Father: ‘I realized my capacity for patience and kindness had expanded’

Hard on the heels of new information about oxytocin and its effects on mothers’ and fathers’ parental attachment to their offspring, comes this article by a father that takes the matter out of the laboratory and into everyday life (Toronto Star, 9/6/10).

Contrary to the cultural characterizations of fathers as disengaged bit players in the child-rearing process, it seems we come pre-wired with the same “tending instinct’ as our female partners and go through dramatic physiological changes during pregnancy and birth that make us far more nurturing than we might think.

That’s a good layperson’s version of what I’ve written about before – the biological connection that nature provides to fathers and mothers to allow them to care for their children. The piece is by Robert Cribb. He describes his own unexpected responses to his newborn daughter.

Minutes after my little girl was born, a young doctor attempted to insert a needle into her tiny arm.

He kept missing, puncturing one hole after another.

Adding to the sensory assault of entering the world, these anguishing first moments of life inspired cries for help that turned to breathless gasps over the next 10 minutes.

At the apex of her screaming crescendo, I realized I hated this doctor with an intensity never before directed toward a stranger.

In a moment that remains seared on my brain, I fought the most overwhelming instinct to punch another person in the face repeatedly.

What Cribb so vividly describes is the visceral experience of fatherhood. What he conveys is his awareness that, before he became a dad, he would never have dreamed of punching out a doctor who was doing the best he could. The power of his response to the pain the doctor was causing his daughter was the power of hormones in action. It is that power that drives humans and other animals to fight to the death to protect their children. It is that power that allows adults to set aside their own interests and desires to care for their children.

And Cribb describes another effect of children on fathers – the one that makes them calmer, less self-centered, more patient, kinder. Sociology has long recorded the tendency of young fathers to be more responsible, more likely to be employed and less likely to commit crime or use drugs or alcohol than their childless peers. Through a man named Tim Horton, Cribb describes the phenomenon on a personal level:

Like many men, Tim says the selfishness that featured prominently in his pre-fatherhood personality made him nervous about his ability to be a good dad.

But it seemed to vanish when his baby deposited a large, yellow pile of throw-up on his white dress shirt on the way out the door one morning.

“I realized my capacity for patience and kindness, with my kids but also everyone else, expanded dramatically.’

Cribb cites neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine for some basic information about fathers’ brain chemistry, but what he (and perhaps she) reports misses some key points. He’s right that fathers, during their wives’ pregnancies, often show symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy, also known as ‘couvade’ in the literature. But, contrary to what Brizendine suggests, it’s not connected to testosterone reduction which typically happens immediately after birth. Couvade in men comes about for the same reason it comes about in pregnant women – increased levels of prolactin and cortisol. If it came from a drop in testosterone levels, why wouold pregnant women show the symptoms?

Likewise, Brizendine is correct that the unique shape of babies’ faces with their chubby cheeks and wide-set eyes is thought to stimulate hormonal changes in men that promote parenting behavior. But if that were all it took, any man who ever saw a baby would immediately start acting like a dad. Again, Brizendine seems unaware of the hormonal changes that occur in fathers who are exposed to their partner’s pregnancies. Those increases in prolactin and cortisol before birth and oxytocin afterward are the keys to connecting fathers to children.

Still, with those caveats, Cribb’s is an excellent article. It puts a human face on the science that surrounds paternal behavior and it tells its readers the basic, undeniable facts about fathers and how they’re connected to their children. At a time when fathers are often disrespected by popular culture, the news media and law, Cribb places his thumb on the other side of the scale.

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