For years, I complained to my husband Tom that I wanted him to be more involved in our daughter’s life. He would retort that I jumped in and micromanage when he did. When Sylvie was a baby, I would hover over him if he tried to bathe her, afraid she would slip out of his hands. If he changed a loaded diaper, I’d hurriedly check afterwards for what is known in my circle of moms as “butt rust.” When it came to kid-related tasks, I felt I did a more conscientious job.
Psychologists have a name for this widespread behavior — maternal gatekeeping — in which mothers can swing open the gate to encourage fatherly participation, or bang it shut by controlling or limiting Dad’s interactions with the kids. The latter behavior can range from making all decisions about school without consulting the father, to criticizing what he serves for lunch (“Hello, where are the vegetables?”), to protesting when he’s roughhousing with the kids (“Easy, let’s not send them to the emergency room!”).
In some cases, mothers are not even consciously aware that they are doing this—but even nonverbal cues of disapproval such as eye-rolling or heavy sighing can put off a hesitant father. The result is a self-reinforcing loop: as she criticizes or takes over, he grows more and more uncertain of his abilities. (And who isn’t uncertain, especially at first?)
Maternal gatekeeping, in fact, can start as soon as pregnancy, says Ohio State’s Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan. She found in her research that by the third trimester, some mothers had already made a decision to keep the gate firmly closed if the fathers-to-be reported that they didn’t feel confident about their parenting skills. In another exercise, she had new parents change a baby’s clothes; one mother showed the father exactly what to do, down to pointing out the positions of the snaps on the infant’s outfit — and visibly grimaced when the father tried to play with the baby.
Chris Routly, blogger and president of the National At-Home Dad Network, is one of the estimated 1.4 million stay-at-home fathers in the United States. He has seen firsthand how men can be crowded out of the equation before the baby is even born. “Women have baby showers thrown for them, they join classes, they have multiple doctors, they get advice from friends and family,” he says. “So by the time that baby is born, she has been prepared as much as she can be.” But as there is very little preparation for fathers, he says. “They start out on a very unequal footing.”
Experts say fathers should be encouraged to spend time alone with their infants without maternal meddling— and mothers such as myself should become more conscious of their reactions to fathers’ parenting.
Now I’m mindful of all the ways I’m shutting my husband out or making him feel incompetent. Maternal gatekeeping comes in many sneaky forms. When I was texting with a group of moms recently about an incident at school, Tom asked me what was going on. “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,” I said, and then stopped myself: why was I excluding him, when he loved all the school gossip? For that matter, why wasn’t I cc-ing him on all kid-related matters, such as play dates and school trips?
I now make a concerted effort to stop this automatic, offhand dismissal, especially after my daughter, not yet the recipient of a birds-and-bees talk, made this observation: “You and I are related because you grew me in your stomach. But Daddy’s just some guy that lives with us.”
Lately, when I am engaged in a kid-related activity, I have noticed that I often reflexively leave out the men, assuming they will be bored. One day, Tom and I took my parents to lunch at their favorite Chinese place in New Jersey. En route, Sylvie, my mother, and I were playing a word game we devised in which you name a brand — say, Legos — and the next person must name a brand starting with the final letter of that word —say, Superga. It’s an excellent game for young kids in particular: toddlers who can’t name a single country can unsettlingly rattle off a hundred brand names.
Then I noticed something: when Sylvie got stuck on a brand beginning with the letter M, I saw my father mouthing “Michelin tires.” When my mother was stumped by a T, Tom quietly uttered “Thermos.” They wanted to play!
Now I actively try to include men in the kid stuff.
Excerpted from How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn.