When talking to a friend recently, Karen heard something about families that rang unexpectedly true.
“I’m not even sure how the topic came up, but the person said, ‘Be careful of who your son marries; she will take him closer to her family and you will never see the kids.’ I laughed and said, ‘That’s not true, my kid is a mama’s boy.’ Then I thought, Oh, shit. I did that very thing.”
Karen didn’t pull away from her in-laws consciously. After their daughter was born, she and her husband moved from Philadelphia, where her in-laws live, closer to her parents in her hometown of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, an hour-and-a-half away. It simply made sense. They thought the schools were probably better there. Plus, Karen says her husband isn’t close with his parents, so she feels obligated to maintain the tenuous connection, inviting her in-laws over for holiday gatherings and sending them cards on their birthdays. Her mother-in-law calls her more often than she calls her son; she seems to worry her calls might bother him but doesn’t appear concerned about bothering Karen.
As the mother, Karen plays the role of “gatekeeper,” the person who determines who is — and who isn’t — granted access to her children, as well as how much access they get. Women who are more inclined to gatekeeping behavior after becoming mothers tend to be more religious, feel less secure in their relationships, and have perfectionistic expectations of their partners’ ability to parent, a 2015 study concluded.
But even women like Karen who don’t naturally gravitate toward gatekeeping behavior might find themselves thrust into the role anyway. In many families, traditional, gender-based expectations linger that women are somehow better suited to run a household, remember birthdays, and plan the family gatherings that keep in-laws connected. Relationships between wives and their mother-in-laws can be tense, stereotypically, but it’s also often the case that wives are the ones tasked with making their in-laws feel included. Therefore, they’re often the ones criticized if paternal bubbies or grandmas feel left out.
“Research shows that it’s really common for mothers-in-laws and daughters-in-laws to have difficult relationships, even compared to other in-law relationships,” says Katie Lear, a licensed professional counselor in Davidson, North Carolina. “This might be due in part to the expectations our culture still places on women to be the primary caretakers of children. The high standards can make it easy to feel competitive or judged by other moms.”
Early research of maternal gatekeeping had a kind of negative tone, examining the tendency in some mothers to put up barriers limiting fathers’ involvement in parenting, says Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and one of the authors of the above-mentioned 2015 study. Scholars have argued that blaming mothers, in part, for fathers’ involvement in parenting is sexist and that study of gatekeeping should not be gender-based.
Research of maternal gatekeeping specifically, persists, however. It has, however, evolved to focus not only on maternal gate “closing” behavior, such as redoing a task a father does for a child because the mother didn’t like the way he did it, but gate “opening” behavior encouraging father involvement, such as asking for his opinion about childcare, Schoppe-Sullivan says.
There’s no published research of the effect of maternal gatekeeping on the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but a study published in 2000 supports the idea that maternal grandparents have a distinct advantage, even when paternal grandparents live closer. Matriarchs usually are in charge of “kinkeeping” in a family, Schoppe-Sulivan says, so it makes sense that that dynamic could affect paternal grandparents’ access to their grandkids.
“As long as we’re situating women as primary caregivers, they’ll be in a significant position of power,” Schoppe-Sullivan says, noting that women who might not feel powerful in other domains of their lives might enjoy exercising power over their in-laws’ access to their children. “That’s one reason gatekeeping might persist.”
“Gatekeeping behavior is more common during a baby’s first few months but can extend throughout the children’s lives, depending,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California. The behavior can be unconscious or more of a conscious effort to limit access. “A mother might simply be more comfortable with her own family and, particularly during the stressful period of new parenthood, tend to unconsciously invite more contact from her own parents if she has a good relationship with them,” Manly continues.
Mothers might feel less comfortable asking their mothers-in-law to babysit or for parenting advice and might turn to their own parents out of familiarity, Lear adds, as they have first-hand knowledge of their own parents’ childcare skills..
But gatekeeping can also be more conscious, such as when mothers are acting on a desire for possession or control, or because they deem it necessary to keep children safe and healthy. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable but also common for grandparents to be oblivious in the latter situation, when their access is limited because parents think they’re unable or unwilling to be a healthy and nurturing influence on their grandkids.
Karen say her father-in-law is a misogynist and devout believer in corporal punishment. She suspects her husband is in denial that he was traumatized by his father’s bullish parenting style growing up, and she says her son, who’s 14, hides when his paternal grandparents come over. Her son is a vocalist in a local performance art high school, and his grandfather makes judgmental comments about his choices. He has also told his granddaughter, now 23, that her septum piercing makes her look like a bull.
It’s unsurprising that a tense relationship between parent and in-laws could negatively affect grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren. A 2004 study, in fact, suggests that relationships with sons and daughters-in-law appear to be a chief factor in how close grandparents are to their grandchildren. But some relationship experts caution against taking gatekeeping study results too much to heart.
“It is absolutely true that moms are the ‘gatekeepers’ to the children. That’s a fact,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child. “However, as one of the foremost child psychologists in Los Angeles, my experience with kids and families informs that most moms want their children to be with the grandparent who treat the kids the kindest and most generously. In this regard, there is no bias.”
It’s generally smart to be wary of stereotypes, certainly. Plenty of moms are as close to their in-laws as they are to their own parents, for various reasons. And plenty of dads are hands-on when it comes to including grandparents in their children’s lives.
“I am the planner, and [my wife] Sara has always been the better communicator, so we tag-teamed pretty well in keeping up the connection with our parents while our daughter was growing up,” says Rick, a brewer and distiller in New Orleans.
In Rick’s case, it wasn’t difficult. They all lived in the same small town, so the grandparents “were included in everything, even when we didn’t want them to be,” he says.
But if fathers haven’t worked out a system that makes everyone happy with their parents complain that they don’t see their kids often enough, it’s important to not just pass the grievance along to their wife and expect her to fix it. If parents are feeling left out (assuming they’re trusted around your children), then it’s crucial to be proactive.
“If the issue is with the Dad’s parents, he should step up and be willing to facilitate so it isn’t another thing Mom has to do,” Schoppe-Sullivan says.
After all, the study of gatekeeping in parenting, she notes, “is not just about fathers interacting more with kids, it’s about helping share the work of managing the family system.”