Mom in the driver’s seat?

A new study finds that “mothers play an important role in determining how much fathers get involved in taking care of their infants”:

A study of 97 couples found that fathers were more involved in the day-to-day care of their infants when they received active encouragement from their wife or partner.

In fact, this encouragement was important even after taking into account fathers’ and mothers’ views about how involved dads should be, the overall quality of the couple’s parenting relationship, and how much mothers worked outside the home.

In addition, fathers’ beliefs about how involved they should be in child care did not matter when mothers were highly critical of fathers’ parenting. In other words, fathers didn’t put their beliefs into practice when faced with a particularly judgmental mother.

“Mothers are in the driver’s seat,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

“Mothers can be very encouraging to fathers, and open the gate to their involvement in child care, or be very critical, and close the gate.”

Schoppe-Sullivan’s study is the most authoritative one of its kind to date, but this insight isn’t news. Earlier studies by Sarah M. Allen and Alan J. Hawkins (1999) and Naomi Gerstel and Sally K. Gallagher (2001) got similar results: moms play a key role in determining the level of father involvement.

This shouldn’t surprise us.

“Family is more important to a woman than to a man,” says Gina Heise, a Kansas City mom I interviewed for my forthcoming book. “There’s more of a connection. And maybe it’s because of the fact that women carry a baby for nine months and so they’re already into the deal as soon as the baby appears. When she comes home she wants to be with the kids, she wants to help out, she’s involved.”

This might sound like stereotypical thinking–and certainly, many readers will disagree with her perspective–but Gina isn’t a gatekeeper: She’s a breadwinning mom who supports a stay-at-home husband and two children. None of the reverse-traditional couples I interviewed for my book mentioned gatekeeping as an issue. Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet discovered something similar in her 2006 study of 114 stay-at-home dads — like me, she found that the vast majority of mothers did not appear to exhibit gatekeeping behaviors. (Although she also found that quality of housework remains “a sensitive issue.”)

This actually provides additional evidence for the idea that maternal gatekeeping shapes father involvement: it makes sense that the families with the least amount of gatekeeping would have the most involved fathers.

Differences in the brains and minds of men and women are small, but as groups, we still play very different roles in reproduction, separate and unequal. Men don’t bear children and they don’t breastfeed. Those experiences are unique to females who become biological mothers and they can create an enormous gap between fathers and mothers, not to mention fathers and children—but only if the gap is permitted to grow.

To Gina, who embraces her breadwinning role, the persistence of the gap is actually an argument in favor of stay-at-home fatherhood.

“The world would be a better place if more fathers stayed home and took care of their children,” she says. “I think they would have better relationships with their children. I think they would be more respectful towards mothers. I think they would have better relationships with their wives. There’s just more partnership when a man stays home, and I think a man becomes more aware of other social issues.”

Gina’s point finds support in at least one study. When child psychologist Robert Frank and colleagues directly compared traditional with reverse-traditional households in order to understand parent-child bonds, they found that women who worked full-time still formed strong connections with children, but that wasn’t usually true of the fathers who worked full-time.

They also found that domestic tasks and childcare were more fairly distributed when the at-home parent was a male.

“The child of an at-home-dad family has both a strong father influence and a strong mother influence,” says Frank. “Both parents play an important role in the child’s development. This is in contrast to the at-home-mother family, in which a child has a strong mother influence but little influence from the father.”

If biology does indeed create stronger attachment for biological mothers, it might just make more sense for males to serve as caregivers (at least for a time) so that their connection with their children can be reinforced. In this way, we are managing the environment to provide a counter-weight to the reproductive division of labor, and to maximize the entire family’s investment in the child’s welfare.

Now we are talking about culture, not biology. Biology might, in a sense, mark the frontiers of the country in which we must live, but we are not its prisoners. Within the ambit our bodies provide, we are confronted by a maze-like world of choices. “What magnifies small differences into major divisions of labor?” asks Harvard anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book Mother Nature.

The simplest answer is that people do, by following the path of least resistance. As Ed Wilson put it, ‘At birth the twig is already bent a little bit.’ Where natural inclinations lead depends on how much effort is expended bending them back. Among humans, conscious effort can minimize preexisting differences. More often, small differences in responsiveness are exaggerated by life experiences and then blown out of all proportion by cultural customs and norms.

As Hrdy describes, it is always easier for the exhausted mother to simply give a crying infant her breast instead of the father’s arms. Likewise, it’s easier for the father to bow to the power of the breast.

I know what Hrdy is talking about. It happened in my family during the first year of my son’s life: I lumped him with his mother and often set myself outside of their little dyad. We were simply following the path of least resistance, the one that seemed most natural.

But when it fell to me to care for him every day, I realized what we had lost when we followed that easy path, and I discovered what could be gained by taking the rougher one: Liko and I learned how to sleep, eat, grow, and play together, and fatherhood was grafted (forever, I think) onto my sense of self. My life and perceptions broadened, and I would like to think my family’s horizons did, as well.