Historically, women have been primary caregivers and responsible for domestic tasks, including housework and childcare. However, men have started to assume a more significant role in domestic work. Indeed, fathers’ direct involvement in parenting in the United States has increased since the 1960s. But even when both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal.

Research has suggested that one of the reasons for unequal division of labor is maternal gatekeeping. Mothers may serve as gatekeepers in the family—controlling fathers’ involvement in parenting by discouraging or encouraging their involvement. When mothers are more controlling about the ways fathers get involved with their children (gate closing), fathers tend to be less involved in terms of both quality and quantity. However, when mothers are more open and encouraging (gate opening), fathers tend to be more involved in taking care of their children. Maternal gatekeeping is important because it affects fathers’ involvement in childrearing, which is beneficial for children’s positive cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. We have relatively little understanding of psychological factors that may explain individual differences in mothers’ tendencies to encourage or discourage fathers from engaging in childcare and housework.

There are a few factors that seem to shape how much a mother controls a father’s involvement with children. First, mothers who believe strongly in traditional gender roles where women are responsible for domestic tasks and men are breadwinners of the family and the idea that certain traits, such as caring, are biologically inherent tend to be more controlling and to close the gate to fathers’ involvement. Mothers’ psychological well-being and expectations play a role, too. Mothers who struggle emotionally, have unrealistically high expectations for their partner’s parenting or feel their relationship is unstable tend to be more critical and controlling of fathers’ involvement. Also, fathers who doubt their parenting abilities may face more control from mothers. There is even evidence that mothers might control fathers more when fathers show high levels of negative emotions. This could be because some mothers use gatekeeping as a way to protect their children from fathers’ risky traits.

During periods of change like becoming a parent, individuals may experience higher stress because of changes in responsibilities and relationships. Relationships formed in the early years of life impact how individuals see themselves and others in relationships for their whole lives. These views about relationships are called attachment styles and they also influence personal beliefs about offering support when needed and whether someone deserves support. Attachment styles are marked by different levels of anxiety (i.e., worry about abandonment) and avoidance (i.e., discomfort with closeness) and affect the psychological adjustment of new parents to parental roles.

Our research was based on data drawn from a larger study of 182 dual-earner couples in the United States who were followed across their transition to parenthood during 2008–2010. The couples we studied completed surveys about attachment styles and maternal gatekeeping and were also observed interacting together with their infants. We found that more anxious mothers tended to exert more control (gate closing). Additionally, during caregiving tasks, more anxious mothers showed less encouragement of father involvement (gate opening), which was unexpected. This behavior might stem from anxious mothers wanting to protect their close bond with their children. These findings align with previous research on anxious attachment, which suggests that anxious individuals tend to regulate their relationships more tightly due to fear of abandonment.

Similarly, fathers who were more avoidant perceived less encouragement from mothers. Avoidant individuals typically create more distance in relationships, which might lead mothers to be less supportive of fathers’ involvement in parenting. Unexpectedly, fathers’ higher anxiety was also related to lower perceived encouragement from mothers and higher observed gate closing from mothers. This could be because mothers might hesitate to encourage fathers’ involvement to protect their investment in their children and hold their positions as ‘expert’ parents while fathers are considered as ‘apprentices’.

Overall, our findings indicated that more anxious mothers show less encouragement and more discouragement of fathers’ involvement. Also, fathers with higher anxiety and avoidance perceive less encouragement and more discouragement from mothers regarding their involvement in childcare. This study’s findings have important implications for programs aimed at supporting couples and parenting. By understanding how individual factors, such as adult attachment styles, influence parenting dynamics during the transition to parenthood, interventions can be tailored to encourage better cooperation between parents and greater support from mothers for fathers’ involvement in parenting. This support can lead to fathers feeling more empowered to make parenting decisions and to have higher confidence in their parenting abilities. These positive outcomes for fathers can ultimately benefit children, as their development can be enriched by having actively involved fathers.

F. Kubra Aytac is a PhD candidate in Psychology at The Ohio State University. Her primary research interests are adult attachment, coparenting, couple relationships, and mental health. You can follow her on Twitter @kubraytac

The study discussed in this blog is published in Personal Relationships. I would like to recognize my advisor and co-author, Dr. Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan.