I’m different now. Being a father has irrevocably changed the kind of person that I am. I feel like I’m more capable and mature. I can do so many things that I once thought were impossible. For instance, years ago, I had trouble just waking up in the morning to the sound of an alarm, and I would struggle to find the energy to get myself ready for work after having 8 hours of sleep. Now, I can wake up instantly at the slightest sounds, fully cognizant, and able to deal with any situation immediately. If I only get 3 or 4 hours of sleep, I can still function throughout the rest of the day no problem. I wasn’t able to do that before having kids. As a father, I’m less selfish and foolish. I’ve become more patient, caring, and confident. Feelings, that I had once been helpless to control in the past, are now mine to govern as I please. Whereas, once, a beautiful woman in provocative clothing crossing my path would have sent shockwaves through my physical and psychological being, causing me to act irrationally or out of control, I can now glance at such a spectacle and just as easily look away with less than a casual interest. I seem to have lost the imperatives of the lone wolf or rouge bachelor since becoming a dad. And what a relief!
I’m so happy to be a committed father. I came to the realization recently that I don’t miss my bachelor days at all. I love the stability of being married with children and having the responsibilities that I do now. I truly appreciate the level of maturity that I have attained from my experiences of being a dad, and I wonder how other men are able to live without this kind of peace and mellowness. I often wonder how these changes in me occurred, and I’m not really sure when it all happened either. I do know that I feel so completely different than I did before I had kids, it’s like I’m a completely different species. I’ve thought about what it means to be a dad quite a bit over the last few years, and I’ve read as much research as I could find to answer some of my questions too. However, there is still a lot that confuses me, and I was surprised to find out that there aren’t very many answers available to dads as to what happens to us when we have kids.
The first question, that led me down the rabbit hole of what was happening to me as a new father, came when I couldn’t stop smelling my son’s head when he was a baby. My boys are 3 and 6 years of age now, and what I miss most about their infancy is the smell I would get when I put my nose right at the top of their heads and breathed in. I’m sure a lot of mothers and dads will know what I’m talking about. It’s like crack for parents. I can’t describe the full measure of how it feels to breathe in that smell. All I can say is that it’s amazing! It also was one of the first clear signs in my mind that something was happening to me. Something was changing inside of me by being with my kids. When I would smell my babies, I just wanted to be a better dad. It made me want to just sit there and hold them. I knew that my kids were emitting some kind of smell that told my brain to get my act together, stop being selfish, and care for these little guys at all costs. I wanted to know what was in that smell. What could do this to me?
When I looked for the answer, it turned out that there wasn’t one. No one has put that baby smell through a spectrometer to tell us what’s in it. There have been studies that show that, when women get that baby smell in their noses, their brains light up the same way they would when eating a good meal, having sex, or taking drugs. It’s the reward center of the brain that’s activated by the smell, and the dopamine that is then released flows stronger in mothers’ brains than it does with women who haven’t had children. Almost like being a mother primes their brains to respond more acutely to the smell of babies. The studies still didn’t say how all this worked exactly, they just said that’s how women responded. So since I couldn’t find out what was in the baby smell, I at least wanted to know how men responded to the baby smell. Were we like women? Did the baby smell activate our pleasure center too? No one knows because no one conducted a study of men smelling babies. At least, not that I could find.
In fact, I found out that 99% of all scientific studies regarding parenting only focus on mothers. The changes that a mother experiences in her body and brain through pregnancy and child rearing are incredible, but no one really seemed to believe that anything special was happening to fathers. However, recent studies that have been conducted on dads show that men experience fundamental changes to our own physiology and psyches that are just as significant as they are in mothers. Everyone knows that women go on a hormonal rollercoaster during pregnancy and after a birth, but men experience substantial hormonal changes as well. The most noteworthy (and concerning) change a man will experience is a severe drop in testosterone and an increase in estrogen when his baby is born. Does this mean that being a dad puts us at risk of becoming more like women? Testosterone is the hormone that experts believe make men manly, and estrogen is a ‘female’ hormone. Right? Well, maybe it’s not that simple. So I went deeper down the rabbit hole.
A 2011 study I read, which tested dads in their first month after their wives had a new baby, measured an average decrease in testosterone levels of 40%. The men who had the lowest levels of testosterone were more sensitive to infant cues and they were more affectionate with their babies. Classic beliefs about the hormone is that it tends to make men more competitive with other males and increases their risk taking behavior. So by having lower levels of testosterone, men are more subdued and able to commit to being providers to their families. Keeping them in the home instead of chasing other potential mates, and stopping them from doing risky things thereby making them less likely to sustain injuries or die when their families need them healthy and at their best to be providers. While all this hormonal talk might seem scary to any new father reading this, one good finding in regards to a drop in testosterone is that it could be beneficial to men’s health and longevity, as higher testosterone levels are linked with a decrease in immune function. So being a good dad makes men live longer. Wouldn’t this mean that becoming a dad is vital to our survival? I don’t mean to our species, but for us as individuals.
What certain studies also found was that just becoming a dad can affect hormonal changes, but if a dad makes a conscious decision to be more involved and have more contact with his wife and child, his testosterone levels can decrease even further and many other hormonal changes became more significant. All these hormonal changes actually serve a biological purpose, as they tend to increase behaviors in men that will make them better fathers. However, the results of studies also showed that performing the tasks of a caring and nurturing father induced these hormonal changes as well. So it’s like the chicken and the egg paradox: these hormonal changes in men control their behaviors, but the behaviors also seem to control the release of the hormones. Is this synergy? What exactly is going on here?
Other research I found proved that men experienced hormonal changes before the baby was even born. One study I read found a 20% increase in a hormone called prolactin in men 3 weeks before the birth of the baby. Prolactin is the hormone that promotes lactation in women, and mothers experience an increase in this hormone before their baby is born as well. I still haven’t found a study that has a theory about what this hormone is doing in men or how it affects a father’s behavior, but it does make you wonder all over again why men have nipples. But that’s beside the point. The relevant conclusion is that there are no clear answers to what was happening to men. What was clear was that men who lived with their pregnant spouses reacted to the women’s hormonal changes with similar changes themselves throughout the pregnancy. It is well documented that men experience sympathy pregnancy symptoms right along with their wives. Once again, there is no real answers as to the why or how, but the proof is real. Men hormonally synchronize themselves with their pregnant partners. This finding made me wonder: how is it that men are characterized as having a lack of empathy? Why are these scientific findings so at odds with what our culture tells us about men and fathers?
One thing that makes our view of fathers in our society even more baffling to me is that, while hormonal changes affected the bodies of men and women differently, the reactions they caused in our behaviors (and thus our brains) were similar. Increases in certain hormones in the brain that made women more readily bond with their children or respond to infant cues had the same effect in men. Popular theory is that our brains are hardwired differently. There seems to be a cultural idea that women have the parenting brain and men have the more basic caveman/hunter brain. Yet, research points to the existence of a joint parenting brain. That men and women have the same hardware required to care for children, and that hardware just needs the right kick start and necessary fuels to get it running.
Fathers are such strange creatures. We’re a contradiction to our gender stereotype. By becoming caring, nurturing, and committed parents we diverge from the very behaviors and characteristics which we consider to be manly. It’s not the same for women. When a woman embraces her role as a mother, she is only emulating the very mannerisms which we use to describe what it is to be female. In fact, for women, becoming a mother is an accomplishment which brings with it a higher level of female status. For guys, being emotionally available and patient enough to care for newborns and young children lowers our status among other men (and women). Why are fathers considered to be lacking in manly qualities while irresponsible, prick waving bachelors are seen as the ultimate macho man? Why are dads not seen as the final frontier in masculine maturity?
I have no answers to all of these questions. I do have some theories but I’ll keep them to myself for now. I only hope that more research will be done with dads as the focus. I hope one day I will find out what is in that baby smell. I will say that I have no doubt that I am a better man for having kids. I feel like this parenting experience is almost like a puberty of sorts. Or maybe I should liken it to some other kind of transformation like caterpillar to butterfly or, better yet, gorilla to silverback! In any case, the change has happened to me and is ongoing too. What’s more is that this change is totally welcome even though I don’t know all the ways in which it is affecting me. If what I read is true, and dads do live longer, then I should have more time to figure it all out one day.