The Daddy Brain
Moms aren't the only ones whose bodies change after having a baby. Jeremy Adam Smith reveals the new science of fatherhood.
BY JEREMY ADAM SMITH for Greater Good Magazine | JUNE 1, 2009
Gopal Dayaneni is a stay-at-home father in Oakland, California. He still recalls the first time he gave a bottle to his six-week-old daughter, Ila. “I sat down with her in a rocking chair,” he says. “She totally took the bottle, right up against my body, comfortable and warm. She looked up at me and I was so taken with her.”
This story has a punch line: “After that, she never took a bottle again,” says Gopal. “She screamed her head off every time I tried.”
As infants and toddlers, both of Gopal’s children cried when their mom, Martha, left for work as a teacher, cried when she came back, and talked about her all day in between. This made for some very difficult days.
The author and his son, Liko© Jackie Adams
“They just love their mother more,” says Gopal ruefully.
Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead would not have been surprised by Gopal’s situation. “Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents,” she once said. Far from an eccentric view, Mead distilled a scientific consensus that prevailed for centuries and persists (as a matter of opinion) to this day: Men are natural conquerors—Lotharios and breadwinners—while women are natural nurturers. As a result, men want sex, women want babies, and babies want their mothers. According to this view, involved fathers are, at best, a happy accident.
For this reason, to many people Gopal’s reverse-traditional family might appear “unnatural,” a word that my desk dictionary defines as “contrary to the physical laws of nature” and my thesaurus says is synonymous with “abnormal,” “aberrant,” and “perverted.” When the children of a caregiving dad like Gopal cry out for their mother, many people would hold this up as evidence on behalf of what some call “the traditional family”—meaning, a breadwinning father and caregiving mother.
But the new science of fatherhood has started to cast Gopal’s dilemma in a new light. In researching my new book, The Daddy Shift, I read every word I could find in peer-reviewed scholarly journals about caregiving fathers, breadwinning moms, and the science of sexual difference. I also interviewed dozens of parents like Gopal and Martha.
Here’s what I discovered: Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are finding that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life chances, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, research has revealed that father involvement is essential to a child’s well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.
As a result, scientists and parents alike are developing a radical new conception of fatherhood, one whose role is not limited to contributing sperm and making money. This should be a comfort to us all during a time of economic catastrophe, when 80 percent of people being laid off are men and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Women have been supporting families for decades, taking on breadwinning roles that were once considered impossible. And after 30 years of research and growing male participation at home, we are now also beginning to understand that fathers can also take on roles as caregivers.
Brains of our fathers
In the past, says University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children’s development; no one studied how fatherhood might change a man’s brain and body.
But, says Coltrane, “in the late seventies researchers started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent?’”
In the decades since then, researchers have made a staggering number of discoveries about how critical father involvement is to child development, and how it can be cultivated. University of California, Riverside, psychologist Ross Parke is one of the pioneers of fatherhood studies. He and his colleagues developed a “systems view” that attempts to describe all the factors that influence a father’s involvement with his children:
- His relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?);
- The mother’s attitude (does she welcome his participation?);
- Timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and
- Informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other parents put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?).
But biological and psychological research reveals another critical factor: getting involved early in the child’s life. Studies by biologist Katherine Wynne-Edwards and others show that pregnancy, childbirth, and fatherhood trigger a range of little hormonal shifts in the male body—but only if the father is in contact with the baby and the baby’s mother. When a child is born, Wynne-Edwards found, testosterone levels drop dramatically in men. Men also gain prolactin and oxytocin, hormones associated with lactation, as well as cortisol, the stress hormone that spikes in mothers after childbirth and helps them pay attention to the baby’s needs.
It’s not just hormones that change, but the very structure of the male brain. To understand the impact of fatherhood on the primate brain, a team of Princeton University researchers compared the brains of daddy marmoset monkeys to their child-free peers. Why marmosets? Because their males are the stay-at-home dads of the animal kingdom. It’s the male marmosets who carry babies 70 percent of the time, giving them to mothers only for nursing.
The researchers discovered that the marmoset fathers developed stronger neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, which is generally thicker in females’ brains. In 2008, the same group of researchers found that, among male mice, fatherhood generates new cells and connections in the hippocampus, the emotion-processing center of the brain that is also somewhat bigger in the average human female.
You can’t apply this directly to humans, of course: Marmosets are a different kind of primate, and mice have tails and whiskers. But the available evidence, plus common sense, suggests that early paternal involvement will lead to involvement throughout the child’s life. It seems that babies and fathers imprint on each other, biologically and emotionally, just as babies do with moms.
Why dads matter
But does father involvement matter to children? Once, researchers (and most people) would have said no. In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, psychologists discovered that fathers universally provide forms of play and stimulation that mothers do not do as much of, such as unpredictable, emotionally arousing, non-toy-mediated physical play, which is essential to a child’s development.
Today, evidence is mounting that father involvement makes a big difference for kids: A 2007 study tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 in the United Kingdom, found emotional and behavioral problems were “more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible work schedules to have a more positive role in their upbringing.” In a recent series of studies of Latino families, Ross Parke and his colleagues found that father involvement leads to lifelong educational attainment and better social adjustment for adolescents.
Full-time, caregiving dads like Gopal are still too new a social phenomenon for social scientists to have studied their long-term impact on children, but some preliminary research exists. Numerous studies have found no significant developmental difference between children raised by single moms and those raised by single dads. This doesn’t mean that moms and dads are interchangeable; behavioral differences emerge as the domestic division of labor changes. For example, when child psychologist Robert Frank and colleagues directly compared traditional to reverse-traditional households in order to understand parent-child bonds, they found that domestic tasks and child care were more fairly distributed when the at-home parent was a male.
“The child of an at-home-dad family has both a strong father influence and a strong mother influence,” said Frank in a 2005 presentation to a meeting of the American Psychological Association. “Both parents play an important role in the child’s development. This is in contrast to the at-home-mother family, in which a child has a strong mother influence but little influence from the father.”
Closing the gap
Many of the parents I interviewed for The Daddy Shift, which is about the changing roles of mothers and fathers, would not be surprised by that conclusion.
“Family is more important to a woman than to a man,” says Gina Heise, a breadwinning mom in Kansas City, Missouri. “There’s more of a connection. Maybe it’s because of the fact that women carry a baby for nine months, and so they’re already into the deal as soon as the baby appears.”
Her husband Gus, a stay-at-home dad, agrees: “I think a guy wouldn’t necessarily feel the pull to have to get home from the office. Whereas she’s like, ‘It’s five o’clock. I gotta get home to my kids.’ “
This might sound like stereotypical thinking, but consider: Differences in the brains and minds of men and women might be small (an authoritative 2008 study found that sex accounts for no more than 1 to 5 percent of the variation between the brains of men and women), but as groups, we still play very different roles in reproduction, separate and unequal. Men don’t bear children and they don’t breastfeed. As Gopal Dayaneni discovered, we can’t argue with these facts. Those experiences are unique to females who become biological mothers. Men and women’s respective roles in reproduction can create an enormous gap between fathers and mothers, not to mention fathers and children—but, research suggests, only if the gap is permitted to grow.
To Gina, who embraces her breadwinning role, the persistence of the gap is an argument in favor of stay-at-home fatherhood. “The world would be a better place if more fathers stayed home and took care of their children,” she says. “I think they would have better relationships with their children. I think they would be more respectful toward mothers. There’s just more partnership when a man stays home.”
For the foreseeable future, most men will not become stay-at-home dads—stay-at-home moms outnumber the dads, 30 to one—but the experiences of Gina, Gus, and Gopal have implications that apply to all parents. So does the research. A father’s body changes (diminishing testosterone plus rising prolactin, oxytocin, and cortisol) only if he maintains a connection to the mother and newborn child. Feelings of attachment grow in environments that can either squash the attachment or allow it to flourish.
Aside from a strong argument in favor of paternity leave, findings like these suggest that Gina might have a point. The deep bond between mothers and children has been used to justify traditional gender roles, but that can be turned around: If biology does indeed create stronger attachment for biological mothers, it might make more sense for males to serve as caregivers (at least for a time) so that connections with their children can be reinforced. In this way, we are managing the environment to provide a counter-weight to the reproductive division of labor, and to maximize the entire family’s investment in a child’s welfare. Male caregiving is a solution embraced by cultures around the globe, from contemporary Sweden (where men take care of kids more than anywhere else in the developed world) to the Na people of southwestern China and the Aka pygmies of Central Africa.
Anthropologists argue about why cultures develop the way they do, even as we argue about the direction our culture should take. One thing is for certain: Biology might, in a sense, mark the frontiers of the country in which we must live, but we are not its prisoners. Within the ambit our bodies provide, we are confronted by a mazelike world of choices. “What magnifies small differences into major divisions of labor?” asks anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. “The simplest answer is that people do, by following the path of least resistance.”
As Hrdy describes, it is all too easy for the new father to tell himself that he does not want to intrude upon the special mother-child bond. And, truth be told, it is always easier for the exhausted mother to simply give a crying infant her breast instead of the father’s arms. Likewise, it’s easier for the father to bow to the power of the breast.