When Mom doesn't want help from Dad

mom and baby
CC BY 2.0 Valentina Yachichurova

It's called 'maternal gatekeeping' and it's a crummy situation all around.

"My husband hardly does anything around the house." This is a common refrain among women, especially those who are parents to young children. It's not unusual to hear a woman rant about her husband's ineptitude, whether it's cooking, soothing the baby at night, doing laundry, or disciplining children. The message implicit in her complaints is that all duties fall to her. Not surprisingly, this is exhausting and overwhelming and breeds resentment.

Having heard this countless times from female friends, I'm left wondering the same thing: Surely not all men are so clueless! What if he already has those skills... and the wife simply isn't letting him use them?

This happens a lot, and it even has an official name: maternal gatekeeping. Gatekeeping occurs when a woman, usually a mother, prevents her male partner from participating more actively, or tries to control his involvement, in household chores and parenting duties. Sometimes she does it unconsciously or unintentionally, but often it is linked to a dated sexism and unhealthy assumption that men simply aren't as good at these things as women are.

This is damaging for families on many levels. At a time when women are finally gaining the power, control, and salaries in the workplace that they deserve, many are not handing over home-related duties to their partners in order to make room for new responsibilities. This means they're busier than ever, stretched to the max, tragically unable to hand off some of that work to their partner.

The fault, of course, does not lie entirely with women. Many men who are pleased to see progress in their wives' careers fail to pick up the slack at home. Caregiving is still not seen as a valuable and respected career choice for men, as Anne-Marie Slaughter examines in her excellent book, Unfinished Business. If we hope to have a workforce made up of 50 percent women, then we also need men to comprise half of stay-at-home parents and caregivers for the elderly and infirm.

But in order for that to happen, many mothers have to get better at sharing their duties. I've struggled with this, too. There was a time when I was the main parent and household manager, but when I started working full days, everything shifted out of necessity. Now my husband cooks 3-4 meals a week, packs the kids' lunches every day, does all the laundry, and we split the house-cleaning fifty percent each weekend. He was entirely responsible for planning our son's birthday party; all I did was make a cake, not even knowing who would show up. This is learned behavior for both of us; our parents' relationships were very traditional in their division of labor.

Relinquishing control makes for a healthier, happier relationship. CNN reports:

"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."

Those overly-high parenting standards are insidious, fuelled by messages in social media, movies, mommy groups, and on the playground. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says:

"Gatekeeping really seems to depend on how much a woman internalizes societal standards about being a good mom. The more you care about (being viewed as a good mom), the less likely you are to give up control over that domain."

The irony is, the less you care about being a good mom, the better a mom you'll probably be. By sharing the workload with someone else, you'll be more relaxed and well-rested. And isn't everything supposed to be better when it's shared? Especially the toughest job of all -- raising small humans.

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