I had wanted to be a mother for a long time before I had Hamish. By the time of his arrival I was already hugely invested in Motherhood. The misplaced guilt that had trickled down from a prior loss had hardened my resolve to mother to perfection. I knew this perfection didn’t exist but it didn’t stop me reaching for it. I was surrounded by picture perfect mothers and wanted to join the club. I may not have known it then but in seeking this perfection, a maternal gatekeeper was born.
What is Maternal Gatekeeping?
Maternal gatekeeping is a phrase originally coined by psychologists in the the 90s to describe mothers who create limiting beliefs about their partners’ parenting abilities. These lioness mothers take on the entire burden of care rather than allow for intervention from a ‘less skilful’ parent therefore closing the gate on father involvement and the ability to learn and develop as a dad. In the past this idea of maternal gatekeeping was more commonly associated with mothers whose relationship had broken down and gate closing was a vengeful way to punish a father who had let the family down in some way.
But Maternal gatekeeping can and does occur in the most secure and loving of relationships and in all sorts of families. It can also take place between mothers and grandparents, child care providers and family members. Being the sole in charge of nappy changing, homework and meals, redoing your partners efforts at dressing, toothbrushing and schoolbag packing are all examples of maternal gatekeeping behaviour.
Sound familiar? If you are a mum on the verge of burn out because you believe you are ‘the only one who can look after your child’, you may well fall into this category. So how did we get here and what can we do to shirk off the inner control freak, let our partners in and most importantly share the back breaking load of motherhood.
‘Mother Knows Best’
Working mothers, stay at home mothers, single mothers; we are all under scrutiny. From our birthing choices to our weaning choices, there is much pressure to navigate. There are many ways to parent yet there is one thing that unites us – we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. There is not one parental choice that remains unscrutinised.
By contradiction amidst all this scrutiny prevails the the universal belief that ‘mother knows best’ . The assumption is that women are by definition the best carers for offspring. But are we innately good at mothering (when it suits society to think so) or is it just that we do more of it? And crucially could our attempts to do our best for our families be harming them?
What is the fallout from Maternal Gatekeeping?
When each of my boys were small I took it upon myself to tend to their night time needs. They were exclusively breastfed but were happy to take my milk from the bottle and did with ease when needed. In those hazy first months there were times when my body screamed for just one night off and for someone else to take charge armed with a bottle of breastmilk and a less exacerbated threshold for exhaustion. Yet the night shift belonged to me. I chose to be the lead parent, the primary caregiver.
At the time this felt like an act of selflessness. My husband needed to get up for full time work. I would bear the burden of sleep deprivation in an act of love.
A Disempowered Dad
Little did I appreciate in those foggy first months of parenthood, that those bitter sweet hours feeding, changing and rocking were also spent kissing, cuddling and caressing. Time spent caring was time spent bonding. And my husband was missing out.
This martyred behaviour leaked into our days as well as the nights. A spiral of dependency followed and even in their toddler years the boys remain hard wired to depend on me for their every need. I have disabled my husband from being an optimal caregiver and unwittingly hindered his relationship with his children. The boys adore their Dad. But they need me.
Had I enforced equal parenting early on, would this still be the case? . For someone who aspires to ‘mindful modern mothering’ I have created a chillingly traditional set up.
Higher levels of Maternal Burnout and Increased Resentment
And yet even now I have to force the corners of my mouth from lifting as I consider all the ways I have been a maternal gatekeeper. There is a smugness associated with this ‘Supermum’ fallacy. We have been raised to believe in the pay off for hard work and devotion. Burnout has come to be a badge of honour.
It’s a frustratingly naive reflex. Motherhood is exhausting. There is the work that you see , the day to day nappy changing, feeding, dressing , playing, safe-guarding, loving. And yes Loving is work.
And then there is the work you don’t see. The invisible labour or “hidden load’ wonderfully coined by Melissa Hogenboom in her book ‘The Motherhood Complex‘. The planning (meals, playdates, nurseries, schools) pre-empting (dangers, needs, tantrum triggers) and research. This is the work that exacerbates our capacity for decision making and weighs on our emotional and mental wellbeing.
The ‘Second Shift’
And all this family work is unpaid. A full-time job. Yet for working mothers this work takes place in addition to paid work. And all of this often happens before we stop to care for ourselves.
Sadly for us, the empty promise that we can ‘have it all’ and the maternal expectations that follow have left us in a state of self perpetuating sacrifice. It is expected that we will put everyones needs before our own. We want to do our best for our children and we are often told ‘A job is best done if you do it yourself’. But in seeking to have it all we are having to do it all which is unsustainable and toxic.
And how do these maternal behaviours impact our children’s lives?
A Vicious Cycle
Gatekeeping is often hereditary. My mother was the ultimate gatekeeper. A wonderful, loving mother but also quintessentially a gatekeeper.
My brilliant dad and father to three girls learnt little about the nitty gritty of parenting. He never had the chance. And he is fine with that. As a couple they have adhered to the traditional gender roles. My dad was the main breadwinner and my mum ‘stayed at home’ with their young children. She also ran a b&b in our home and worked part time as soon we were all at school. If ever my mother felt the need to validate her role, she certainly had all bases covered.
For my parents, this situation seemed to work. The foundations of the marriage were strong, the traditionally gendered roles were set out and adhered to. Everyone stayed in their box. And to be honest, set against the backdrop of the hike in inflation of the 80s both parents were probably equally at burnout striving to pay their mortgage.
What I find really curious is that my mother now gatekeeps in her role as grandmother. She may have spent a lifetime serving her family but would she expect or wish for the same level of sacrifice from her daughters? Definitely not.
Her efforts to relieve my load highlights the perpetual nature of this behaviour. Mothering is learnt from mothers. If we want what’s truly best for our children we can’t afford to normalise gatekeeping. Witnessing proportionate sharing of work around children and the home is what will ultimately empower them.
Another thing to blame mothers for…
And yet even saying this out loud feels uncomfortable. Is the concept of maternal gatekeeping just a ruse for letting lazy fathers off the hook? Constantly feeling like you are unsupported in parenting can quickly dissipate the joy of Motherhood. A partner not helping can feel like abuse and add fuel to growing conflict and resentment between new parents. It can be agonising to watch your former self slip away as your partner remains unchanged. It feels like a betrayal to suggest that our partners are victims to our mother egos. Is this yet another opportunity to dissect our mothering choices?
I suspect in all relationships there is a healthy amount of interchanging parental gatekeeping and subsequent learned uselessness at play. We often see good partnerships built on compensating strengths and weaknesses.
Of course we could blame the complacency of the partners who have allowed us to fall into this trap. But if we consider that our gatekeeping tendencies are born from imposed societal standards we must also allow that men too have been conditioned to expect it.
If you answer yes to majority of the points below (and your partner concurs) it might be time to consider where a healthy balance lies and work together to find it.
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
Trying to relinquish control and embrace parenting as a collaborative effort may take some practice. But simply removing yourself from the situation may be the place to start to dissipate these negative emotions and behaviours.
Go out for that drink. Resist the urge to pre-prepare the dinner. Don’t pre pick the bedtime story or lay out fresh pyjamas on the bed. Hide your post-it note with reminders of toothbrushing. Simply asking ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ may bring some clarity as you delegate more and intervene less. Does it really matter if your baby’s veg is cooked in salted water on that one occasion? Or if they fall asleep without a bedtime story and teeth brushed?
For me the answer is in learning to let go of perfect and stifling high standards. It is in considering that my way is not always synonymous with the right way. Maybe Good is good enough.
12 Signs of Maternal Gatekeeping Behaviour
- Re-doing your partner’s efforts at dressing, toothbrushing and grooming in favour of your own way.
- Being the ‘sole in charge’ of homework, reading practice and home learning for fear your partner would do so less effectively.
- Being the only adult who knows where the Calpol, Plasters and other essentials are kept.
- Pre -preparing meals before you leave the house instead of letting partner figure it out.
- Waiting until your child is safely asleep before you leave for an evening out.
- Researching parenting, development, Child’s interests without sharing the info.
- Constant bemoaning your partner’s inability to look after your child.
- Your child would sooner come upstairs to ask you for water/food toilet help than ask for the help of their dad sitting next to them on the couch.
- Saying things like ‘Let’s not tell Daddy..’ and other seemingly innocent language that creates a sense of ‘us’ and ‘him’.
- Feeling the need to text reminders of pick up times and specific locations instead of trusting your partner to remember/research himself.
- Being responsible for all purchasing for your child – clothes, underwear, books, toys – for fear of what your partner will buy.
- Being the only point of contact for school communications including the class Whats App.