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