I’ve been thinking about the topic of gatekeeping parent-child relationships and how it feels like a loving thing to do but actually creates a cascade of problems that last for decades, so I thought I’d break down how it happens and what the stakes are and how to stop.
Warning: This whole post is going to be really heteronormative, assuming that we’re talking about a male-female partnership. That’s because this most often happens in male-female relationships precisely because of our cultural dynamics. So single parents and parents in same-sex partnerships, you can go get a glass of water for this one if you want, but if you read through it might help you understand your friends and how culture can screw things up for people.
Gatekeeping, as I’m using it today, is when the mother protects the father and the child from each other. The mother takes on the Parent-in-Charge role and the father and child only interact in ways approved by and dictated by the mother.
This happens all the time, and it happens because women think that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re the baby’s mother, and often we’re the one feeding the baby. The father has to go back to work right away, so we’re the ones spending the most time with the baby. So we develop our systems and our coping techniques, and then in our minds (and in the fathers’ minds) we’re the ones who know what to do, and the fathers don’t. We know how to soothe the baby, and the father doesn’t do it the same way. If the baby keeps crying, we know the father doesn’t know how to soothe the baby “the right way.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But this ignores the fact that our expertise is merely circumstantial. At the second we meet our children, mothers and fathers have the same potential for caring for the child. (One or the other may have read more about baby care already, but the other could easily catch up.) It’s only the way our society is structured to channel men into paid work and women into child care that causes this unequal distribution of time that causes unequal distribution of expertise. We do not have to go along with this, and indeed, we shouldn’t.
Gatekeeping also assumes the men inherently don’t know how to care for children. Yes, it can be scary to be with a baby when you don’t feel like you know what to do. Dealing with toddlers is excruciating. Preschoolers can be super-frustrating. But when a mother takes over most of those duties to “protect” her partner from having to deal with them, she implies that he’s too weak/stupid/incompetent to go through a normal learning curve. And she implies that there’s something wrong with the child, that the child is something the father shouldn’t be forced to deal with.
We know what happens then: The mother takes over child care and the emotional relationship with the child. The father becomes the breadwinner (even when the mother is fully employed, too) and feels like he doesn’t have much to contribute to the child’s emotional life. The father and the child never establish a true, honest emotional relationship. The parents resent each other for unequal distribution of work and emotional connection. Everyone’s siloed.
(It looks like the relationships in Mad Men.)
Men are smart. They are strong and resilient and resourceful. They have clear voices to sing lullabies and speak discipline, strong hands to change diaper blow-outs and braid hair, fast feet to run to latch a baby gate and play chase with a toddler. They have broad shoulders that children ride on. They are tough and tender and smart enough to know when to listen and when to help. They are the best fathers for their children, from birth through adulthood.
Fathers do things differently than mothers do, and that’s ok.
If you are a mother who wants to give your child a gift and give your child’s father a gift, the best gift you can give them is to leave them alone together, for extended periods of time, so they can work out their own relationship. And work on the assumption that your child’s father is an equal parent who can and should be able to care for your child seamlessly (even if it’s not the same way you’d do things). This is also the best gift you can give yourself, because then you don’t have to be the only expert on everyone.
You’re worth it. Your child is worth it. Your child’s father is worth it. And you’re worth it as a family.