The ever-excellent Jennifer Harman co-wrote this piece with Nebraska family lawyer Nancy Shannon (Lincoln Journal Star, 6/7/19). It’s an excellent article about maternal gatekeeping and recent responses to it by Nebraska’s courts.
Maternal gatekeeping is a common occurrence in one form or another. Much of it consists of barely noticeable but still effective behaviors that serve to block Dad’s everyday access to his child. “That’s not the way to diaper the baby, John; here, let me do it,” illustrates the phenomenon. Many mothers report having to check their instincts to avoid coming between the child and its father. Failure to do that can, over time, sideline fathers in the lives of their children.
But Shannon and Harman are concerned with more serious forms of gatekeeping. They cite a 2016 report by the Administration for Children and Families.
According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes. Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child or berating the father.”Now, let’s be clear. The report cited in no way claimed that half of mothers engage in gatekeeping behavior. Half of mothers in the study were reported by fathers to have done so. And those fathers were part of certain Responsible Fatherhood programs that were studied by the ACF. That means the population studied bore no relationship to the population generally. The men there were far more likely to be poor, black or of Hispanic origin and poorly educated than men in the U.S. generally. Shannon and Harmon should have mentioned the fact. Here’s my piece from 2016 about that report.
Motives for gatekeeping vary. Sometimes, it’s used to control the other parent. Other times, it’s used for financial gain. According to the Federal report, “mothers would sometimes restrict access when a father failed to provide ‘extras’ over and above the required child support.”Those are some of the motives, but we shouldn’t confuse motives with causes. Maternal gatekeeping is caused by the biologically based ancient role of women as the primary caregivers to children. Interfere with that role and you come between not only a mother and her child, but between her and the role she’s played in human (and pre-human) societies from far, far back into pre-history. Few cast aside a role so deeply ingrained.
Plus, since the biology of the paternal role urges him to be the secondary parent (see, the work of Ruth Feldman at Bar Elan University), it’s easy to see how (a) mothers tend to assert themselves as the primary parent and (b) fathers tend to acquiesce in their doing so.
For a good while now, particularly affluent Western societies have said that we want to abandon gender-based roles. We’ve shouted that to the heavens for decades now, but when it comes to actually doing so, we tend hesitate. However many women have embraced paid work outside the home and however many men have embraced the paternal role, the fact remains that men still tend strongly to be the chief earners and women the chief caregivers to children. And, when asked about their preferences, working women tend to say they’d prefer to work less than they do and men to say they want to work more. Getting people to ignore their age-old roles isn’t an easy task.
I’ll have more to say on this next time.