It’s no secret that the mental load of motherhood is weighing so many of us down. In recent decades, the trend has been for women to pick up more responsibilities at work and spend more time with their kids—while still managing the household. For many mamas, this has led to an exhausting imbalance as we have to make dozens of micro-decisions each day.
To overcome this, experts suggest simply asking partners for help and then granting them the space to take actions. Yet, another trend explains why that sound advice is still hard for many of us to heed: Many women have unintentionally assumed the roles of maternal gatekeepers, a term from psychologists that describes the ways women micromanage their partners.
“We may think that we are in progressive relationship until it hits us that we don’t believe our partner can dress our children or decorate a Christmas tree ‘right,’” says psychotherapist Erin Barbossa, LMSW. “It’s one thing to decide that your values inform you that you are the one in the home who will choose the outfits and decorate for the holidays, it’s another thing to do it because you’re unconsciously trying to create perfection and control the outcome.”
The tendency to be a “gatekeeper” can really rear its head when children come into the picture. After all, we are made to internalize that “mother knows best.” So, where does that leave everyone else?
“I am constantly receiving messages about my worth as a woman being tied to my child’s success and happiness,” says Erin Heger, a mother of one. “I feel the need to prove that I am gentle, but firm; involved, but not hovering; loving, but not overly indulging. Whereas my partner is just himself and that seems to be enough.”
For many, this pressure is self-perpetuating: The more responsibilities we assume for ourselves, the less confidence we have in our partners to do the tasks to our same standards.
Barbossa explains this is especially common when mothers are worried about feeling judged for their households or children.
“It’s actually a pretty effective defense strategy, until you realize it’s exhausting, unsustainable and continually disappointing as the bar keeps moving higher and slips right out of your grasp,” she says.
Maternal gatekeeping isn’t fair to our partners either
A 2015 study published in Parenting, Science and Practice found mothers who “held greater perfectionistic expectations for fathers’ parenting” were more likely to close the gate. This, in turn, prevents even the most willing of co-parents from being able to contribute their share—which is something the majority of millennial dads say they want to do.
How to overcome maternal gatekeeping
The antidote to maternal gatekeeping is vulnerability, says Barbossa.
“We all feel like we aren’t good enough moms, but it’s essential to process it in safe spaces with others who have high levels of shame resilience,” she says, suggesting talking with good friends or a therapist.
It also takes a wider movement of acknowledging that peace, not perfection, should be the goal.
“These pressures are ancient, they’ve built up over generations,” says Barbossa. “So breaking through ancient patterns is a somewhat excruciating task… Although women are certainly up for the challenge!”