Maternal Gatekeeping

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?

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17 thoughts on “Maternal Gatekeeping”

  1. *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.*

    *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.*

    *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? *

    Suppose it happens exactly so and you discovered it. What afterwards? Can’t you become “adored, spoiled” woman anyway?

    What if you’re happy relying on (memory of) your beloved relatives (male and female) from one side of family and don’t feel you want to hug anybody else? Don’t different people see the world differently?

    I don’t say what you described doesn’t exist, but I’ve seen several RL cases of jerks. RL, not made by any mother, but because of their own choices.

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  2. Against my better judgement I am going to comment on this. First of all I think there is very many men that would disagree with your characterization of gate keeping in this culture.
    It’s prevalence is very high. It has only been in the last five years that the courts have moved towards shared custody. This by any stretch of the imagination has not changed the culture into one that you portray exists in North America.

    As “natural mothers” that know it all I’m going to refer to early childhood attachment and bonding. Since it is now proven that biological fathers experience hormonal changes during pregnancy, specifically decreased levels of testosterone it supports an understanding that there is a biological bond between father and child. Eroding or removing that bond leads to male depression, not to even speak of the impact on the child.

    Post natal care finds a mother nurturing a baby. A father however finds himself nurturing a baby and additionally what is supposed to be his partner. She nurtures one he nurtures two. This is invisible to us because the significance of fathering is invisible to us but by choice and mostly by women. So the argument that she has done all the work for the child doesn’t account for all the work he has done for the baby and for her. I guess this is another example of that innate female nurturing and empathy.

    I take exception to using the word abandonment, it is an insult to men that are marginalized by the courts and its supporting services. I believe the use of the word should be understood to be more of an indication of “Munchhausen by Proxy” a syndrome synonymous with mothering as I believe gate keeping is also a symptom of that syndrome. Of course to conceptualize this one is challenged to rise above their binary to a more egalitarian perspective.

    To isolate a child from a biological parent, characterize it as victimization by abandonment and further alienate the biological relationship could in no way be construed as efforts to gain sympathetic support and attention. Which coincidentally are consistent with the symptoms of “Munchhausen by Proxy”.

    But then again to characterize a parent in any way other than positive is nothing less than psychological incest and emotional inbreeding which mothers happen to be particularly good at. Of course fathers can’t do this because men have no emotions.

    Sorry but from what I have seen and experienced there is no innate ability to mother that exceeds the ability to ovulate, gestate, dilate, lactate and psychologically masturbate. There is nothing beyond lactating that a woman does that cannot be done by a man. In my personal opinion more often in a child’s better interest.

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    1. “Against my better judgement I am going to comment on this.”

      – Why against your better judgment? This is a good, valuable comment.

      ” First of all I think there is very many men that would disagree with your characterization of gate keeping in this culture.”

      – Probably I’m not aware of the situation here. All I’m saying is that in my culture this is absolutely rampant.

      “Since it is now proven that biological fathers experience hormonal changes during pregnancy, specifically decreased levels of testosterone it supports an understanding that there is a biological bond between father and child. Eroding or removing that bond leads to male depression, not to even speak of the impact on the child.”

      – Of course.

      ” This is invisible to us because the significance of fathering is invisible to us but by choice and mostly by women.”

      – Of course.

      “But then again to characterize a parent in any way other than positive is nothing less than psychological incest and emotional inbreeding which mothers happen to be particularly good at.”

      – Absolutely true.

      “Sorry but from what I have seen and experienced there is no innate ability to mother that exceeds the ability to ovulate, gestate, dilate, lactate and psychologically masturbate. There is nothing beyond lactating that a woman does that cannot be done by a man. ”

      – Why are you saying you are sorry? Everything you say here is right and makes a lot of sense. This is an important issue and I’m glad it is getting discussed so reasonably on my blog.

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      1. Honestly I for one think that mothering should undergo the same scrutiny as fathering. Much of our social development amd health resides within our children and they deserve better treatment from both parents and the intervening institutions. But I see a review of mothering as a social taboo that receives all to often accusations of misogyny.

        Clarissa check your email

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    2. Did you read Clarissa’s post? You have not disagreed with here once in your post. So why write it in a tone that indicates your are disagreeing with her?

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      1. I even went and reread the post. I wrote it late at night, so now I’m worried that maybe it doesn’t transmit what I wanted to say. Which is that a father is as crucial as a mother and maternal gatekeeping does damage to everybody.

        I really hope that nobody thinks I support maternal gatekeeping.

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      2. You are correct anf I apologise for apologising I can only hope that you can accept this apology.

        I am a category 3 as such I personalized the post in segments much like my own circumstance. I did however try to restrain myself and only defaulted to apologizing for having a position. It felt like being in court again. It hurt for me to read this and I may have responded inapropriately

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  3. This is an excellent post. Very insightful.

    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.

    My mother tried to do this when my parents separated. She told us that Dad abandoned us, and physically abused her, and did all she could to restrict our contact with him–going as far as getting an EPO on him, and forbidding us to call him on our home phone. None of it was true, of course, we were old enough to have seen everything (I was thirteen, my younger brother twelve.) and we didn’t believe her. We had to walk a few blocks away to use a pay phone. My grandparents had to pick us up for visitation, and Dad would secretly meet us a block away (not far enough away for the EPO) to take us to practices, meetings, and the like. Soon Dad got us cell phones so we wouldn’t have to sneak out of the house and walk so far in order to talk to him. This was, of course, way before it was normal for preteens to have cell phones.

    All the sneaking around made me feel like a spy or a secret agent assuming a false identity. It went on for three years before the divorce was finalized and my father won custody. When dad won custody, I cut off all contact with my mother for a long time. I recently had to do it again–sigh.

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      1. Indeed. Nowhere in our culture is the idea that children are the property of their parents more prevalent than in divorce courts. It was a maddening three years, and subsequently I was a very angry teenager. I was lucky that I had Civil Air Patrol–who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t.

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  4. This is such a beautiful post. One of your best, I must say. Hospitals should include a printout of this post in the information package they give to all expectant mothers.

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  5. “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.”

    Interesting–this was basically the dynamic that led to my parents getting divorced soon after I (only child) was born, but it was at my father’s instigation. He absolutely refused to take any initiative, wanted to alternate between forgetting he had a child at all and requiring so much prodding and instruction to do anything that it was simpler for my mother to do it herself; my mother wanted an equal partner. (For context, my parents were semi-hippies and I was born in the late 70s.)

    My dad was not particularly a sexist ass in theory (in that his stated views and most of his behavior were along the lines of gender egalitarianism), but he had internalized the rigid gender roles and domineering woman/”yes dear”-man dynamic he learned from his parents. His mom would always swoop in if she saw a man attempting a task she thought was coded feminine and insist on doing whatever it was for him; thus, as an adult, my dad expected the same from his romantic partners. I mean, to the extent that he would literally screw up assembling a sandwich*** to attempt to entice my mom into saying, “No, that’s not how you do it; I’d better just do it for you.” In his case, I don’t think it was a question of his being displaced, since this stuff was going on before my birth; I think he was just a perma-infant before it was fashionable and wanted to force my mom into role-playing as his mom in lots of ways, including issues concerning childcare, etc., but also including many other situations.

    He found a compliant partner in my stepmother, who seemed to have no problem nagging him dozens of times a day, and he subsequently (and gradually) abandoned me. I sure as hell don’t blame my mother for this, and I blame the courts only for not doing a better job of making him fulfill his obligations.

    Of course I’m not trying to dispute your point that some mothers actually do act as gatekeepers, or that some of the fathers who are tagged as having abandoned their children aren’t victims who’ve been unfairly labeled and treated. I just wanted to point out that there are also men who are instrumental in imposing these models on themselves (though ultimately to everyone’s detriment) and that the responsibility for abandoning their children rests squarely with them alone.

    ***Good question. I mean that he apparently put the top slice of bread perpendicular to the bottom one instead of matching up the tops like normal people. He was an engineer, and somehow he couldn’t manage to make sandwiches that weren’t sideways.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story, MoodyGirl.

      “I mean, to the extent that he would literally screw up assembling a sandwich*** to attempt to entice my mom into saying, “No, that’s not how you do it; I’d better just do it for you.” In his case, I don’t think it was a question of his being displaced, since this stuff was going on before my birth; I think he was just a perma-infant before it was fashionable and wanted to force my mom into role-playing as his mom in lots of ways, including issues concerning childcare, etc., but also including many other situations.”

      – May I ask how you know all of these things? Did your father share with you that he screwed up sandwiches with this purpose in mind? Who told you about things that went on before your birth?

      ” I think he was just a perma-infant before it was fashionable ”

      – She chose him, though. This must mean that they both liked playing out this scenario, right?

      “Of course I’m not trying to dispute your point that some mothers actually do act as gatekeepers, or that some of the fathers who are tagged as having abandoned their children aren’t victims who’ve been unfairly labeled and treated. I just wanted to point out that there are also men who are instrumental in imposing these models on themselves”

      – I think I did not manage to convey my point. What I was trying to say is that this is a game that a man and a woman play together for a variety of reasons. The only victim here is their child. If a man and a woman end up in a Mommy – son or Daddy – daughter relationship with each other, this happens because they have both chosen it.

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      1. Clarissa,

        True, I didn’t witness some of these events myself, but I do have a wide variety of sources to confirm it (not all of which are unsympathetic to my dad or sympathetic to my mom). He did keep doing the same type of things, though, so I witnessed plenty myself later.

        I don’t think she knew he was a perma-infant until later or that she realized that it was only going to get worse–when she realized, she didn’t like it and unchose it by separating from him. My mom is super difficult on her own, so it’s not to blame everything between them on him. I totally agree that, if a man and a woman maintain such a relationship in the presence of alternatives, they’ve both chosen it, and that the child is the loser.

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