Unloved Daughters and the Dark Side of Maternal Gatekeeping
How traditional values can mask and normalize toxic behavior.
Posted Mar 15, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Maternal gatekeeping is never a good thing but it affects dynamics in a dysfunctional or toxic family much more than the dialogue suggests. "Gatekeeping" is a relatively benign turn of phrase, bringing to mind perhaps a woman standing by a fence; she might be smiling or frowning, right? What’s wrong with gatekeeping anyway? Aren’t boundaries good things? I think the phrase is a little like “helicopter parenting”—another easy-to-roll-off-the-tongue phrase that covers a multitude of parenting sins, some of them grave.
Maternal gatekeeping has been studied for decades and is most often adduced in discussions about why, in our 21st-century world made up of so many households with two wage earners, the domestic workload remains so unevenly split. Study after study confirms the findings that fathers do less of the work in the home and childcare than mothers, even when both have jobs. Some argue that this may not be a function of men being slackers, but rather a result of women holding a tight rein over the domestic activities traditionally associated with females. That is the narrowest definition of gatekeeping as it’s been studied, most usually in relationship to its effect on a father’s parenting behavior. Researchers have looked at it from various angles; I’ll begin with those, but will turn to what happens when the gatekeeper relishes manipulation more than anything and is, in fact, a mother high in controlling or narcissistic traits, emotionally unavailable or highly combative. That, as you might imagine, does more than shift the scales.
Who’s likely to gatekeep and why?
Years ago, I remember a work colleague of mine—and I was very fond of her—confessing her dissatisfaction with her husband’s handling of their children and household. She was the primary wage earner with a high-paying and difficult corporate job, and he was a musician who worked largely nights and weekends; he was, in effect, a stay-at-home dad. They’d moved from the city to the suburbs—no more squished New York City apartment—and the kids were, by her account, thriving. She was happy with the move and even having the long train commute home to wind-down and decompress. But she frowned as she spoke, taking a sip of her wine: “I know it’s unfair, but, you know, I’m always so aware of how much better it would be if I were doing it. The house would look better, the laundry less haphazard, the kids better organized, the pantry more stocked. I end up bitching about something every day, and I know he hates it, but I just can’t help myself. My house looks nothing like my mother’s house—and she’s a fabulous mother and caretaker—and it drives me nuts. I hate the price my family’s paying for my working full-time.”
That is maternal gatekeeping in a nutshell, and yes, you can do it as a stay-at-home mother too; her reference to how her mother mothered is certainly a piece of the pie. But lest we think that gatekeeping is simply about traditional gender roles, we need to think again, according to a study conducted by Sarah J, Schoppe-Sullivan and others and published in 2015. What set their study apart was their interest in what made women gatekeep; most studies simply focus on the effects of gatekeeping. Their sample included 183 couples about to have their first child and continued three months postpartum. They looked at what predicted gatekeeping, on the one hand, and what predicted an open gate, on the other: among the variables considered were maternal expectations, including perfectionism and the assessment of the marriage; paternal expectations; maternal neuroticism, anxiety, and depression; maternal religiosity; and traditional gender roles.
This study suggests that gender roles play a very small part in gatekeeping, but that the tenor of the marital relationship plays a significant role, as does the mother’s high expectations for her partner’s parenting skills. Mothers who approached parenting with perfectionism were more likely to criticize their partners and, yes, shut them out. Interestingly, while maternal gatekeeping is often prevalent after a divorce, this study suggests that a mother’s perception that the relationship or marriage wasn’t going to last was a robust predictor of gatekeeping. Poor maternal psychological function also predicted greater gatekeeping although that seems a bit counterintuitive; if you’re feeling anxious or stressed by parenting, wouldn’t you want more help rather than less? The authors of the study don’t have an answer, but suggest perhaps that these gatekeepers are more antagonistic toward co-parenting or overly involved with their children. Finally, a mother’s confidence in her own parenting skills may make her see the father as an apprentice, compared to her expert status, and that too increases gatekeeping. Ironic, isn’t it, that confidence in your skills would make you gatekeep?
And, by the way, that friend of mine ultimately divorced her stay-at-home husband, just in case you were wondering.
Maternal gatekeeping and the unloving mother
The way in which a mother uses gatekeeping to marginalize a father’s role can be much more conscious and deliberate in a dysfunctional family, especially with a highly controlling mother at the helm or one in which marital tensions run high. Unfortunately, the father’s isolation from his child or children—especially if the mother is unattuned to one or more children—magnifies the pain and suffering, as one daughter explained:
“My mother guarded the home and the three children in it as fiercely as a bear does her lair. She mocked and marginalized my father’s efforts, and, frankly, I think he withdrew to protect himself and became the three monkeys who saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. My mother was abusive towards me, but kinder to my brothers, but we all resented our father more for failing to show up. She might have been a witch to me, but his cowardice was a terrible betrayal. My siblings and I disagree about my mother, but we’re on the same page about Dad.”
A father’s refusal to push back against gatekeeping feels like a betrayal to most unloved children.
Gatekeeping allows a mother high in narcissistic traits or control to divide and conquer—by either co-opting her husband into accepting her authority or effectively banishing him from the arena so she’s free to rule the roost as she sees fit. Often, she’ll extend her gatekeeping to her children, orchestrating not just every child’s behaviors, but also their relationships to each other. While normally not defined as maternal gatekeeping, I think it’s useful to see how gatekeeping actually can insinuate itself into the basic interactions of all the family members. This is “Nina’s” story:
“My mother actively thwarted my father from being close to me and my sister; she quite literally made it hard for him to spend any time alone with us, and she batted down any suggestions he had loudly and clearly. She ran the house like a boot camp, and my dad was pretty much reduced to being a foot soldier in her army. My sister is four years younger, and the minute we began to get close—a bond forged by having to deal with how horribly critical she was of both of us—our mother started playing one of us off against the other by scapegoating one of us by turns. Ultimately, she became the favored child and I the outsider. We’re adults now, but the patterns persist. I can honestly say I have no idea of who my father is or what he thinks, despite the fact that he’s been my dad for 42 years. If he thinks of me at all, he parrots my mother, as does my sister. My mother and sister are peas-in-a-pod, and I’m still the scapegoat.”
Anecdotally at least, some maternal gatekeeping is about keeping score, and it may involve marital history that the daughter isn’t familiar with until much later in her life. That was certainly true for “Jane,” now 69, an only child who finally understood deep in her 40s after her father died:
“Some of my earliest memories are my mother whispering, ’We just won’t tell your father about this.’ When I was little, there didn’t seem to be a reason for not telling him something—it could equally be a good thing that happened or a bad one—but the message was clear: It was us versus him. My mother was my father’s second wife, and I had two way older half-brothers, and my mother stayed at home; Dad made good money, and we lived in an enviable apartment, and all of that. They stayed together until he died, but it was always the same: He was marginalized and adrift, a man who was gifted and drank too much every night, but always charming. It was only after he died that I learned he’d fallen in love with someone when I was 6 or so, and when he announced his intention, my mother told him that if he left, he’d never see me again. He stayed, but paid a terrible price. As did I in ways that weren’t clear for a long time.”
This is maternal gatekeeping as payback, but another reader offered another story which was even more complicated than that:
“I guess you could say that my mother was a gatekeeper from the very beginning of my life. She was previously married and divorced, with two young children, and wasn’t looking for any additions. She gave my father an ultimatum: She would have another baby, but only if it happened before she turned 30. That gave them three months from their wedding, and by some miracle, I was conceived and born on time. She let my father name me. But that led to a second ultimatum, based on her belief that her first two children (my half-siblings) would only make it out out of this family relationship emotionally intact if there were no differences between them and me, his biological child. So he was told to back off on all parenting decisions and effectively become a step-dad to all three of us. Amazingly, this seemed reasonable to my father and he agreed. He took the role of a jovial, emotionally absent “nice guy” who for 36 years would not even send me a text message without prompting from my mother. Every situation was deferred to my mother; even when I was an adult and begged him for a relationship, he backed my mother up in every sense. Any criticism of her was a criticism of him. There was no getting through. She savored the control even if it came with all the resentment, and he savored the freedom even if it came with no relationship.”
Her mother orchestrated and acted as the gatekeeper for her daughter’s relationships to her half-siblings which undermined any possible close connection. It will not surprise you that with such a stark beginning, it remained a story full of exclusion and without a happy ending.
Normalizing gatekeeping—until you can’t
What the research fails to mention is that in the day to day, these gatekeeping mothers look like superheroes. Their perfectionism, their need for control, and every other point covered in analyses makes them look like high-achieving caretakers, even with their complaints and sometimes their acting like a martyr. It all looks good from the outside: well-tended yards, houses, and children. For the child of a gatekeeper, this presents an insurmountable problem: How to explain appearance versus reality when it seems she's doing a great job?
It’s not the 1950s anymore, when moms did the home and dads did money—but why are we still so forgiving of gatekeeping? We are basically OK with gatekeeping, because it validates the cultural idea that women are by nature nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, and that all mothers love their children. Not one of these myths is true, but so far, no one has come up with an alternative. Ironically, maternal gatekeeping seems to validate all of them. We may be culturally more comfortable with dead-beat dads than territorial moms, even when there is evidence to the contrary.
Well, here’s my story, which I once thought was uniquely cruel. I have never written about it in detail before. As it happens, I am not the only person to whom this happened; I have gotten an appalling number of shared stories of adults shut out from saying goodbye to those they loved as they left this Earth—parents, siblings, grandparents, and others—by gatekeepers. I was 15 and on a semester abroad in France when the letters from my father stopped coming. It was 1964, and transatlantic calls were too expensive. I wrote to my mother, and she said my father was too busy to deal with me. That seemed unlikely, because while my relationship with my mother was dreadful, I knew my father loved me in his way. I wrote to my friends, asking them to call my parents’ apartment, and they wrote back saying no one was home, and my parents and baby brother were probably out having fun. Remember that this was 1964, long before answering machines. I went to Amsterdam with a girlfriend to see my grandmother two months later and was told for the first time that my father was in the hospital and on the verge of death. I was freaked out; my girlfriend went back to France, and my aunt, my father’s sister, and I flew to the U.S. We sat in the hospital lobby for six days, but my mother wouldn’t permit us to go into his room. It was the ultimate act of gatekeeping, because I never got to say goodbye or to tell him I loved him. Nor did his sister.
What is interesting to me is that it is hard to write this now, 55 years later. My aunt never forgave her, nor did I. A few years ago, the girl who accompanied me to Amsterdam and I discussed what happened; she either didn’t remember or realize that I had never seen my father again. She’s the mother of three, had two loving and supportive parents, and is now a grandmother, and she kept telling me that there must have been a reason my mother didn’t let me see him. She ventured that perhaps she was protecting me, and I countered by saying my aunt didn’t see him either. She was silent and then said, “I just have trouble believing any mother could be that cruel.”
The stories unloved daughters tell fly in the face of what people want to believe about mothers and mothering. Gatekeeping is a variation on the theme.
Those of us unlucky enough to live through the extreme version of gatekeeping tend to be alert and aware when we become mothers ourselves. Interestingly, women who had rejecting or absentee fathers are far less likely to gatekeep, as researcher Mary De Luccie discovered, and more welcoming and appreciative of their spouse’s or partner’s efforts.
Ultimately, gatekeeping is about control, and there’s little question that some mothers need to be totally in control, to their partner’s and offspring’s detriment. (For a fuller discussion, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
If you’re reading this and still actively raising a child or children, it might be a useful exercise to think about whether there’s an open or a closed gate in your home. In a world where the balance of work and home seems hard to achieve, and where there’s always much to do and little time to do it, gatekeeping doesn’t serve any of us in the end.
Many thanks to those on my Facebook page who contributed their stories.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2019.
Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Altenburger, L. E., Lee, M. A., Bower, D. J., & Kamp Dush, C. M. (2015). Who are the Gatekeepers? Predictors of Maternal Gatekeeping. Parenting, science and practice, 15(3), 166-186.
Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah J., Geoffrey L. Brown, Elizabeth A, Cannnon, et al. “Maternal Gatekeeping, Co-Parenting Quality, and Fathering Behavior in Families with Infants.” (2008), Journal of Family Psychology, vol. 22, no.3 389-398.
De Luccie, Mary F. “Mothers: Influential Agents in Father-Child Relations,” (1996) Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs. 122, 287-307.