Maternal gatekeeping reflects a mother’s belief that she is the only one capable of providing care for her child. She may refuse to let others, even the father, play an active role in the life of her child, whether it be in terms of feeding, bedtimes, or issuing discipline. Unfortunately, this can result in familial resentment, relationship conflict, and parental alienation.
What Is Maternal Gatekeeping?
Maternal gatekeeping is a term used to describe a mother’s refusal to allow others to engage in particular activities with her child. Mothers may deny loved ones, even their child’s father, permission to feed, change, or spend alone time with their baby. Maternal gatekeeping can extend past family members to include friends, neighbors, or anyone else who fails to meet the mother’s extreme expectations.
Many new mothers can be anxious about caring for their infant, but gatekeeping behavior arises from other concerns. Research indicates that women who are most likely to gatekeep include those with perfectionistic ideas about their partner’s parenting; compromised psychological wellness; doubt about their relationship’s stability; and inflated confidence in their own parenting skills.1 All in all, gatekeeping tends to be driven by a mother’s beliefs rather than her partner’s or others’ skill sets. Over time, if a mom doesn’t learn to step back and let others in, this behavior may transform into helicopter parenting.
Examples of Maternal Gatekeeping
Maternal gatekeeping can look different based on the child’s age, setting, circumstances, and identity of the person who is attempting to interact with the child. As mothers are first mastering the skills of childcare, it can be normal for them to prefer to handle a majority of the child care on their own. However, some mothers have difficulty letting go of the need to micromanage their child’s life, and may only sparingly allow their partner to take over parenting tasks.
Mothers who expect perfection may leave others feeling humiliated or hopeless if their efforts to care for the child are discounted, dismissed, or re-done by the mother. If a couple’s relationship results in separation and divorce, maternal gatekeeping against the father can intensify.
Common examples of maternal gatekeeping include:
- A mother refusing to let her partner take the lead in a new routine with a child because it’s not how “she does it.”
- Keeping her partner from developing an independent and close relationship with her child
- Refusing grandparents or other relatives the opportunity to care for her child if she is not present.
- Turning down date nights with her partner because she doesn’t trust others to care for her child.
- Refusing to trust others to feed or put to bed her baby “the right way,” because she feels she is the only one who can do these correctly.
- Closely monitoring her partner’s every move when they are caring for her child.
- Telling others “how to do it,” whatever the childcare task is, without letting them figure it out for themselves.
Impacts of Maternal Gatekeeping
At its heart, maternal gatekeeping is driven by a mother’s desire to see that her child is as well cared for as possible. However, the time and focus required to micromanage a child’s every moment can cause her other relationships to deteriorate. Not only is the mother limiting the amount of time she can spend with her support network, she is also potentially harming relationships through her mistrust of others’ abilities.
Impacts of maternal gatekeeping may include:
Relationship Conflict Between Parents
Maternal gatekeeping is a way for a mother to maintain control over the raising of her child. However, this means that she has to control other people’s interactions with her child, too. This can leave her less able to meet the needs of her partner, leaving the partner feeling like the “odd person out.” The partner may resent their child’s mother, possibly even the child for being the constant focus of attention. This unhealthy situation can lead to contempt in a relationship.
Resentment Flowing in Both Directions
Trying to do it all alone can be overwhelming. But, if a mother desires to keep others from entering the caregiving world of her child, she’s creating a no-win situation for herself. A stay-at-home mother might resent her partner’s freedom to spend his leisure time doing what he enjoys or his ability to leave the home every day for his job. Resentment eventually becomes reciprocal. Rather than the bonding effect that shared childcare can create, a rift over the imbalance in parental responsibilities can build.
Relationship Conflict With Family or Friends
When a mother keeps loving grandparents, family members, or good friends away from her child, this can result in deep relational conflict. Loved ones may feel hurt or angry that they aren’t viewed as trustworthy by the child’s mother. They may visit less frequently and distance themselves from the child and their parents.
Friends may feel hurt, as well, when their offers to provide support are turned down or their every action is corrected. New babies and children usually bring people together, but when a mother’s gatekeeping is overly stringent, this only succeeds in keeping families and friends apart.
Parental Anxiety & Depression
Parenting can be anxiety provoking in any setting, but when a mother cuts herself off from potential sources of support, she is much more at risk of experiencing parental anxiety. Additionally, true postpartum depression is a serious illness, and if symptoms of depression are noticed or experienced, mothers should check in with their physicians. Those who choose to be full-time mothers may also experience stay-at-home mom depression.
Burnout & Exhaustion
They say it takes a village to raise a child–when a mother tries to do it all, it can easily lead to mom burnout. This can be a grave development as increased levels of exhaustion bring along feelings of apathy. Anxiety and stress are normal for any mother to experience, but they are also precursors to burnout if steps are not taken to minimize them. Once burnout settles in, the maternal gatekeeper may be even more controlling as she seeks to keep a lid on whatever she can control.
Maternal gatekeepers can create a dynamic in which their partner is seen as the “bad guy” by their child, sometimes resulting in parental alienation syndrome. This harms the parent-child relationship in more ways than one, potentially for the entirety of the child’s life. Alienation can sever the early relationship between parent and child. Some mothers are able to nurture and tend to the alienation in such a way that even as an adult, the child never feels able to develop a healthy relationship with the alienated parent.
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7 Ways to Avoid Maternal Gatekeeping
Recognizing that your behavior is creating barriers between others and your child is the first step to addressing and eradicating gatekeeping behavior. Being willing to have open communication, as well as providing space for them to share their feelings, can help you see from their vantage point.
Below are seven ways to avoid maternal gatekeeping:
1. Focus on Communication
No one is a mind reader, so it is essential that mothers clearly state what they need from others in terms of support. Additionally, engaging in structured conversations can lead to healthier relationships in which no one is trying to second guess–or read the mind of–their partner. Clarifying expectations, shared responsibilities, delegated duties, and one another’s concerns can positively influence the adults’ relationship.
2. Keep Safety Front & Center
Maternal gatekeepers tend to be extremely concerned about the well-being and safety of their child. Both parents should engage in a discussion regarding safety expectations to ensure they are both aware of what the other values and what products, baby equipment, and rules must be in place. These conversations might include determining the brand of formula used, a child’s feeding and napping schedule, or car seat requirements. First aid training expectations and medical treatment preferences might also be important topics to cover. Any special needs or conditions, such as allergies, should also be addressed as well.
3. Take a Break & Walk Away
If you feel the urge to intervene when someone is engaging with or caring for your child, sometimes the best thing you can do is to take a step back. It’s important that your child learns to trust others. If a mother is always hovering, the child may have a hard time trusting others or developing independence later on. Remind yourself that your child is going to be fine and that you trust the person who is caring for your child. Afterward, perhaps engage in something like walking meditation or mindful breathing as a way to distract yourself and give the other person space.
4. Take a Parenting Class
Sometimes you may need a little outside “coaching” when you take on a new role. By learning more about parenting and the psychological and physical skills involved, you may feel more willing to let others share the load. If dad also attends the parenting class, then you can feel secure knowing that both of you have the same training and can parent effectively as a team. There are many styles of parenting, but a parenting class can help you explore which one is right for you.
5. Recognize That Everyone Is Doing Their Best
It’s helpful to remember that the people who want to help out, including the child’s other parent, have your child’s best interest in mind. Don’t belittle them for their shortcomings or failure to meet your standards–even if they don’t put on the diaper tight enough. If they try to help out with the laundry, but all of your child’s clothes shrink in the process, remind yourself that your child will soon outgrow these anyway.
6. Get Involved in Activities Outside of the Home
When you spend all of your energy and time focused on one person, you lose sight of the bigger picture and overemphasize minor things. Ensuring that you have interests and activities beyond the mother-child universe can help you put everything into perspective.
Building relationships with other moms can also provide a “reference group” that allows you to see how they view things. Activities that give you a break from “mom duty” can be engaging as well as offer opportunities where others can step in and be a caregiver while you’re out of range.
7. Focus on Your Child’s Needs
When a new baby joins a family, all of the focus is placed on the baby’s daily life. However, this period isn’t meant to last forever–just as babies need space to develop and grow, the relationship needs to shift, too. While every moment of a child’s life matters, it’s good for moms to realize that a child’s needs change over time and with age. Helping your child acclimate to different people, helping them feel comfortable in new situations, and trusting that others can care for your child are ways that you can positively support healthy development into adulthood.
How Therapy Can Help
Parenting can be an overwhelming responsibility, so finding ways to simplify your life and optimize your family functioning is important. If maternal gatekeeping is affecting you or your relationship, you may decide to seek counseling if you’re unable to successfully address the problem on your own.
Professionals are able to view situations objectively and help you find ways to make changes that positively influence the family system. If you and your child’s other parent are still together, you may want to look into marriage and couples counseling or online marriage counseling options, which may more easily fit into your schedules.
For separated couples, co-parenting counseling or family therapy can be beneficial, especially if grandparents or other family members are involved in a child’s daily life. Each family is unique in its needs and dynamic, but working with a family therapist can help you find the solution that is right for you.
In My Experience
In my experience, maternal gatekeepers are mothers who just want what’s best for their children. Maternal gatekeeping is driven by fear, and working with moms to help them determine and articulate what is triggering this fear can be the first step in helping them lower the gates. It’s important to include dads in these conversations, as well, as they may already be dealing with a lack of confidence around parenting. It also leaves them with less opportunity to practice caregiving and build these skills. Mothers do “know best,” but it’s important that we all recognize that “it takes a village to raise a child.”