My husband is an impeccably dressed man, yet that innate sense of style doesn’t translate when it's time for him to dress our toddler. Since I leave before our 2-year-old is dressed, I don’t see his, ahem, creative choices until I pick our son up from daycare. Yesterday, he was wearing slouchy Spider Man sweatpants paired with a crisp plaid button-down.
Most days I just laugh to myself. I know I’m lucky that my husband contributes far more at home than the average dad. But one time I snapped and declared that I would be laying out our son’s outfits in advance from now on.
Instinctively, I knew it wasn’t good for our marriage. I knew that holding my husband to an unreasonably high parenting standard would only make him resentful, and ultimately add more work to my heavy load. What I didn’t know was that psychologists have a term for what I had done: maternal gatekeeping.
Lately, my Facebook feed has been inundated with articles about the mental load—the unpaid managerial labor women perform to keep the home fires burning. Scheduling babysitters and vet appointments and playdates and soccer practice. Booking electricians and vacations. Checking in on the in-laws. Picking the perfect Paperless Post invite for your kid’s birthday party. Meal planning. Calendar maintenance.
Even in the most egalitarian of heterosexual marriages, these tasks tend to fall to the woman.
That’s in addition, of course, to the physical labor that moms still overwhelmingly perform, including laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning—basically everything but car upkeep, taxes and yard work.
Oh, and childcare. Even when both parents work, moms still spend more hours with their kids than dads.
How did this happen? Why did women move en masse into the workforce, shattering glass ceiling after glass ceiling, only to be left sweeping up the pieces at home?
One answer: maternal gatekeeping. The term first became official almost 20 years ago, when an Ohio State University study of 97 couples found that even fathers who wanted to be involved with their kids often stepped back in the face of persistent maternal criticism. Subsequent studies have confirmed that, yes, maternal gatekeeping does play a part in curtailing how much time fathers spend with their kids.
The Ohio State study also found that women were more likely to “gatekeep” when they believe their relationship is less stable, when they are anxious or depressed, when fathers lack confidence or when mothers hold excessively high standards for parenting, the study’s lead author, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, told CNN in a recent piece on maternal gatekeeping.
(Just wondering: Would a compulsive need to make sure your toddler’s pants and shirts match count as “excessively high standards?” Asking for a friend.)
"Gatekeeping really seems to depend on how much a woman internalizes societal standards about being a good mom," Schoppe-Sullivan said. "The more you care about [being viewed as a good mom], the less likely you are to give up control over that domain."
You can opt out of today’s insanely high expectations for working moms, but you will be judged. Men, on the other hand, get laughter and rueful smiles when their parenting errors are exposed to the world.
Of course, there are many, many other reasons besides maternal gatekeeping why women bear the brunt of parental labor—see: human history, course of. It will take more than a few decades to unwind gender roles that date back to the Cenozoic era. And men certainly should shoulder some (most?) of that labor too.
When Gemma Hartley’s powerful cri de coeur about the mental load, the aptly titled, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” went viral, a friend of mine joked that the byline should read “Women Everywhere.” Hartley, a mom of three, detailed her frustrations in trying to make her husband understand that she didn’t want to ask him to put away boxes or book housecleaners—that the asking was a chore in and of itself.
Hartley’s essay begs the question: Are women’s standards “excessively high” if we’re asking men to perform, with comparable competency, the same damn tasks we manage day in and day out?
That’s a good question, of course. But what isn’t being asked during all of these conversations about the mental load, emotional labor and gatekeeping is: why have we set the bar so high in the first place?
Is it reasonable to expect any working family, with jobs and kids and friends and dogs and a premium cable subscription, to make healthy, wholesome meals every night? To schedule a fully booked roster of philanthropic, athletic and educational endeavors? To create and maintain a Pinterest-worthy home? To raise kind, compassionate, well-mannered, well-spoken, well-educated, motivated, focused, creative, athletic, confident and independent kids?
If my son is adequately attired for the weather, what the hell does it matter what he’s wearing at daycare? The answer: It doesn’t. I know this. But before we ask women to stop gatekeeping, we may need to knock down the gate first.