Outside homes, society is largely organized according to a men-on-top-women-on-bottom power structure. Inside our homes, on the other hand, is where women hold a considerable amount of sway. Wives and moms tend to call the shots in most matters related to housework and child care, a reality evidenced by the ubiquity of "ask your mom" across space and time.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "maternal gatekeeping," when moms control dads' household responsibilities and/or interactions with their children. It's common and difficult to shake.
Research from the past 20 years has documented a connection between how controlling a mom is of her partner's parenting and how much parenting he does. The more gatekeeping from mom, the less parental involvement from dad.
"Just by saying maternal gatekeeping exists doesn't mean all the responsibility should be on women to manage men. But it still serves as an impediment to the quality of the relationship between fathers and their children ... and is part of the very complicated puzzle of how gender plays out in families," said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of human sciences and psychology at Ohio State University who has studied maternal gatekeeping.
Maternal gatekeeping was first mentioned in academic literature in the 1970s, after second-wave feminism pushed scholars to evaluate and reimagine family dynamics. Interest in the subject waned throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s and didn't pick up again until 1999, when an influential study on the subject was published. It found that women in dual-earner couples who were gatekeepers did "five more hours of family work per week
and had less equal divisions of labor than women classified as collaborators."
This was followed by research looking at the mechanisms behind gatekeeping and what role it plays in perpetuating gender inequality in the home. One study, led by Schoppe-Sullivan, found that women are more likely to "gatekeep" -- or, specifically, "gate-close" -- when they perceive their relationship as less stable
, when they are anxious or depressed, when fathers lack confidence or when mothers hold excessively high standards for parenting.
Overall, "fathers' characteristics are less predictive of maternal gatekeeping than mothers' characteristics." Another study found that the more sexist a woman is toward men, the more she gatekeeps and the more child care and housework she does.
Paying more attention to maternal gatekeeping doesn't just help women be more clear-eyed about the co-parenting dynamics in their homes. It also helps them identify the external sources pressuring them to feel that they need to be the lead parent, no matter their professional status, and a perfect one at that.
It starts on day one
On a policy level, the absence of a paid leave for men in the United States plays a big role in maintaining the gender status quo. (The federal government doesn't mandate paid leave for men or women, but more women opt to take advantage
of their employers' policies or take unpaid leave than men.) Here, men remain very likely to go back to work
right after a child is born, and women remain less likely to go back to work at all
. Studies show that when men get a chance to be home in those early months, they become more involved fathers
for the long run.
For many families, the legacy of those early months when mom is the primary parent can be hard to shake. Though some of this has to do with the realities dictated by biology, it's not the only factor at play.
One study looking at it in heterosexual and homosexual families who adopt found that heterosexual women engage in gatekeeping even when they aren't breastfeeding. They also learned that men in same-sex relationships tend to "gatekeep" more than women in same-sex relationships. The authors believe this is a result of the fact that lesbian relationships tend to be more equal than gay men's. They also suspect that gay fathers, aware that dads are perceived as less competent than moms, may feel more pressure to be seen as good parents and criticize their partners more as a result.
The 'perfect' mother
On a cultural level, mothers are subject to a wide array of pressures, most of which make them feel as though they could and should be better moms, no matter how well their children are doing. These messages are everywhere, coming from social media, the playground, mommy groups and entertainment. Even the most resolute, feminist moms out there have a hard time resisting them.
"Gatekeeping really seems to depend on how much a woman internalizes societal standards about being a good mom," Schoppe-Sullivan said. "The more you care about (being viewed as a good mom), the less likely you are to give up control over that domain."
Sarah Laubach Gur, a lawyer and mother of two young children in Oakland, said her gatekeeping was the byproduct of the unease she felt as a working mom.
"My fear (of my husband doing the wrong thing) was really tied into being a working mom and going back to work insanely early with both kids. So I 'gatekept' as a way to convince myself that I could still be a 'good' or 'real' mom," she explained. "Boxing out dad, who was also working and competing for time with the babies, was not very loving, but it also wasn't conscious."
Becoming aware of this behavior has helped Gur interfere less with her husband's parenting, and as a result, he has become a more confident parent.
Many women want to stop gatekeeping but are aware that they will face the consequences should their husband make the wrong decision. Take what happened at my 5-year-old son's recent birthday party: I planned the whole event but told my husband to order the cake. (This is not to be interpreted as a dig against my husband, with whom I split most of the housework and child care.)
He ordered an organic double-decker sheet cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries, which he assumed would be a hit. But those of us well-versed in the politics of intensive parenting would have noticed a red flag: A double-decker cake, especially one loaded with whipped cream, is a hard cake to cut into small pieces. And today's parents, who tend to take a great interest in monitoring sugar consumption, like small pieces.
At the party, I did my best to smush that cake into obedience, creating small but unsightly mounds while muttering something about density of whipped cream compared with frosting. Nevertheless, a few of the parents, who did not hesitate to express their concerns while I was cutting, quickly seized their children's plates in order to adjust the size. Afterward, frazzled, I said to him, "this is what happens when you choose the cake."
"Well, next time just let me cut it. I wouldn't have cared, and they probably wouldn't have said anything if a dad was cutting it anyway."
It's true this would have worked at the party, but it might have not fixed the larger problem.
Men have come a long way, baby
Matt Stevenson, a postdoctoral research fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied dads and gatekeeping, pointed out that dads are still too frequently seen as clueless, and moms too frequently buy into it. This is despite a generational shift toward co-parenting
and a growing body of research
proving that dads are just as fit to parent as moms.
Still, he's optimistic. Fathers do more child care and housework than ever and are perceived as more competent parents than ever. He expects these trends will continue in the future, especially with women's help.
"To a degree, this is a matter of giving a husband space in the house to come up ways to show love and help," Stevenson said.
This is what Lauren Apfel, a mother of four and editor of Motherwell magazine
, did. As the primary caregiver when her children were little, she felt as though because was the one "scripting the children's lives," she had "a vested interest in, and certain standards about, how that script is being acted out."
But then she had twins and returned to work and realized that holding the reins so tightly was hurting both her and her husband. Although she still does more parenting than her husband, she no longer interferes when it's his turn.
"(When) he is responsible for some aspect of their care, he is fully responsible. That's the key. Responsible from start to finish," Apfel said. "I'm happy to give input, and often I still have an insight into them that he doesn't, but he has the space now to make decisions, not just execute the decisions I've made for him. And that is one hell of a relief."
One of the biggest challenges for women looking to break free from the burden of domestic work is determining what is essential and what is not. There are the obvious ones: Kids need love, food, clothes, schooling, doctor's appointments and rooms to dwell in that are relatively sanitary, orderly and climate-controlled. When a mom does more than this, there is a chance that she is responding to the outsize pressures she puts on herself rather than those put on her by her family.
In addition to doing more child care and cleaning, fathers can be helpful by flagging those moments when moms are trying to meet standards that don't really need to be met. This is useful insight, but it can't be shared unless those gates are open.