According to a new study published in Personal relationships. The results provide evidence that adult attachment styles play a key role in maternal control in new parents.
“Maternal control is important because it affects father involvement in childrearing, which is beneficial for children’s positive cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development. As a core subdimension of co-parenting, maternal control involves behaviors of mothers encouraging or discouraging fathers from engaging in childcare and housework,” said study author F. Kubra Aytac, from the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University.
“We have relatively little understanding of the psychological factors that may explain individual differences in maternal control. We therefore wanted to examine possible effects on maternal control of adult attachment, which plays an important role in romantic relationships and is an important psychological component of human development.
Attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance are two dimensions of adult attachment style. Attachment anxiety refers to the extent to which a person worries about being rejected or abandoned by their romantic partner and seeks reassurance and intimacy from them. On the other hand, attachment avoidance refers to the extent to which an individual avoids emotional closeness and intimacy with their partner, and may feel uncomfortable or anxious when their partner tries to too close.
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 182 couples who were expecting their first child and both partners worked full time. Participants were recruited using different methods and had to meet certain criteria such as being over 18, being able to read and speak English, being married or living together.
Most participants were married and identified as white/European American. The age of the mothers ranged from 18 to 42 years old and that of the fathers from 18 to 50 years old. Most participants had at least a bachelor’s degree, and the median household income was $81,000 per year.
During the third trimester of pregnancy, pregnant women and fathers were asked to separately answer questions about their adult attachment style. They were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they agreed with various statements. For example, whether they agree or disagree with the statement “I’d rather not show my partner how I feel inside” (attachment avoidance) or “I’m afraid to be abandoned” (attachment anxiety).
When infants were 3 months old, mothers and fathers were asked to complete maternal control surveys separately. These surveys included questions about how often the mother engaged in behaviors such as criticizing the father or rolling her eyes when he did something she did not approve of regarding childcare. The father was also asked to rate how often the mother engaged in these behaviors when he did something she did not approve of regarding child care.
These surveys were collected during a 2-hour home visit, which included videotaped interactions between parents and their child. The parents were first recorded playing with their child for 5 minutes and then changing the baby’s clothes together for about 3 minutes. The researchers analyzed the video recordings to assess the mother’s controlling behavior, such as whether she allowed or prevented the father from getting involved in childcare and interacting with the baby.
“Historically, women have been the primary caregivers and responsible for household chores, including housework and childcare,” Aytac told PsyPost. “However, men have started to take on a bigger role in domestic work. Indeed, the direct involvement of fathers in parenting in the United States has increased since the 1960s.
“But even when both parents work outside the home, the division of labor in the home remains unequal. Some have suggested that mothers may serve as gatekeepers in the family, controlling fathers’ involvement in parenting by discouraging or encouraging their involvement. Especially during times of change such as becoming a parent, individuals may experience higher stress due to changes in responsibilities and relationships.
The researchers found that mothers with increased attachment anxiety tended to self-report higher maternal door closure. When researchers observed mothers interacting with their partners and babies, they found that those who were more anxious were also less likely to encourage fathers to participate in child-rearing tasks. This was unexpected, as the researchers thought anxious mothers might be more likely to seek support from their partner.
Fathers with increased attachment avoidance were more likely to perceive their partners to be less supportive of their involvement in parenting. Additionally, fathers with increased attachment anxiety perceive their partners to be less supportive and are more likely to have their partners close the door to their involvement in parenting. This means that avoidant or anxious fathers may feel less supported in their parenting role by their partner.
“The attachment style marked by different levels of anxiety and avoidance with a partner affects new parents’ psychological adjustment to parenting roles,” Aytac told PsyPost. “Overall, our results indicated that more anxious mothers show less encouragement and more discouragement toward father involvement.”
“Furthermore, more anxious and avoidant fathers perceive less encouragement and more discouragement from mothers regarding their involvement in childcare. Therefore, this research helps us better understand why some mothers encourage father involvement, discourage father involvement, or exercise little control over father involvement.
But the study, like all research, has some caveats.
“Our sample was relatively homogeneous, made up of different-sex, dual-income couples, mostly from the middle and upper-middle classes and of Euro-American descent,” Aytac explained. “Therefore, the results are not generalizable to the population of new parents in the United States. Further research is needed among socioeconomically and ethnically diverse couples.
“In addition, future research should consider assessing paternal control, which may become more important in later developmental stages and in different domains in which fathers may be more likely to assume the role of equal or primary parent. “
The study, “Adult Attachment as a Predictor of Maternal Control in New Parents,” was authored by F. Kubra Aytac and Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan.