This phenomenon is not that common in North America but it’s very present in my culture. I very rarely write about things that my English-speaking audience will find hard to relate to, but, every once in a while, I feel like I’m justified in doing this. So feel free to scroll down if you find this incomprehensible and / or boring.
A child belongs to a woman. Or, at least, that’s how people very often see things and this is precisely the attitude that is at the root of awarding custody of children to women by default except in completely egregious cases. A woman deserves access to her kids by definition. A man has to prove that he is should have the custody, absent any other possibility. A child and her (his) mother are a unit. A father and his son (daughter) can only become a unit as a result of hard work on the part of both.
Women give birth to children, they breastfeed, they are supposed somehow to know magically how to take care of them. Often, a relationship within a male-female couple suffers greatly immediately after a kid is born because the “a woman and a man” model* transforms into the “a woman and a child plus a man hovering somewhere in the background being mostly annoying but sometimes somewhat helpful” model.
The man in such a situation feels displaced. On the one hand, he doesn’t feel he can rebel against the situation because he feels like a jerk demanding attention when there is a much needier infant in the picture. On the other hand, he can’t be happy about his partner transferring the bulk of her attention to somebody else.
There are several approaches men can take in this situation. They can fight their female partner for access to the child. This is, however, a very hard position to take. You fight with a woman who has just given birth and is breastfeeding and you come off to everybody as a total jerk. Such an approach is doomed to damage the relationship between the male and the female partners by placing them into the scenario of a constant warfare where the child is the ultimate prize. The man is set to lose this battle because he becomes an aggressor who is trying to pry a kid away from her or his own mother. Since the bond between the child and the mother is supposed to be “natural” (or even worse, God-given) in patriarchal cultures, such a man is always a villain by default.
Another possibility is for the man to try to find his place in this “woman + child” symbiosis in the capacity of another child, an elder sibling to his own kid. If a man chooses this role, he will do things for his kid by taking direction from the woman and looking for her approval. He will wait for a list of instructions on how to feed, change, bathe and play with his own child**. This will eventually destroy his relationship with his female partner because she will be forced to play the role of his Mommy.
The third scenario is when the father feels so displaced from the equation that he will start growing emotionally distant. It is natural for people to protect themselves from situations where they become superfluous, dispensable, barely tolerated***. Often, the man ends up drifting away from his female partner.
And this is when the maternal gatekeeping kicks into full force. The woman feels betrayed by the man. “I have done everything I could to take childcare upon myself. He barely had to sacrifice anything for the baby,” the woman says to herself. “It was all on me. And now he is unhappy? He wants to leave? That jerk!”
And this is where maternal gatekeeping (which has already been happening this entire time) kicks in full time. The mother feels genuinely entitled to ration the contact between the “deadbeat dad” and “her” kid. In the most egregious cases (that in this more evolved culture are rare but in my much less civilized culture are very very frequent), this maternal gatekeeping takes the form of the complete exclusion of the father from the kid’s life. The kid is told that his or her Dad is a useless deadbeat who has abandoned his own child. This a bold-faced lie to begin with because abandoning the mother of the child does not equal abandoning the child.
The child, who has already experienced one parent’s removal from her or his life, is desperate to retain the only remaining parent. As a result, the child will gladly subscribe to the “horrible deadbeat dad who abandoned me” version to please the only remaining parent. In the completely clinical cases, a zombified child is so incapable of seeing a version of reality that contradicts Mommy’s mythology that s/he even carries this version of events into her or his adulthood. I will let my readers predict what the chances of such a zombified person’s creating a happy family life for him or herself are.
My female ancestors have had all kind of relationships with their male partners. I, their heir and their ticket into eternity, see myself as a powerful, intellectual, strong, self-sufficient woman. I am and always have been “una mujer de muchos hombres” (a woman of many men.)**** However, my many men have never demeaned, degraded, insulted, abused, or truly mistreated me. My only grievances against them has been that they have not been absolutely completely perfect like N., the love of my life, has been. And the only reason why I have been this adored, spoiled, admired, worshiped woman***** is that I have had not only the tradition of the admirable Klara, Mary, Klarissa, Nadia, Liuba, and Nadia behind me, but also the rock-solid tradition of Itzhak, Ziama, Vladimir, Timofei, Shlomo, and Moishe to rely upon.
It is absolutely crucial to a person to have a long (or short or any whatsoever) line of amazing, strong women to imitate. But it is absolutely just as crucial to have a male line to rest upon.
If you have formed an opinion that your Pa is a total loser, that only means that half of is are just as much of a loser. Believe me, you are not betraying your mother if you set out – right now, at this very moment, today – on the search of your Pa, you GrandPa, your Greatgrandpa, in short, the entire male line that has gone into creating you. And if it so happens that all these men are, indeed, complete jerks and vicious deadbeats who have rejected you for generations, don’t you, as an independent adult, deserve to discover this story first-hand? Because, you know, loving your mother does not equal accepting the mythology of her (possibly very unsuccessful) personal life as gospel.
Just remember, that if it ever appears to you that you are just a consequence of your mother’s personal life******, this only means that you have been a very miserable, a very abused kid who has been denied her or his true history.
And nobody should be able to deprive you of the right of discovering who your father is or was right now.
I don’t know what advice to give to (potentially) gatekeeping mothers. I do, however, know what to say to the children who have been raised in the “My Daddy is a deadbeat who abandoned me in infancy” mythology: Your life does and should belong to yourself. If your papa is still alive, go and hug him. Forget this narrative of his evilness. It is not yours, you don’t need to participate in it. Just go and hug you para if and as long as he is still alive. If he isn’t, find his relatives, the representatives of you male line, and talk to them about him. In real life or in through their stories, just hug your Daddy. This is absolutely the best thing you can do to take possession of one half of yourself.
Just do it today.
* I have no idea how this process plays out in gay and lesbian relationships, so I won’t pretend like I do, OK? In the queer couples that I have observed, this issue never arises because the patriarchal “women and children” model is simply absent.
** Try switching the genders in this equation and you will see how ridiculous it is. Imagine a woman who doesn’t breastfeed until her male partner informs her that it is time to do so.
*** In stable heterosexual couples, male cheating usually sky-rockets in the first two years of the kid’s life. Female cheating skyrockets between the ages of 5 and 7 of the child (that is, during the first major separation between the child and the mother). The kid is gone as the main source of emotional fulfillment (in healthy mother / child relationships), the child’s father has been discarded as a reliable partner. Hence, a new adult male becomes necessary. In unhealthy mother / child relationships, the separation doesn’t happen until the kid goes away for college. Hence, the “empty nest” syndrome that marks the really miserable, sexually unfulfilled couples.)
**** I learned to express my emotions in Spanish, so whenever I turn really viscerally honest emotionally, I turn to Spanish.
***** Again, Spanish provides the best definition for this phenomenon, which is “una mujer contemplada.”
****** Still writing for people from my own culture, so just accept that we are way more screwed up than you, folks, are, OK?