parenting. They’re usually willing to assume that dads’ distance from their children can be chalked up to the usual deficiencies identified with men. It long ago became part of the mainstream narrative about men that they loath and fear fatherhood, will do just about anything to avoid parental responsibility and anyway make bad parents.

Those assumptions, all inaccurate, drive much public policy, like child support enforcement. But they also explain comments by countless public figures, not excepting President Obama, to the effect that the problem with fatherlessness is the delinquency of fathers. Handily, that allows those public figures to pose as acknowledging a major social ill, while doing nothing that could conceivably cure it. Put simply, as long as we remain in thrall to those false notions of fathers, we have no chance to improve our dangerously dysfunctional family situation.

So it’s good to see a study that illuminates real problems about why fathers often are less involved with their children than we’d like. Maternal gatekeeping is one of the many things that drive a wedge between fathers and their children. So the new study is welcome.

Ohio State University researcher Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan surveyed over 180 couples both before the birth of their first child and afterward. She found that mothers’ attitudes about a range of things largely determined whether they would move to exclude their partners from childcare or not. From the abstract of the study:

Objective. The goal of this study was to identify determinants of maternal gatekeeping at the transition to parenthood. Design. Participants included 182 different-gender dual-earner couples. During pregnancy, expectant parents completed questionnaires regarding their psychological functioning, attitudes, and expectations, and at 3 months postpartum questionnaires regarding maternal gatekeeping behavior and gate-closing attitudes.

It’s cause for hope that Schoppe-Sullivan found that mothers who exclude fathers from child care tend to do so less because of traditional ideas about the primacy of motherhood and more due to personal expectations and poor psychological functioning.

It’s best when both parents play an active role in raising their child, but too often, fathers aren’t as involved in parenting. Schoppe-Sullivan and her research team wanted to find out what makes a mother open the gate or shuts it, thereby shutting out her partner.

Her team studied 182 dual-earner couples expecting their first child, most of them married but all in long-term, live-in relationships. During the third trimester, they questioned the moms- and dads-to-be about their attitudes and expectations about parenthood. Then, three months after the baby arrived, they asked the parents about the mom’s gatekeeping behavior.

Turns out that the moms closed the gate when they had perfectionistic expectations of their partner’s parenting, poorer psychological functioning (for example, a diagnosis of anxiety or depression), or the mother viewed her relationship with her partner as unstable, reports the study.

Confidence levels played a role in maternal gatekeeping as well. Moms who were super confident about their parenting ability were more likely to push dads away — as were moms whose partners were not so confident about their fathering skills.

The researchers were surprised to find that women who were religious tended to open the gate to the new dads — perhaps because their beliefs made them more family oriented, theorizes Schoppe-Sullivan.

It’s important to notice that both parents play a role in maternal gatekeeping. Yes, it’s mothers who decide whether to allow the father in or out. And yes that demonstrates the power they wield in the parental dyad when it comes to childcare. But a hesitant or uncertain father can unwittingly call forth gatekeeping behavior from his partner. She may see that he’s not sure of his abilities and step in, to his relief.

But what’s most important is for parents to understand that children need both of them and will bond with both, given half a chance. That means that mothers need to dial back their tendency to shut out their partner. Perfectionism isn’t required and doesn’t help. No parent is perfect and every parent learns as he/she goes. So mothers need to check themselves and allow their partners to do the best they can, secure in the knowledge that his parenting isn’t the same as hers, but it’s just as good and just and needed.

And fathers need to assert themselves. They need to demand the time to learn and grow into the role. If that means standing up to a gatekeeper, so be it.

And of course mothers can keep in mind that, the more childcare Dad does, the freer she is. That means her ability to advance in her career is greater as is her self-sufficiency. But most importantly, their child needs exactly the type of active involvement by both parents that maternal gatekeeping limits or even prohibits.

Many young couples say that they want to be equal partners when it comes to raising their child, so it’s important to be aware of when you might be closing the gate, for example, criticizing a dad when he does something concerning the baby you don’t approve of,” she suggests.

“Having an involved dad is really important not just for the baby but for a new mom as well, to help her balance work and family,” she says. With this in mind, consider dialing back any perfectionist expectations that compel you to see your partner as a less-than-ideal dad and encourage an unconfident father to spend more time with the baby, so he beefs up his dad self-esteem.

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maternal gatekeeping, shared parenting

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