As many as a quarter of all new moms are actually blocking their husbands' attempts at involved fathering. These "Gatekeeper Moms" give mixed signals they beg their husbands to get the kid dressed, then are hypercritical over the choice of outfit he puts the baby in. They leave long lists of instructions whenever going out, as if Dad's a new babysitter. Or they demand their husbands tackle half the duties, yet they resent it when Dad asks to be an equal partner in critical decisions, such as determining when their baby should undergo sleep training rather than be fed during the night.
Couples who have had no trouble being equals before children came into their life now find themselves frequently at odds. They both want to be the No. 1 person in their kid's life.
"It's a turf war," in the words of Sarah M. Allen, a professor at Brigham Young University who has researched this family dynamic. It turns out that both men and women share some of the blame. According to Allen and her co-researcher, Alan J. Hawkins, moms turn into gatekeepers when they secretly hold a core belief that women are simply better nurturers. They agree with the principle that men should be equals at home, but they don't actually believe men can do it as well.
"That's what men said when women wanted to fly fighter jets," responded one new dad.
A pattern is established in childbirth and breastfeeding that can be hard to break, observes Greg Allen, author of the blog Daddytypes. The mother becomes the expert first, then cringes as she watches her husband awkwardly stumble through his learning curve. As she hears the cries of her fragile infant, she can't help but interrupt.
The result is often like a boss-employee relationship. Mom does at least half the grunt work, and she handles all of the scheduling and planning. She's the boss, and when she delegates to her employee she wants Dad to do it her way (and only her way). "I would love to share all those decisions," an admitted Gatekeeper Mom told us. "But when I'm overwhelmed with all that's to be done, it's just easier to go into autocratic mode rather than sit and discuss everything with my husband. There's simply no time for that."
As one father recently grumbled, "My wife treats me like an au pair she's always on the verge of firing."
The mothers usually claim it's the father's fault. When men walk into a room, the women say, they are not naturally observant of what needs to be done. Rather, they wait to be told. "Why do I always have to point it out to him?" complained one frustrated mom. "Sometimes it's just easier to do it myself."
So what's going on here? In any one couple, it's impossible to tell who's right. In general, men need to recognize that when a woman gives up control of caretaking duties, that threatens her identity as a mother more than it adds to his identity as a father. Researchers at the University of Illinois have studied how people see themselves as parents. Men revel in being fathers, and they will rate themselves as excellent dads regardless of how many diapers they change. Not so for women. The culture has told her she's not a real mother unless she's the one getting up in the middle of the night with the baby. So her identity is inextricably linked to her actions, to doing the endless chores of parenting. Men can take it or leave it. And they do.
Men are infamous among sociologists for cherry-picking the fun parts of parenting. Dad will leave work early to see a child's play, but he'd never consider leaving early just to get the laundry done. So every time Dad ignores the smell of a No. 2 diaper, he confirms his wife's fear that he's not reliable. Unwittingly, men are hinting to their spouses that she's ultimately responsible, while he's along for the ride. The social culture constantly reinforces this idea. When their daughter shows up at school with tangled hair, the other moms don't blame Dad, who failed to comb it out they blame Mom, for assigning a chore to Dad he couldn't handle.
Men need to recognize that their cherry-picking and piecemeal volunteering doesn't allow her to let her guard down. What's really at issue here is her lack of trust in his commitment.
BYU's Allen suggests that the key to unlocking gatekeeping may therefore be for a father to demonstrate his interest as a constant commitment. "He can't be a token Dad," she warns. Rather than offering to dress his daughter one morning, he should say, "I'll not only dress her today, I'll dress her every day." When he acknowledges how important this reliability is, he'll gain her trust.
Cold turkey also helps. Several moms learned to relax after they took a business trip and recognized that nothing went wrong in their absence. Other moms said that having a second child cured them of the luxury of being overly anxious. And the conflict softens as children learn to feed and dress themselves and sit on the toilet. The demands of parenting are no longer the specialty of Mom.
Couples today need to remember that no generation has done this before. We have few role models. "Every single day, they're defining what it is to be a mother and father," explains researcher Allen. "Each couple must negotiate what those words mean."