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Op-Ed
 

Louise W. Knight: The Biology of Nurturing Fathers


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By: Louise W. Knight, The Women’s Media Center

Sept. 21, 2011 - The act of daily childcare changes fathers hormonally, and that's all to the good of their families. The author discusses what feminists have long suspected.

The headlines were certainly eye-catching. "Fatherhood Depletes Testosterone" (Los Angeles Times), "Father's Testosterone Drops Steeply after Baby Arrives" (Fox News website).

And the stories stressed the same point. The LA Times led with, "Hormonally speaking, becoming a father may make you less of man." Fox News led with, "A father's testosterone level drops steeply after his baby arrives." They were writing about the research finding that a new father's testosterone levels dropped temporarily when a new baby came home.

But this does an injustice to the real news. This fascinating just-published study by three anthropologists at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and a researcher at the Office of Population Studies Foundation at the University of San Carlos in the Philippines is the first to prove the link between paternal nurturing of children and testosterone. The researchers tracked the testosterone levels of 624 young men over roughly five years at different stages of their lives: single nonfathers, fathers of newborns, and nurturing or non-nurturing fathers. It found that the biggest and longest lasting (though not permanent) drop occurred in fathers involved in daily child care.

To be sure, a few news outlets got it right. The Wall Street Journal's headline nailed it: "Men Biologically Wired to be Nurturing Fathers." The New York Times came close: "Fatherhood Cuts Testosterone, Study Finds, for Good of the Family."

The researchers were clear about the nurturing finding. They wrote, "[C]aregiving fathers had lower [testosterone] than fathers who did not invest in care." Furthermore, they reported that the more hours the fathers spent, the lower their hormone levels. "We found that [testosterone] … was lowest among fathers reporting more hours spent in childcare." Typically, a newstory about the research mentioned somewhere that nurturing affected testosterone levels. But only rarely did one mention that more nurturing meant even lower levels.

The researchers were not surprised to find the hormone-nurturing link. Earlier research has shown that testosterone drops in other male mammals that parent. Their question was: would this be true for humans?

They found their nurturing fathers in the Philippines, in Cedu City, where, the report stated, "it is common for fathers to be involved in day-to-day care of their children." Now there's an interesting fact. Could this research have been conducted in the United States? Perhaps we are not yet as evolutionarily advanced. The researchers agree that evolution is involved. "Our findings suggest that human males have evolved neuroendocrine architecture … supporting a role of men as … caregivers."

All of this is not so surprising, really. If testosterone is the hormone that contributes to aggression in men, then it makes sense that nature would reduce that hormone when men are caring regularly for children. Gloria Steinem observed hopefully decades ago, "If men spent more time raising small children, they would be forced to develop more patience and flexibility." But who knew the mechanism would be hormonal?

Of course the interesting question is why the media has mostly downplayed the nurturing finding. One answer, to be fair, is the way the findings were written up. The report, published in the Sept. 13, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bears the misleading headline, "Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males." And the researchers sprinkled their report with sentences that equated fatherhood with nurturing fatherhood. The news stories followed suit. The equation was unexamined.

And that is the problem. For as feminists, exhausted mothers, and single mothers have been observing for a very long time and as fathers who nurture know too, the two are not the same.

Fatherhood is a biological achievement, accomplished in partnership with a mother. A male nurturing parent is something else entirely: it is a man who spends attentive, loving, extended time with his child or children daily, connecting with them emotionally, seeing the world through their eyes, teaching them, and feeling, at times, the delight that selfless nurturing can give.

The benefits for an increase in male nurturing might be more than personal. Feminists have wondered for at least a century if politics would change if men become more involved in child care. Jane Addams, the Nobel Peace prize winner and women's suffrage advocate, writing in 1913, thought if the government were under women's control instead of men's, its chief purpose would not be war, but the nurture of children and the protection of the weak and sick, not because women were inherently nurturing but because historically women "had always exercised these functions."

Women have long suspected that the experience of child care was what mattered but the debate has always been framed as nature versus nurture. Now it turns out that experience changes biology, which also means that biology is not destiny. And what could be more groundbreaking news than that?

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

To support women journalists who are changing the conversation, donate to the WMC here.

To read other recent WMC Exclusives, click here.

 

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