In a Nutshell: Want more help around with work at home? Do away with Maternal Gatekeeping!
An old Doonesbury comic shows a husband coming into the bathroom where his wife is giving their child a bath:
Hubby: Hi! Can I help?
Wife: “Help” implies that caring for our child is basically MY responsibility, and that you’re doing me a favor. Go out and try again.
Hubby: Hi! Can I co-nurture?
Wife: No. You always get the floor wet.
There is a fascinating concept in family science called Maternal Gatekeeping that describes situations like this one. Do you have the tendency to criticize how your husband changes a diaper or plays with the baby? Do you set rigid standards and redo tasks your husband does around the house? Do you feel like you are the only one who can do anything correctly, but then feel like you deserve more help? You just might be a Gatekeeper.
It is healthy to have honest discussions when we disagree about parenting issues and to hash out the details of division of labor, but Gatekeeping comes across in less productive ways. It is telling a fully grown man that he missed a spot wiping off the table. It is saying “You’re no better than the kids” if he leaves his shoes in the living room. Instead of treating a husband like a lover and equal partner in life, it’s treating him like he’s an inept employee. No one wins.
Gatekeeping often starts with the birth of the first child, when the momma bear protection instinct and a crazy set of hormones are in full force. But a wise woman knows it is much better to say, “You totally calmed him down! How did you do that?” instead of, “Give him to me! You’re holding him wrong.” Gatekeeping might give you a moment of prideful victory, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself standing alone doing the dishes while holding the baby.
In a 1999 study of Maternal Gatekeeping, Sarah Allen said,
“While many mothers … believe they need more support in family work, most don’t even realize their actions may be placing obstacles in the way. They, themselves, may be limiting the amount of their husbands’ involvement.”
Now, I know there are truly lazy men. I also know there are men would put kids in harmful situations. But I think most guys would like to be more involved both in housework and parenting, if they were made to feel like a valuable equal instead of a bumbling fool. If you think you might be a Gatekeeper, ask your hubby if you are…and then accept feedback. Try harder to talk to your man like he’s a man, instead of scolding him like he’s a disobedient two-year-old. Make it a point to bite your tongue if something doesn’t get done just how you would have done it. Just give him a big kiss and tell him you don’t know what you’d do without him. Step aside, and leave room at the gate for two.