Why Maternal Gatekeeping Is About So Much More than Moms Being Bossy

A blame and shame-free discussion with Author Kate Mangino on why people gatekeep and what we can do about it.

Why Maternal Gatekeeping Is About So Much More than Moms Being Bossy
Photo by dylan nolte / Unsplash

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Probably one of the most pervasive and stereotypical images in modern parenting is that of a “pushy” mom barging in on a bumbling dad, who’s struggling to pack a diaper bag/soothe an infant/find the cleats for soccer/describe a problem to a pediatrician. She enters with an exasperated “....(sigh) I’ll do it.” The next part of what she might as well be muttering under her breath is “... you idiot.” This supposedly aggressive villainess is displaying what academics call "maternal gatekeeping," which is according to Kate Mangino, author of "Equal Partners," “is when women stand in the way or ‘gatekeep’ from their male partners' involvement in childrearing. It’s when you put yourself in the expert position, that then puts a distance between what your male partner can do in the home.”

I’m going to be completely honest and say that this topic isn’t easy to talk about in a nuanced way from a feminist perspective. Kate researched and wrote an entire book on equal partnership (you can read my interview with her about it in a previous newsletter) and says, “I didn't make this a main focus of my book because it's a touchy subject. America is always so hell bent on fixing women and telling women what they need to do to change things. And I don't want maternal gatekeeping to be one of those things, where people start saying, ‘we have gender inequality because all these mothers are maternal gatekeeping.’”

I invited Kate to discuss maternal gatekeeping with our Double Shift member community in our September monthly hangout. Kate’s a member herself (lucky us!) and we used the “safe space” of the community to banish the image of the uptight mom who’s to blame for her own overburdened mental and caregiving load – and at fault for her own unequal partnership. Instead, Kate facilitated a blame and shame-free discussion on why people gatekeep and what we can do about it. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation at the hangout.

To hear the extended audio of the member hangout, including a few great questions and comments from Double Shifters, become a member.

Kate Mangino: I think the reason people gatekeep is rooted in power. I think that historically women have not had power in a professional space or a political space or public sector life, and so women's power has been rooted in household management and household power. It can be hard to allow a change of power in the household, especially if you aren't enjoying a change of power in the professional world or in the community.

If you feel like you haven't gained power outside of the house and you're giving up power inside of the house, then you don't have power anywhere. I think that's a very scary place for people to be in. A reason why perhaps a lot of maternal gatekeeping continues subconsciously is because we're trying to hold onto the power that we have access to, which is already limited.

Another way maternal gatekeeping can show up is as a form of “himpathy,” which is something Kate Manne writes about. It's a subconscious over-sympathy towards men. Women can be raised to be a bit submissive and we internalize the desire to protect men's feelings because somehow their feelings mean more than our experiences.

Sometimes maternal gatekeeping can just be default mode because it's been role-modeled to us so much for our entire lives that sometimes we just slip into it.

Katherine Goldstein: What are the social pressures beyond these power dynamics that lead to maternal gatekeeping?

Kate Mangino: I think that the sort of the social norm that we like to think that we're over it, but we're not, is that women are natural caregivers and men are the breadwinners and they prioritize outside work or paid work. And I don't wanna just stick this to men and women. I think that these are behaviors that have been associated with gender, our whole upbringing. But I've met people from all different gender identities who fall into these assumptions and behaviors and spaces, so I tend to use terms like “male-coded” and “female coded” as opposed to just “what men do” and “what women do.”  But I do think that there are these underlying gender norms that drive a lot of our behavior. Women are coded to do caregiving work and most importantly, judged when caregiving work doesn't meet other people's expectations or standards. I think a lot of people doing caregiving work know “I'm the one in the hot seat” that's going to be judged as something goes wrong.

That's where maternal gatekeeping comes in. It's not pushing someone because you're trying to be queen of your own kingdom. It's more like, “if I'm gonna be responsible and get judged for this stuff, then I'm gonna do it right so that that doesn't happen.”

We don't judge men when things go wrong in the home. We give them a pass. And so they have no reason to do gatekeeping around childrearing.

Women are coded to do caregiving work and most importantly, judged when caregiving work doesn't meet other people's expectations or standards.

Katherine Goldstein: Yes. If a kid comes to school with their hair not brushed, nobody blames the father.  So, the feeling that mothers feel like they bear the social consequences, either in subtle or overt ways is a big part of it.

I think another huge part of this conversation is the incompetence. I think it's important to delineate between the idea of “learned incompetence” or “faked incompetence” and actual incompetence or neglect or other kinds of dangerous or unhealthy behaviors and situations.

Kate Mangino: Absolutely. So learned incompetence is when you start to think, “Oh yeah, I'm not competent. She knows what's best.”

The example I always use is laundry. If someone says “I'm gonna do the laundry,” okay, that's fantastic. But if you don't read the labels and you shrink half of my work clothes and I have to spend $600 going out to buy new ones, that's actual incompetence. You did it wrong. That's not about, “my way is different, not better.” No, you messed up my clothes. That cost us money. And I think sometimes people are actually incompetent when it comes to cooking or cleaning or scheduling things, whatever. But those skills can absolutely be learned. Even though you're incompetent now, there's room for growth because I don't believe there's one human on the planet who can't learn how to do laundry if they're taught.

Then there's the perception of incompetence, which I think is, you know, I see this like in TV all the time in sitcoms, it's like this as this assumption that men are incompetent. It’s subjective, like “the way I fold laundry is better than the way you fold laundry” or “the way that I feed our kids is better than the way you feed kids.”

Katherine Goldstein:  I think one important part of this is to think about what's the line between what is needed correction versus what is gatekeeping. What are the stakes here? So the stakes of an incorrectly installed car seat is potentially high. The stakes of not bringing enough stacks and your kid is a little more whiny.... Then you learn next time to bring extra snacks.

These issues aren’t just for straight couples. Can you share a bit about this has manifested for same sex couples?

Kate Mangino: I had a fascinating interview with Christopher Carrington. He researches the household patterns of same sex couples in Northern California and has for 30 years. He thinks that it's our structures that influence, that our gendered structures influence our behavior patterns in our private spaces. He said that after marriage equality was passed in California, a lot of the people who he was studying – everyone had home ownership.

Everyone had their own insurance, because you had to, because people who were in same sex relationships couldn't have the same privileges that other people had. Once marriage equality passed and you could share insurance benefits and you could share income and you could co-own and inherit, he started to see that balance shift.

And look at the hours of school and look at the hours of work. And doctors only want one contact. So he thinks that our social structures were created around gendered assumptions, and now those social structures are having an effect on household patterns, no matter what your gender identity was.

Katherine Goldstein: That sounds so fascinating. So what are some other examples of social norms that keep us in these siloed, coded roles?

Kate Mangino: Another piece is that a lot of times men don't have the social connections the way that women do.

I'm on probably 10 different WhatsApp groups with different moms. I've got the third grade moms and the sixth grade moms. They call each other parents, but let's be honest, it's mostly mothers. I've got my community chat. I've got the city chat. If I need to know if Friday is “wear orange to school day,” I text something and within 10 seconds I have an answer. My husband isn't part of any of that, not because it's his choice. He's actually tried a few times and has been told, “No, this is a women's chat group. We don't allow dads.” So I think that there needs to be a shift to introduce men to those resource groups that we have so they can follow up.

I feel like both people need to be competent and do the work as well in order to get the benefits of parenting. We've been focusing on what's hard about parenting but parenting's amazing. My kids are the best part of my life. Those relationships I have with them, and now that they're eight and 11 and they're starting to be real people and they tell me things and we share things together, it's unbelievably rewarding. When I was doing research for the book, one guy said, and it really resonated with others, “I realized that providing for my family isn't material. That's not even half the battle if I'm gonna provide for my family. It needs to be in an emotional and caregiving and nurturing way just as much as it is bringing in money. And that unless I fully provide for my family, I'm not going to see the benefits of parenting as much as I could.” I think this is something that we don't talk enough about

Katherine Goldstein: One of the things I love about your work is that it's not just about how this benefits women. These richer relationships and these closer relationships benefit the person who is in the male-coded role.

I think one really important context, is as we talk about the social pressures, we should also mention that there are very, very real public policy choices that contribute to maternal gatekeeping. The most obvious is the fact that our paid family leave is so terrible and that many men don't have adequate leave to bond with a newborn. There's a lot of research that says that men who are able to take leave have much more involved relationships with their kids all through their lives.

So that isn’t just social pressure, there's actually a lot of deliberate public policy choices that contribute to this.

Kate Mangino: Absolutely. And I think the number one issue right now is about caregiving, paid caregiving leave whether that's at your employer or a state or a federal level. If all humans don't have access to time off and getting paid so they can care for a sick family member, an aging parent, a child, whatever, then they're not going to be able to participate in caregiving and they're not going to be able to empathize with how hard caregiving is.

Right now we have 70% of the Fortune 500 CEOs right now are men with stay-at-home wives. So these men have not had to negotiate caregiving while they were climbing the ladder, and thus they probably don't understand what that looks like. So we change both policy and culture where people can take advantage of the policies.

Kate Mangino: But all of this isn't just for parents or parents with little kids. I feel like we need to talk about this with grandparents and with friends and with community members, and faith communities, workplace communities whatever, wherever your community is, this should be a community conversation. It’s not just all on the nuclear household to fix things.

For tomorrow’s members-only thread we’ll be discussing our own experiences with maternal gatekeeping. Gatekeeping isn’t just about married straights, it can also come into play with same-sex couples and other family members. What do you struggle with? What have you learned to let go of? How does this conversation resonate with you in your own household dynamic? To get this thread in your inbox, become a member. It starts at $7/mo. If you’d like to be a part of the community and can’t afford it right now, email us and we’ll hook you up.

On My Nightstand: Our member thread two weeks ago was about parenting books that actually don’t suck, and the number one most recommended one from our community is “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” Looking forward to diving into this classic.

Out Now: I’m obsessed with this new book, out October 11th, “Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto” by Tricia Hersey and I’ve been marinating in its wisdom since I got an advance reading copy a few months ago. This part of the description really sums it up: “...Rest Is Resistance is a call to action, a battle cry, a field guide, and a manifesto for all of us who are sleep deprived, searching for justice, and longing to be liberated from the oppressive grip of Grind Culture.” You’ll definitely be seeing the impact of this book on my work for some time to come.

Call out: Double Shifters, do you live in some kind of intentional community, like co-housing or something more informal? I'd love to hear more about it. Email me at askthedoubleshift@gmail.com to tell me more about your living situation.

Upcoming Hangout

Save the Date! October 28th at 2pm ET

Join us for our next members-only hangout! This month's topic will be a casual "Ask Me Anything" with moi, Katherine. Is anyone else's fall schedule feeling kinda overloaded? Let's decompress before the sugar high of Halloween weekend and have the relaxed feminist mom hangout we all need and deserve. We can talk all things Double Shift newsletter, you can share a current quandary, you can ASK EACH OTHER things, you can give me feedback on the membership program or things you'd like me to cover....you can ask me what kind of car I drive (this was a real question from a previous AMA) or we can just shoot the shit. Come on, let's hang out. OCT 28th at 2pm EST. Members will also get an email reminder and a google calendar invite. If you want in on this kind of fun, don't forget to join!


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