The Effects of Fatherhood
Stretch Marks for Dads
What Fatherhood Does to the Body and the Brain
By Emily Anthes, and our thanks to Slate
Marmoset baby clings to its father
Last weekend, Tufts University hosted a scientific conference on the "parental brain." Or at least the maternal brain, which was the subject of eight symposia, while fathers and their brains were the focus of just one. Once, this imbalance would have seemed inevitable, since there didn't seem to be much to say about how becoming a father affects men physically. But now, evidence is accumulating that pregnancy and parenthood leave their marks on men's bodies. Women are not the only ones who are built for parenting, and recognizing that is good for fathers and the rest of us, too.
Historically, when men did more than donate sperm to a pregnancy—by suffering physical ailments along with their wives—they got called crazy.
The condition labeled "sympathetic pregnancy," or couvade syndrome (from the French word couver, or "to incubate"), describes expectant fathers who are stricken with some combination of weight gain, nausea, food cravings, backaches, insomnia, and other delights familiar to pregnant women everywhere. Until recently, couvade was relegated to the overwrought TV medical drama as a "psychosomatic" curiosity, with a list of potential causes that would please any Freudian (identification with the fetus, pregnancy envy, pseudo-sibling rivalry).
But in the last handful of years, scientists have shown that normal, healthy, non-pregnancy-envying men often undergo real bodily changes when they're expecting children. Research shows that male marmosets and cotton-top tamarins—primates that, like humans, split child-rearing duties between the mother and father—gain as much as 20 percent of their body weight while waiting for the birth of their offspring. The finding suggests that couvade is biologically adaptive rather than psychologically neurotic: The hypothesis about the marmosets and tamarins is that the pregnancy paunch prepares a dad for the extra energy he'll expend in helping to rear his baby.
In addition, dads-to-be have elevated levels of cortisol and prolactin, hormones that are also present in high levels among mothers who are attached and responsive to their children. A father's testosterone level also drops by about a third, on average, in the first three weeks after his child is born. These hormonal shifts, which are likely sparked by exposure to the pregnant woman's hormones (there is correlational evidence that dads who spend time with moms experience the changes), mirror those experienced by mothers and may similarly prepare men for parenthood. Men who have relatively little testosterone have been shown, for instance, to hold baby dolls longer than men who are flooded with the sex hormone. High levels of testosterone, on the other hand, are associated with "incompatible non-nurturing behaviors," as one researcher put it. If dads roared along on their usual levels of the hormone, the theory goes, they'd be too busy fighting other men and seducing other women to do much diaper-changing.
There's also preliminary but tantalizing evidence that fatherhood can change the brain. A 2006 study found enhancements in the prefrontal cortex of the father marmoset. After childbirth, the neurons in this region showed greater connectivity, suggesting that having young children could boost the part of the brain responsible for planning and memory, skills parents need when having kids gives them more to keep track of. The neurons also had more receptors for vasopressin, a hormone that has been shown to prompt animal fathers to bond with offspring. (Receiving an injection of vasopressin, for instance, prompts a male prairie vole to cuddle and groom a youngster.)
And yet despite these findings, few scientists treat the physiology of fathers as a serious subject in its own right. Researchers have been investigating some of the hormonal swings in humans for almost a decade, and longer in other species; still, most of this work remains on the fringe. Between 2000 and 2006, the journal Hormones and Behavior published nearly three times as many studies of mothers as of fathers, and this year the count so far is 16 to three. A 2000 review framed research into physiological fatherhood as "an opportunity to better understand maternal behavior, by studying parental behavior in the absence of pregnancy and lactation." Interest in how men's bodies prepare themselves for fatherhood only seems to matter to the extent it sheds light on mothers. Meanwhile, the ways in which dads screw up their kids is a thriving area of research.
There are probably a variety of reasons for this disconnect. To begin with, couvade hasn't shed all its baggage, and that can make anything reminiscent of the syndrome seem like a subject for a psychiatrist's office rather than a biologist's lab. Also, physiological fatherhood is far from universal in the animal kingdom. In fewer than 10 percent of mammalian species are fathers actually involved in child-rearing. For years, researchers missed the hormonal changes in fathers because they looked only at male rats, which aren't natural caregivers.
Nor have the rest of us seemed eager to pay attention to the recent science about fathers. Few parenting books, even those directed at dads, take note of the findings about their hormones and brains—instead they either go for laughs or stick to counseling men about how to support their pregnant mates. In some ways, that's surprising, given that the gender boundaries of parenting have been eroding for some time now. You'd think that if we're ready for diaper-changing tables in men's restrooms, we'd also be ready to hear about men's hormonal barometers. And yet we don't seem to be. Maybe it seems too unsettling to treat the changes in expectant dads and moms as remotely equivalent.
But it would serve us all to get over that. Ignoring the physiological changes fathers undergo tends to let men off the parenting hook. Recognizing those changes, on the other hand, could make fathers feel more vital to child-rearing. For years, studies have shown (not that we really needed them to) that many men feel marginalized and anxious during pregnancy and the early weeks of their children's lives. But the nascent science of physiological fatherhood has already turned up evidence that shows that men's bodies are busy with their own preparations, even if What To Expect doesn't explain them. Men who worry that they're being thrust into fatherhood without ever learning how to parent might be (at least slightly) reassured to know that their bodies have begun to adapt. Armed with the knowledge that their hormone levels have shifted precisely so they'll be more apt to cuddle their newborns, men may feel entitled to do more of the soothing. Which can only be good for kids—and for tired moms. This Father's Day, it's time to thank dads for all their bodies do.
Emily Anthes is a science writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY
Comment from Suffragents:
I don’t suppose that those who would pass judgment on fathers, particularly in Family Court case where children are involved, understand fatherhood, in the same way that men are forced into the background when it comes to the wedding ceremony, when all the emphasis is on the bride. With so much emphasis on the female of our species, is it no wonder that men feel disregarded when a breakdown of a marriage takes place, and again the focus switches to the role of the female spouse and any offspring?
In a later comment, I shall advocate that prior to marriage, both parties get at least 4 hours coaching on what is legally binding in a Marriage Contract that can be so easily broken by a woman and can ‘bankrupt’ a man financially and emotionally, and ruin the lives of so many children. This should be approached on a Risk Assessment basis where acrimony and ruined lives result from both parties walking into a minefield that can cripple them for the rest of their lives. Prevention is better than cure, as any intelligent person knows.
These Marriage Contract courses should be mandatory to stop the malicious waste of resources from individuals and the State.
A smaller risk is the purchase of a house, and that process takes weeks and lots of close legal examination, so why not the Contract in a marriage?
The Biological Effect of Babies on New Fathers
Having babies affect men’s hormones that help to promote and develop bonding with their newborn babies.
A rise in the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, cuddle chemicals, help fathers to develop in their ability to bond with their children, and to be the father that we all aspire to be [Professor Ruth Feldman, in a new study about the importance of male bonding and the impact of hormonal change in men]. A clear link was found between their ability to bond with their child and the measured higher levels of these hormones.
Comment from Suffragents:
However, should a mother bolt with the new born the effect can be devastating to the unrequited feelings of a new father, and he can then be lambasted by Social Workers as not having a bond with his child - a self fulfilling situation!
Everyone talks and is sympathetic to the mum with a new baby, as her hormones change during this time, but fathers are ignored as merely being a provider, as pronounced by Bowlby .