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Gatekeeper Moms, Why Some Mothers Shut Fathers Out Of Caring For Kids

A little too close?
A little too close?
Jenny Hoch

MUNICH — Some women block any effort by men to take part in the raising of their children. This is often more about the mother's own feeling of powerlessness than about their children's wellbeing.

Women who become possessive about their children and don't allow fathers to take care of their mutual offspring may sound like something from a distant past. It even sounds like the kind of excuse made by modern fathers so they do not have to be the one soothing the baby in the middle of the night.

An American study conducted in 1999 first tried to quantify the phenomenon, concluding that almost a quarter of all married mothers are so-called "gatekeeper mothers." A long-term study conducted by the German family and social researcher Wassilios Fthenakis reflected similar figures, with every fifth woman found to block the father's attempt at engaging with his children. These mothers do not see the father as an equally competent parent. They defend their territory as a caregiver because a significant part of their self-esteem stems from it. After all, it is usually the woman who has had to neglect her career in order to care for her children.

"This is a case of problematic bonding," says Gabriele Leipold, a Munich-based couples and family therapist. "Gatekeeper mothers" are unable to have a relationship with more than one person, often due to early childhood experiences. If a child is born into a two-parent family this kind of mother is not able to deal with this situation and tries to exclude one person from this triangular relationship — often the father.

"The affected woman desperately attempts to be the most important person to the child and outdoes the father because she perceives him to be a threat," says Leipold. These mothers, therefore, put the parenting bar so high that the father is bound to fail.

This behavior arises because of entrenched traditional roles where household duties are unequally distributed. These roles are so deeply embedded in the subconscious that they are hard to shake.

"Maternal gatekeeping" has repercussions for any kind of romantic relationship. The man is made to feel removed from the spousal relationship because he sees his wife as only a mother, instead of also as a partner. He may perceive his wife's hovering over their children as distrust or even aggression toward him. "Positive feelings towards each other cannot bloom in this kind of climate," says Leipold.

While mothers who have a know-it-all approach may seem like they're displaying power, Leipold argues that the reality it is the exact opposite: namely it masks a feeling of powerlessness. No matter what mothers do — whether they work full-time or care for their children full-time — they are criticized.

"Many women have strong inferiority complexes after having stayed home for a while to raise the children and worry justifiably that they will be sidelined when they reenter the job market," she notes. "At home, on the other hand, they can look at their husband as, essentially, superfluous. Which is why they often cling to their homemaker status for much longer than necessary."

Leipold advises her clients to clearly structure household tasks and make to-do lists even before childcare comes into the picture: "You have to be demanding of men," she says. "But at the same time give them the chance to work their way into this new set of duties."

Cornelia Koppetsch, professor of sociology at the Technical University of Darmstadt, conducted a study that found that only 30% of men actively take part in raising children and fulfilling their household duties, a figure that hasn't changed much since the 1970s. It is a reminder that the bigger issue on gender inequality remains the same: not those women who shut out fathers who want to contribute to raising kids, but the shortage of fathers who want to contribute.

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