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

Your Baby & Toddler - - Talking Point - DAVID BEUKES-KINIG

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.

THEY’RE EV­ERY­WHERE

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

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