The science of how fatherhood transforms you
Emerging research has proven it: Men’s bodies are built to parent, and involved fathers bring benefits to almost every aspect of their kids’ lives. (And—bonus!—there’s a payoff for dads, too.)
Micah Toub, Photography by Roberto CarusoJune 8, 2021
Couch: Urbanbarn.com, Clothes: gapcanada.ca, Parasol diapers: Well.ca
When it came to being a dad, my father says he was pretty much flying blind. My grandfather didn’t change my dad’s diapers, didn’t put him to bed, didn’t even play with him that much. One of the most prominent father-son memories he has is of when he was five and his mother was letting him stay up late to watch a show on TV; his father vetoed that and sent him to bed crying. He also remembers his dad coming after him with a belt. Then, when my dad was 13, my grandfather remarried and moved away.
“I didn’t have a role model for how to be an involved father, so I had to come up with that myself,” he told me recently. “But I think it was also instinctive—it just came out of my desire to be close. I felt love for you, so I wanted to teach you things and play with you.” He added that, subconsciously, he was probably making up for the shortcomings of his own childhood.
The idea that a man can possess a parenting instinct, and is not just suited to be a provider or a hapless sidekick, is relatively new. For my grandfather’s generation, it was highly controversial. When I was born, in 1976, the expectation that men should do more was picking up steam, but they were still considered a poor substitute for mom. In fact, up to that point, scientists who studied children’s early development looked exclusively at mothers.
“[The mid-’70s] was the heyday of attachment theory, which, as it was incarnated then, was very much focused on the critical importance of the attachment between an infant and its mother in the first years of life,” says Michael Lamb, who became a forerunner of fatherhood research in the ’70s and continues to study it at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “That went along with the assumption that it was the only [primary] relationship kids could form.”
At that time, however, Lamb and a small number of other researchers were all coming to the same conclusion: Babies can form as strong an attachment to their dads as to their moms. From that seed has grown an intriguing but limited body of evidence stating that not only are men built to care for children, but that being an involved dad impacts kids’ physiologies, psychologies and outcomes for the rest of their lives.
In short, dads make a difference. So why is it that when we see a man with an infant on a weekday, we still reflexively wonder where that baby’s mother is, even if we think it’s so darn cute that he’s “babysitting”? The truth is, just as women have always had what it takes to be CEOs, men have always had the power to nurture. Now that we’re recognizing this, the day may soon come when the default assumption that mom is the primary parent will seem laughably quaint—and we’ll all be better for it.
The birth of a father
It wasn’t until the turn of this century that researchers discovered a fascinating detail about men: Our bodies transform when we become fathers. (And I’m not talking about the second trimester–size belly bump we fight into old age.) Whether we’re biological dads or adoptive ones, heterosexual or queer, our hormonal systems alter dramatically when we become parents—an amazing revelation basically implying that despite the narrow role we fathers have straitjacketed ourselves into for so long, our internal chemistries may have always been nudging us toward more involvement.
We’ve long known that oxytocin—the “love hormone”—plays a role in a mother’s initial bonding with her child after birth. But more recently, researchers have observed that the same spike in oxytocin occurs when fathers hold and play with their newborns.
My own discovery of this fact began in an initially distressing way. The fairy tale I’d always heard was that parents experience an overwhelming flood of love for their babies on first sight. Almost four years ago, when the surgeon brought my son around the curtain and passed him to me, I was astonished by the fragile, crying creature. But I didn’t experience that surge of love. “I feel like he could be anybody’s baby,” I confessed to my mother in an anxious phone call from the hospital hallway.
The next two days were a blur, as I alternated between taking care of my son and my wife, who was recovering from a C-section. But once we’d settled at home and I made a habit of putting my son on my shirtless chest, I began to feel it: love. It was transcendent, much like the early-days rush I’ve experienced in other landmark relationships, and it came with similar side effects: the feeling of walking on air, an overriding empathy toward all people and a narcissistic inability to talk about anything else. The oxytocin buzz.
While that love drug pumps through a new father, his testosterone level typically drops, making him less prone to risk-taking behaviour and more able to nurture his newborn. And also, oddly, he registers an increase in prolactin—a hormone best known for helping women produce breastmilk. Its purpose, it turns out, is greater than that.
University of Notre Dame anthropologist Lee Gettler explains that the presence of prolactin goes back hundreds of millions of years to our animal ancestors—before mammals existed (even before breastfeeding existed). Over the past decade, Gettler’s research has come to some conclusions about the hormone’s function in modern-day dads. “Fathers with higher prolactin play with their babies in ways that are beneficial for their babies’ learning and exploration, and the fathers also seem to be more responsive and sensitive to infant cries,” he says. In other words, this ancient hormone plays some role in, as my father put it, increasing dads’ desire to be close.
All of the internal changes can depend on how much time dads spend solo with their kids in infancy and toddlerhood, says Hayley Alloway, who studies endocrinology in fathers at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “Having time where the man is responsible for direct physical interaction with an infant—not just being in the room, but actually providing care—has the biggest influence on his hormonal levels changing,” she says. And indeed, studies have shown that the more intimate time a dad has with his baby, the lower his testosterone dips and the more empathetic and soothing he is with his child.
I experienced the change in myself but wondered whether other involved dads did, too. What it means to be “involved” is somewhat subjective—a complex matrix of quantity of time spent with quality of interactions. But I found that several men who define themselves as “involved” parents all spent intensive and regular one-on-one time with their babies during their first year. None of them went into a scientist’s lab to prove it, but we know their hormones were shifting to accommodate their new role. And while they didn’t always find it easy, they spoke of the transformation with the seriousness of someone taking on the great responsibility that it is.
Josh*, who became a stay-at-home dad when his son was eight months old, told me the physical bonding started almost immediately, as he paced the hospital hallways with his newborn to give his wife some rest. “I didn’t want his crying to wake her,” he says. “I was the only dad I saw doing this, and I got a lot of people saying, ‘Aww, that’s adorable,’ but I was surprised it was so unusual.” Later, when his son was a month old and could take a bottle, he and his wife began splitting the nighttime feedings. For months on end, if he wasn’t rocking and soothing his son, the baby was asleep right on top of him—a difficult, sleepless experience that he nonetheless describes as “lovely.”
“It was important to me to step up and say, I’m here now. I’m not going to wait until my kid can participate in my favourite hobbies. I’m putting in the time immediately,” he says. “Being a dad means doing the hard things as well as the fun things.” The reward for Josh’s effort came during the daytime, when he says his son would often crawl over to him and sit in his lap, which never failed to send that “in love” feeling surging through his body.
Brandon Hay, founder of Toronto’s Black Daddies Club, also did much of the nighttime duty 15 years ago when he first became a dad. And the growing bond he had with his baby changed the way he viewed his own life. “After my son was born, I had a new purpose. Life is bigger than just me now.” Brandon’s own father had been mostly absent during his childhood in Jamaica, inspiring Brandon to do an about-face in one generation, taking his parenting role so seriously that to do even better, he formed an organization—a network of black fathers that has engaged 8,000 families since 2007.
According to Alloway, the hormonal changes in dads during the initial stages of a baby’s life don’t continue once the two have less physical contact—but kids do have a long-term effect on men’s bodies. Although research in this area is scant, one 2004 study that reviewed the literature since 1966 found that men under 40 with children had poorer health than those who had none. (As someone who became a father at 37, my joints and bones can confirm this.) But, in men over 40—who had settled into their parental roles—the opposite was true. And, if a father makes it all the way to 60, a 2017 study conducted in Sweden at Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institutet found having a kid adds about two years onto his life expectancy.
Reaping the benefits
The social movement to create more equity among the sexes, which was in full swing by the mid-’70s, played a role in my father becoming more involved in my care. While feminists battled to create the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, within my own house in Denver, Colo., my parents were figuring out how my mother—who had stayed home to raise my sister—could go back to school and work. “It wasn’t the old paradigm anymore,” my dad says now. “We decided that we both had to raise our kids and that it was going to be something we did as a team.”
Although I can’t recall the times he changed my diaper or rocked me in the middle of the night, I do have fond memories of him cuddling with me in bed to read books, and I remember that he used to pick me up from kindergarten early at least once a week. In this sense, he was at the forefront of the shift, involving himself in ways that are now the norm.
Although that push 40 years ago may have been for the sake of balancing work and child care between parents, the research Lamb and others began doing at the time attempted to show that fathers were more than just a convenient backup to mothers. After modest initial studies—experiments showing that a temporarily abandoned baby would stop crying when its father returned—researchers eventually came to conclude that active dads can have a net positive impact.
And no, it’s not just that an involved dad makes a kid better at sports—research shows our presence is a boon to pretty much every aspect of a human being’s development. Having an involved dad has been associated with fewer cognitive delays, better school readiness, a decrease in tantrums and aggressive behaviour, and lower rates of depression. In the book Do Fathers Matter?, science journalist Paul Raeburn summarizes findings from a 2007 Swedish study concluding that an involved father may even keep his teenage offspring out of jail: “Children whose fathers played with them, read to them, took them on outings and helped care for them had fewer behavioural problems in the early school years, and less likelihood of delinquency or criminal behaviour as adolescents.”
Of all the studies Raeburn came across, two of the most surprising to him were from the University of North Carolina showing that, no matter how well-spoken a mother was, the father’s use of vocabulary had the greatest impact on a toddler’s language development.
That conclusion reminded me of something my friend Simon* told me about the initial weeks of his four-year-old’s life. “My first impression of being a father was the shift of having another person in between me and my wife,” he says. “It came as a shock, but then I also realized I wanted in. I wanted my son to have a connection with me, too.”
After googling different iterations of “how do dads bond with babies?”, Simon found information that suggested infants can form strong connections with a parent’s voice. “I didn’t have breasts, but I could talk,” he says, and so he did. He talked to his child constantly and, in short order, his son—who is now a skilled and passionate storyteller—responded by gravitating toward Simon whenever he heard his voice.
My friend’s experience may explain one reason for those studies’ conclusions, but Raeburn says his conversations with the researchers suggested something else. “They speculate that because a father traditionally spends less time with the child than the mother, they weren’t as attuned to what words the kids knew,” he explains. “So while mothers might change their language a bit to use words that their kid understands, fathers are more likely to speak using something closer to their normal vocabulary, which stretches kids so they learn more.”
This hypothesis inadvertently raises one of the concerns I have with studies aiming to prove that kids with involved dads do better in life. If the researcher’s rationale is true, wouldn’t a dad who splits care evenly with his partner, or who even does more, stop having that effect? And then this: How do we know what’s due to the gender or sex of the parent and what’s just a benefit of having more than one person investing time in a child’s development?
As it turns out, Lamb—that pioneer of proving fathers make a difference—has come around to the opinion that gender isn’t relevant when it comes to outcomes. While he says he believes all that research has been useful to confirm “the appropriateness of fathers becoming more involved,” he hasn’t seen conclusive evidence that men provide anything women can’t—and he thinks that the less-involved parent just ends up having a different impact, no matter their gender. “Kids benefit from having both parents actively involved because then they have more parent time and more parent stimulation. And because any two people differ in personality and bring different strengths to the table.”
I think Lamb’s insight is something that can apply to having two moms or being raised by a single parent with other family members or caregivers filling in the gaps. But still, for all the families that do have dads in them, it’s worth emphasizing what this research is saying: Yes, we matter. We can be left alone with our kids.
The personal payoff
When you talk to involved dads, you quickly discover that the positive effects of becoming one aren’t just for the children. Fathers’ own ideas of manhood expand during the transition, as do their abilities to form rewarding human connections.
Brandon was 22 when his first son was born, and he didn’t yet have a solid career, a fact he struggled with because, to him, being a father was synonymous with providing. “I knew a lot of friends who were going out west to get jobs in oil rigs, and I thought maybe I should do that,” he recalls. “I thought I would be more impactful if I went away and sent my partner money.” In the end, he stayed—and shared the primary parenting role. Although he remembers feeling judged (and judging himself) for doing drop-offs in his sweats while other dads wore suits, he doesn’t regret that time spent together. “It was important that I was giving my kids what I didn’t have.”
Later, when Brandon worked on a research project with Lance McCready at OISE and Carl James of York University that explored the experiences of and issues facing black fathers, one of the main findings was that they, too, found it difficult to “feel like a father” if they weren’t providing financially. As he told me about this over the phone, he was taking a walk with his third child, now 12—not going anywhere specific, just strolling for the sake of being together. “What I tell new dads is that little things like this, taking a walk, don’t cost money, and they’re the things your kids remember in the longer term.”
But Brandon says the payoff has also been personal. “I grew up in a culture and era when spanking was the go-to. I had to develop the kind of patience you need to not jump to that kind of discipline and instead take the time to talk to them, have conversations with them and really communicate,” he says. “Before I had kids, I never really knew what love was. I’d say, ‘I love my mom,’ or ‘I think I love this girl.’ With my kids, it’s different. I would give them a body part.”
While Josh’s dad lived in the same house, he was largely absent, retreating into his work and sharing little of himself with his son. Although his dad is nearing retirement now, Josh says it may be too late to form a real bond with him. It’s not that they fight, he says, but just that their conversations don’t go beyond the superficial and never dip into their emotional lives. “To this day, I don’t feel as deep of a connection with him as I do with my mother, even though I’d like to,” he says. “We keep reaching out, but neither of us has had practice, so it’s awkward.”
With his own son, Josh is trying to break that cycle. “I’m watching myself pick up some of my dad’s habit of living in his head,” Josh says. “I’ll literally be sitting down looking at my kid but my mind is elsewhere.” Like a kind of mindfulness meditation, every time Josh notices he’s drifting, he reminds himself to come back to the moment. And whereas his father’s emotional vocabulary was limited, Josh is using fatherhood as an opportunity to grow his own. “When my son hurts himself, I honour his feelings instead of dismissing them. It’s affecting my life outside parenting as well—now, instead of just jumping in to fix a problem, I try my best to listen.”
When strangers see Josh with his now 16-month-old in the park, they sometimes tell him he’s an amazing father, simply because he’s out alone with his toddler. “But I’m not going for ‘amazing father,’” he says. “That seems like a very low bar. I’m going for good parent. I want to be a big part of his life and be there for him physically and emotionally. To do that, I need a solid foundation. What better way to form that than to know him well as he grows up.”
While Josh thinks a shift is occurring where dad involvement is more often considered the norm, in his opinion, it’s not happening quickly enough. “When I run into other dads when I’m out, half of them are embarrassed that they’re the at-home parent,” he says. “There’s still a lingering mentality that men should be working, and I talk to a lot of moms who feel guilty about going back to work. I think both of those reactions should be examined—if someone wants to go to work or stay at home, it shouldn’t matter their gender.”
For his part, Brandon believes the many fathers who’ve long been stepping up are under-recognized. “The narrative has been that parenting was only for moms,” he says. “And the narrative for black fathers was that they are non-existent. But when I started Black Daddies Club 10 years ago, I began to meet men who proved that was a myth. I saw fathers showing up and fathers who were engaged, and these were not the dads being depicted in media.”
When I think back to the early ’80s, I rarely saw dads like mine on television. I remember watching Mr. Mom, in which a laid-off Michael Keaton stays home with his baby, behaving as if it were the first time he’d ever spent five minutes with his kid. I didn’t get the joke.
I had a role model for how to be an involved father—one who worked during the day but was there for me in the evenings or the middle of the night. Of course, even if he hadn’t provided that example for me, I believe the fathering instinct—and the internal shifts that have reshaped me into a parent—would have inspired that desire to be close.