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Parenthood changes the bodies and minds of men as well as women

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 10:05 p.m. MDT

Biology helps the identity shift into parenthood, particularly if the partners are game to let it occur, as the Toones were. Some chemical changes associated with bonding and affiliation increase when the couple are around each other, the report said, but the details are not well understood, though they know pheromones and other chemicals are involved.

Testosterone drops when a man becomes a dad. A father tends to work harder than childless peers and consequently earns more. He engages in an active way that seems to improve his life emotionally.

That's "one of the great things" that has happened in our culture in the family, Wilcox said. We expect more of men, of dads. The engaged-father model has important benefits for kids and men both.

Wilcox said the changes men experience when they are physically close to a mate and children lead them to be less aggressive and more interested in settling down. Their own biology primes them to be better caretakers in the wake of becoming dads. But those who don't live with their kids are less likely to enjoy these benefits of parenthood.

"The changes in the expectant dad seem to be mediated by contact with the expectant mom. He doesn't just automatically get it. It's being around her, mirroring, touching, hopefully in a positive relationship," Kline said.

Psychologist and zoologist Charles T. Snowdon found in mammalian fathers that both exposure to the mother and caring for offspring change animal dads in ways suggestive for human dads. They show hormone changes in males during a mate’s pregnancy, and among those who cared for previous offspring, changes occur earlier in pregnancy. Several studies credit animal mothers with enhanced boldness, food-finding ability and problem-solving after the birth — traits enhanced in nurturing males, too.

Even marmosets get the message. Cell structure changes in the brain of experienced marmoset dads, and the neuroreceptors for a hormone associated with affiliation increases. They become less distracted by single-girl marmosets.

Parenting today

In the natural sciences, an explosion of research describes the biochemistry of parenthood, but social scientists didn't recognize the science on the natural side, said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and co-host of the 2008 conference. Besides gathering both together to examine the "whole-parent experience," he said, conference sponsors wanted to get some distance from the “polarizations and simplicities that often accompany discussions of this, depending on where one stands on the conflict of the day. 'Everything is biology.' 'Nothing is biology.’ ”

Family life in America has changed. Couples delay marriage five years on average compared to 1970, and longer among the college-educated.

That's not the only difference between classes that increasingly divide along not just economic but educational lines, with the educated forming an upper class that is more traditional in terms of family life.

The story of those with less education includes more out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation and divorce. One study in the report said when women are less educated, about 42 percent of their oldest children spend part of their first decade in a family that is neither stable nor married. With college-educated moms, that's true for only 17 percent of oldest children.

Blankenhorn noted a “crisis of father absence and weakening of family structure among the 70 percent who are not upscale.”

Parenting is also both more intense and more costly, the report said. Parents spend 50 percent more time with their kids than did folks in 1975. The Department of Agriculture's annual reckoning says it costs the average family $226,920 to raise a child to age 18 — about $41,000 more than in 1960.

Still, the authors call parenthood "transformative" and "meaningful."

Intricate interactions

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