Thursday, March 30, 2006

When "New Dads" Are Thwarted by "Gatekeeper Moms"

From Po:

A few weeks back, when I was writing on Myths of the New Fatherhood, I got some letters. I could have written about this at that time, but I wanted to do some research to support the anecdotes.

One letter was from a New Dad. Married with two boys, one 3 years old, the other 7 months. His wife was absolutely a believer in the idea of sharing the childraising. On principle, she insisted her husband carry his weight. But he felt like she frequently wouldn't let him fulfill that expectation. She often criticized his parenting - you're not carrying the baby right, for instance, or with the older boy, you're not helping him into his clothes correctly. This New Dad wanted their infant to go through sleep-training - moving the baby out of their bed, and training him to sleep through the night. His wife wanted this, too - but at a different pace. And she seemed to hate that her husband had his own opinion.

Another letter was from another New Dad, living in Southern California. He and his wife shared the childraising duties of their two young girls, and he felt fully supported by his wife. Their close friends and extended family saw him as a fully-capable parent. He had spent a few months as a stay-at-home Dad. In his case, the judgment he received wasn't at home. It was at their preschool, and at the playground and birthday parties that he took his girls to. At the preschool he felt shut out. The staff would not interact with him as much as they would with his wife or the other moms. At the playgrounds and parties, he feels he is being watched, judgmentally, to see whether he can handle tantrums or blown diapers. Women are too quick to step in and offer help, skeptical that a Dad can handle his girls all by himself.

I have heard this kind of story often enough that it needs to be addressed. In doing so, please don't accuse me of ignoring the larger story, which we wrote about in earlier posts (Instant summary: men need to do more!). I recognize that this phenomenon - of men being blocked in their best efforts by wives and other women - is a dynamic that affects only the small percentage of men that are New Dads. But among the New Dads, it's a very common experience.

If you're a New Dad out there, and you're nodding your head while reading this, please tell me about your experience.

Sociologists have a name for this, and they've been studying it. Their name for it is "Maternal Gatekeeping." They've attempted the difficult task of gathering data, but none of their data jumps out at me as being particularly decisive or informative. We don't know how many men experience it, and we can't distinguish whether men deserve the criticism (i.e., they're really holding the baby wrong).

However, the sociologists' theoretical frameworks - which have evolved out of their interviews and polling - are worth sharing.

We do know this though:

1. How much time a man spends on housework and parenting has no correlation with how much money their wife earns. In other words, it's not like women with higher paying jobs - usually more educated - have husbands who necessarily carry their half around the house. You might think educated men = more enlightened men, but that correlation isn't there.

2. When it comes to how housework and parenting chores are divided, which is more influential: the husband's beliefs and expectations, or the wife's beliefs and expectations?

Answer: the wife's beliefs and expectations. In other words, she's more likely to get what she wants than he will get what he wants. This is true whether "what she wants" is a traditional division of labor or an egalitarian division of responsibilities.

I'll restate that one more time, to make sure it sinks in. His background and views are not as important as hers. So if he had caretaking male role models, that's great. But it's more important whether his wife pushes him to be a New Dad, and whether she is really ready to share the reigns. That's per the sociologists who study the correlations.

Often, the general public perception that men can't nurture the kids or clean the house as well as women becomes self-fulfilling. Primed to a point of suspicion, wives become watchful and critical, quick to take the baby or the mop and "do it myself." Many mothers feel like they can't completely take their eye off the situation.

Here's some of the reasons Gatekeeper Moms inhibit their husbands from being a New Dad:
  • If push comes to shove, the mom is usually the one who is ultimately responsible for these kids and the home. It's not an elective for women, as it is for men. And since they consider themselves ultimately responsible, they are going to make the decisions.

  • Mothers hesitate to share family work because they enjoy the authority, privilege, and status their position gives them in the family.

  • Childraising is so stressful already that it's easier and faster if one person be the decision-maker. A woman wants her husband to help - but not to question her.

  • A man might need a learning curve to master the art of being a New Dad - but a mother can't sit by and just let her husband make mistakes with something as precious as a child.
What results, in these marriages, is a kind of Boss-Employee arrangement. The wife does half the work, but all of the scheduling and planning and oversight. She's the Boss. She delegates half the work to her husband, but with the expectation that he follow her lead and do it her way (and only her way). To their friends, they might look like a modern couple, co-parenting and sharing responsibility equally. Until you catch them upstairs at the dinner party, hissing at each other over whether the baby is ready to go down for the night. He is unhappy doing his part unless he can also be an equal partner in decisions, while she gets over-the-top frustrated by his occasional failures, such as forgetting the diaper backpack on the kitchen counter at home.

How do you fix it? I wouldn't pretend there's an easy answer out of this box. But in couples where there is true collaboration, the factor most cited for making it work is "appreciation." Perhaps, if a husband gave his wife more strokes of appreciation for what she's doing, and she gave more positive encouragement ... the era of the Gatekeeper Mom will no longer be necessary.

If you're a geek interested in more detail, check out the article on "Maternal Gatekeeping" by Sarah Allen and Alan Hawkins at Brigham Young University from the Journal of Marriage and the Family.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! It really illustrates what people do when their societal position feels threatened. Moms are reacting to dads wanting to provide childcare the same way that guys in the military sometimes react to girls who want to drive ships and fly planes next to them; you become hypercritical of the "new" people because in your heart you're afraid that 1.) they can't do it and will fail you in your moment of need and 2.) they'll supplant your role and you'll have nothing. You'll be a double failure because some upstart who didn't know your job and wasn't trained for it from the cradle still managed to do it better than you.

I think the point about the mom being the one held up to criticism if the kid isn't held right, kept clean enough, if the house isn't clean enough makes her reluctant to delegate these tasks to the dad is valid; if you're going to come under fire for a failure, you want to make sure YOU and not someone who is trying but may not have all the training and experience in the task is completing said task.

I guess the message is extend trust and provide training to those willing to learn --also as always: forgive honest mistakes and be kind.

4:40 PM  
Blogger dadinprogress said...

This is really interesting, thanks for writing it. I think a lot of larger society circles have this same attitude toward men. Marketers always focus on mom as the decision maker, mom as the core consumer, mom as the "gatekeeper" to the household. What does that make dad? The paycheck? If moms wants dads to be more involved, they should be willing to let them learn how to do things the same way they did -- by making it up as they go along and by trial and error. The best parents are the ones who support one another -- mistakes and all.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reaction happened to me when our first child arrived. I had to convince my wife that, in spite of what she might think, we (Dads) get it done. It might not be as neat, or quite the "right" way, but when applying the "Will this matter in one years time" test, the answer is usually no.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Don David said...

As that new breed of dad, I wanted to involved in all aspects of my chldrens' live: the feedings, diaper changes, etc. And while my wife has been very good at involving me in many of these tasks, the one she hasn't been so open to is dressing and grooming the kids (activities my wife has expressed needing help with). When I've done these in the past, she has been critical, wondering why i didn't put on the "right" outfit or come their hair just so. The net effect: I eschew these activities now for fear of being criticized. My wife complains she needs help with these things, but it falls on deaf ears. So, I guess both of us are caught between a rock and a hard place.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree to most of that, and I can see some of that with my husband and myself. I want to point out one thing though...Moms don't necessarily have any more experience than dads, and they are expected to be the perfect mom. But when dads make mistakes it's ok...that so sucks!

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guys, tell your wife/mom of your baby very kindly and specifically, "Honey, I love our baby and I will always do my very best to take care of and protect him/her. Now shoo!" Or something similar. And follow through. Also, try telling her to take an hour/couple hours/day off and let you take care of the little one, then surprise the pants off of her and prove to her that you are capable of taking care of the baby! You will need to give her time to adjust to this too. I do, however completely agree with the "gate-keeper mom" thing, I am one. I would just about die of shock if my husband did the things I mentioned above. Stand up for yourselves and take some responsibility for allowing the mom to be the gate-keeper. Keep trying, don't give up! For me, I feel like I need to be a gate-keeper because my husband doesn't take any initiative to take care of our kids and hasn't from day 1, although he's great with other people's kids...oh, and good luck!

9:45 AM  
Anonymous LHessel said...

I absolutely agree that this is a real phenomenon, but the analysis seems simplistic to me. It seems to me that we need to differentiate between a personality flaw -- that of being an unreasonable control freak, as can be seen in the case of the parent who criticizes the other parent's selection of clothing -- and that of a biological mandate that manifests in a skilled advantage. As the person who hormonally is most in tune with the baby and primal mothering instinct, my sense as to what is appropriate trumps my husband's ideas that are arrived at outside of the context of biology and the mother-baby dyad. If my husband says, "you need to let the baby cry," there's a reason that I reject that on a visceral level -- as a mother whose bonding process was not disturbed, I'm wired to feel that way. My husband may decide that he agrees with me on an intellectual level, but he does not have as strong an instinctive response for nuture. That doesn't mean that he shouldn't be involved in the care -- he should, from the very beginning, because an intuitive sense of right care can develop from that. My point is only that the mother does initially have a far better sense of what's needed, and that it's not helpful to pretend that it's not a factor that should be recognized and worked with in a respectful way.

Regarding the preschool example, I have another perspective as a mother who has witnessed similar situations in which the dad is the social minority. I offer that the New Dad in the example (understandably) misinterpreted the situation because of his own insecurity. I personally have never seen the ostracism be related to judgment of the father as less capable; rather there is a subtle social taboo, after one has children and in the presence of one's children, against interacting with a man on the same level as a woman. Also, as for those women who are too quick to step in and offer help, they are a *type* which is quick to do the same to other mothers as well. This is known as "co-parenting" and it's what happens when busybody control freaks get around other people's children. I'd guess it's only the New Dad's perception that he's being singled out as inept, because he is outside of what he thinks is a single-minded group. In reality, the social dynamics within a group of mothers is complex and not at all homogeneous, as much as it may appear to be from the outside.

10:40 AM  

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