Fatherhood transforms men. But only if they live with their kids

By W. Bradford Wilcox, Slate


[…] fatherhood is transformative for men’s bodies and their lives—if they manage to live with their children and the mother of their children. Of course, we’ve known about the transformative power of parenthood, since time immemorial, for women. Now, we’re learning more and more about the ways that fatherhood is also transformative for men’s bodies and lives, as my new book, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (co-edited with Kathleen Kovner Kline), points out.



For many men, the transformative physical power of fatherhood first manifests itself when the pounds start piling up. One recent survey found that the average father puts on more than 10 pounds while waiting for baby to arrive.



But there are more significant transformations afoot than weight gain for many men. Studies suggest that after the arrival of a baby men’s testosterone falls, while their prolactin levels rise. These hormonal shifts are significant because testosterone is associated with aggression and heightened libido, whereas prolactin is associated with heightened levels of parental care. Taken together, these hormonal shifts seem to prepare men to settle down, steer clear of attractive alternatives, and engage their children. Or, in psychologist Anne Storey’s words, this new research “suggests that hormones may play a role in priming males to provide care for young.”



But these hormonal changes don’t just happen for any father; they appear to be most likely for men who are living in a long-term relationship with the mother of their children; indeed, our book reports that men’s hormonal changes move in synchrony with their partner’s hormonal shifts when they live together. Moreover, research by anthropologist Peter Gray indicates that drops in testosterone are most pronounced among men engaged in “affiliative pair bonding and paternal care,” i.e., men who are married to and living with the mother of their own children. Fatherhood, then, appears most likely, or only likely, to prime men physiologically to settle down when they are living with the mother of their children.The importance of physical proximity, when it comes to fatherhood, may help explain why the sociological story about fatherhood is remarkably similar to the biological story. Fatherhood is socially transformative for men—but only, once again, if they are living proximate to their children. By contrast, men who don’t live with their children, either because they never married the mother in the first place, or got divorced, often don’t look much different than childless men. Three findings illustrate the point:


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