Fathers May Withdraw from Parenting if Criticized Early On
Many new mothers feel overwhelmed by the burden of caring for a newborn after their partners return to work. Others bristle at the lack of hands-on support from their partners. New research suggests that even mothers who are struggling to find a balance in childcare duties with their partners have one reason to consider positive reinforcement in the very earliest stages of parenthood.
The study, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, found that fathers’ parenting towards their 9-month-old child was different if the dads felt their partner was critical of their parenting skills six months earlier.
The study was done with highly educated, dual-earner American couples, specifically to explore how fathers’ parenting quality might be affected by “maternal gatekeeping.”
“The behaviors of mothers can shape how fathers interact with their children,” said Lauren Altenburger, lead author of the study, who did the work as a doctoral student at The Ohio State University. “Mothers may not even be aware of how their criticisms of the father may end up negatively influencing how dads parent.”
The results reflect the fact that, in our society, mothers still have the most power and influence when it comes to raising children, said study co-author Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of human sciences at Ohio State. “Many fathers may be more vulnerable to criticism than mothers are because there is still less support in our society for fathers as active, involved parents,” she said.
The researchers used data from the New Parents Project, a long-term study co-led by Schoppe-Sullivan that is investigating how dual-earner couples adjust to becoming parents for the first time. In all, 182 couples, most of whom were married, participated in this study.
The parents were assessed twice: when their child was 3 months old and when the child was 9 months old. Fathers answered questions at both time points to gauge how much they felt their partner “opened” or “closed” the gate to their involvement in child care.
For example, each dad reported how often his partner took over baby-related tasks because the mom thought he wasn’t doing them properly and how often she gave him irritated looks about his parenting, which are gate closing. Examples of gate opening include encouraging the father to help bathe the baby or mom letting him know she appreciates his contributions to parenting.
Findings showed that the more the fathers reported gate closing by their partner when the child was 3 months old, the worse researchers rated their parenting quality at 9 months old.
“If fathers feel their partners don’t have confidence in their parenting, they may withdraw, and become less positive and sensitive with their child,” Altenburger said.
One theory is that mothers may close the gate on fathers because dads show evidence of poor parenting. But in this study, poorer parenting at 3 months was not linked to maternal gate closing at 9 months, which would be expected if the gate closing were a result of poor parenting.
Schoppe-Sullivan noted that this sample of dual-earner couples may be different from other families. “We might see more evidence of protective gatekeeping by mothers in more distressed families,” she said.
The researchers said that both mothers and fathers need to be supportive to each other in those early months after their first baby is born. The transition to parenthood is challenging and both parents often feel vulnerable, Schoppe-Sullivan said, because they are still developing their identities as parents.
But fathers may be especially vulnerable to criticism.
“There still is an assumption in our society that mothers are the primary caregivers and that they have the power to determine the involvement of others in child care,” she said. “Fathers may feel they should withdraw if they don’t have their partner’s support.”
The results suggest moms should think twice before criticizing dads’ parenting choices on minor issues such as what their baby will wear on a particular day, Altenburger said.
“It is about giving fathers the space to parent, too. Both parents need to keep communication open and not be so quick to criticize,” she said. A task that is easier said than done with a newborn at home…