A recent study out of the University of Texas concluded something both alarming and telling about the power of traditional gender roles. Women who were married to men they described as skillful caregivers suffered from lower self competence when it came to regarding themselves as mothers. Conversely, a man’s self competence was totally unrelated to their wives’ care giving behavior.
The study concluded what I would have concluded. No matter their level of success in other areas of their lives, women still feel judged by how good a mother they are. Take that away from them, and a huge part of their identity is lost. The study had no clear answer for why men seem unaffected by their wives care giving abilities—but it seems like a no-brainer to men: society has set the bar way lower for men when it comes to care giving. We also justify any shortcomings on the care giving front by pointing to our long hours at the office.
I allude to the mom-conundrum here to demonstrate a bigger obstacle for men in their challenge for work life balance. If you haven’t read my other articles, my theory on why men are suffering from a lack work life balance in skyrocketing numbers is that we want to be more involved at home, but social policies, workplace culture and even mothers can hinder that. The end result is we are pushed back into our traditional gender role as breadwinner and still made to feel that is where we belong.
So how are moms guilty? The term is called, ‘maternal gate keeping’. Perhaps before I go on I should make it eminently clear that when I say moms, I mean “some moms” maybe even, “many moms” but certainly in no way, “all moms.” Gate keeping is in no way uniquely a mother’s domain, either. The guilty party is usually the primary care giver who has had more “on the job” training in child care than has the working parent. However, the reality is that most primary care givers are mothers. Whomever the perpetrator, I am convinced that the gatekeepers who engage in this self defeating behavior do it unintentionally.
If you aren’t familiar with gate keeping, the short explanation goes something like this. Between soccer practice, a career and the fact that we still leave the bulk of the house work to women, many moms have cried out, “I need more help!” However, when help arrives, she welcomes it with open arms…as long as it is done her way. “Honey, can you dress the baby?” can be followed up by, “You don’t expect me to take my child out dressed like that do you?” When the baby is in dad’s arms and starts to cry, she swoops in to comfort the baby because she’s had more practice. When dad heads out the door with the diaper bag, she packs it for him, lest he forget something essential. In the end, her inability to give up control can result in rendering dad into a second class helper. Men get tired of fighting, frustrated for being seen as doing it incorrectly all the time, and eventually throw their arms in the air and harrumph, “Fine, you do it!”
In my workshops when I bring this topic up, first, I empathize with men who are in this situation. Then I tell them it is a cop out. “You wouldn’t tell your boss who was unhappy with your report, ‘Fine, you do it!’ and storm out of the office,” I say, “So what makes that acceptable behavior with your spouse?” I think men can often give up so easily because a life time of conditioning has told us we should leave the primary child care to women.
If we refer back to our U of T study, however, we can now see why some moms can’t let go: in spite of feeling overwhelmed by the demands of a busy life, women have been so deeply programmed by traditional gender roles that they are afraid to lose a part of themselves if they give up the mantle of “go-to parent.” I saw this so bravely and starkly put into words by Beth Levine in an article she wrote for Redbook a few years ago:
“I’m ashamed, but I hate that I am not the center of my child’s universe,” she wrote. “When I am honest with myself, what I really want is for Bill to be an eager but charmingly inept father, a soldier to my general.”
If your involvement with your kids is being derailed by a gate keeping mom, make sure you understand she isn’t doing it to punish you. Just like you feel overwhelmed by the role of financial provider at times, so she can be by the role of primary care giver. Then, talk to her. Explain that you don’t want to be a helper raising your kids; you want to be a partner. You can’t do that, however, if she won’t give you some autonomy. Try and get her to start implementing the “will it kill my child?” test before she tries to tell you what to do. “Will it kill my child if he takes her out with plaid overalls and a striped shirt?” “Will it kill my child if he forgets to pack an extra outfit in the diaper bag?”
Nope. And she can rest assured that dad will only come home with a poop-covered child only once before he figures that out for himself.
I’ve talked to women who admitted to being gatekeepers and who regretted it later on. The sad irony is that this practice hurts everyone— dad gets robbed of valuable experience and time with his kids, the children miss out on valuable time with their fathers, and women wind up with an even bigger workload.
This isn’t a blame game, but it can be a serious inhibitor for father involvement and ultimately work life balance for both spouses. Recognizing that you have both been shaped by traditional gender role expectations in this scenario is a good place to start when trying to fix the problem.