Fatherhood is a biological event – and not just in the one-and-done contribution of sperm.
We have already uncovered a few different facets about fatherhood in this series, from paternity leave to lack of memoirs about fatherhood in literature. In this issue, I want to draw our attention to another vital aspect of fatherhood: the physiological, anatomical, and psychological changes that a man’s body undergoes when he becomes a father.
Both women and men are biologically primed for parenting. But because the experience of pregnancy and giving birth is so viscerally the mother’s, most people assume that not much changes for a man physiologically with fatherhood. This is simply not true, and servicing this belief does nothing but shield the patriarchal notion that men are only responsible for providing shelter and a paycheck for their families — a disastrous premise we are all already reeling under.
Fatherhood changes men’s bodies. Evolution primes fathers for parenthood just as it primes mothers. For instance, testosterone levels drop in many men when they become fathers and never return to pre-fatherhood levels.
The hormone testosterone is considered the essence of masculine strength, and ours is a culture obsessed with masculine strength. Our socio-cultural norms repeatedly coach us that strength (a.k.a. testosterone) is more important to a male identity than even his bank balance; it’s the passport for change and domination. Without adequate levels, men are perceived to be as good as castrated, an unbelievably repulsive state for many men and women under patriarchal norms.
Several medical studies in the West have now established this drop in testosterone in men’s bodies upon fatherhood as a natural fact, but information like this never reaches popular media. I will wager the reason is that such facts make many men, and our entire patriarchal culture, weak in the knees. So we all conspire to keep it under the rugs.
But we shouldn’t. Because a drop in the mighty testosterone helps men become better fathers, even if it chips away at traditional masculinity. For one, less testosterone is linked to less aggression and increased patience levels, which is much needed with a newborn. Additionally, studies show that lower testosterone levels allow another wonderful hormone to flourish in our bodies: oxytocin, popularly called the love hormone.
Oxytocin has many benefits for the human body, but in the context of parenthood, it’s well understood and established as the nurturing hormone. It primes us humans to be more empathetic. Plus, it just feels really good. (It’s called the ‘love hormone’ for a reason.) Mothers experience oxytocin boosts from loving physical contact with their children, while studies show fathers get the same kind of surge from play.
Through my personal experience with fatherhood, I’d agree with these findings. I’ve noticed strong feelings of happiness and contentment when I play with my child, feelings that my work never provided to me. I’ve also felt a lower sex drive since fatherhood happened, which is hard to admit, as I reel under the hangover of the macho-masculine norms I bought into in my 20s.
There are other physiological changes brought by fatherhood, too – like men putting on ‘sympathy weight’ due to Couvade syndrome, and men experiencing postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is commonly reported in new mothers, but it can affect any parent. An emerging hypothesis to explain it in men is the aforementioned testosterone drop, as testosterone is thought to play a vital role in mitigating depression.
Roughly half of parents are fathers, yet 99% of the research on parenting focuses on mothers. There is so much happening in fathers’ bodies that needs to be investigated, but the study of it continues to stay a wide-open frontier, a telling evidence of how we view fatherhood.
This lack of knowledge about the physiological changes that come with fatherhood is hurting men. So many of them walk around pretending nothing has happened or changed for them upon having children. This leaves many of them struggling without the support or even the medical care they may need. Worse, men don’t even congregate and support each other socially around this life event, as masculinity brain-washes them into believing that admitting to any such physical changes like lower sex drive or postpartum depression is somehow emasculating.
Failure to acknowledge these changes is not just hurting men, it’s hurting women, too. No amount of talk about the gender gap in parenting will help mothers unless we simultaneously even the gap in our treatment of physiological fatherhood and motherhood.
Several research studies are underway to parse these changes and close the knowledge gap. But there’s still a long way to go. Ours is a culture where the phrase ‘dad bod’ is the best we have managed when it comes to describing the physiological effects of fatherhood. The fact that the phrase ‘dad bod’ is popularized more as a taunt/joke than a compliment is a testament to our interest in this discourse.
If we are to achieve anything in closing the gender-gap in parenting, we have to agree and support fathers just like we all agree to support mothers. Such support doesn’t happen with lip-service. Fathers deserve real knowledge to understand the changes that come along with fatherhood. They deserve to feel more than just an increased responsibility to earn more.