When my first daughter was born I didn’t know what I was doing. Although I went to pre-natal classes and signed myself up for all the baby emails, neither of those did much to prepare me for the day-to-day life of motherhood.
I began my new role with good intentions about how I was going to involve my daughter’s father in the raising of our little girl. As a feminist, I wanted to challenge gender norms in the home. I had read and understood how important it was for men to be very involved in the caregiving, both for the benefit of the child and for the relationship between partners. I also recognized that if I wanted to continue to grow my career, I was going to have to figure out a way to release some of the domestic responsibilities, and let Dad be a true equal partner.
I started pumping right away so he could give her a bottle. I asked him to change her diapers and encouraged their one on one time together. He really stepped up and developed a beautiful bond with her in the first few weeks. But then her colic started, and sleep deprivation kicked in and all of a sudden my good intentions seemed to unconsciously go out the window. I noticed myself becoming increasingly critical of how he dressed her, that he didn’t give her enough milk, that she didn’t want to be held “that way”. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was becoming a “maternal gatekeeper”.
For those unfamiliar with the term, maternal gatekeeping refers to when moms control partners’ household responsibilities and/or interactions with their children. For example, my daughter had colic and I was convinced only I could soothe her. If her father was struggling to calm her down, I would intervene, demanding he “give her to me” and literally scoop her out of his arms.
Maternal gatekeeping is mostly done unconsciously but it can erode both a partner’s feeling of competence and confidence in how to care for their children. It can show up in varying forms, such as giving your partner instructions about how to do things instead of letting them figure it out for themselves, critiquing how your partner is caregiving, and controlling the amount of time your partner has with the baby.
Research documented from over the last two decades will show a direct connection between how controlling the mother is of her partner’s parenting and how much parenting they actually do. So basically the more you do, the more your partner backs off.
It happened in our household, despite my very intention for it not to happen. I would leave instructions if I was going out with friends for dinner, which included what to feed the baby, when to feed the baby, when to put the baby to sleep, rather than just letting him develop the confidence himself to actually know what our daughter needed.
So what can be so bad about mom doing everything? Well, a lot in fact. Maternal gatekeeping can lead to growing conflict between you and your partner. It can also contribute to burnout, overwhelm and anxiety when you feel like you are the only one that can do anything the “right way”.
The ironic thing is that the more I did and over-functioned, the less my daughter’s father did and then my resentment grew that I was doing everything. I blamed him for not helping enough, complained to friends, and yet in retrospect, I helped co-create that scenario. I realize that both my anxiety and perfectionism contributed to some of this and looking back I would have done things much differently had I been aware of what maternal gatekeeping was at the time.
Maternal gatekeeping is most common for first time moms so thankfully I made some big adjustments by the time our second child arrived. My motto went from “make it all look good” to “done is better than perfect”. Instead of criticizing, I leaned into encouraging. Instead of leaving pages of notes for him when I was gone, I just left and yelled “good luck honey!” on my way out the door.
Maternal gatekeeping starts with mom. So if you find yourself feeling like you are doing everything, you may extend yourself compassion and ask “what can I release here?” In coming to a deeper understanding of self, releasing my perfectionist tendencies and leaning into vulnerability, I was able to transform both myself and the way I mothered.
Jen Murtagh coaches female leaders to live + lead bravely so they can create meaningful impact and design a life they love (without burning out in the process).