Mother''s Gatekeeping in Complex Families: Studying Mother''s Long Term Impact on the Ties between Adult Children, Biological Fathers and Stepfathers

Maaike Hornstra, University of Amsterdam
Katya Ivanova, University of Amsterdam
Matthijs Kalmijn, University of Amsterdam

This study examines whether mothers’ gatekeeping position in mother-father-child triads affects the quality of adult children’s relationships with different father-figures. Maternal gatekeeping arises when mothers engage in behaviors that either facilitate or inhibit the involvement of other parent figures in children’s lives. In contrast to previous work, we consider the child’s relations both to resident stepfathers and divorced nonresident biological fathers and examine: (a) how the mother-father and mother-stepfather tie affect adult children’s closeness to the father-figures, and (b) whether the mother equally benefits or hampers the two father-figures. Hypotheses were tested using a multiple parent design. That is, respondents can have multiple types of parent figures present in the data, enabling us to make within-child comparisons using fixed-effects models. This design could be employed by using OKiN, a large-scale multi-actor survey in which respondents growing up in complex family structures were oversampled. While prior research has primarily focused on young children or adolescents, this paper provides insights on the long-term role of mothers in offspring-father relationships.

Mothers are critical in the functioning of complex families (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). Due to the rise in divorce and remarriage, many children grow up in increasingly complex families consisting of multiple parent figures. The mother-child relationship is often the oldest and strongest tie in this network and its closeness functions as an important predictor for the quality of children’s ties to other parent figures (King, 2006). This may be explained by the concept of maternal gatekeeping. There is powerful social pressure for mothers to act as a safeguard, protect their children against threats, and to create a positive family environment, especially after divorce and re-partnering (Pulman & Pasley, 2013). Also, mothers may want to ‘sabotage’ fathers involvement out of vengefulness or jealousy, especially when the relationship dissolution was characterized by conflict. Therefore, mothers can engage in gatekeeping behaviors that either facilitate or inhibit other parents’ involvement in their children’s lives. This paper builds upon this notion by examining how mother-father-child triads could affect the strength and nature of father-child relationships.

This paper contributes to previous research in several ways. Maternal gatekeeping is typically investigated in relation to (nonresident) divorced fathers. However, it has not often been discussed with respect to (resident) stepfathers, nor have children’s ties to divorced fathers and stepfathers been considered simultaneously. This is striking, as the existing – mostly qualitative - literature suggests that mothers might favor the stepfather-child tie more than the father-child tie (King, 2006; Weaver & Coleman, 2010). Moreover, little is known about the long-term impact of maternal gatekeeping, as prior research primarily focusses on young children or adolescents. By solely examining the quality of family relations during youth, studies cannot necessarily account for the adjustment period that follows potentially tumultuous family re-structuring. Finally, the positive correlations found between closeness to mothers and closeness to (step)fathers might be spurious. These correlations are then not caused by gatekeeping mechanisms, but biased by confounding factors. For instance, when there is a negative family climate, children are more likely to report lower levels of closeness to all family members. We therefore argue that it is fruitful to implement information on the relationship quality between the mother and father-figures.

We simultaneously consider children’s relations to resident stepfathers and nonresident biological fathers and examine: (a) how the mother-father and mother-stepfather tie affect adult children’s own closeness with the father-figures, and (b) whether the mother equally benefits or inhibits each father figure. Based on prior literature (King, 2006; Ganong & Coleman, 2004), we expect both the quality and strength of the mother-father and mother-stepfather tie to positively affect the child-(step)father relationship. For the mother-father tie it is of interest whether the relationship was characterized by conflict after the dissolution of marriage. When the biological parents are in conflicting terms, they could compete for the child’s attention and affection. With respect to the stepfather, marital satisfaction could encourage mothers to promote the child’s acceptance and closeness in the new family formation.

We utilize data from OKiN (Ouders en Kinderen in Nederland), a new large-scale multi-actor survey on adult child-parent relationships an era of family complexity. This survey was collected in collaboration with Statistics Netherlands and used a register based oversample of respondents who were not living with both of their biological parents at the age of 15. It contains data on 6,485 adults aged 25 to 45 (“the anchors”) and independently collected data on 9,325 parent figures (“the alters”). Due to this unique set-up, we have information on the self-reported closeness from children to all parent figures, as well as, self-reported by each parent measures on the relationships quality with other parent figures. As a result, information on the degree of closeness is available for all parent-parent and parent-child constellations involved in this study. From the ‘anchor data’, we select all cases in which the biological parents are divorced, the respondent co-resided with the mother during youth, and both a resident stepfather and nonresident father were present. The sub-sample used in this paper identifies N = 1,084 mother-fathers-child triads.

The anchor data enables us to implement a multiple parent design in which each adult child may have multiple biological parents and stepparents in the data. The adult children are positioned at the higher-level units and the lower-level units relate to the parent figures. This design is particularly fruitful in relation to our second research question. Besides examining the impact of mother-father dyads on father-child dyads, we can also compare adult children’s closeness towards biological fathers and stepfathers, as a function of the quality of the mother’s relationship to these men. Using this multiple parent set-up, we fit fixed-effects models and make within-child comparisons. That is, we compare whether the relationship strength differs for biological fathers compared to stepfathers while implicitly controlling for all unobservable child and mother characteristics.

Presented in Session 1100: Families and Households