The ways in which adults form emotional connections with others are associated with how much a new mother tries to involve or exclude a father in parenting their child, according to a new study published in Personal Relationships. The findings provide evidence that adult attachment styles play a key role in maternal gatekeeping among new parents.
“Maternal gatekeeping is important because it affects father involvement in childrearing, which is beneficial for children’s positive cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. As an essential subdimension of coparenting, maternal gatekeeping involves mothers’ behaviors encouraging or discouraging fathers from engagement in childcare and housework,” said study author F. Kubra Aytac of the Psychology Department at The Ohio State University.
“We have relatively little understanding of psychological factors that may explain individual differences in maternal gatekeeping. So, we wanted to examine possible effects on maternal gatekeeping of adult attachment, which has an important role in romantic relationships and is an important psychological component of human development.”
Attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance are two dimensions of adult attachment style. Attachment anxiety refers to the degree to which an individual worries about being rejected or abandoned by their romantic partner, and seeks reassurance and intimacy from them. On the other hand, attachment avoidance refers to the degree to which an individual avoids emotional closeness and intimacy with their partner, and may feel uncomfortable or anxious when their partner tries to get too close.
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 182 couples who were expecting their first child and both partners worked full-time. The participants were recruited through various methods and had to meet certain criteria such as being over 18 years old, able to read and speak English, and either married or cohabiting.
Most of the participants were married and identified as White/European American. The mothers’ ages ranged from 18 to 42, and fathers’ ages ranged from 18 to 50. Most of the participants had at least a bachelor’s degree and the median household income was $81,000 per year.
During the third trimester of pregnancy, both the expectant mothers and fathers were asked to answer questions about their adult attachment style separately. They were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they agreed with various statements. For example, if they agree or disagree with the statement “I prefer not to show my partner how I feel deep down” (attachment avoidance) or “I worry about being abandoned” (attachment anxiety).
When the infants were 3 months old, the mothers and fathers were separately asked to fill out surveys about maternal gatekeeping. These surveys included questions about how often the mother engaged in behaviors like criticizing the father or rolling her eyes when he did something she didn’t approve of regarding child care. The father was also asked to rate how often the mother engaged in these behaviors when he did something she didn’t approve of regarding child care.
These surveys were collected during a 2-hour home visit, which included video-recorded interactions between the parents and their child. The parents were first recorded playing with their child for 5 minutes and then changing the infant’s clothes together for about 3 minutes. The researchers analyzed the video recordings to assess the mother’s gatekeeping behavior, such as whether she allowed or prevented the father from being involved in child care and interacting with the baby.
“Historically, women have been primary caregivers and responsible for domestic tasks, including housework and childcare,” Aytac told PsyPost. “However, men have started to assume a more significant role in domestic work. Indeed, fathers’ direct involvement in parenting in the United States has increased since the 1960s.”
“But even when both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal. Some have suggested that mothers may serve as gatekeepers in the family—controlling fathers’ involvement in parenting by discouraging or encouraging their involvement. Especially during periods of change like becoming a parent, individuals may experience higher stress because of changes in responsibilities and relationships.”
The researchers found that mothers with heightened attachment anxiety tended to self-report higher maternal gate closing. When researchers watched the mothers interact with their partners and infants, they found that those who were more anxious were also less likely to encourage fathers to participate in child-rearing tasks. This was unexpected, as the researchers thought that anxious mothers might be more likely to seek support from their partners.
Fathers with heightened attachment avoidance were more likely to perceive their partners as being less encouraging of their involvement in parenting. Additionally, fathers with heightened attachment anxiety perceived their partners as being less encouraging and are more likely to see their partners closing the gate on their involvement in parenting. This means that fathers who are avoidant or anxious may feel less supported in their role as parents by their partners.
“Attachment style marked by different levels of anxiety and avoidance with a partner affects the psychological adjustment of new parents to parental roles,” Aytac told PsyPost. “Overall, our findings indicated that more anxious mothers show less encouragement and more discouragement of fathers’ involvement.”
“Also, fathers with higher anxiety and avoidance perceive less encouragement and more discouragement from mothers regarding their involvement in childcare. Therefore, this research helps us to further understand why some mothers encourage father involvement, discourage father involvement, or exercise little control over father involvement.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Our sample was relatively homogenous, consisting of different-gender, dual-earner couples of mostly middle and middle-upper class and Euro-American backgrounds,” Aytac explained. “Therefore, results are not generalizable to the population of new parents in the United States. Further research is needed among socioeconomically and ethnically diverse couples.
“Also, future research should consider assessing paternal gatekeeping, which may become more salient in later developmental stages and in different domains in which fathers may be more likely to assume the role of equal or primary parent.”
The study, “Adult attachment as a predictor of maternal gatekeeping among new parents“, was authored by F. Kubra Aytac and Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan.