It Starts with Baby Care and Continues Through Divorce…

Boston, MA–MSNBC has an interesting and telling story about the issue of maternal gatekeeping. In When moms criticize, dads back off of baby care (MSNBC, 6/12/08) they write:

During the first few months of a new baby’s life, every parent suffers moments of self-doubt. But new research suggests that dads might be especially susceptible to that lack of self-confidence — and that moms may be partly to blame.

Moms’ words of criticism or encouragement directly affect how involved their husband or partner becomes in the day-to-day care of their infant, finds a new study published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. When a mother criticized her partner’s child-care efforts, it often caused him to lose confidence, and even withdraw from caring for the baby. But when a mom praised dad’s efforts, he took a more active parenting role…

“Most couples said they believed fathers and mothers should spend an equal amount of time with their children,” Schoppe-Sullivan says. But after their child was born, it didn’t matter what they had said in those initial interviews; it was the mom’s behavior that dictated the dad’s involvement.

About two-thirds of the couples were first-time parents, but whether or not they already had kids at home didn’t affect the outcome, Schoppe-Sullivan says.

When the baby was 3 or 4 months old, researchers visited the families to observe them in their homes. They asked the couple to change the baby into a new outfit, and watched how the mom and dad interacted: Did the mom completely take over, while the dad stepped back? Or did they work together?

They found that the dads who knew what they were doing had partners who encouraged and complimented them as they changed the baby’s clothes. But the dads who looked less confident were accompanied by partners who critiqued their methods during the entire observation.

For Paul Skabish, a 31-year-old who lives in Garden Grove, N.J, the physical act of changing his son Paulie”s clothes was never the problem. It was the mismatched outfits he chose — and his wife”s reaction to them — that eventually caused him to resign from wardrobe duty.

“I do try to match … but my wife is kind of anal about that,” he says. After his wife’s critique of his haphazard fashion sense, he backed away from his brief stint as family fashion director, and has stayed far from it ever since. Paulie is now 4.

Of course, both Skabish and his wife, Melissa, say that their wardrobe skirmish is a small issue. But Diana Solomon, who helps facilitate parenting groups at Community Birth & Family Center in Seattle, says that many parenting disputes are over the seemingly simple tasks: What’s the best way to soothe the baby? Should we use a pacifier or not?

“There’s a lot of judgment, a lot of ‘you’re not doing it right,'” says Solomon. “Which really means, ‘you’re not doing it the way I do it'”…

A few comments:

I’ve always believed that it’s the same fallacious attitude that makes a dad think he can’t care for his baby as well as a mom that leads to male passivity in divorce. As a physician, I was always frustrated by dads who habitually deferred to moms whose caretaking of the children was clearly inferior to theirs. And, as bad and unfair as our family law system is, some dads make it worse by believing that they’re not that important to their kids, that “what they really need is their mom,” or that every other weekend visitation is acceptable.

This passivity percolates through various levels of society and sometimes leads legislators and the media to figure there’s nothing wrong with the current divorce system, that 12 days with mom and 2 with dad sounds about right.

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