Who's guarding the gate?
Time for a re-brand...
In the majority of different-gender couples, Dad does less of the housework and childcare. But is it really his fault? According to the theory of “maternal gatekeeping,” Mom may share some of the responsibility.
Specific definitions of maternal gatekeeping vary from study to study, but the main idea is that some women behave in ways that limit their partner’s ability to share in childcare. Perhaps she criticizes the way he loads the dishwasher. Maybe she never lets him dress the toddler for family gatherings. Perhaps she unilaterally decides to sign the preschooler up for ballet. Through interactions like these, Mom confirms her position as the one in charge and subtly (or not-so-subtly) discourages Dad from even trying to help. If he’ll just be criticized, or if it’s clear his help isn’t wanted, why bother?
At this point, I imagine your hackles may be up. Isn’t this whole gatekeeping thing just a form of blaming the victim? How is it fair that women get stuck doing more of the housework AND held responsible for men’s lack of involvement?
It’s but a short hop from the image of a woman standing at the threshold, refusing the helping hand offered by a well-meaning man, to the old trope of the controlling wife who drives her henpecked husband crazy. Even men’s rights groups have latched onto the idea of maternal gatekeeping to bolster their arguments about fathers’ marginalization—never a good sign.
The most-cited academic paper on this topic is called “Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors that Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family Work.” If you read it closely, you’ll see that researchers Allen and Hawkins are making a far more nuanced argument than their headline might suggest. They are careful to note, for instance, that maternal gatekeeping is not the only reason women do the majority of housework and childcare. They remind us that we don’t know whether gatekeeping causes low father involvement or is a response to it. And they identify the source of maternal gatekeeping as a broader gender structure in which women are expected to manage domestic life and penalized for not doing so. But that nuance is easily lost to the splashier finding that men might help more, if only women would let them.
In short, the maternal gatekeeping concept could use a rebrand. I’m no marketer, but here’s the brief I’d pass on to the ad agency:
1) It’s got to be gender-neutral, rather than pitting mothers against fathers. After all, men are capable of gatekeeping, too. (Just ask the man who won’t let his wife touch the lawnmower, or the guy who insists on managing the retirement accounts himself.) I’ve seen some use of the term “parental gatekeeping,” but I’m not sure it’s fully caught on.
2) It has to take motivations into account. In my own research, I’ve talked to plenty of women who would likely qualify as gatekeepers under Allen and Hawkins’ rubric. But most of these women are clear that their goal is not to prevent their partner from helping. Amanda put it this way: “Would I have loved if [my husband] found five summer camps that were amazing that I didn’t have to think about? Yeah!” But, based on years of experience, Amanda doubted he would put in the legwork necessary to come up with plausible options and get the paperwork in on time. Like many women, Amanda’s aim was to avoid a suboptimal outcome rather than to maintain control for control’s sake. She was willing to tolerate her husband’s different way of doing laundry, say, but with the kids’ happiness at stake she didn’t want to take any risks.
3) It has to emphasize the flaws in the system rather than women’s attempts to navigate within it. One measure of maternal gatekeeping is how much a woman sees the state of her home/family as a reflection on her personally. Does she think a visitor would judge her for a messy house? Does she worry about what her family and friends think of her parenting choices? Here’s the rub, though: women’s beliefs that they will be judged for how their children look in public or how cluttered their house is are not just idle fears. Women are held accountable for many domestic outcomes. And thus the stakes of not keeping a close eye on everything are high. “Gatekeeping” is in some ways an adaptive response to an unfortunate reality. The problem is not that gatekeeping isn’t real, but rather that its current framing makes it about individual women’s actions rather than the broader system that constrains those actions.
Okay, but what if you struggle with the “gatekeeping trap” in your own relationship and would like to reallocate labor to your partner? My advice is to plan for a rocky transition period and be ready to wait it out. If Sally has been managing the food domain for years, she has had years to master the intricacies of provisioning. If she invests in teaching Steve how to do it, he may not be quite as good at first. It may even be tempting for Sally to give up on the whole experiment and go back to doing it herself. If he’s acting in good faith, though, Steve will eventually figure out his own systems, learning by trial and error. Sally’s upfront cost (i.e., teaching Steve how to do what she’s been doing) will hopefully pay dividends over the long run, so long as both partners are patient enough to push through the initial hiccups. (It helps, too, to start the transition with lower-stakes issues: e.g., dinner this week, rather than the daycare you’ll go to for the next three years…)
I’d love to hear your ideas about what we could call the concept formerly known as maternal gatekeeping. Do you see a way to acknowledge the reality that women are often seen as/see themselves as the lead parent, without placing the Dad’s lack of involvement on their shoulders, too?
For your consideration: NYT is starting a cottage industry of stories about young people’s struggles over our pandemic year, and I am here for them. Both Susan Dominus’ piece for NYT Magazine and The Daily’s 4-part series on Odessa High were heartbreaking, awe-inspiring pieces of journalism.
Programming note: I’m taking next week off for Memorial Day but will be back in your inbox in June!