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Are Good Dads Wimps? Fathers and Testosterone

Posted by Vincent DiCaro

This is from a recent New York Times article about an important new study: "Testosterone, that most male of hormones, takes a dive after a man becomes a parent. And the more he gets involved in caring for his children ... the lower his testosterone drops."

In other words, good dads are wimps.

I am kidding of course. We at NFI firmly believe that one of the most courageous, and therefore manly, things a guy can do is to take care of his children. The easy, and therefore wimpy, way is to not shoulder that responsibility and walk away. You may walk away with more testosterone coursing through your veins, but you are certainly much less of a man.

But what was more interesting to me about this new study was not necessarily the science of testosterone levels, but the interpretation of the results. Here are a few snippets from the story:
  • “The real take-home message,” said Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who was not involved in the study, is that “male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men.”

  • “My hope would be that this kind of research has an impact on the American male. It would make them realize that we’re meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring.” (also from Peter Ellison; emphasis mine)

  • “But this should be viewed as, ‘Oh it’s great, women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents.’" (Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and co-author of the study; emphasis mine)

  • Historically, the idea that men were out clubbing large animals and women were staying behind with babies has been largely discredited. The only way mothers could have highly needy offspring every couple of years is if they were getting help.” (also from Lee Gettler; emphasis mine)
I don't think I am overstating it when I say that these are truly remarkable statements about fatherhood.

First is the "who." The fact that academia is drawing these very strong conclusions about the necessity of fathers is a positive sign that our culture is getting closer and closer to giving a real "stamp of approval" to the irreplacability of fatherhood.

Since fatherhood (or so we thought until this study came out!) is largely "constructed" by the culture - in other words, dads get cues from the culture (not their bodies) about what they are supposed to do - it is critically important that the culture send clear messages about the importance of dads. If we expect good fathering, we are more likely to get it.

Second is the "what." As I stated above, we have largely believed that fatherhood is a cultural imperative - if the culture says we need good fathers, we get them. If the culture says fathers are not important, then we are less likely to get them. This is less true with moms, since their biology is so intimately tied with their having (pregnancy and childbirth) and caring for (breastfeeding, female hormones) their children.

But now, the gentlemen quoted above are suggesting that, much like motherhood, there is a clear biological imperative to fatherhood - that men's bodies "tell" them to be good dads. This is huge. We don't have to "make up" reasons for dads to get involved. Clearly there are tons of good ones; research has been abundantly clear that children are much better off when they have involved fathers.

But now that we can point to biology and say that dads are meant to be involved, and perhaps even more importantly, that moms are meant to have male help, the argument is all the stronger for it. At a time when 1 out of every 3 children in the country is growing up without their biological father in the home, we need all the help we can get to show that kids need their dads.

And there is nothing wimpy about that.

Topics: father involvement, father absence, testosterone, biology

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