December 8, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This follows up on yesterday’s piece in CNN on maternal gatekeeping by Elissa Strauss (CNN, 12/6/17).
As I said yesterday, Strauss seems to be blind to much of the science on parenting and the statistics on what men and women prefer to do with their time, given the chance. But about maternal gatekeeping, she’s pretty well-informed and accurate.
Of course she blames gatekeeping more on societal pressures to be a good mother than on biology or any power dynamic that might be affecting the relationship between the parents. That a mother might want to push her partner aside in the nursery for selfish reasons doesn’t intrude onto the Strauss narrative.
Research from the past 20 years has documented a connection between how controlling a mom is of her partner's parenting and how much parenting he does. The more gatekeeping from mom, the less parental involvement from dad.
That’s nothing but the obvious. Mothers tend to control fathers’ relationships with their kids. They do that largely because they’re biochemically inclined to be the primary parent. Yes, societal factors play a role, but Strauss is wrong to ignore the biology of the matter. Still, gatekeeping by Mom means more work for her at home and probably less at the office. A gatekeeping mother is one who’s less likely to pay her share of the family’s bills.
[A 1999 study] found that women in dual-earner couples who were gatekeepers did "five more hours of family work per week and had less equal divisions of labor than women classified as collaborators."
One valuable insight Strauss provides is that gatekeeping is really a function of women. That is, in the mother-father relationship, it’s the mother’s behavior, traits, tendencies, etc., that determine if she’s going to marginalize Dad.
One study, led by Schoppe-Sullivan, found that women are more likely to "gatekeep" -- or, specifically, "gate-close" -- when they perceive their relationship as less stable, when they are anxious or depressed, when fathers lack confidence or when mothers hold excessively high standards for parenting.
Overall, "fathers' characteristics are less predictive of maternal gatekeeping than mothers' characteristics."
Yes, Dad may “lack confidence,” but often that’s just a function of a partner who’s a gatekeeper. After all, one of the tried and true methods of keeping him out of the nursery is criticism of his parenting. Often enough, that has little to do with anything other than his failure to do the job either like Mom would or like she prefers. Fathers often assume that mother knows best, and therefore measure their performance with little Andy or Jenny, not against the child’s needs and well-being, but against how Mom does the job.
On that note, it’s fascinating to notice that Strauss and one of her interviewees don’t hesitate to characterize paternal behavior as “wrong.” And by “wrong,” they mean that he did something his way and not hers. So for example, Strauss planned a birthday party and asked her husband to order the cake.
He ordered an organic double-decker sheet cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries, which he assumed would be a hit. But those of us well-versed in the politics of intensive parenting would have noticed a red flag: A double-decker cake, especially one loaded with whipped cream, is a hard cake to cut into small pieces. And today's parents, who tend to take a great interest in monitoring sugar consumption, like small pieces.
Strauss calls that a “wrong decision” by her husband, but was it? She tried to “smush” the pieces small enough to avoid censure by the other mothers, but failed. Several criticized her anyway. To that, her husband responded,
"Well, next time just let me cut it. I wouldn't have cared, and they probably wouldn't have said anything if a dad was cutting it anyway."
Just so, but to Strauss, what he did was wrong, not a different but legitimate way of providing cake, but wrong. It was wrong because she and the other mothers would have gotten a one-layer cake instead of a two. Needless to say, the issue wasn’t important enough for her to tell him her preference ahead of time, but only became important when he failed to intuit that preference. Does she even notice?
For that matter, it’s long been understood that fathers and mothers tend to parent differently and that both are important for a child’s best upbringing. Of course that doesn’t extend to the number of layers in a birthday cake, but one of the important issues about maternal gatekeeping is that it tends to obstruct that valuable synergy. If Dad learns that the only way to get time with his kid is to parent the way Mom does, that vital duality of parenting styles is lost. The child has two mommies.
Matt Stevenson, a postdoctoral research fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied dads and gatekeeping, pointed out that dads are still too frequently seen as clueless, and moms too frequently buy into it. This is despite a generational shift toward co-parenting and a growing body of research proving that dads are just as fit to parent as moms.
Indeed they are. It’s a concept that mothers need to not only grasp, but embrace. I’m not sure Strauss gets it fully, but, for all its faults, her article is a valuable brick in the slowly-rising wall of fathers’ rights and fathers’ value to children.
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