A STATE OF BY MIND
New research is shattering old stereotypes of parenting roles, proving that dads are just as good at it as moms
We have always assumed that women are natural nurturers. It’s accepted convention in most cultures, to the point that the idea is heavily reflected in our legal system, too. In custody battles, women more often win based on their role as main carer, and the assumption that women are simply better at caring for children.
But new research published in May 2014 is challenging those assumptions. The study is the first of its kind, following new parents as they cared for their babies, and tracking changes in their brains through the use of MRI scans. Its findings are causing a new debate over our ideas around just who should be giving up their jobs once the baby arrives.
THE SCIENCE BIT
Researchers at the University of Tel Aviv tracked 89 first time parents, broadly split into three categories that allowed comparisons to be made. The first group was made up of women as primary caregivers – committed, stay at home moms whose whole job was raising their children. The second group comprised of men in a secondary caregiving capacity – guys who spent most of the day at work, helped out where they could, but weren’t as directly involved in childrearing.
Data for the third group was gathered from married gay men who had chosen to raise babies, whether by adoption or by surrogacy. Far from a stereotype, this group was important simply because it would best prove the theory. Being a primary caregiver to a child in that scenario is unquestionably a decision, not a consequence of any other circumstance: we’re talking about men who had wholeheartedly given themselves to the process.
The researchers looked at levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), parenting behaviour (how they were around their kids), and brain responses to parenting cues that they gathered via MRI across the groups.
WHAT THEY FOUND
The researchers noted that when a person becomes involved in child rearing tasks, two distinct neural networks in the brain become active:
THE EMOTION PROCESSING NETWORK
This comprises parts of our brains that we use to process how we feel about things, and includes the amygdala, which we already recognise as the node where mothering instinct resides.
THE MENTALISING NETWORK
This is a logic system that governs things like our ability to process speech, recognise what body language means, and understand social cues.
When we parent, the activation of our emotion processing network – and particularly the amygdala – gives us a strong desire to look after our children and keep them safe. Connected to that, we use the mentalising network to understand what our children need from us even though they can’t use words to tell us yet. It isn’t unexpected, therefore, to see both networks firing in tandem in a full time mom. From the study, it was found that women in primary caregiving roles had extremely strong activation in their emotion processing network. Secondary caregiving dads did too, but the reaction wasn’t as powerful – pretty much what we’d expect to see, and probably the basis of the complaint that moms would like dads to be more involved.
What surprised the researchers was that in full time dads the level of emotion processing activation they saw was powerful, and equivalent to women.
WHAT THIS MEANS
While it’s true that women have an advantage in the flood of hormones that pregnancy and birth produce, the research tells us that neither gender is inherently better suited to raising children after that point. “This is in keeping with what we’ve learned about neural plasticity,” says Dr Carla Kotzé, a prominent South African psychiatrist. “The brain is actually much more adaptable in response to environmental factors than it was always believed to be. It seems that the more time a father spends with their child, the more ‘wired’ they become for the task of childrearing. The idea that mothers should be the primary caregiver is culturally based. This study suggests that there is no reason why fathers shouldn’t be able to provide all of the primary care a child needs, including the necessary emotional connection.”
This is also consistent with the theory of alloparenting – “it takes a village to raise a child” – where extended family and neighbours get roped in to help out. Simply put, exposure to child rearing increases the aptitude for it.
IT’S ABOUT WHO DOES THE JOB
There are, unquestionably, still some fairly significant differences in the brains of men and women and in their approaches to certain things. But what seems clear from this research is that when a man chooses to become a full time dad, or even just to spend more time with his kids, there’s no reason to think that he’ll be any less equipped to deal with the challenge than a woman would.
That’s quite significant. Partly because men can no longer legitimately weasel
out of their responsibilities by trotting out ailing stereotypes of gender roles, but also because this news comes at a time when men’s role in the home, and the very definition of masculinity, is undergoing a global metamorphosis.
In generations past clear lines were drawn between gender roles: men worked and women raised children. Over time, the idea of women having jobs gained acceptance, but they were still expected to quit as soon as they got pregnant.
However, over the past three decades, more and more women have chosen instead to rejoin the workforce swiftly after giving birth. The playing field is still far from level, but combined with the steadily closing wage gap an environment now exists where men who want to make the non-traditional choice to actively parent, can do so. In the book Wall Street
Mothers, Stay-home Fathers, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg wrote that the number of women in the finance industry alone, many of them among the industry’s most powerful players, had seen a tenfold growth. Based on US census data, they were able to attribute the rise to an increasing willingness among men to stay home and “do domestic duty.”
IT MAKES SENSE
The findings of the Tel Aviv University study have resonated with stay at home dads around the world. American full time father Chris Illuminati is the author of Thank You For Not Laughing, a book about his adventures in parenting. “I don’t think genitals matter in regards to raising a child,” he says. “The person with the most exposure to the kid knows them best, because they pick up on their tendencies. For example, my wife is still perfectly adept at raising our child, but I’m more in tune with ‘Oh, when she does that she’s tired’, or ‘It’s always around this time that she’s ready to eat.’” British writer John Adams, founder of dadbloguk. com, concurs. “It’s rather pleasing to hear of some sensible research coming out of this area. My wife will freely admit that I’m the better partner for fulfilling the main caregiving role. I think we’re both perfectly capable, but the reality is that I spend more time with the kids so I know their routines better. Is this hardwired into my brain? I can only tell you that I’ve always been very paternal. I’ve never wanted a large family, but I’ve always wanted offspring, and wanted to be heavily involved in their upbringing.” YB
what surprised researchers was that in full time dads, the level of emotion processing activation they saw was powerful, and equivalent to women