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Family Groups - Women - maternal Gatekeeping

Women may be inhibiting greater father involvement in family work Contact: BYU Family Studies Center

PROVO, UTApril 6, 1999
With dual-income families now the norm, why are many women still carrying the majority of the responsibility for housework and child-care? Is it because of the "lazy husband" who only wants to watch TV when he returns home, or the "macho man" whose responsibility it is to take out the garbage, not change a diaper? While fingers have pointed at men, new research looks at the other
side - how women may inhibit the collaborative efforts they are requesting.

The current issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family includes the first study to define and empirically document "maternal gatekeeping." The study explores how women's beliefs and behaviors may actually be one of the potential factors inhibiting a collaborative effort between men and women in housework and child-care. The article is based on a sample of 622 dual-earner mothers.

"While many mothers in the work force feel they need more support in family work, most don't even realize their actions may be placing obstacles in the way. They, themselves, may be limiting the amount of their husband's involvement," said Sarah Allen, author of the study and recent Brigham Young University graduate student.

Maternal gatekeeping is defined as having three dimensions including the following: 1) Mother's reluctance to relinquish responsibility for family matters by setting rigid standards; 2) the need for external validation of one's mothering identity; and 3) traditional conceptions of family roles. Included in these dimensions is the various ways wives manage, exclude or choose their husband's levels and types of paternal participation in family work. According to the
study, 20 to 25 percent of dual-earner wives may be classified as "gatekeepers." It is also interesting to note that the conceptualized dimensions of maternal gatekeeping tend to be a "package deal"; mothers higher in one dimension, were generally higher in the other two as well.

Standards and Responsibilities

Some women discourage their husband's involvement by redoing tasks, criticizing, creating unbending standards or demeaning his efforts to protect authority in the home. This is most evident when wives act as household managers by organizing, delegating, planning, scheduling and overseeing the work done by husbands in order to maintain responsibility for the day-to-day aspects of family work. Their
husbands, then, act as helpers by doing what is requested. But, this pattern may also encourage fathers to wait until they are asked to help and to request explicit directions.

Maternal Identity Confirmation

Rather than issues of control and management, in this dimension of gatekeeping, it is common for a woman's self-identity to be tied to how well she thinks others view her homemaking and nurturing skills. Because of this belief, she is more likely to resist her husband's involvement, as it would diminish her value.

Differentiated Family Roles

Differentiated family roles refer to roles for mothers and fathers that reflect a clear division of labor and distinct spheres of influence. Here, a mother who thinks family work is primarily for women may be hesitant to encourage paternal involvement and increase the likelihood she will monitor her husband's involvement.

As stated in the study, some women both cherish and resent being the primary care-giver, feel both relieved and displaced with paternal involvement, are both intentional and hesitant about negotiations for more collaborative sharing, and feel guilty and liberated with more involvement from men in family work. This ambivalence about increased paternal involvement serves to keep the gate to the domestic garden periodically swinging open and closed with gusts of wind invisible to fathers.

"This is a very complex subject filled with a variety of gender issues," said Alan Hawkins, second author of the study and director of the BYU Family Studies Center. "While the term has been loosely used in the field, no one has previously investigated its many dimensions or adequately defined it. With more attention to these issues, perhaps more mothers will be able to achieve greater collaboration with their partners."

The maternal gatekeeping study was conducted and written by Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins, research associates of the BYU Family Studies Center. Alan is one of the few graduate students to have her master's thesis published in the premier journal in the field.

BYU Family Studies Center

The Brigham Young University Family Studies Center is dedicated to conducting quality family research and providing valuable information to families that will enhance their lives. The Center has the largest concentration of family research faculty in the nation and is eager to become a valuable resource for family related issues.

Tonya Fischio
801-378-9759 tfh3@email.byu.edu

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