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Why You Should Placehold, Not Gatekeep

Photo: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Amanda Smolinski

If you've ever had an in-real-life conversation with me about the essential skills for a Must-Have Parent, you've probably heard my thoughts on "placeholding."

And if you've read many parenting books or articles, you've probably also encountered the term "gatekeeping."

Placeholding is good. Gatekeeping is bad. Be a placeholder, not a gatekeeper. Here's why:

If you've had that in-real-life conversation with me about being an MHP, you've probably heard me talk about plastic page protectors and how I stumbled onto the concept of placeholding by accident. I talk about it a lot. Here's the story:

My husband and I became parents in 2004 -- three weeks before he deployed to Afghanistan. All sorts of fears and emotions are implied in that sentence and, at least for my part, they're all true.

One of my biggest fears was that my husband would come home to a son who had no idea who he was. Back in 2004, we couldn't Skype or FaceTime each other, so my solution was to enlarge a snapshot of my husband so that just his face was 8x10 size. Then I put it in a plastic sheet protector and taped it up in the car so my son stared at his father's face every time we went anywhere.

It worked. When my husband returned and we picked him up from Fort Bragg, my son took one look at his dad, then turned to look at the photo that was still taped up in the car, then looked back at his dad and broke into a huge smile. He may not have known how he knew this guy -- but he definitely knew him.

Placeholding, as I define it, is simply making sure that the Must-Do parent has a place in the family, and this can be harder to do than it sounds. As children get older and families get more established, it takes more than taping an 8x10 to a car seat.

Placeholding is hard for MHPs because the very thing that makes us successful as Must-Have Parents is our ability to tackle most every challenge on our own. The Must-Do Parent is able to go off and do all those things because they feel confident that the Must-Have Parent can handle the home and the family.

The problem lies in that when the Must-Do Parent returns, we don't always know what to do with them. It can seem -- especially to them -- like the family doesn't need them. Placeholding simply means that we preserve the Must-Do Parent's place in the family.

One of my favorite placeholding tips came from another Army wife whose husband was once deployed with mine. I went to visit her at her house one day just a few weeks before the guys were due to come home. Her place was a disaster. I'm not a neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd been wearing myself out in those last weeks trying to get everything in my house clean and repaired. I wanted my husband to be able to come home and just relax.

My friend -- who'd been an Army wife longer than me -- explained her strategy. She told me she purposely left a few things undone so that her husband would come home and immediately see that he was needed. I was mind-blown. This flew in the face of all the "don't-expect-anything-out-of-them-at-first" advice we were always being told. But I tried it and, lo and behold, it worked.

Now, there's a not-so-fine line between leaving a few small projects waiting for the Must-Do to do and being a full-on task master. If you aren't sure where that line is, err on the side of asking too little. I'm talking about changing light bulbs-type stuff here, not an all-out, mid-demolition kitchen renovation. If your kids are big enough to help, the best projects to leave undone are the ones the Must-Do parent can do with one of the children.

Which brings us to gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is frequently referred to as "maternal gatekeeping," but don't be confused by the "maternal" part. MHP dads do it too. Gatekeeping happens when one parent decides to dictate and limit how the other parent engages with the children.

Here's a simple test: If you're thinking to yourself "my partner doesn't do baths/bedtime/homework help/etc.) the right way," you're gatekeeping.

But if you're thinking, "he/she does it differently than I do, but I'm going to bite my tongue and see how this plays out," you're placeholding.

Placeholding is good. Gatekeeping is bad. Be a placeholder, not a gatekeeper.

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Rebekah Sanderlin Military Parenting Family and Spouse Featured

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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