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.