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Ever heard of maternal gatekeeping?
It’s basically what it sounds like. It’s when moms control the way a baby is cared for and don’t allow their spouse–or other helpers like nannies, family members, or in-laws–participate meaningfully or take a hands-on role in childcare.
The Bump describes it this way, “Because you (moms) spend so much time with baby, you may feel as if you’re the only one who can do certain things, like give her a bottle or put her to sleep. But this makes it hard for others to step in to help out or follow through on their job.”
According to one study I found, “Women in heterosexual relationships reported higher gatekeeping compared with all other groups, and men in same-sex relationships reported higher gatekeeping compared with women in same-sex relationships and men in heterosexual relationships.”
But I’m not here to have a conversation about how and why women are biologically wired to protect and care for our young. I’m here to point out that moms are burning themselves out and causing real harm to their relationships, by not allowing others to participate meaningfully in child rearing.
Now here’s the craziest part about it.
I swore I would never be a gatekeeper parent. Yet, I found myself slipping into this toxic narrative almost immediately after my son was born.
And I still fight the tendencies on a regular basis over nine months into motherhood. Even though I read an article warning about the dangers of maternal gatekeeping while I was still pregnant.
And we even discussed ahead of time how we (read: I) could avoid falling into this trap once the baby arrived. The thing is, my husband is an INCREDIBLE father and partner, so it really isn’t about doubting his parenting ability or skill at all.
For me it was just about feeling like I needed to control everything to minimize perceived negative consequences.
I see the issue of maternal gatekeeping play out time and time again in other relationships, too.
Actually, it’s one of the most common themes I’ve witnessed with other dual parenting couples I know. How many times have you heard moms use the excuse that her husband can’t do bed time so she can’t make it to an event she wants to attend.
Or maybe you just feel like you can’t count on the other person to “do things correctly,” and need to just need to do it yourself? Well, spoiler alert… as long as your kid is safe, there is no wrong way to change a diaper. Kids are resilient!
And if they are in loving hands, not much can go wrong. It might help to look at it this way: the stakes are pretty low. Worst case scenario the diaper isn’t on tight enough, you have a huge blowout on your hands (literally).
And then that “mistake” is never made again. Now weigh the risk of one more load of laundry against the extremely negative repercussions of undermining a well-meaning parent.
Here’s the vicious cycle maternal gatekeeping creates in relationship dynamics.
Are you ready for this? When you don’t ALLOW your significant other to parent their own way, they stop doing it. Point blank. Period.
If you got constantly negative feedback about everything you did and felt like no matter what you did it was wrong would that motivate you to keep trying? What would be the point of continuing if your contributions were not only unappreciated but actually discouraged?
Here’s how I began to break the cycle.
I was seeing a psychologist for postpartum insomnia and mentioned one of the reasons my sleep was so bad was because I was the only one waking up with the baby overnight.
When she asked me why, I told her I was worried my husband wasn’t going to “do it right” as we were working on weaning from a nighttime feed. That’s when she told me I would be back in couples therapy in a few years if I didn’t let my husband parent. And I knew she was right.
So from that day forward, I tried to do my very best to allow my husband to parent in his own way and let go. The results of which have been as you can imagine. He has grown into his role as a capable, hands-on father. I am no longer burned out, and I get to take time to meet my needs because I’m not the only one who can care for our son.
Amazing, right? I get it mama, sometimes you are just surviving. And it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. You feel like you’re just doing your best. And that’s ok. We have all been there.
If you have identified maternal gatekeeping tendencies in yourself, what I would say is it might be time to evaluate your communication style with your significant other. Are you accepting and even inviting them to pitch in and take things off your plate? Or are you unintentionally discouraging them based on the feedback you provide when they do? Start there.
And where can you find help if you need it? Here are some of my favorite relationship/parenting partnership resources.
First, I wrote a whole other article on partnering in parenting and 8 tips for sharing responsibilities more equally with an advocate for men to be more hands-on fathers. It was really interesting to get a male’s perspective on the matter, since I can only write from the experience of being a mother.
And if the stresses of life or parenting are really wearing on your relationship with a significant other, the good news is: technology has finally made marriage therapy accessible. I found a few highly-rated apps that people absolutely love.
If you need a little extra support from a specialist, check out a resource like Talkspace or Lasting. One Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist told me when couples seek counseling before they are in deep distress they can typically have very positive results.
And there is still hope and help for couples seeking counseling while already in deep distress. This is to say, the sooner you seek support the better. And it only builds the case for bringing the idea up to your significant other before things get really bad.
Also, if you haven’t heard about this book yet, you’re definitely going to want to check it out. Everyone is raving about this one, probably because it’s called “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.” It’s all about navigating the uneven workloads between parents and the invisible labor moms take on.
If you don’t feel like you need therapy or it really isn’t your thing, I have another incredible resource for you. It’s a course I took through pediatrician and self care expert, Modern Mommy Doc.
It’s called Parenting in Partnership and I cannot recommend it enough. You can take it with your significant other or even pick up some helpful and validating tips on your own.
The course shares how you can make sure you needs are being met, gives great communication tips, and teaches you how to truly divide and conquer parenting duties.
However you choose to approach the matter, it’s well worth investing in the health and success of your relationship for the sake of a healthier, happier family dynamic.
Wait, one more thing!
While you’re here, feel free to check out my little self care gift shop if you want to treat yourself or pamper a friend with something special today. You deserve it, mama. Your purchases keep this blog running, support mama-owned businesses, and mean more than you will ever know.
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