Monday, November 2, 2020

The Myth of Maternal Gatekeeping: No, it's Not Your Fault Your Husband's Not Involved

The Internet is littered with articles that instruct heterosexual married women on strategies for getting men to do more household labor. Research shows that even in dual earner families, women do significantly more household and childrearing labor, get less sleep, and enjoy less leisure time than their male partners. Rather than targeting men with messages about the need to be less lazy, stop abusing their partners, and participate equally in the lives of the children they helped to make, advice-givers have decided that women created this problem. Some even claim that women are actively preventing men from participating in domestic work by engaging in maternal gatekeeping. 

The line goes like this: 

Women have unreasonable standards for household cleanliness and caring for children. So when men try to "help" (it's always framed as help when a man does it, not a basic obligation of being a functional adult), women correct them. The men lose interest and stop helping

It's the woman's fault, you see. 

This concept treats household labor as something people do for funsies, as if there are no actual standards, and women are being mean by expecting their male partners to conform to a basic standard of care. 

There is a right way to parent and a right way to clean. 

If you leave crumbs on the counter, bugs appear. 

If you leave stains on the floor, it gets stained. 

If you don't vacuum the house, there's dust and pet hair everywhere. 

If you don't clean the toilet, it eventually becomes covered in feces. 

If you don't send children to school with healthy lunches, they can't have healthy bodies. 

If you don't put the right formula in a baby's bottle, the baby can get sick. 

If you don't put a newborn down to sleep in a safe position, they can die. 

If you don't make a child wear a helmet, or buckle them correctly into the carseat, or keep allergens out of their food, or monitor while they eat, or cut up grapes for young babies, or a million other things, the child might not survive dad's parenting. 

Women who correct their partner's parenting aren't gatekeeping; they're protecting their families and their children from men who have not bothered to learn to do things right--or who, more likely, are deliberately doing things wrong so that their wives will stop asking for help. 

There's actual research documenting the fact that men who are worse parents are more likely to be subject to "gatekeeping." A 2018 study found that men whose wives engaged in gatekeeping were worse parents when researchers assessed parenting quality at 9 months. This isn't because gatekeeping made them worse parents, either. The researchers found no association between not being a gatekeeper and parenting quality. In other words, men didn't get any better at parenting when their wives avoided correcting them. But men were more likely to have gatekeeper wives when they sucked at parenting. 

Other studies have also found that maternal gatekeeping correlates with less competent fathers. These studies similarly fail to provide any evidence that maternal gatekeeping causes the bad behavior. And it just doesn't make sense to conclude there is a causal connection. A man who is a competent parent has no reason to become less competent when his wife comments on his parenting. And if he does, if he decides to quit trying, perhaps he's not really a good father. Women routinely continue competently parenting their kids even when their parents don't praise them or support them, and even when their partners actively undermine them. 

Why is it that we think men need praise and support to be good parents, while women should be able to pull it off no matter what? 

Perhaps instead of maternal gatekeeping, we should talk about manbabies who are so incompetent that their wives have to stand over them to tell them how to correctly parent. Of course, that doesn't make for very good soundbytes or cute listicles. 

The myth of maternal gatekeeping is just one more way we blame women for men's bad behavior. Don't buy it. Fathers who live in the same house as the mother who want to care for their children can. There are plenty of opportunities to get up in the middle of the night, pick up the toys, review the homework, make the school lunch, read stories, and do everything else that mothers do. Men do not have to be reminded or prompted. After all, women do all of this and more without such reminders. They don't need gratitude or credit; women certainly don't get those things when they care for children. To make male participation in household labor dependent on these prerequisites is to demand even more labor from mothers. 

Don't buy it. 

He can do the work. 

He just chooses not to.