Study Sheds Light on How Mothers Influence Early Father Involvement

Increased research interest in father involvement has led to important questions about factors that affect fathers’ participation in child care and parenting tasks. One concept to emerge from this work was “maternal gatekeeping:” a mothers’ attitudes or behaviours which may facilitate or inhibit father’s involvement and participation in family work. Some research has suggested that mothers’ attitudes are more predictive of father involvement than the beliefs of fathers, although, obviously, fathers’ beliefs are important as well.

In June 2008, the first study to assess observed maternal gatekeeping behaviour was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The Study

The study of 97 couples was conducted by a team led by Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. Measures included pre and post birth questionnaires to assess parents attitudes and reports about co-parenting and father involvement in child care, along with an in-home assessment at 3.5 months postpartum in which couples were videotaped after being asked to change their baby’s clothes together.

The key finding was that maternal encouragement was a significant predictor of father involvement. Maternal criticism, which has been the subject of researchers’ concepts of maternal gate-keeping, played a smaller role, says Schoppe-Sullivan. “We did find that fathers who were observed to be less involved with their infant in the home sessions tended to be from couples reporting higher levels of maternal criticism. But that affect only approached significance. The significant effect was that families reporting higher levels maternal encouragement reported higher levels of father involvement.” Examples of maternal encouragement included behaviours such as the mother seeking the father’s opinion about baby care matters or telling him that he seemed to be making the baby happy.

How This Study Contributes to the Literature

The effects of maternal gatekeeping in this study were modest in size, possibly because Schoppe-Sullivan’s sample had fairly progressive attitudes about gender roles and father involvement to begin with. But she says the important contribution this study makes to the literature on maternal gatekeeping is that it is the first one to correlate father involvement in baby care with mothers’ actual behaviour. “Most studies have relied on mothers’ attitudes or beliefs as a proxy for gatekeeping,” says Schoppe-Sullivan. “We found a significant affect of mothers’ behaviour.” She says much more needs to be understood about exactly how a mother’s statements and actions affect a father’s involvement. “For example, we can’t really be sure that the mother’s encouragement caused the increased father involvement,” she points out. “It may be that certain actions by fathers prompt mothers to make encouraging statements. But it makes sense that if mothers are the primary caregivers, which is usually the case, they will have an impact on fathers’ caretaking behaviour.”

Schoppe-Sullivan and her colleagues hope to shed more light on the ways in which mothers and fathers affect each other’s behaviour in a new study which will follow 170 couples from pregnancy until their babies are 9 months old.

Maternal gatekeeping, coparenting quality, and fathering behavior in families with infants.
By Schoppe-Sullivan, Sarah J.; Brown, Geoffrey L.; Cannon, Elizabeth A.; Mangelsdorf, Sarah C.; Sokolowski, Margaret Szewczyk. Journal of Family Psychology. 2008 Jun Vol 22(3) 389-398.

Read the Ohio State University media release about this study, 

Read the journal article abstract.