Providing a Catholic framework on the truth and meaning of sexuality, love, and family

The Science of Being Father

by Vicki ThornWhat is a father? What is his role in a family? Are fathers outmoded in our society? Did we relegate them to obsolescence with the advent of feminism? What was the slogan – “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”?It seems to me that there is much confusion about fatherhood and perhaps, the question goes deeper. There is much confusion about what it means to be a man. I speak a great deal on college campuses and often encounter young men who have grown up without the physical presence of a father talking to me about a void in their life. One young man shared that he was raised by his mom – whom he admires, he hastened to add – but then told me, “You’ll notice I’m effeminate.” He was longing to know what manhood really felt like. That night I had talked about the biological changes a male undergoes when he becomes a father – knowledge that touched something very deep in this young man in the audience.Society argues that there are now different types of alternative families. A family is what you say it is – self-determination, I guess, in an age of step-parents, live-in boyfriends and anonymous donor dads. But since this is Father’s Day week, let’s focus on some little known facts about biological fathers.Men are changed by their partners’ pregnancy. Assuming they are with their partner over the course of the pregnancy, 60 to 80% of men share symptoms of pregnancy along with the woman. 20% of these men have symptoms strong enough to send them to a physician, complaining of nausea, vomiting, headaches, toothaches, backaches, generalized fatigue and anxiety, and sometimes even food cravings and weight gain. Research indicates that the dads who are the sickest during this period seem to be hardwired to discriminate the different types of cries of their child – knowledge that is generally attributed to the mothers’ instincts.Some of the articles you will find on the subject don’t seem to know what to make of this phenomena called couvade syndrome – a word that means brooding or hatching. While the Western world seemed unaware of this until somewhat recently, in other “primitive” cultures, men seemed to experience this sympathetic pregnancy experience. And it seems that the cause may be more than psychosomatic.We now know that some weeks before the baby comes, the father undergoes hormonal changes. Let me repeat, he undergoes hormonal changes. His testosterone drops, making him less aggressive and sexually interested. His estrogen rises, causing him to be more gentle and caring. His cortisol levels – the stress hormone – are elevated so as to make him more alert in terms of protecting both his partner and his unseen child. The increased cortisol also seems to promote bonding.Speaking of which, the father’s body at this time is also producing a large amount of vasopressin, a hormone predominantly found in men. This is a bonding hormone present in men whenever they engage in sexual intimacy, giving them preference for this woman and making them protective of her. In the case of the upcoming delivery, the hormone tells the man that this is not a time for him to leave his partner, who needs him.When the baby arrives, the father then develops elevated prolactin, the nursing hormone that seems to last about six weeks. He smiles a lot (critical for bonding with the baby) and is particularly helpful and kind toward the new mother at this crucial time of adjustment. Babies who have connected with their dads before birth through reading or singing to the baby in utero will look for their dad when they hear his voice in the delivery room. The experience of this immediate connection between baby and father helps the dad to become quickly invested in this new little person.A father’s hormones will eventually go back to normal, but with one difference: his testosterone level seems to be permanently altered. It does not go back to his pre-fatherhood level, but remains lower. Interestingly, in the primate kingdom, where fathers help to care for the young, males get new brain cells in the higher functioning part of the brain which last until the young become independent. Does this happen to human fathers? We don’t know, but I would hunch that it might happen.Finally, a recent report indicates that at least some dads also experience post-partum depression.Biologically, the presence of a father remains critical beyond birth as the child develops. One study has found that having a father actively involved in their prepubescent daughters’ lives slows down the onset of menses. On the other hand, the presence of a non-related male in the household at this time triggers menses early. The absent father is a predictor of premature sexual activity in girls.The research on the development of boys without fathers is prolific. Suffice it to say that boys need fathers for so many reasons – some biological, some psychological and some spiritual. The plague of fatherlessness has taken an enormous toll on the younger men in our society.At the risk of being politically incorrect, I believe that all the changes men undergo from early pregnancy on is God’s way of preparing them to be fathers. Far from casual, fatherhood is so critical to the world and to their children – no wonder new fathers are hardwired for the job!pastedGraphic.pdf(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Headline Bistro or the Knights of Columbus.)

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