Although gatekeeping is a relatively benign word, in the context of the role it plays in creating dysfunctional or toxic family relationships, it is worth exploring when examining the options open to parents who are fighting for their parental rights during a divorce proceeding.
Maternal gatekeeping is a term that describes a mother’s attempt to mediate a father’s access to his children, and was popularized in a social science study released in 1999 that examined the extent to which this behavior influenced the father’s involvement and relationship to the children.
Even though the women’s movement has dramatically changed the traditional maternal roles that women once played in American society, there are societal expectations of women as nurturers that may influence a mother’s need to not only contribute financially to the household income but also be a perfect caretaker.
Maternal gatekeeping sabotages co-parenting plans when a mother micromanages the father’s activities with his children, creating repetitive patterns where the father acquiesces, and the child misses an opportunity to have companionship and paternal nurturing. The mother suffers as well by feeling isolated in her command role, and the added pressure to always be right makes her perfectionism toxic.
Maternal gatekeeping in custody decisions
A Pew Research study published in 2011 examined data collected over a 50-year period, finding that a father’s limited involvement with his children began early, and unsurprisingly, continued after divorce. Even with work obligations, mothers were more available to their children during their formative years, making the maternal bond with the children stronger.
After divorce, the study found that about one in six fathers saw their children once a week, a third saw their children one to four times a month, and nearly a third had no contact with them at all. In approximately half of the cases, the decision to grant custody to the mother was mutually agreed upon by both parents.
Well-meaning parents who love their children will want what is in the children’s best interests. Research has shown that children benefit from committed, involved fathers, and that nurturing does not have to be gender specific. Gatekeeping is learned behavior, and bringing awareness to the issue through dialogue and therapy can expose the causes of dysfunctional relationships that ultimately are harmful to the children.
Parents who wish to stay involved or increase their role in their children’s lives after divorce should have effective and experienced legal representation that will relentlessly protect their parental rights.