The birth of a child is a life-changing event for both parents. In the past, women were taught that their job was to stay home to raise that baby while their husbands went to work to provide for the whole family. As time passed, women assumed the caretaking role while fathers were distant figures from their children, lacking an emotional and nurturing connection with them.
However, it's time that we acknowledge the importance of the father's role as well. A recent study looked at how the brain of a new father goes through similar transition changes experienced by a pregnant woman. Here's what they found.
Fathers Are Becoming More Involved
As societal standards evolved and women were no longer bound to home life, fathers became more involved in their children's lives. In fact, studies show that the time fathers devote to child care every week has tripled over the past 50 years in the United States.
What's interesting is that this shift is happening all across, no matter the culture. It has especially been noticed in places like Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Iceland because of the incentives they offer for fathers to take leave with the birth of their child. This is making psychologists question the impact that children with engaged fathers have on their physical health and cognitive performance.
We Don't Give Dads As Much Attention
We don't give as much attention to dads in relation to children as we do to mothers. but just cause mothers are the ones that carry it, doesn't make them the solely responsible figure for caring for and nurturing the child. That's a lot of pressure that makes them feel guilty for wanting to work and still have a life like men. We tend to treat men being the ones to stay home to care for the children like some big accomplishment when women do it every day.
Despite dads' increasing participation in child care and their importance in the lives of their kids, we know very little about how this impacts them and their brains too.
Mothers Experience A Change In Hormones
The transition to parenthood is a huge transformation for both men and women. But in comparison, there has been a lot of focus on how it affects women but not as much for men. For women who become biological mothers, their hormones completely change during pregnancy. By extension, their brains also change.
Surely, men don't experience pregnancy changes directly in their bodies, but they still have an indirect connection to it that reshapes their brains and bodies.
A Mother's Changing Brain
To understand how pregnancy affects men, let's take a look at how it changes women. Pregnancy has been found to completely restructure a woman's brain thanks to magnetic resonance images. These studies have identified large-scale changes in the anatomy of women's brains from before to after pregnancy.
A study in particular in Spain scanned first-time mothers before births, and again two months after they gave birth. Compared with childless women, the new mothers’ brain volume was smaller. This means that key brain structures actually shrank in size during the pregnancy.
The Connection Between Pregnancy And Motherly Instinct
Changes were found all across women's brains after birth. Pregnancy was found to affect the regions linked with thinking about others' minds. These are the changes that give mothers the ability to develop more primitive functions, including emotion and motivation.
It's what we refer to as "a mother's instinct." These brain changes give mothers the sensitive caregiving of newborns and help them keep up with babies' demands for constant attention. It helps them understand babies despite them not being able to verbalize their needs. These parts of the brain are also activated when mothers see images of their newborns.
But what about fathers?
What About Dads' Brains?
While others don't experience pregnancy directly, when they take care of the new baby, parts of their brains change too. Just like with learning any new skills or language, the brain changes the more it learns.
However, up to now, there wasn't a lot of research about what happens to fathers as they experience the physical and emotional demands of caring for a newborn without going through pregnancy.
A Study For Fathers
To learn more about new dads' brains, university research groups from Los Angeles and Madrid collaborated on a new study. They recruited 40 men from both countries and put each into an MRI scanner twice. The first time was while their partner was pregnant, and the second time was when their newborn was six months old. They compared these participants to 17 childless men.
They ended up finding significant changes in the brains of fathers before and after their baby's birth. The most changes were noticed in the parts of the brain that contribute to visual processing, attention, and empathy toward the baby.
The Father's Changing Brain Findings
The degree of brain changes in fathers might have to do with how much time they spend with their babies.
Although fathers in many parts of the world are starting to increase how much they interact with their babies, their involvement varies. This makes it less consistent with the changes observed in first-time mothers. The interesting finding was that brain changes in fathers were almost half of the magnitude of the changes observed in the mothers!
The Effect of Society And Culture
What does this say about the way our societies are structured and our expectations of men as fathers? These studies show the importance and influence of fathers actively interacting with their babies. But, the reality is that the opportunity for men to spend time with their children is limited in many cultures.
Fathers might need to be given a more generous paternity leave, to feel less conditioned, to act as the provider, and instead also become a nurturer in their family structure. This is necessary not only for them but for their children as well.
Changing Fathers' Roles
This finding raises the question of how much we need to change as a society to give dads more time to spend with their babies.
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