Having a baby is life-changing with adjustments in all aspects of your life you didn’t even realize would happen. And whether you are prepared or not, a baby will change your relationship with your husband or partner...for better or for worse.
And according to a new study, published in the journal Family Process, how a new dad sees his relationship with his wife depends how much the new mom supports him when caring for their baby.
The researchers suggest a new dad feels closer to the mother of his child as a romantic partner and co-parent when she believes in his ability to care for their child. But when a new dad believes his partner is shutting him out when it comes to parenting and childcare duties — what experts call “maternal gatekeeping” — not only does dad get less involved, his relationship with the mother of his child may also suffer.
What is maternal gatekeeping
Maternal gatekeeping is when a new mom assesses the parenting skills of her partner and soon-to-be dad and figures out how much responsibility she’ll let him have. When she lacks confidence in her partner’s parenting ability and commitment in their relationship and family, it’s more likely that she will shut him out.
Micromanaging your partner when he’s taking care of the baby
Giving directions pre-emptively rather than waiting to be asked or letting their partner figure it out
Hesitating to leave the baby with you because you think he can’t feed the baby or put the baby to sleep
Criticizing how your partner does a task like bottle-feeding or diaper changes
Researching childcare and parenting but not sharing it with your partner
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A 2015 study provides a list of the reasons new mothers tend to “close the gate” on their partners. Typically, mom falls into the cycle of maternal gatekeeping if:
She thought about leaving him during her third trimester because of conflict in their relationship
She felt that her partner wasn’t confident in his own parenting skills
She felt confident in her parenting skills
She had perfectionist expectations from her partner
She had psychological troubles like depression or anxiety
While moms act as gatekeepers for their children often only towards their partner, they also do it towards grandparents, in-laws, yayas, and even teachers — practically anyone whom they think would not do right by their child. Moms often think about this, either intentionally or not, even before they give birth, during the last few months of their pregnancy.
Maternal gatekeeping impacts a couple’s relationship
While the study only involved 182 couples, the researchers checked back on the couples when the mother was in her third trimester of pregnancy, and when the baby was 3, 6, and 9 months old. It was part of the “New Parents Project,” a long-term study investigating how two working individuals adjust to becoming parents for the first time.
When the baby was 3 months old, fathers answered questions about how much their partner inhibits or welcomes their involvement in childcare. For example, dads reported how they felt when their partners took over baby-related tasks or when their partner gave them irritated looks, thinking they are not doing them correctly. Dads also reported incidents when their partner encouraged them to help bathe the baby or appreciate their help.
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When the baby was 6 months old, the new dads gave feedback about how they close they grew with their partner and co-parent. Lastly, when the baby was 9 months old, the fathers rated how good they felt about their romantic relationship with their partner.
Since moms are seen as expert caregivers, “how mothers react to their partners’ parenting matters a lot; it affects how new dads feel about their whole family situation, including his relationship with his wife or partner,” lead author Anna Olsavsky, a doctoral student in human sciences at The Ohio State University, said in a press release.
Not only do maternal gatekeeping affect how dads are involved in parenting and childcare, but the new study suggests it can also negatively affect a couple’s relationship. The good news is the opposite also holds true. “Gate opening was perceived positively by fathers. They felt it improved their relationship as a couple,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
Just like marriage, parenting is a partnership
As the women fight for equality in the workforce, dads are also aiming to be of equal footing in the parenting arena. Moms have been rallying for a fair share of parenting and childcare duties, and dads have come a long way from just bringing home the bacon.
Dads are more involved than they have ever been in parenting, but moms are still seen in our society as the expert caregivers. It is crucial for both new parents to help and support each other. “They have more sources of support in society when it comes to how to be a good parent, but fathers don’t generally get that support from society. The only support they often get as parents are from their partner. That’s why it is so important,” Olsavsky stressed.
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Several studies back up the benefits of fathers being involved during pregnancy, being present during childbirth, and being hands-on to a child’s overall development and make them happier. Dads should be more proactive in seeking to be part of the picture; it’s not just the moms who need to be aware of when they’re gatekeeping their partners.