Mamas & whānau
Making Room for Your Partner
Your Partner Needs Time with the Baby
A mum has a unique, critical, and fantastic role to play in their child’s life. As a new mum, she quickly realises that the survival of her baby is largely up to her. It's a big responsibility and it makes mums feel protective and want to control what goes on with the baby .
This protectiveness is natural and leads mums to play a key role between the baby and their father. Mums are in a position to either encourage, limit or discourage the dad from having direct involvement with the baby. How much a mum cans allow her partner to interact with her baby may have a lot to do with how much she trusts him in his role as a dad.
When a mum’s protectiveness discourages her partner’s interactions with the baby, social researchers describe this as a closed maternal gate or maternal gatekeeping.
While a mum wants to keep her baby safe, if she doesn’t open the gate wide enough, it will undermine her partner’s relationship with the baby – and it is likely to have a negative impact the couple’s relationship.
When the baby is young, there is always a maternal gate. It's one way mums feel they are protecting their baby. The issue is not "is there a maternal gate', but how open or closed it is. A maternal gate that dampens the father/child bond, is too closed. It will be reflected in the child’s behaviour later on:
“I didn’t trust my husband with the baby, so I did absolutely everything, I didn’t let my husband do anything. I thought I was keeping the baby safe. But now he’s six and he never goes to his dad, he always comes to me. I can see now that I kept them apart. And I can’t go back and fix it, that bonding time, it’s gone.” Mother of two
It's a matter of balance.
What the maternal gate might look like
This article on maternal gatekeeping from a female perspective describes some common mum behaviour:
Looking over her partner’s shoulder when he does things with the baby
Always critiquing how he does things with the baby
Giving him unasked for directions rather than letting him figure it out himself
Complaining or joking to others about how inept he is with the baby or what he doesn’t know
Examples of maternal gatekeeping
“I’m at my brother’s and when the baby does anything at all, his partner gets there before he does – every time! It’s like he’s not allowed to pick the baby up! She wants him to get her cups of tea and stuff, but not to do anything with the baby. It’s like the baby is hers, to theirs.” – baby’s uncle
Some behaviour discourage dads:
“When my brother-in-law is looking after the babies, he has to do it exactly like my sister tells him. Even when she’s gone out and leaves the twins to him, he knows he’ll get a blast anyway because he hasn’t done something up to her standard. She’s taking all the fun out of it for him. It’s almost like she’s making him scared of the babies. I’ve told her, but she doesn’t listen to me.” – Auntie of two
Maternal gatekeeping is commonly done by well-meaning mums who don’t even notice they are doing it. But it can:
limit the baby’s ability to form a secure attachment to their dad
result in her partner feeling like his role with the baby is through her and not having his own relationship with the child
lead to him to see the mum and baby as a unit that doesn’t include him
limit the dad’s ability to enjoy (and even like) the baby
Maternal gatekeeping is normal
Maternal gatekeeping is normal behaviour, it can be observed in almost all mammals. It’s worth noting that mums apply it to differently to each person. It is generally based on how much they know and trust the other person.
On the receiving end, it can be difficult for dads who thought the baby was equally his. If he’s feeling excluded, he may not have the communication skills to explain how it is for him. Or if he tries to bring it up, she might dismiss it as being all in his imagination because she doesn't notice she’s doing it. Or she may take it as he is criticising her. More often than not, men will eventually give up trying to get through.
Downside of a closed gate
If the dad is not allowed (or does take his opportunities) to interact with the baby, it makes it difficult for him to feel a strong bond with his baby. This can affect his commitment, both to the baby and to his relationship with his partner.
This doesn’t mean it’s solely up to the mum to hold the family together. All human relationships are complex. But the mum opening the maternal gate and allowing or even encouraging the dad to interact and spend time with the baby can have great benefits for the baby, the dad, the mum and them as a family.
An open maternal gate has great advantages
But two parents having a close relationship with the baby is better than one. And mums adjusting their behaviour so that their partner can feel that intimacy with the baby has lots of benefits for the whole family.