When it comes to parenting, we have a cultural narrative that moms are more important than dads, or even that moms share a unique and special bond with their kids. On this Father’s Day, I want to challenge some of those myths by highlighting a few of the ways in which some bonds are hardly unique to moms.
Let’s kick things off with pregnancy and hormones. Typically, and with good reason, we tend to think that this is the realm of motherhood. After all, in humans and other mammals, it’s the female that gets pregnant and gives birth. However, dads aren’t immune to the effects of pregnancy and the hormone fluctuations that come with it.
What exactly can happen to dads during their partner’s pregnancy? The common marmoset, a tiny South American primate, offers a few clues. While these dads shine by being incredibly involved fathers, helping with delivery, and carrying the little ones around, it’s what happens around pregnancy that is truly remarkable. These dads have a sort of sympathy pregnancy that causes expectant marmoset dads to get positively pudgy, doubling their weight right before the females give birth.
Why? Males are preparing for the birth and experience the flood of hormones that comes with the territory. In humans, this has a name—Couvade’s syndrome—and the hormone prolactin may be heavily involved in creating these pregnancy-like symptoms. This is all separate from that rush of hormones—cortisol, testosterone, prolactin, oxytocin, and vasopressin—that are released in both men and women (and marmosets!) when their infant is born.
Understanding that males can be strongly influenced by the pregnancy of their partners may help some dads-to-be cope if they find themselves feeling off, more emotional than usual, or gaining weight even though they are hitting the gym or trails regularly. It's also one important way to acknowledge how dads connect early on.
After the baby has arrived, there are loads of ways that bonding is the same for moms and dads, but I want to focus on recognizing that a baby is their baby—specifically crying. For humans and other animals, there is a lot of pressure to recognize who is your baby, whether you are a single parent or are a bi-parental unit. Razorbill dads are experts at identifying and responding to the cries of their chicks. The reason? They are involved fathers, taking over the bulk of the parenting duties once things move offshore and to the open waters of the ocean. When human dads are just as involved as moms, they too are as sharp as razorbills at distinguishing which cries are coming from their own infants as opposed to other infants.
It is not clear whether they can identify the cries coming from their infants as quickly as the moms (<24hrs), but among parents with infants less than one, there is no difference between mothers and fathers in the ability to correctly identify which sound is coming from their child. The deciding factor is how much time parents spent with their infant. For bothmothers and fathers, spending less than four hours a day reduces accuracy by almost 25 percent.
And lastly, one more hormone-mediated way that human dads connect is by playing with their kids. The hormone? The all-mighty oxytocin. This is known as the bonding hormone and it's often discussed in terms of mothers, sexual relationships, and more broadly social relationships, but dads and their kids are almost never mentioned.
This hormone plays a potentially crucial role in the behavior of another tiny primate dad—the titi monkey. Like the common marmoset, these dads are top-notch and do all of the heavy lifting. Like titi monkeys, human fathers also have higher circulating oxytocin than non-fathers and these higher levels are associated with more interaction. As human dads physically interact with their infants—gazing at them, talking to them, and playing with them—oxytocin levels rise, driving them to interact even more. This continues for years.
For dads struggling to connect, oxytocin is on a positive feedback loop and it starts right away. The more interaction, the higher levels rise, driving more interaction. This means putting the electronics down, getting outside, and playing together. It means hugging, kissing, and being affectionate with your children constantly. Even brushing their hair, a form of grooming, is a simple act that will promote closeness. Read a book together, play a board game, hold their hand.
From structures that change in the brain and hormone surges before and after birth to providing protection and being a role model for the next generation of dads, we have evolved to need our dads to be present, involved, and connected. And dads need their kids. So show your dad some love this Father’s Day and, if you can do so safely, give them a hug and get those oxytocin juices flowing. Happy Father’s Day, dads!