About a decade ago, researchers began to suspect that mothers played a key role in determining how involved fathers are with their kids. But it was a hypothesis without much evidence.
Now, a new study finds that mothers do play an important role both in encouraging and curtailing fathers' involvement. And this maternal gatekeeping is a powerful force: Even fathers who wanted to be involved with their kids often drifted away in the face of persistent maternal criticism.
Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan of Ohio State University and her colleagues set out to look for evidence one way or the other, by asking 97 couples about their child-rearing beliefs before their first child was born, surveying them afterwards, and observing them at home with their new babies.
They found that mothers could, indeed, block fathers' involvement with their kids-the classic gatekeeping idea-but that encouragement had a more powerful effect on fathers than criticism. "Mothers can close the gate, but they can also open the gate," Schoppe-Sullivan said when I called to ask her about the research. "The effects of encouragement were stronger and more straightforward" than the effects of criticism, she said.
The findings--published in the June, 2008 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology--should put to rest some of the controversy surrounding the notion of maternal gatekeeping. Some researchers never bought the idea, arguing instead that a father's involvement with his kids had more to do with his own beliefs and motivations than anything his wife might do. Nobody argues that maternal gatekeeping is the only influence on fathers. But Schoppe-Sullivan's research shows that it is an important one.
In addition to helping explain how fathers' behave with their kids, the findings might also say something more broadly about marital satisfaction.
When Schoppe-Sullivan asked couples what kind of parents they wanted to be, and later compared that to the kind of parents they became, she found a poignant discord. Some of the couples eagerly looked forward to sharing parenting-but it didn't happen.
"The roles become more traditional," Schoppe-Sullivan said. Mothers generally assumed the larger role, and both were disappointed with that outcome.
These mothers, Schoppe-Sullivan explained, are not consciously trying to shut fathers out. It's just something that happens. And it might help explain the widely documented finding that marital satisfaction goes down with the birth of children. "One reason is that the way life is-after baby comes-doesn't meet with parents' expectations."
Schoppe-Sullivan is about to launch into a much larger, National Science Foundation-funded study expanding on these findings. If she can further elucidate how mothers open or close the gate, she might be able to ease some of the disappointment and dissatisfaction that many new parents experience.
"My ultimate goal," she said, "is to help families achieve what they want to achieve."