‘Baby brain’ for dads and the science of fatherhood

dad and laughing daughter

There are reams of research on the effects of motherhood on women, but what about the dads?

We look to science for insights into what exactly happens to a man (and what he should do) when he embarks on the sleep-deprived rollercoaster that is fatherhood.

Love is a drug

That women’s bodies and brains are changed dramatically by the process of pregnancy and motherhood is well documented, but did you know that fathers undergo hormonal changes too?

According to reported research, it is most noticeable with oxytocin, which is misleadingly referred to as “the love hormone”. Levels rise with women when they give birth and when they’re breastfeeding, but it also spikes in men when they’re interacting with their children.

Child interaction is also connected with drops in testosterone, a rise in prolactin (the milk-producing hormone in women) and a spike in vasopressin, which is involved in bonding.

So don’t make smug jokes about how your kid’s mum must be hormonal: turns out that little grinning beast is doing a chemical number on you too.

Men get ‘baby brain’

Having a baby literally changes the structure of a guy’s brain. According to reports, it has a direct impact on new fathers in the growth of “grey matter”, especially in the lateral pre-frontal cortex which is involved in memory and decision making.

There are also bits of the brain that shrink, sections in the “default mode network” which are largely connected with focusing on ourselves rather than the world.

In other words, the brain appears to shift resources away from worrying about ourselves and toward worrying about that precious little weirdo of ours.

Happy dads make better workers

If you’ve found yourself not quite as assiduous about your career — say, if you work as a writer who promised an article about scientific research around fatherhood and absolutely missed the deadline, for example — then you’re not alone.

A Northwestern University study found that fathers that spend a lot of time with their kids found themselves less focussed on their careers — but, despite this, also reported far greater workplace satisfaction and were much less likely to feel like quitting.

It’s not that people necessarily cared less about work so much as that fatherhood put their career into perspective — and it suggests that organisations which make fatherhood an easier option for workers will be rewarded by more dedicated, stable staff.

The ‘father effect’ is real

At the risk of sounding like the most sanctimonious conservative politician holding forth on the primacy of “family values”, a slew of studies on the role of fathers has led to the description of an umbrella term, ‘The Father Effect’.

This suggests that children with “involved fathers” enjoy better outcomes — less likely to abuse drugs, less likely to engage in criminal behaviour, less likely to go on the dole and more likely to do well in school — and that daughters with involved fathers engage in less risky sex later in life.

Now, while the science behind the claims all appears solid, it is worth pointing out that a lot of what they describe as parental involvement could be summed up as “be wealthy enough to have the time and resources to be involved in your child’s life”.

So this could also be interpreted as supporting the well-established fact that poverty can be devastating to children.

Baby equals pay rise (for dads only)

If that section above made you worry about your new responsibilities blunting your business edge, be assured that your bundle of joy is worth… um, a bundle.

A study out of Cornell University crunched the numbers and found that the pay gap is real: mothers experience, on average, a 4 per cent drop in pay for every child they have, whereas fathers experience a 6 per cent bump.

Fathers are also offered better salaries than childless men, mothers, or childless women, in what is yet another paint stroke in society’s mighty sign reading UNCONSCIOUS SEXISM.

Oh, and the study found that having a kid makes men — and not women — more employable too.

Man, we really have it embarrassingly good.

Better dads mean better daughters

We’ll preface this by saying that the relationship between a dad’s attitude to women and their daughter’s subsequent careers is correlational, rather than the former directing the latter.

But a study from 2013 concluded that dads with an egalitarian view of gender abilities have daughters with higher workplace ambitions than less egalitarian fathers.

As reported on Live Science, the suggestion is that girls take cues from their dad as to how women are meant to be perceived and internalise those views to a surprising extent.

Dads that don’t subscribe to gendered rules of behaviour tended to have professionally aspirational daughters who didn’t see their gender as determining which paths were open to them.

And speaking of which…

We still suck at housework

You might be nodding furiously along with everything else on this list, so let’s have some real talk: while men are generally doing a far better job of being engaged with their families than previous generations, we’re not lifting our domestic chore game.

Here in Australia, the most recent Census report found one in four men (not just dads) do zero housework. And this is consistent with international trends.

It doesn’t matter where dads are, science concludes: they’re not doing their damn share.

And before you argue that it’s different for dads, in 2015 Save The Children published a study of fathers’ attitudes to child rearing and found that while fathers were more involved in their children’s upbringing, the research still concluded that there was a massive disparity in looking after the household.

“On average, women perform more hours of domestic work and caring for children than men, even when earning equal or more than men in paid employment,” it stated.

In other words, gents, quit reading this and go scrub a pot or run the Dyson over the rugs. Our long-suffering co-parents could do with the support.

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