Updated: Feb 2
Wow! I am still totally blown away by what I am about to share with you. This body of research about men and the impact their parenting has on children is so incredibly empowering.
A couple months ago, I was commuting to and from work, listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts (Goop – Episode: What Makes a Dad a Dad), and I literally pulled over to the side of the road multiple times to replay the podcast and take notes.
The guest of this episode was Anna Machin, anthropologist, who, after having a traumatic birth experience, noticed the impact on her husband, realized there was essentially no research on fathers and the impact that parenting has on them or the positive impact that fathers have on children, and knew there had to be so much more for us to learn. She published a book last year (The Life of a Dad) that I think every new (or not new!) father needs to read to fully appreciate the special role he gets to play in raising his children.
After hearing this podcast, I was inspired to dig into the research on fathers myself. What I found was so amazing I had to share it with you.
Be sure to check out my favorites, #1, #4, and #5
1. Men Lose Testosterone When Becoming Dad
#dadbod – Is it a real thing? Welllll, kind of. But it is not really what you think.
It is well known (and obvious, duh) that the body of a woman changes in a variety of ways when becoming a mother.
However, since men lack the whole pregnancy/delivery/breastfeeding components of parenting, physical changes when becoming a father are not so obvious. And not even well studied. Only over the past 10 years have scientists really begun to dig into the micro changes in a man’s body after becoming a father. And although the changes are relatively small, researchers believe they are practical, and I find them super enlightening and so very appropriate.
A little science first...
Men have a set amount of testosterone that they need, and a small amount that fluctuates based on circumstance, environment, and genetics. Turns out, the body adjusts the amount of testosterone in a man’s body based on what he needs in that moment.
Testosterone in men has been found to influence both aggression and nurturance. Higher levels of testosterone lead to more aggressive behavior (evolutionarily, to help men find mates, reproduce, compete for food/work, and protect their mates and their young).
On the contrary, lower levels of testosterone have been linked with more parental investment, greater empathy and response to their children, and more sensitivity and investment, and less aggression toward romantic partners.
So here’s the good news. When a man becomes an involved father, his testosterone levels decrease. The lower a man’s testosterone levels, the more sensitive he is, the more responsive he is to his child, the more involved in his child's care he is, the better he is able to meet his child’s needs, and the more invested he is in his relationship with the child’s mother. And the decrease is not temporary. Testosterone levels never return to where they were pre-fatherhood.
#dadbods for the win!
2. Men Get an Oxytocin High Too
#dadbod Round 2!
If testosterone interferes with sensitive fatherhood (and a man’s body must decrease the amount of testosterone to help promote involved parenting), oxytocin facilitates it.
Oxytocin is the feel good hormone – most mothers know its power from the superhuman feeling they get after birth and the intense bonding and love they feel when breastfeeding.
However, fathers also get an oxytocin high during the first 6 months after birth AND when they interact (with contact) with their infants and toddlers. An increase of oxytocin in fathers (similar to the decrease in testosterone), increases paternal sensitivity and empathy, decreases hostility, and increases paternal play, touch, and social interactions.
In fact, fathers who live with their partner during pregnancy get an increase in oxytocin as early as during pregnancy – and to the same extent as the mother. This spike in oxytocin during the prenatal period helps prepare fathers to establish bonding with the baby and baby’s mother for after delivery.
3. Kids Prefer to be Nurtured by Moms
Moms, imagine (won't be hard)….
You are standing at the sink, elbow deep in dirty dishes, your child falls and hits his knee, your husband says “oh man, that must have hurt, come here and let me see”, and your kiddo walks right past him to you, begging for you to comfort him. Your husband’s feelings are hurt, and you have to put the dirty pan down, rinse off, and dry your hands before comforting your little one.
Moms and dads bond differently with children. We know this.
Moms get a head start with bonding during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and with the rush of bonding hormones we get after delivery. Also, since we bond more over nurturing