Our Different Parenting Styles Don’t Have to Harm Our Marriage

Are you guilty of maternal gatekeeping?
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Are you guilty of maternal gatekeeping?

Recently, I returned from a two-day business trip to find a disorganized house, two hyper kids, and a frazzled husband who was exhausted from caring for our children alone. On the way home from the airport, Brian leaned over and whispered, “I’m so happy you’re back.” 

I enjoy being missed, but later, as I was cleaning up the mess, I got irritated listening to him complain about how the kids had misbehaved at a work meet-and-greet they attended with him that day. “What did you expect taking the kids to a work event like that, especially during nap time?” I demanded, adding, “You should have gotten a sitter.”

My critical remark put Brian on the defensive, and spoiled an otherwise sweet reunion. Later, I apologized, but the incident reminded me how easily I can slip into belittling or micromanaging my husband’s parenting efforts, and the negative impact this can have on our marriage.

Brian is an awesome father, who has been all-in from the moment our kids were born. Finding a man who is a present and faithful dad is a dream come true for me. That’s why it surprised me after we had kids to discover that I sometimes find it difficult to allow my husband to parent without interference or criticism. I’ve sometimes treated Brian as a second set of hands, instead of the other half of the parenting equation my kids need. This has not only diminished our ability to parent as a team but has also strained our relationship at times. What I am learning is that Brian brings different, yet equally important gifts to our kids that I don’t, and when I encourage those gifts as complements to mine, both our marriage and children benefit.

I Don’t Have to Parent Alone, But I Still Try

I’ve never been a single mother, but I grew up watching my mom struggle to support us financially and attempt the impossible task of being both parents. As a married mom, my parenting experience is significantly less stressful than my mom’s. Still, parenting with my husband instead of for him is sometimes hard, partly because I never witnessed any joint parenting. As a result, I sometimes try to take over, or criticize how my husband handles our kids. But as Brian often reminds me, I need to “disengage” a little, so he can “engage.”

Mothers actually have a lot of power over how engaged fathers are as parents. Experts call it “maternal gatekeeping,” which is loosely defined as behaviors or attitudes that moms use to either encourage or discourage dads from being involved in raising their children. Although maternal gatekeeping is more common among unmarried parents, married moms can do it too, as in my case. The problem is that “gatekeeping” can result in fathers “disengaging” from parenting. In fact, studies show that mothers who engage in more maternal gatekeeping behaviors result in fathers who do less with the kids.

How Maternal Gatekeeping Hurts My Marriage

I’ve always encouraged Brian’s involvement with the kids, but I haven’t always stepped back to allow him to parent his way. My “gatekeeping” tendencies range from rolling my eyes, to saying things like, “that’s not how you do it,” to outright interference.

According to clinical psychologist and gatekeeping expert, Marsha Kline Pruett, Ph.D., “When parents don’t work together and there are conflicts, it’s bad for the marriage and the kids.” Dr. Kline Pruett co-authored the book Partnership Parenting with her husband, Yale University child psychiatry professor Kyle Pruett, MD.

She told me that engaging in “restrictive gatekeeping creates distance between the parents, and between the father and child, causing him to feel nitpicked, as if he can’t do anything right. This can set up a negative cycle for the marriage relationship and for the kids’ relationship with the father.”

I’ve found this to be true for us. When I’m critical of how he parents, or try to micromanage his efforts with the kids, Brian gets defensive, and tends to step back. But when he disengages, I get frustrated because I feel like I’m carrying the parenting load alone.

Conflicts over parenting are one of the top sources of marital disagreements, but I don’t want to let our parenting differences weaken our marriage. I also want to ensure that my kids get everything from their father that I missed out on with mine—including more of his time and influence. That’s why I’m striving to be a team player, starting with learning to appreciate how fathers parent differently than mothers and why it matters for kids.

Unique But Equal

I began to notice Brian’s different parenting style soon after our children were born, even in how he held our babies. He held them facing forward, with their backs against his chest, while I often cradled them. He also tends to play more with our kids and in a more physical manner than I do. He loves to wrestle with them, or chase them around the house, making them squeal.

Brian also pushes our kids to take risks and try new things. No matter what they are doing, my first concern is their safety, while Brian is more interested in making sure they have fun. He’s also more likely than I am to encourage our kids to “get up and try again” when they fail. And if one of them is struggling with a task, he doesn’t jump in to help right away (as I do).

It’s tempting for me to view my husband as just “a big kid,” who is sometimes “too hard on the kids,” and not careful enough with their safety, or to even label him as “lazy” when he doesn’t immediately come to our children’s rescue. But research shows that Brian is parenting in a way that is generally more common to fathers—and extremely beneficial to children.

In an interview with Salon, Dr. Kyle Pruett explained that dads generally engage in activities with kids that moms do not, including: “roughhousing and other physical activity; an interest in having children encounter the world outside of the mother’s enclosure, not in spite of it but in addition to it; the use of play as a form of teaching as well as entertainment; and a willingness to allow frustration to build a little bit more than a lot of mothers are comfortable with, in order to teach some life lessons.”

A team of family scholars summed up why these differences matter in a 2014 report, when they wrote, “The father’s style of interaction seems to push children out of the nest, whereas the mother’s style seems to make them feel at home in the nest. [T]ogether, the different styles … provide a positive mix of involvement, affection, discipline, comfort, and challenge.”

Better Together

I definitely want to let go of my control issues and encourage Brian as a father—for the benefit of our kids and our marriage. Dr. Kline Pruett shared with me some tips from her research on how to avoid gatekeeping and encourage team parenting:

01. “Appreciate that moms and dads parent differently, and that one way is not better than other. Kids benefit from both."

02. "Back off, and give dad space to parent his way. Don’t try to micromanage his time with the kids.”

“If you let go of gatekeeping, you both become better parents for it, and enjoy parenting together more,” Dr. Pruett noted.

I’ve found that when I treasure Brian’s parenting style as equally valuable, I appreciate his efforts more and criticize him less. When I step back and let him handle situations with the kids, he does more, which takes the pressure off me to try to “do it all.”

Our kids and our marriage thrive when I acknowledge the necessary gifts that Brian brings to our family and allow him to be the father our children need. No, he doesn’t parent my way, but that’s OK because our differences are meant to complement each other. If we work together, our marriage will be healthier, and our kids will reap the benefits of our raising them together with mutual love and respect for one another. 

Photo Credit: Ashley Paige Photography