WOMEN HOLD MEN BACK, TOO
Have you ever read the book William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow? She wrote it in 1972. In the story a little boy wants a doll, but his father is resistant, worrying that playing with dolls isn’t manly enough. Why does little William want a doll? Because he wants to learn to be a good father. It is a sweet book that trumps gender norms and should be as outdated as refusing girls Legos. But it isn’t well, not exactly.
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A few years ago, I was going to give a doll along with a copy of the book to the son of a friend of mine. I was more than a little surprised when the mother claimed she didn’t think her husband would like her son to have a doll. When I asked the dad, he said of course, his son could have one. “I always wanted one when I was a boy,” the dad told me, to his wife’s astonishment.
How is it that men are finally feeling comfortable admitting their desire to be active fathers and we women are the ones slow to catch up? The workplace and our sense of what it means to be masculine are keeping men from being engaged fathers, but women are too.
There’s a term for this: “maternal gatekeeping.” In 2008, Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State, and her colleagues set out to prove what many of us experienced in our daily lives that women were either consciously or unconsciously keeping men from being actively engaged fathers. She interviewed ninety-seven couples on their child-rearing beliefs and attitudes. She discovered there was a “poignant discord” between the kind of parents the couples claimed they wanted to be and the kind of parents they ultimately became. Most reported they wanted to share parenting, but that often didn’t happen. Mothers generally assumed the larger role, and both the fathers and mothers were disappointed with that outcome. The study revealed that mothers became the de facto experts and often took over when fathers tried to take care of the children’s needs.173 Mothers, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan explained, aren’t consciously trying to shut fathers out. It’s just something that happens.
Sheryl Sandberg wrote about this in Lean In: “I have seen so many women inadvertently discourage their husbands from doing their share by being too controlling or critical.” She described the concept of maternal gatekeeping as “a fancy term for ‘Ohmygod, that’s not the way you do it! Just move aside and let me!’”174
Boy, can I relate. How often did I push Bill aside to make sure the job of parenting was done “right”? Too often to count, if I’m honest with myself. And yet, I’m reminded of those early days with our premature firstborn. Bill and I were at the Intensive Care Unit being trained by the nurse on how to care for William We were trying to give him a bath and struggling to hold our tiny baby who mewed in terror the loudest noise his little body could make. The nurse turned to my husband and asked if he’d ever played football. “Well, as a matter of fact I did,” said Bill. He was a linebacker in high school, was recruited to play in college, and ended up playing on the varsity team.
“Then you know how to hold your son,” the nurse told my husband, and, sure enough, he did. He pulled William in close as if he were a football and Bill were running toward the goal line. Our premature baby immediately calmed down as my husband gave him his first bath. From then on, Bill became the bathing expert. When our second and third were born, he took on the duty of bathing all of our children. Despite the rhetoric that women are biologically better caregivers (an argument that only serves to keep women in the home and men away from their children), we women aren’t naturally good at parenting; like many things, we learn how to do it one day at a time.
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