By Dawn Van Osdell
Research recently published in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice shows that new moms assess their partner’s suitability to parent before their child is even born, primarily basing their determination on the state of their relationship and their confidence in their partner’s parenting ability. The assessment can determine how much they will enable—or conversely, inhibit—the way their partner cares for their child. It’s called maternal gatekeeping. “Closing the gate” limits a father’s involvement by placing obstacles—deliberate or not—in his way, such as criticizing his parenting, redoing tasks he’s just completed, taking over parental decision-making, and limiting his interactions with their child. No one benefits.
“We wanted to find out the characteristics of mothers and their families that may make some mothers more or less likely to act as gatekeepers,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University. “If we want to increase fathers’ involvement in child-rearing, we need to know what may be limiting their participation.”
The study, which used data from the New Parents Project, a long-term study that investigates how dual-earner couples adjust to becoming parents, showed that mothers most likely to close the gate on their partner’s fathering were those who reported a troubled relationship with their partner during their third trimester of pregnancy (when they were first assessed for the study) and those whose partners reported during the third trimester that they didn’t feel confident about their parenting skills, “such as the ability to do things like soothe a crying baby.” Mothers who considered themselves perfectionists, those who were particularly confident about their childcare skills during pregnancy, and those who were more anxious or depressed were also more likely to limit fathers’ childcare involvement.
“There’s this societal belief that new mothers have a natural instinct to be a parent, even though they don’t have any more experience than new fathers,” Schoppe-Sullivan said. “So mothers who are particularly confident are in the position of being seen as the expert parent, while fathers are left to be the apprentice.”
Regardless of how you assessed your partner during pregnancy or beyond, you can help your partner become a more hands-on father by committing to gate-opening behaviors: Ask his opinion on parenting issues, arrange activities for him to do with the child, and, researchers say, simply have more realistic expectations.
“There are a lot of things in parenting that don’t have to be done in one particular way,” says Schoppe-Sullivan. “Moms should give dads the latitude to make their own choices.”
So when your partner brings your tot to visit you at work—and she’s dressed in a miss-matched outfit that’s part tutu and part outgrown PJs—smile and congratulate him on a job well done.
Photos via UrbanSitter