The Astronishing Science of Father Involvement

My esteemed colleague at the Greater Good Science Center, executive director Christine Carter, posted two very nice summaries of research into fatherhood over at her “happy kids” parenting blog, Half-Full.

The first asks: Are Dads as Essential as Moms? The answer is, Of course!

* Research shows that the love and care of fathers is equally important for the health and well-being of children as mother-love. Really.

* Children are WAY better off when their relationship with their father is sensitive, secure, and supportive as well as close, nurturing, and warm.

* One of the biggest problems with divorce is that when a father moves out, the father-child relationship frequently falters. If he stays in the game, his kids will cope far better with the divorce.

The second asks the question: How can we get dads to be more involved? Christine’s answer: a mother’s support, a good co-parenting relationship, and reasonable work hours.

Research has revealed some other factors that drive father involvement: a father’s relationships with his own parents (did he have an involved father?) and in-laws (are they supportive of him?); timing of entry into the parental role (what pressures is he facing, especially at work?); and informal support systems such as playgroups and friendships (do other dads, as well as moms, put social pressure on him to be involved, through example or comments?); and the sex of the child. Fathers tend to be more involved with boys, which suggests to me that families with girls might try to amplify the other variables in play–for example, by setting aside special daddy-daughter time.

There’s another factor that I don’t think gets mentioned often enough: early involvement with infant care. When a child is born, testosterone falls dramatically in men. In fact, studies by biologist Katherine Wynne-Edwards and others show that pregnancy, childbirth, and fatherhood trigger a range of little hormonal shifts in the male body—but only if the father is in contact with the baby and the baby’s mother, a crucial point.

New fathers don’t just lose testosterone, they also gain prolactin, the hormone associated with lactation, as well as cortisol, the stress hormone that also spikes in mothers after childbirth and helps them pay attention to the baby’s needs.

In many, many ways, male and female bodies converge as the two become parents; for some men, the process is so intense that they will end up involuntarily mimicking signs of childbirth, a phenomenon called couvade. The convergence starts to end for the male only if he is separated from his family.

Interestingly, the hormonal shifts don’t diminish with second children; instead, they increase. Our bodies learn fatherhood, and fatherhood appears to be very much like learning to ride a bike.

It’s not just our hormones that change, but the very structure of our brains.

To understand the impact of fatherhood on the brain, a team of Princeton University researchers compared the brains of daddy marmoset monkeys (see above!) to their childfree fellows. Why marmosets? Because their males are the stay-at-home dads of the animal kingdom, who carry babies 70 percent of the time and give them to mothers only for nursing.

The researchers discovered that the fathers developed better neural connections in the prefrontal cortex—which is thicker in females. In other words, marmoset dads’ brains become more like females’, and it makes them smarter. The same group of researchers found that fatherhood generates new cells and connections in the hippocampus in mice, the emotion-processing center that is also somewhat bigger in the average human female.

You can’t apply this directly to humans, of course: marmosets are a different kind of primate and mice have tails and whiskers. And yet given the state of our knowledge, I think it’s hard to argue with the notion that early paternal involvement will positively affect later involvement–not guarantee it, mind you, but certainly it will help. Babies and fathers imprint on each other, just as babies do with moms. It forms a bond that can last a lifetime, if cultivated.

Many recent studies also show that such early father involvement is very good for children: For example, a report published in 2007 by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the United Kingdom, based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001, found emotional and behavioral problems were “more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.”

This research might help couples to make good personal decisions, but there is a political dimension as well: Only a very tiny number of American companies offer paternity leave.

Public and workplace policy is the final, and possibly biggest, factor that predicts paternal involvement–one that never gets mentioned in this context. Men are not all the same all over the globe: Their involvement differs from country to country.

The main thing that seems to drive the difference? The amount of paternal leave available. In 1974, Sweden introduced paternity leave to the world, which catalyzed long-term changes in Swedish patterns of work and care.

In Sweden today, fathers are entitled to 10 days of paid leave after a child is born. Eighty percent of them take it, often combining it with vacation time. Parents get a total of 480 days off after they have a child, with 60 days reserved for mothers and 60 for fathers. The rest can be divided according to the wishes of the parents. Three hundred and ninety of those days are paid at 80 percent of the parents’ incomes, with the remaining 90 days paid at a set rate. In 2006, 20 percent of fathers took their share of extended leave.

That might not seem like a lot, but it compares very favorably to the minuscule number of American fathers who take advantage of the pathetic amount of leave available to them. And after Swedish parents go back to work, high-quality daycare is available to all parents, regardless of ability to pay.

The reforms had a sweeping impact on the culture of fatherhood in Sweden. When Swedish researcher Anna-Lena Almqvist interviewed 20 French and 35 Swedish couples in an effort to understand why fathers did or did not take advantage of parental leave and how that related to their self-images as men, she found that Swedish fathers expressed a more “child-oriented masculinity,” and actively negotiated with wives for more time with children.

“By international standards, Swedish fathers take on a good deal of the day-to-day care of their children,” writes Swedish feminist Karin Alfredsson. “Mothers still stay home longer with newborn children, but the responsibility for caring for sick children—while receiving benefits from the state—is more evenly divided between mothers and fathers. It is almost as common for fathers as it is for mothers to pick up and leave the children at pre-school and school.”

This pattern holds in other countries with similar policies.

The upshot: We know from the Northern European experience that men will take more advantage of parental leave if policy, workplaces, and culture support them. In America, the culture is changing in advance of workplaces and public policy, and a new generation of fathers is more willing to take advantage of leave and rebel against their workplace cultures, even at the expense of their careers.

USA Today reports in 2007 that more and more men are fighting for the right to take care of their children:

For years, women who say their employers have discriminated against them because of their care-giving roles have filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC has not released precise figures, but it reports that it now is seeing a shift: filings by fathers. For example, the EEOC says, some employers have wrongly denied male employees’ requests for leave for child care purposes while granting similar requests to female employees.

As a result, more and more companies, large and small, are offering family-leave benefits to men. “A few years ago, I would have told you that paternity leave wasn’t that beneficial in terms of recruiting and retaining,” Burke Stinson, a spokesperson for AT&T, tells HR magazine. “But today, I would say these 20-something men are far less burdened by the macho stereotypes and the stereotypes about the incompetent dad than their predecessors. They are more plugged in to the enrichment of their children and more comfortable taking time off to be fathers.”

It’s an observation echoed by Howard Schultz, Chairman of the Starbucks corporation, in 2007: “Men are willing to talk about these things in ways that were inconceivable less than ten years ago.”

Men are evolving, but society, business, and government still drag their collective feet. This breeds unhappiness as well as lawsuits–but perhaps one day we will have the policies that will help us to be the fathers we need and want to be.