How Fatherhood Changes Men

There’s a fascinating article on the front page of today’s New York Times.   It’s sparked all sorts of different thoughts and comments, but let me first summarize what it says.   Probably no better way to do that than a quote:

Testosterone, that most male of hormones, takes a dive after a man becomes a parent. And the more he gets involved in caring for his children — changing diapers, jiggling the kid on his knee, reading “Goodnight Moon” for the umpteenth time — the lower his testosterone drops.

The first question (and it seems to me that this ought to be true with any study) is how did they figure this out?   You can find a description in the article, but essentially a long term study of 600 men born in the early 1980s tested testosterone levels when the men when they were single and then when they were parents.

 And men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children — playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, reading or dressing them — had the lowest testosterone.

So what to make if this?   It seems to me that there are many possible take-aways.   For instance, it seems to me you could conclude that providing hands-on care for children is a profoundly altering experience.   And it is critical to note that the study suggests what matters is hands-on care, not the simple act of providing sperm to create a child, that matters.   (Remember that this act is what we call “fathering a child.”)   In other words, acting like a parent changes us–in measurable ways.

But is there an assumption here about cause and effect?   Which comes first?  Does the drop in testosterone allow men to become more involved with the hands on care or does the hands-on are cause the testosterone to drop?  Or are both caused by something else?   Or is it a reinforcing cycle?   I’m not sure the NYT article can answer this and unless the study (which I have read yet) examines the mechanisms at work it may not either.

New questions come to mind, too.  The suggestion, at least, is that this doesn’t have to do with DNA at all, but rather about functional role.   So is the effect the same for men who are adoptive parents?  If what it takes is three hours a day caring for children, there are many men who care for children that long who are not parents (by any definition).  What about them?      And by contrast, there are men who father children (using that term in the sense noted above) who have no idea they even exist or who have no contact with them.  What happens to their testosterone levels?

As I say there’s a lot to think about so I’m going to go off to mull a bit.  Meantime, let me close with this observation.  Really the first thing that struck me was the opening line of the article.  (Not surprising is it?)   It reads:

This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.

What is that supposed to make me think?   Should I be worried that men will take a step back from involved parenthood out of fear that it will lower their testosterone levels?   This slightly defensive tone actually surfaces elsewhere in the article—where reassurances are offered that there’s nothing wrong with electing lowering testosterone levels by engaging with your children.    It’s really rather odd to me.

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7 responses to “How Fatherhood Changes Men

  1. I remember reading something about this in Louanne Brizindine’s book, “The Male Brain.” I don’t think there’s anything to worry about — most men have plenty of testosterone to go around! But it did make me wonder about some of the questions you pose, and what this might mean for men who are literally just sperm donors. Will they never be able to “bond” with kids they adopt or care for in a blended family if they miss out from the beginning?

    • It does seem like many of the people quoted were trying to be quite reassuring on the “you’ll still have enough” testosterone point. This is not something that worried me.

      I guess what is most striking to me is that performing the acts of parenting–the actual caretaking–changes us in such deep ways. (Of course, when I say this I am assuming that the caretaking causes the hormonal change, but I think that’s the assumption in the study if you read it.)

  2. You say: “So is the effect the same for men who are adoptive parents?”. Probably not, because the effect is most pronounced in the first month after the birth. It probably serves the purpose of bonding with the baby. There are other hormonal changes in men who become fathers, also before birth. Men can also suffer from Postnatal depression.

    It is well known that girls who don’t grow up with their biological father reach puberty earlier. If they grow up with a stepfather, even from birth, this is still the case. As a matter of fact they reach puberty even earlier. Reaching puberty later by from growing up with biologically related males is known from animal studies, but apparently also apply to humans. DNA can be ‘smelled’ and it is not biologically as surprising as it sounds.

    • I’m not convinced that you’ve correctly stated the findings with regard to the period of time during which testosterone levels are low. I’m looking at page four of the study and it says “Taken together, our findings suggest that anticipatory or other effects unique to the immediate period of
      parturition are likely additive to the more sustained effects of
      caregiving in suppressing paternal T.” What I think this means is that there is a more substantial decline in that first month, but that there are also “more sustained” effects of caregiving. Hence, I think your “probably not” answer isn’t warranted from the study.

      Can you give me a citation for the phenomena you metion–about girls and puberty? I’d love to see that. Thanks.

    • i dont believe that. I was 10 years old which is quite young and saw my dad every day lived with him and mom. same for many friends. i think the study tries to tie unrelated things together

  3. The leading line is alwsys interesting- as you said- why lead with this? Because men want to be able to be parents (active parents) and still retain their ‘manliness’- I guess the image many would have is that changing diappers etc affects your masculinity. And many men really do care about that, even the perception of them losing their ‘male essence’.

    Some interesting questions Julie!

    My perception? Lowering of testosterone or not- a man who gets stuck in and shares the practicalities of parenting as well as the emotional parenting (and the fun stuff) is always going to be a ‘real man’ to me! Infact he couldnt be more ‘masculine’ in my book.

  4. In a review of the article I read that the effect of low Testosterone was most pronounced in the first month. I will try to find the link.

    Here is a link to an article about early puberty, partly based on Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and his colleagues in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 77, p 387; Child Development, vol 74, p 801.

    Pheromones from genetically unrelated males have been shown to induce early puberty in mice, cows and pigs, so DNA certainly have effects, but it is not known if it works the same way for humans or if there is a different explanation.

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