‘But why can’t my parents put her to bed?” I asked Jake. Alice was 11 months old, and my parents were coming over to babysit so we could go out to dinner. Each time they came, Jake would insist on putting her down and then we’d sneak out, like burglars in reverse.
“She’s going through a lot of separation anxiety right now,” he said. “I want to keep things calm for her.”
“But if we don’t let them do it soon, it’ll only get harder!”
“I’m not saying this will be forever. I’m just not ready tonight.” I rolled my eyes; he shook his head angrily. “If they put her to bed, I’ll spend our entire dinner miserable, worrying every moment if she’s okay. Is that what you want?”
Well, yeah, I thought. If it means she can get used to other people taking care of her so eventually we can go out earlier than 8:30. But I didn’t say that. I just said, “Of course not,” and gritted my teeth.
I was slowly discovering a strange and difficult truth: I married a momblocker. Last year in Time, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman wrote about “gatekeeper moms”: women who tell their husbands they want their help, but then micromanage every decision. These moms, not uninvolved dads, were the secret underminers of egalitarian parenting, the authors suggested.
I know plenty of those moms. But in my own circle of artistic, self-employed, super-involved, neurotic, and, yes, Brooklyn parents, I see far more control-freak dads. These are the men you see chastising their wives for not dressing the baby warmly enough or using only the three-point latch in the stroller, not the five. They insist on pushing the stroller on family outings, they crowd their kids on the jungle gyms, they spend hours online researching high chairs. Somewhere along the line, Mom gave up her automatic veto power—and Dad seized it for himself.
A Park Slope dad I know who spends several days a week caring for his toddler says his wife loves his help—until the moment he’s better at something than she is, in which case it infuriates her. A mother in Windsor Terrace told me that when her 4-year-old son has to go to the bathroom, her husband insists on escorting him every time. A stay-at-home-mom friend came home excitedly with a new winter coat she’d bought for her son, but when she showed it to her architect husband, “he took one look at it and said, ‘We could do better.’ ”
Greg Allen, author of the Daddytypes blog, became a de facto momblocker during the first three months of his daughter’s life, when he and his wife stayed home to care for her. “We decided that I would do EBB—everything but breast-feeding—to help her out. It was so much easier for her to let me change the diaper and give the kid a bath than to do it herself and risk screwing up. It took a lot of effort for her finally to say, ‘I need to learn how to do this now.’”
Some of these gatekeeper dads are simply a male version of the stay-at-home mom, who oversees the parenting because she’s with her child more. Michael, a 43-year-old stay-at-home dad, told me that after Halloween, his wife started giving their 6-year-old daughter candy after each meal. So one day, when his wife went out, he simply tossed the bag. His wife was upset, but he believed it was the right choice—and that the real reason his wife was doling out the candy was so she’d have an excuse to have some too.
But a dad doesn’t have to stay home to be a momblocker. Some men I’ve talked to simply consider themselves more expert than their wives because they were raised by divorced parents and had experience caring for younger siblings. Others had children in their mid-forties and are anxious not to miss out on a single school play, checkup, or soccer game because they’re hyperaware of their own mortality. (Contrast this with my own father, 27 when I was born, who stayed home in Brooklyn alone during the first three weeks of my life while my mother took me to her parents’ in Philadelphia.)
And some momblockers have a twistier motive: They’re not really obsessed with their kid’s vitamin intake but they stake a claim anyway, because it looks bad to be indifferent. As Allen points out, “A lot of dads have strong opinions to mask their insecurity. It’s ‘I don’t know my kid well but I’m going to have an opinion on this because I know I’m supposed to.’”
When the momblocker is married to a mom mellow enough to defer to him, there’s rarely a problem. But when his wife is just as opinionated, it can be a power war. Renee, a 52-year-old Long Island publicist, still argues with her husband over decision-making even now that their children are teens. “Bella Abzug was asked the secret to juggling career and family, and she said that you had to find a man like Martin Abzug. I have a Martin Abzug and yet I resent it. I wonder, ‘Why does he have an opinion about this?’”
I have spent many hours complaining to my shrink about Jake’s opinionated nature: He wants Alice to go to private school; he thinks it’s too soon for us to go on vacation without her; he insists Maurice Sendak’s book Mommy? is too scary for her. “I want to get my own way,” I said in one session, “but he won’t even discuss these things. When two married people disagree, who wins?”
“The one who feels more strongly,” he said.
“But that’s him every time!” I cried.
I am not knocking paternal involvement. I am always aghast when, at the playground, a mother jokes about a husband who put the diaper on backward or exploded baby food in the microwave—so foreign is the idea of a clueless dad.
And yet there have been times when I believed I knew what Alice needed but deferred to him anyway, and I regret it. When she was 9 months old and began waking up at night, he would persuade me to nurse her even though my instinct was not to, so she’d learn to sleep through. In the end, she outgrew the habit, but it would have happened faster if we’d done it my way.
So I find myself baiting him, just to show I have my own will. I know he despises Alice’s dingy white Old Navy corduroys, but instead of throwing them out I dress her in them repeatedly, only to have him frown, remove her from my arms, and return her to her room for a change. Would it be better to toss the pants? Of course. Do I even like the pants? Not really. But that’s not the point.
On other occasions I vow to do things so perfectly that he won’t be able to correct me. On a fall trip to visit friends in Amagansett, I triple-checked the suitcase to make sure I had remembered everything: bath toys, baby towel, blankie, Pack ’n Play, booster, diapers, crib sheet, baby utensils, baby wet suit. We made good time and arrived before our hosts, who had said we should make ourselves at home. There was an outdoor pool.
“I want to take Alice in,” Jake said. “Can you get a swim diaper?” I looked up at him with a terrified face. “You forgot swim diapers,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “but she already pooped today, so she can go in without one.”
“I don’t want to risk it. It’s not our pool.”
I hunted for a swim diaper in the house but couldn’t find one. Seeing the chagrined look on my face, he added, “It’s okay! It’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
But it didn’t feel okay. It felt catastrophic. In my battle to show my proficiency, I lose again and again, strengthening his belief that he can parent better.
As many parents have told me, most of these issues will be moot once Alice is old enough to assert her own will and a third party comes into the picture. Until then, I may have to defer to the more opinionated parent, Jake, as much as it kills me. Even if most of the child-rearing decisions are meaningless, they matter to him. So I consult him, give in, and then resent him, when many mothers would kill for a husband so invested in his child’s life.
It’s not easy to feel confident as a mother when you’re married to a momblocker. So I make sure to spend ample time alone with Alice and do things my way, like buy her Tasti D-Lite or let her stomp in puddles. Right now, when she’s not yet 2, these are our secrets. But pretty soon I’ll have to reckon with the only entity more daunting than a controlling dad: a tattletale.
All names have been changed with the exception of Greg Allen’s.