Book Review: The Life of Dad: the Making of the Modern Father

April 5, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Dr. Anna Machin’s new book, The Life of Dad, is the greatest leap forward in our comprehensive understanding of fathers and fatherhood to date. It seems the more we learn about fathers, the more we understand their importance to children, to mothers and to society. Machin weaves the threads of genetics, bio-chemistry, anthropology and behavioral science together to form a tapestry of the human father.  She does so in a way that’s easily accessible to non-scientists.  The Life of Dad is a must read.  It will transform the reader’s understanding of fathers, children, mothers and the human family.

Machin likes fathers, not because they help mothers or some other indirect reason.  She likes them for their unique selves.  Her prose is peppered with the word “wonderful” to describe what fathers do and what our increasing knowledge about them reveals.  She demonstrates her respect by interviewing fathers and actually listening to what they say.  All that is refreshing in a day when the discourse about fathers often ranges from disrespectful to actively hostile.

Machin makes no bones about it: without fathers’ active involvement in the care of children, the human race would never have made it at all, much less to where we are.  That’s because, some 500,000 years ago, when our already big brains took another great leap in size and our upright gait narrowed females’ birth canal, our offspring were born even more helpless than before.  With females bearing usually but a single child who then took many years to reach maturity, the only way for our hominid ancestors to survive was if Mom could hand off the child to someone else, stop nursing it and once again become fertile.

That someone of course was Dad.  So the very existence of Homo sapiens and our success as a species is down to fathers being willing and able to pick up the childcare ball and run with it.

But why did they do so?  After all, the males of very few other social mammal species take part in childcare.  The answer is hormones.  Those chemicals direct human behavior toward childcare when a female becomes pregnant.  Clearly, Mom’s biochemistry changes during pregnancy, but so does Dad’s.  Production of hormones like oxytocin prepares both parents to be sensitive to their children’s needs.  In mirroring each others’ hormonal output, mother and father form a team whose goal is the survival of the child and its preparation to take part in the complex world of human society.  Mothers and fathers are both vital to a child’s well-being.  Each brings unique benefits to the child.  There’s limited overlap between what they offer.

Plus, once the child comes into the world, Dad’s testosterone level drops precipitously.  That reduces his tendencies to take risks and to look for other mates.  His focus changes to the care and survival of his family that, unlike most mammals, needs his unique contributions.   

The attachment that forms between fathers and their children is bio-chemical in nature.  Fathers’ interaction with their children stimulates the production of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and beta-endorphin.  Each is pleasurable to him, encouraging him to repeat the interaction that produced them. 

And fathers’ interactions tend to be the classic rough and tumble play.  Mothers tend to receive those pleasurable hormones from nurturing the child, fathers from R&T play.  Fascinatingly, the child does too.  Children’s levels of oxytocin for example increase with Mom’s nurturing and Dad’s play.  Unsurprisingly, they tend to turn to each parent to satisfy differing needs.  But that bio-behavioral synchronicity is the nature of what we call the parent-child bond.

The heart of fatherhood is the protection and teaching of the child.  His focus is outward toward others, society and the world.  Humans are the only animals on the planet to actively teach their children.  Other animals’ offspring learn from adults, but adults don’t teach.  Humans do and doing so is the core of the paternal role.  Because of Dad’s outward focus on the environment and because that environment is often unpredictable, his parenting brain must be flexible to meet unknown risks and challenges.  And it is.

Mother’s parental behavior is centered in the limbic system, primarily, that most ancient of all brain structures, the amygdala.  By contrast, fathers’ occurs in one of our newest structures, the neo-cortex.  That means that maternal behavior is as ancient as the amygdala and the paternal evolved much, much later. 

The neo-cortex is involved in social cognition, our ability to handle complex thoughts and make plans based on extant and changing circumstances.  So when his parenting behavior “lights up” his neo-cortex, Dad is assessing his child’s needs and figuring out what needs to be done to meet them, how to teach the child what it needs to know in a given situation.  It is therefore inherently flexible, i.e. able to respond to different and changing circumstances.

By exposing children to challenging situations, fathers have a unique impact on their development.  Fathers’ unique role in parenting imparts values, knowledge and independence.  A U.K. study conducted over 40 years of 17,000 children born in 1958 found that fathers had a unique impact on their children’s academic success including their attitude toward learning.  In the area of acquisition of language, fathers’ influence appears to be more important than mothers’.  Fathers’ importance to children exists regardless of the socio-economic status of the family.

Machin’s book is mostly about fathers’ importance to children and the society in which they grow up.  She’s a scientist, not an advocate, but advocate she does.  A significant minority of The Life of Dad is devoted to the social zeitgeist in which fathers find themselves.  She points out that even the concept that fathers might be important to children is relatively new to science and that serious research into fathers and fatherhood is barely a decade old.  She inveighs against a medical establishment and family leave policies that all but exclude fathers.  When a man’s wife is pregnant, he’s likely to find himself an afterthought at best in the eyes of doctors, nurses and hospital staff, despite the fact that he’s going through one of the most life-altering experiences of his life.

The fathers she interviewed felt unrecognized and belittled.  She excoriates maternal gatekeeping and the image of the incompetent Homer Simpson-style father that’s so often depicted in the news and pop culture.  But she reserves her special contempt for governments that, in the face of an unprecedented level of scientific knowledge about the importance of fathers to children, mothers and society generally, resist even modest reform.  She urges men to “man the barricades,” engage in the political process and demand the changes from which, frankly, everyone would benefit.  In her words,

Fathers are wonderfully flexible creatures, capable of altering their role on a minute-to-minute basis to ensure the well-being and survival of their family.

We all need to learn from Dr. Machin, particularly legislators, judges and policy-makers.  Thanks to her for her dedication to fathers and bringing us the latest science on them and their indispensable role in children’s lives.

You can purchase Dr. Machin’s book here.

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