Are you sick and tired of having to do everything? And your husband just doesn’t carry the load? And – on top of that – when you try to talk about it, you guys just end up fighting! No fun, hey?

Sometimes we even hear wives describe their husband as another one of the kids she has to take care of. That’s really sad. It is also understandable given that some husbands are completely disengaged in relation to domestic duties.

We learned this week though, that everything may not seem as it first appears…

What spawned this topic was a conversation Caleb had one day with a disengaged husband. After digging a bit, Caleb found out that when their first child arrived, his wife kind of parked him to one side and he felt that she said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, I’ll take it from here”. He bought into that and chose to go along with it.

So, we’re going to speak to both wives and husbands because we believe it takes two to tango. We’ll try to keep it fair. Wives, this post is for you, and husbands, your turn is coming next… We’re hoping that these articles will promote some useful conversations between you and your spouse so that you can restore a healthy balance, both feel engaged and involved and together as a couple and as parents, and both feel like you are contributing in your marriage.

Why Is He Not Engaged?

Here are some observations from a study in 2008 entitled “Withdrawal from Coparenting Interactions During Early Infancy”.[i] They found that if the husband is invested in the status quo and a child shows up he may well withdraw in order to avoid change. Additionally, they found that first-time mothers who were unhappy with the division of childcare labour escalated their demands (along with their stress!) resulting in more pronounced demand-withdrawal patterns in the marriage.

This demand-withdraw pattern is a classic, common pattern. To sum it up, the more a wife demands, the more the husband pulls back (or the more a husband demands, the more the wife pulls back). What is ironic is that they both are acting in their respective ways to save the marriage. She wants to be close to him so pursues, he doesn’t want to get into an argument so withdraws, and the cycle keeps on going.

The study also found that new fathers often feel excluded by the developing mother-infant bond. Some men respond by pressing their wives for more time, others channel their energies into the baby, while others progressively distance themselves from the mother-baby dyad. But what kind of men pulled back or withdrew?

Fathers who withdrew were less ego resilient (not open-minded or perceptive, not interested in understanding why others behave as they do and not open to viewpoints other than their own), and more likely to be in a marriage that was already showing distress signs before the baby arrived. These men also felt less respected as a parent by their wives which leads us to the subject of maternal gatekeeping.

Maternal Gatekeeping

Maternal gatekeeping is a phrase that refers to the beliefs and behaviour that a mom shows to discourage or restrict father involvement in childcare.[ii]

Given that research has shown that greater father involvement in children’s lives has been found to be associated with benefits for parents and children alike (more about this next week), this sense of maternal gatekeeping seems to be unhelpful.

Generally, the more domestic demands you place on a father and the more his ability to respond, the more he will contribute to childcare. Maternal gatekeeping undoes this because in an effort to maintain primacy (take first place) as mother, the wife ends up monitoring and restricting their husbands level and type of involvement in childcare.

This is more common among working-class employed mothers who are caught between gender role ideologies and the financial necessity of working full time. That’s a hard place to be – caught between this messaging about how you should be a stay at home mom and invest your heart, life and soul into your kids and yet living in a reality where you feel you have to out and work just to make ends meet. It is a constant tension.

So, look into your own life and ask yourself, Wife/Mom, how you are resolving this tension between being an ideal mother and a working mom? If you’re doing it by pushing your husband out, then that is an effective strategy to make yourself feel like you’re the #1 caregiver and that you’re important. The tension that you feel between your roles is reduced by maternal gatekeeping.

The fact is, dual-earner mothers feel more positively when playing a central role in childcare. So if you can be a stay-at-home mom and live with less material goods, then have that conversation with your husband. If you’re both on board with it, then great, but realize that you will have to get used to living at a lower standard than other couples in your social group.

However, if – for whatever reason – staying home is not an option, we have some other ideas and strategies about how you can be a great mom and help your husband become more engaged.

What Helps Husbands Get More Engaged?

First, be willing to share domestic demands with your husband. It’s easy to think, “well, it’d be nice if he’d get off his butt and share them with me!”, but you have to be willing to invite him, maybe even educate him, and then enjoy the sharing of those duties with him.

For example, we have fun when we’re doing the dishes. They’re probably not quite as clean as if I’d done them on my own, but they’re clean enough to keep everyone healthy and not be grubby – just not sparkling!

Second, consider having your husband take a longer leave to be more involved in caregiving following the birth of your child. Studies show that fathers continued to be more involved when the children were older if they took a longer leave following the birth and helped with diapers and stuff (not went fishing…).

Third, work on your marriage. The better you are at communicating, the stronger your intimacy and the higher your marital satisfaction, the greater his involvement will be. Couples that do these things have more of a sense of togetherness.

Fourthly, think about what you believe about your husband. There is a fascinating study from 2005 that found that “mothers’ perceptions of husbands’ investment in the paternal role – unlike these fathers’ own perceptions – were related to fathers’ overall involvement”.[iii] In other words, if you think your husband doesn’t care, you’ll keep him back.

What YOU think is more important than what HE thinks about his role. If you, wife, believe or have a strong conviction that your husband should be more involved with childcare as you raise your kids, you’ll end up encouraging him to become more involved.

The researchers concluded that if the father was withdrawn from childcare in the family, one way to fix that was to change the way the mother looked at the father. If she believed that he could and should be a capable parent, then she was more likely to allow him to actually do that.

This was not something we expected to see in the research, but in the end, it makes sense because it ties back to the maternal gatekeeping concept. If you are able to open that “gate”, you can change your husband’s level of engagement. Now, if this is deeply entrenched and your kids are older, you’ve got your work cut out for you!

So here are a few comments to help you before you discuss the division of labour in your home.

How To Discuss the Division of Labour

The division of labour is a source of conflict for many couples. Typically (or stereotypically):

  1. The wife is frustrated over the division of housework
  2. Her husband is content and wants to keep the status quo
  3. The wife then is going to escalate and the husband is going to withdraw
  4. The couple is now in a classic demand/withdraw pattern
  5. The wife ends up being more discontented with the division than the husband.

What we want you to do is change the ‘typical’ cycle. You can solve this! You can change the outcome by changing the conversation.

Think about the stance you have. Picture in your head an angry, nasty looking wife with a frying pan held high over her hand chasing her bumbling frightened-looking husband down the sidewalk.  That’s how your current conversations are going. You are escalating, he is withdrawing.

Instead of that, picture a couple standing side by side. They each have an arm around each other, their heads are tilted toward each other, but they’re looking at a problem.

It’s not necessarily a happy moment, but it is a ‘together’ problem. Because it is a together problem, rather than her being AT him, they’re cooperating. They’re discussing their feelings. They’re looking for areas that they agree on. They’re both making sure they do their part to have a constructive discussion. They’re negotiating where they need to but they’re also both willing to compromise where they need to.

This type of discussion is far different in and of itself, but most importantly, it will result in a different outcome.

So, if you’re not happy with your husbands’ level of engagement in your home, stop and ask yourself if you have contributed to it. It’s not easy to think that you may have actually caused the behaviour in him that you do NOT want, but if you have, you know what you need to do. Have that conversation, admit your guilt and invite him to come alongside and work with you.

[i] Donna Elliston et al., “Withdrawal From Coparenting Interactions During Early Infancy,” Family Process 47, no. 4 (December 2008): 481–99.

[ii] Karen Meteyer and Maureen Perry-Jenkins, “Father Involvement Among Working-Class, Dual-Earner Couples,” Fathering 8, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 379–403.

[iii] Brent A. McBride et al., “Paternal Identity, Maternal Gatekeeping, and Father Involvement*,” Family Relations 54, no. 3 (July 2005): 360–72.

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