Mothers at the Gate

by George R. Williams, Ph.D.

The Gate Keeper

“I’m tired of the way you treat me-like a criminal!” he shouted into the receiver, “you’re tired?” I shouted back. “I’m tired of your bull…you expect me to trust you?” “It ain’t a question of you trustin’ me—why should I trust you?!” he angrily replied. That did it! He wasn’t getting it, he wasn’t going to get it- “forget it!

I sighed and hung the phone up without even a simple goodbye. -It’s all about trust. It’s only about trust. I can’t change the way things turned out between us and I admit I’m a little angry still that he left, but that’s over.

But when he says he’s coming by to pick up the kids and then he doesn’t show or he shows up 2 hours later or he promises to buy them a small gift and then blames “child support payments” for his inability to take them to get a hamburger. It’s the same ole’ same ole’ When I try to explain to him that he’s hurting them he accuses me of making it up to make him feel guilty.

And don’t let the kids say something negative to him themselves, he accuses me of putting them up to it, so I do what’s natural for most mothers, I try to protect them the best I can from harm- physical, emotional, or mental..harm is the less we have to deal with him-the better … right?

This true story of a single mother’s experience illustrates how mothers serve the function of a gatekeeper to protect their children from those they perceive may cause the children any physical or emotional harm. They regulate those who have access to their children.

Mothers serve an important task because there are many who would cause our children harm. Most child abuse perpetrators are those related to the child or someone they know. The recent child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church show us that mothers cannot let their guard down. And it is not just sexual abuse, but also physical and emotional abuse and neglect that the “gatekeeper” must protect against.

The mother endures the nine months of trial by fire in carrying a child. At the end of this trial they face a painful labor process. Once that child is born mothers are usually the primary caregiver of that child. The prenatal and postnatal experiences create a strong bond between a mother and their child.

The Broken Gate

No one will argue the importance of a mother but some may argue the importance of a father. Yes, many fathers are absent or have been absent but all the research points to the importance of the biological father to his child. This compels us to do something about the fathers separated from the mothers but still desire to be involved in their children’s lives.

This past weekend one of our Fathering Classes from the Jackson County Fathering Court appeared on the front page of the LA Times. In that article as in many other settings across this nation one of the greatest obstacles that continue to prevent men from access to their children is the gatekeeper.

What has caused that gate to be broken so that it does not open to let the fathers have access to their children? There are many reasons but two prominent reasons are men and injustice.

In the above story the father broke the trust between the mother. He emotionally hurt her and was emotionally hurting the children. He was in large part responsible for the broken gate. In other cases it may not be that man but other men who hurt the mother in previous relationships. It could have been the absence of her father or another husband or boyfriend. This may cause her to view all relationship with men as suspect. She may feel she is protecting her child from the harm she has endured. We need to get at the root of the emotional wounding and bring healing to the relationship.

The other reason for the broken gate is injustice. The laws and courts of our land have forgotten the importance of fathers to their children. When it comes to cases of divorce, custody and child-support a father’s rights often gets trampled upon at the expense of the child. Nobody advocates taking away a mother’s rights but there is room to add a fathers. Today even if a man poses no threat to his child, has a good place to stay, a stable income, pays his child support, has no addiction problems he is not guaranteed access to his child. We need a law to end the injustice and allow the father access to his child.

The Child Caught in the Middle

Tonight, sleep would come easily. I had done it. I had successfully survived 3 years as a single mom. The house and car payments were current. The children were well fed and well clothed. My friends stood in marvel that I managed to keep it all together. I laid my head down on my pillow in triumph. Then I heard it, the tapping of tiny little fingers against my bedroom door. He climbed into the bed and placed his head beside mine. “What’s the matter, I asked, “can’t sleep?” He sighed heavily and simply whispered, “This house needs a dad.”

In the debates of divorce, custody and child support one person is forgotten, the child. A child needs their mother and father. They are the two most emotionally significant persons in that child’s life. A mother cannot be a father and a father cannot be a mother.

Tragically the child behind the gate often gets caught in the middle as a pawn played between the two. Often this is emotionally damaging for a child to have to choose between their father and mother. Most of the time that choice is made for them. They get placed with the mother. The damage is done when a child begins to question their responsibility for the breakup. Were they good enough? Did they pray hard enough? Did they do something wrong? Often these questions go unanswered because they are asked on an emotional level. Then they begin to display themselves in behaviors of depression, anxiety or aggression.

We must work to keep the child out of the middle of the relationship. A child deserves to have a direct relationship with their father and a direct relationship with their mother. Each parent needs to support the child and not put each other down. This is possible when you have at the minimal a respectable relationship between the father and mother with the well being of their child as the ultimate goal.

Repairing the Gate

Repairing the gate is not easy in fact at times it is next to impossible but it is what our children need. We should not let anything stop us from fulfilling this need of our child, the need of both parents. The goal in repairing the gate is to establish a respectable relationship with the mother of the child. To repair the gate goes beyond the scope of this article but I would like to share some important thoughts in repairing the gate.

  • Fathers must be the initiators. In a large number of situations we are responsible for breaking the “gate”. We have to face the truth of what we have done and seek forgiveness.
  • Fathers must learn how to relate with mothers. Relationships are built over time on trust. There ought to be more positive things happening in our relationship than negative. The key to a successful relationship is an unselfish working and understanding of the other person’s perspective.
  • Fathers must never give up. The “gate” was not broken overnight and it will not be repaired overnight. Fathers have to recreate a history of trustworthiness.

Fatherhood is a life sentence with no place for quitters. It is time that fathers take their place next to the mothers at the gate. The gatekeeper job is not for mothers only but a shared responsibility. Fathers need to take their place next to the mothers inside the gate. Ultimately we are looking out for the well being of our children and restricting access to the father and mother is not in our children’s best interest.

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There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.