PAUL HOPKINS: Not just on Father’s Day do modern dads show their true emotions
It’s been long a given that there’s a whole generation of the New Man out there. They use moisturiser, they stroke the cat, they have women friends, they make brown bread, and they clip their toenails on a regular basis. But they also workout regularly and are conscious of diet and anti-oxidants (which had not been invented when I was younger), while still managing to appear virile and in charge.
And many make for great dads.
My father’s generation — that born on the edge of the First World War and which lived through the second one — were not known for their tactility, their embraces or voicing their feelings — especially when it came to their sons. Such matters were better left unsaid; not acted upon, they reasoned, so that the boy might become the man.
My first memory of my father was he coming to share my bed, when I was about three because my baby brother was acting up and had inveigled himself into my mother’s affections. But that memory is largely of his broad back, turned against me, and he hogging the old eiderdown, and muttering: “Go back to sleep now, son.”
My sons, two grown young men, and I still embrace or have the odd hug when we meet, which these days is not as often as I would like. Such acts of endearment are matter-of-fact and unselfconscious. It’s just something we’ve always done.
My eldest son Paul and his wife Genevieve are parents to my wonderfully intriguing granddaughter Madeleine, coming up for 20 months. Like many dads of his generation, my son is very much hands-on in every aspect of Madeleine’s rearing, tending to her every need and teaching her the practicalities and the wonders of life as each new day unfolds. I watch from afar, with a mixture of pride and awe.
A man’s entry into fatherhood might not be accompanied by the same hormonal, physical, and emotional changes that a woman experiences throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood… but the changes that happen in the male due to fatherhood are no less important.
Researchers have been looking into the connection between a father and his newborn child, and there have been several studies that show a man’s brain undergoes several changes in the first weeks of fatherhood.
Those folks in the white coats compared brain activity in new parents as they watched videos of their children. The study examined the mothers (who were, in this specific case, the primary caregivers), fathers who worked outside the home but frequently helped with childcare, and gay fathers who raised a child without the help of a female.
In all three groups, the parts of the brain linked to emotions and social interaction were buzzing. Interestingly, the fathers who raised a child without a woman’s assistance showed almost identical emotional activity in the brain as mothers do.
The study at the renowned Princeton University shows there is an increase in oestrogen and other predominantly female hormones in fathers. Several other studies (including at Queen’s University in Ontario) have shown that the male testosterone (known as the male sex hormone) and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels drop in the first weeks of fatherhood.
While oestrogen has been considered the female sex hormone, estradiol (the predominant form of oestrogen) plays a key role in nurturing instinct and in male sexual function. When this form of oestrogen is overly present in a man, it promotes greater nurturing when he becomes a father.
Oxytocin, commonly known as ‘the love hormone’, also surges in men after the birth of a child and promotes bonding, empathy, and altruism in the new father.
So, the one-time argument that women are more naturally the nurturing parent no longer holds sway. Men can show just as much emotion and care and tactility towards their young.
To bring a child into the world, humans spend a lot of time and energy choosing their partner. But another new study from Stockholm University and Manchester University shows that human eggs can ‘choose’ sperm. “We wanted to know if eggs use chemical signals to pick which sperm they attract, and they do,” says Professor John Fitzpatrick. “Sperm have only one job — to fertilise eggs — so it doesn’t make sense for them to be choosy. Eggs on the other hand can benefit by picking high quality or genetically compatible sperm.”
It seems intending mothers do have the final say.