Discover the Science of Fatherhood - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Discover the Science of Fatherhood

Discover the Science of Fatherhood

By Nick Fouriezos

By Nick Fouriezos

Dads play only a bit part in raising children, right? WRONG! As you’ll find in today’s Daily Dose, a growing cache of research shows that fathers are getting ever more involved in their children’s lives. Not only is the idea of the attentive, present father a fairly recent concept, it’s one with virtually no precedent in the animal kingdom. Consider that 95% of mammals are raised solely by their mothers — and there are no known cases of male-only care. Yet scientists are finally breaking new ground at a time when the role of pops has evolved with shifting gender norms, economic realities and the rise of work-from-home parenting during the pandemic. Ahead of Father’s Day on Sunday, we dig into the DNA of dads at a time of daddy disruption. 

changing fatherhood

Embracing Evolving Roles. The last half century has seen a huge rise in the number of dual-income households, remote work and more equitable gender relations in the developed world. In the U.S., these new realities have led to a near doubling of stay-at-home dads across numerous demographics, according to Pew Research data, plus a huge rise in those doing so specifically to raise children — from just 4% in 1989 to 24% in 2016. Men aren’t rejecting those roles though; In fact, they’re embracing them. The think tank New America found that over 90% of dads viewed love, affection and teaching their children about life as “very important” … while about three-quarters viewed providing for their child monetarily as “very important” in a multimethod study released in 2020. The report authors argue that a “new kind of fatherhood” — one premised on love, teaching and direct child care — has “already replaced the father-as-provider, separate spheres” model of parenting in the United States.

Queering Fatherhood. Most trans people are of reproductive age when they transition, and many experience desires for childbearing and rearing. One Belgian study found that more than half of post-op trans men wanted children, while a French study found the same results with pre-op trans men, as a December 2020 legal article on trans parenthood noted. Despite being legal men, trans fathers have faced discrimination born out of outdated laws and cultural views: In two current cases, an Englishman Freddy McConnell and a German man referred to as “OH” were both registered as “mother” on their child’s legal birth documents. While religious groups have opposed allowing gay parents to adopt, modern research has debunked theories that claim same-sex parents have negative effects on children.

New Rules of Masculinity. The sociologist Robert Brannon measured seven factors in his 1984 “Masculinity Scale” study including items like “toughness,” “being the breadwinner” and “concealing emotions.” Yet those methods for defining masculinity are woefully outdated. Top male athletes, from NBA stars like Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps are redefining toughness by willingly talking about mental health challenges. There is evidence to suggest that, by being vulnerable, men actually make themselves more attractive. Researchers at the University of Mannheim in Germany found that, across a number of factors, people tend to see their own vulnerability as a weakness but perceive it as “desirable” or “good” in others.


Breaking the Stigma of Male Infertility. There’s huge shame associated with male infertility. Sometimes it’s down to years of steroid use, in other cases it can be caused by environmental factors, health issues or reasons not yet understood by medical experts. Either way, not being able to get your partner pregnant has been stigmatized for millennia, with studies showing that in half of the cases in which couples can’t conceive, it’s a result of male infertility. But many would-be dads are fighting to get past that shame, despite research on the issue lagging way behind what is known about female infertility. Talking about it is a starting point. “Now physicians, patients and couples are more aware of this male factor,” Dr. James Kashanian of Weill Cornell Medicine tells TIME, “and they’re looking to get answers sooner.”

the COVID caregivers

Closer Ties. The effects of COVID-19 on parents are set to be long lasting. Almost 70% of surveyed fathers — across racial, class and educational demographics — reported feeling closer to their children during the pandemic. In particular, more than half of dads said they were paying more attention to their children’s feelings, getting to know them better and were hearing more from their kids about what was important to them. “We play games together nearly every other day and I have become her partner in so many other things too,” one father said about his relationship with his young daughter, in a report by the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

More Confident Fathers. Men have also become more confident in their child-rearing abilities during the pandemic: Nearly half (46%) said they were spending “the right amount” of time with their children in 2020, as opposed to just 36% in 2017, a Pew Research Center survey released in January found. Many men feel insufficient as parents, with no help from mass media, which sometimes relies too heavily on tropes of either violent, absentee fathers or, inversely, useless, bumbling figures. One 2016 study found that fathers were portrayed positively less than half the time they were on screen. Such representation can harden the concept of “maternal essentialism,” as Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan of Ohio State University and co-authors argue, the assumption that women are just more naturally apt at parenting. Fathers whose spouses limited them from interacting with their child at an early age often showed poorer parenting skills later on, the above research finds. 

Chore Chart Confusion. Some of that fatherly confidence may be misplaced though: While nearly half of men with children under 12 said they did most of the home schooling, only 3% of women agreed, according to a May 2020 New York Times report. Mothers and fathers also had a wide discrepancy in their views toward division of labor, according to the January Pew Research survey. Some 46% of men said household chores and responsibilities were split equally and 20% said they were doing more — while only about 34% of women said it was equal, and 59% said they were doing more. Still, other studies reported progress: One found that the portion of parents saying they shared housework jumped from 26% pre-pandemic to 41% during the pandemic.

Hard Knocks. Fathers were also more likely to say they could have used more emotional support during the pandemic — 82% — compared to just 68% of mothers, according to an American Psychological Association survey released in March. “A lot of men’s social support and social connections just generally tend to come from work and their partners,” Dr. Lynn Bufka, the American Psychological Association’s senior director of practice transformation and quality, told CNBC. They may also be feeling overwhelmed. Many men don’t have basic maintenance skills that are needed with families spending more time at home during the pandemic: 44% of men said they couldn’t unclog a drain, find a stud, patch a hole in drywall or replace a leaky faucet without running to Google, according to one 2019 survey.

pop psychology

Would-Be Dads Think More About Babies Than Sex. That may seem contradictory, since the former comes from the latter. But a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2018 found that men with a greater desire to have a baby exhibited lower levels of sexual desire. In fact, it was the third-most effective predictor of sexual desire levels, behind only a “lack of erotic thoughts” and “fear,” although the researchers couldn’t ascertain why. An earlier study suggests it may have to do with different priorities: Researchers discovered in 2014 that the “reward processing” areas of a dad’s brain light up when shown photos of toddlers, while single men had less of a reaction. When presented with sexually provocative images, the non-dads saw more positive neural activity. The study suggests that having children may lead to a psychological shift — trading sexual appetite for cooing over kiddies.

The “Daddy’s Girl” Trope is Real. Emory University and University of Arizona researchers found that fathers of girls were more attentively engaged in parenting than fathers with boys, singing more to them and responding more strongly to their happy facial expressions. They also spent approximately 60% more time responding to their daughters and three times longer playing with them than dads of sons, according to the 2017 study. The language they used was different, too. Dads with daughters often used language referring to their baby’s body — words like “belly,” “foot” and “tummy,” which the study authors note have been linked to future academic success (explaining in part, perhaps, why girls outperform boys academically in most countries that provide equal education access). Meanwhile, sons were fed a steady diet of achievement-related language, such as “top,” “win” and “proud.”

Representation Matters. Negative stereotypes of fathers of color have long proliferated, in part due to a lack of positive representation in pop culture. That could change as new shades of masculinity hit TV, as Variety explored in May. Kenan Thompson, in his role as the widowed father to two young daughters in his self-titled NBC show, drew on personal experience to “put a shine on” young, affluent Black fathers. Although Regé-Jean Page plays the famously child-adverse Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton, his character arc thwarts traditional masculinity by finding strength in vulnerability … and (spoiler alert!) he eventually finds joy in the birth of a son. Both actors were Emmy contenders for their roles, and one 2020 study suggests such representation is especially psychologically beneficial for children from low-income backgrounds.

Black Fathers Spend More Time With Kids: It’s not only sitcoms and period dramas where stereotypes are being found out and upended: A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from 2013 found that as far back as 2006, Black fathers that lived with their children were more likely (70%) to bathe, dress and change their kids’ diapers every day than white (60%) or Hispanic (45%) dads. Another stereotype often regurgitated by the right is that Black fathers don’t hang around. Not so: The same CDC study points out that while children are registered as living at a single address for schooling and other administrative reasons, millions also live with their dads part of the time, though that’s often not recorded by officialdom. 


fatherhood gets physical

The Dad Bod Is Real. Whether or not they lived with their kids, becoming a father was linked to around a 4-pound increase in weight, while remaining child-free was associated with a 1.4-pound weight loss on average for a 6-foot man, according to a two decade study of boys turned men. Scientists note that new dads typically suffer from lack of sleep, increased stress and lowered testosterone levels, all things that can decrease muscle while leading to larger fat deposits.

So Are Sympathy Pregnancies. Scientists have studied the common marmoset, a South American primate, and found that they experience a sort of “sympathy pregnancy” which causes them to double their weight while their mate is pregnant. In humans, this is called “Couvade syndrome,” and it involves the release of the hormone prolactin. And although scientists don’t quite understand why some men experience it and others don’t, it is actually a common phenomenon. Studies show Couvade syndrome occurring in about 20% of Swedish men, 25-52% of American men and 61% of Thai men — differences across varying cultures that may suggest the condition begins psychologically before manifesting physically. 

No Judgment Though. Researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi found that women perceived men with dad bods to be better parenting material than more toned gym rats. And for more than a decade, scientists have known that fatherhood comes with health benefits, such as eating healthier and avoiding dangerous habits such as heavy smoking or drinking. So while dads may want to pull their hair out while chasing kids around the house, they maybe should actually stop blaming their progeny for premature graying, and thank them for keeping their heart rates up.

An Ear for Parenting. Scientists used to believe women were predisposed to identifying their children’s cries, while men exhibited worse traits of recognition. But subsequent research shows that men actually show no difference in ability from mothers in being able to identify their child’s cries over those of other children. Time spent with the child, it turns out, is the actual differentiator — not gender. So long as fathers spent at least four hours a day with their child, they performed just as well as mothers, although any less than that saw their accuracy reduced by almost 25%.


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