New mum? Here's why you need to support your partner

New parents need to support one other.
New parents need to support one other. Photo: Shutterstock

The next time you find yourself getting ready to criticise the way your partner dresses or feeds your baby, it might be worth taking a deep breath and letting it go - for the sake of your relationship. 

That's according to new research which has found that first-time dads tended to feel closer to their partner both as a co-parent and as a romantic partner when he believed she had confidence in his parenting abilities.

"Fathers are more involved than they have ever been in parenting, but mums are still seen in our society as the expert caregivers," said Anna Olsavsky, lead author of the study published in the journal Family Processes. "So how mothers react to their partners' parenting matters a lot. It affects how new dads feel about their whole family situation, including his relationship with his wife or partner."

The research focused on a concept known as "maternal gatekeeping". Put simply, this refers to how much the mother inhibits or welcomes the father's involvement in child care. 

"Maternal gatekeeping behaviours that encourage and positively reinforce fathers' active parenting involvement are called gate opening behaviours (e.g., mother compliments the father's parenting—either directly or to others when the father can overhear)," the authors explain, "whereas behaviours that discourage fathers' parenting are called gate closing behaviours."

Researchers from Ohio State University wanted to explore the idea of maternal gatekeeping from dads' perspective and whether it was linked to their relationship with their partner as they transitioned to parenthood. Using data from the New Parents Project, a long-term study tracking first time, dual-earner, mums and dads, Ms Olsavsky and her colleagues assessed a group of 182 mostly married couples over four time points: during the third trimester, and again when their baby was, three, six and nine months old.

At three-months-old, dads answered questions about maternal gatekeeping including: "how often does your baby's mother criticise you?", "how often does your baby's mother invite you to help?" as well as how often they were given "irritated" looks about their parenting or their partners simply took over baby-related tasks out of frustration.

When bub was six-months-old, dads were questioned again about what researchers termed "co-parenting closeness" or how much they were "growing and maturing together through experiences as parents." Finally, when the baby was nine-months-old, the fathers rated how good they felt about their romantic relationship with their partner.

Results showed that gatekeeping matters - whether the mother "opened" or "closed" the gate on the father had a significant impact on how he felt about their relationship as a couple.

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"If mothers are critical and less supportive of their partners' parenting, it could have ramifications for the whole family dynamic," said co-author Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan. "Fathers may not only do less child care, they may have more negative views on their relationship with their wife or partner."

And while some research has suggested that gate opening might be viewed negatively by dads who may perceive it as a demand to be more involved in parenting, or "nagging", that's not what the Ohio team found.

"Gate opening was perceived positively by fathers," Ms Olsavsky said. "They felt it improved their relationship as a couple."

While the findings highlight the need for couples to support one another, they also suggest that dads may need even more support as societal norms change.

"There is this underlying assumption that mothers are the experts when it comes to parenting. And they have more sources of support in society when it comes to how to be a good parent," Ms Olsavsky said."But fathers don't generally get that support from society. The only support they often get as parents is from their partner. That's why it is so important."

Clinical Psychologist and founder of Partners to Parents Dr Pam Pilkington agrees that the way partners response to on another's parenting has a huge impact on their confidence.

"This research shows how a mother's reactions to their partner's parenting efforts can either boost their confidence or discourage them," Dr Pilkington says. "Sometimes this maternal gatekeeping can be really implicit - it can be as subtle as a heavy sigh, or a disapproving facial expression. It can also be more overt - E.g., "You're not doing that right! Let me do it!".

But whether it's subtle or more overt, the criticism and disapproval gives the partner the message "You're not doing a good enough job".

"On the other hand, if a mother is welcoming and encouraging of their partner's parenting efforts, this imbues confidence and fosters a sense of team work," Dr Pilkington says. "The importance of parenting together and feeling like a team is getting increasing recognition. Fathers are co-parents (not babysitters!) and provide a unique contribution to their child's healthy development."

According to Dr Pilkington, the study's findings fit with their own research into how partners can support one another during the transition to parenthood. "We reviewed more than 100 studies and found that feeling supported by your partner reduces your risk of developing perinatal depression and anxiety," she says. 

"There are lots of ways to support and encourage your partner, including giving verbal encouragement, giving them time and space to learn new skills, and being accepting of differences in parenting styles."