RAISING her children is a mother’s top priority. However, calls for more gender equality and the high level of education among young mothers is shaking the social equilibrium to its core. This results in a delicate situation for both mothers and fathers, and for their children too.
Every coffee shop employee is familiar with it — the coffee morning crowd is settling in for a chat. A group of mums enjoying their low fat, double shot, almond milk, extra hot caramel latte after dropping off their youngsters at school. What a lucky bunch, it would seem. But if one dared to listen in to these ladies’ conversation, what would one hear? Complaining, mostly.
Complaining about the weather, the morning rush-hour traffic jam and the noise emission from the construction site across the street, yes, sure. But, also complaining about the housekeeper and most of all, complaining about their husbands’ lack of involvement with the children.
“My husband never eats with the children,” they say, “mine never helps them with homework.” Or “their father knows none of their friends,” and “he’s never met any of their teachers.” “He doesn’t know how to fasten the child seat belt properly,” and sometimes even “he’s put the diaper on backwards”.
Are these fathers really that incompetent, or are the mothers themselves to blame for it in part as well?
When a baby is born, the person that spends the most time with the child is the mother, obviously. The father, the grandparents or the hired help would often be available and willing to take over part of the workload from the very beginning. The mother however exhibits a behaviour that sends them all running for the hills. The culprit might well be a phenomenon psychologists refer to as maternal gatekeeping.
While women clamour for equal opportunities in the workplace, many subconsciously are not ready to grant their partners the same within the home and family. They might wish for the father of their children to be more involved, hands-on and supportive, but they will watch over the dad’s shoulder and correct every aspect of his interaction with his children, until he feels so inadequate that he simply backs off and goes back to what he obviously does best, namely his day job.
The gatekeeping mum is not entirely to blame for the unhealthy gender dynamics within her family either. Mothers, especially stay-at-home ones, are subject to much pressure to be a good, a better, a perfect mum. Such messages, some subtle, others not so much, are dropping on them from every direction; social media, playgroups, mummy blogs, the playground, the entertainment industry and not seldom the mother-in-law’s sigh and stern look of utter disapproval.
“Gatekeeping really seems to depend on how much a woman internalises societal standards about being a good mum,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of human sciences and psychology at Ohio State University who has studied the topic.
“The more you care about (being viewed as a good mum), the less likely you are to give up control over that domain.”
Even the most equalitarian or feminist of mothers has a hard time resisting this.
Fundamentally, gatekeeping is a reasonable endeavour, as it ensures the safety of whomever is perceived as “inside”. As the primary caregiver, a mother is responsible for the safety of her children. However, once it is established that the child is loved, fed, clothed, schooled and healthily living in a sanitary environment, details of how parents interact with their youngsters are just that – nonessential details.
A gatekeeping mother will not only push herself to her limits but become irritable and stressed, thus not that perfect mother she so desperately wishes to be. She will also negatively affect the relationship between father and child.
Not only will a father feel inadequate in interacting with his child, the kid will inevitably end up identifying the father as incompetent as well. Extensive gatekeeping and criticising of the dad will leave the child growing up without a strong father figure and male role model.
Regardless of whether she is a stay-at-home or a working mum, as the primary caregiver, every mother is prone to falling victim to the catch 22 that is maternal gatekeeping.
While she might not be able to bite her tongue when her partner engages in his ways of parenting, she might want to take the opportunity to go for a mani-pedi, a shopping spree or a book club session. Meanwhile dad happily puts the diaper on backwards and enjoys creative quality time with his children. For the benefit of mother, father and child alike.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate