Gatekeeping Dad From the Kids

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“Some women pick men to marry,” quipped femme fatale Mae West. “And others pick them to pieces.”

Sometimes, I think this picking-to-pieces is one of the unsung factors of the struggle for military reintegration in families with children.

It happens innocently enough. We military families get that beloved servicemember home. We are dying for that person to pick up some of the responsibilities of caring for the children we brought into the world together. Then the servicemember does it all wrong and we spouses can’t help but pick them to pieces.

This phenomenon has a name in the outside world: maternal gatekeeping. Maternal gatekeeping is the mother’s (or in military families, the at-home parent’s) conscious or unconscious control over the involvement of fathers with the children.

Maternal gatekeeping can be positive -- like the way we suggest that dad could take the boys to the park. Or when we show him how to jiggle the baby just this way so she stops fussing.

Maternal gatekeeping can be negative like when we roll our eyes when our servicemember picks the wrong sippy cup. Or we re-do a messy ponytail that our servicemember pulled together for the first grader. Or we criticize the pizza (again!!) dad ordered in for the twins before soccer practice.

“When we act like the dad can’t do anything right, it sends a message to the dad that he ought not to be doing stuff for the kids,” said Sarah Shoppe-Sullivan, an associate professor at Ohio State University who studies maternal gatekeeping. “It also sends a message to the kids about what parents' roles are.”

That is the key message when a servicemember returns from deployment. Conditions like PTSD or extra-long deployments have been shown to be problematic for families. But even in families without other problems, Shoppe-Sullivan says that the returning servicemember enters almost a perfect storm for maternal gatekeeping.

The returnee might want to be part of the kids’ lives, but the kids have changed completely since the day of departure and the at-home spouse is the only expert.

This is where maternal gatekeeping can hurt families. But this is really when maternal gatekeeping can help families most. In her research with parents of newborns, Shoppe-Sullivan found that the positive aspects of maternal gatekeeping made all the difference between which fathers were involved with their babies and which fathers were not.

“You think it would be the criticism that motivates,” said Shoppe-Sullivan. “But it is the encouragement that is powerful.”

Positive maternal gatekeeping works like kind of a one-two punch. First, the moms offered a lot of encouragement to the dads. Moms did things like making suggestions about what the dad could do for the kid or setting aside time for him to spend with the baby or asking his opinion.

Then the moms praised whatever it was that the dads did. Good or not so good, the dads got praised for their effort and assured that the baby liked the effort.

Does that sound a little too cheerleader-y for you? Does it sound like the servicemember should just be involved with the kids with or without praise because they are his or her children?

“The truth is that most people love their spouse to praise them,” said Shoppe-Sullivan. “If the mother values the father’s relationship with the children (as most mothers do), then you have to be patient.”

The goal is for the returning servicemember to get to the point where they do not need suggestions or alternatives or instructions from the at-home parent. But at first here are some suggestions for getting the returning servicemember up to speed:

1. Suggest activities. Returning servicemembers sometimes take the kids to Toys 'R Us after every long separation to buy their child some kind of Santa-worthy toy. This can buy the dad and the kids an hour of pleasure. End of dad involvement. Moms can step in to suggest that instead of the toy store, an outing to throw the football around on the beach is a better alternative. Sometimes, our servicemembers don’t really know what to do with the kids or what they would like. Offering a few suggestions -- not just what would be good for the kids, but what the kids would actually like to do with their servicemember -- really helps.

2. Go out of your way to praise the servicemember. When they come home from the activity, be careful not to complain about whatever happened (you are late/there is so much sand/what did you feed them? Slurpees??). Instead, offer nothing but praise. Wow they look like they had such a good time! Remember, people repeat the things they are praised for.

3. Don't step in. When a returning servicemember is doing things for the kids, he or she is bound to do them with a degree of ineptitude you would not have thought possible. Kids might be late for their activities. Preschoolers may be dressed in plaids and stripes. Baths may be distributed in the wrong order. Unless you want to do everything yourself for the rest of your life, don’t step in.

4. Bite your tongue. “A lot of times the dad will do things in a different way,” said Shoppe-Sullivan. “But unless it is dangerous or inappropriate, bite your tongue. This means real danger (riding in a car without a carseat) compared to mom danger (eating inorganic apples with the peel still on).

Throughout the deployment, at-home parents long for the servicemember to come home. The servicemember thinks of how great it will be to get home. Learning how to make that happen is a big part of the reunion.

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Jacey Eckhart is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs at Military.com and a military sociologist.  Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan??

Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times.  Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.  

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