The new Wall Street Journal article Mother, May I? Helping Moms Back Off So Dads Can Be Dads (6/17/09) aims to educate readers about the recent advances in our understanding of maternal gatekeeping. It’s a pretty good piece; it looks at the issue, quotes the researchers into maternal gatekeeping and even touches (ever so lightly) on the idea that men and women tend to parent differently.
Better yet, it strongly suggests, without coming right out and saying so, that father involvement with children is not simply his responsibility. That is, the article gently rebukes President Obama and the “irresponsible father” crowd. They’re the ones that claim that father absence is all the fault of irresponsible, uncaring men who can’t be bothered to pay for, or pay attention to, their children. Those who place all the blame for absent fathers on their poor characters willfully ignore the many systemic barriers fathers face in trying to be a meaningful part of their children’s lives. Maternal gatekeeping is one of those barriers.
The WSJ piece also points out that fathers may, wittingly or not, contribute to gatekeeping behavior on the part of mothers. By hanging back, displaying hesitation or lack of confidence or less than complete competency, a father may be issuing a none-too-subtle invitation to Mom to take over. Certainly the research into maternal gatekeeping suggests that there’s an interpersonal dynamic at work between father and mother.
The Journal piece doesn’t discuss the role that culture plays in that dynamic, but it’s undeniably present. Women are socialized to play the maternal role; men are socialized to believe that we’re uninterested in and incompetent at childcare. So when Dad hangs back, becomes frustrated or doesn’t know what to do or how to do it, his behavior fits the cultural norm. To fit her cultural norm, Mom steps in and says “Here, let me do it.”
Add to that the fact that the bulk of the parenting hormones are hers and what results is Mom as the dominant parent. And Mom as the dominant parent means Mom does less paid work, earns less and saves less. And when Mom works and earns less, Dad works and earns more, which means he sees less of his child.
Cheers to the Journal for running an informative piece that eschews blame in favor of giving accurate, important facts about a subject that is going to be with us for a long time.