Here's to the dads: Know you're a great father—stop struggling with being a dad
Just because you can't breastfeed doesn't mean you can't nurture and care for your kids equally!
Becoming a parent is a huge transition. From being adults with few worries, suddenly being responsible for a tiny defenceless human who relies completely on you. But while it’s well-known that mothers experience a number of physical changes to adapt to the new role, it isn’t as common knowledge that many new fathers face similar changes. Many fathers struggle at being a dad—or more accurately, they feel not as prepared to become a parent because their bodies don’t undergo similar physical changes.
For decades, there have been many neuroscience studies conducted to see how motherhood impacts women psychologically, behaviorally, and physically. When it comes to dad, however, there has been little research. And in fact, there was a widespread belief that fathers were just tagging along for the ride—mere passengers who were completely unprepared for the role.
But is there any truth in this sentiment? A new wave of research has been published in recent years that looks at how men experience changes in their bodies. And it’s not just a beer belly, either.
To fathers struggling with being a dad: take heart, you are just as prepared as mothers
The main concerns fathers have that lead to struggling with being a dad is that nature has dealt them a bad hand in being ready to receive and care for the little one. But studies indicate that just because a father’s body doesn’t change in the same way as a mother, it also doesn’t mean men aren’t prepared for parenthood. In fact, evolution has driven men towards becoming excellent fathers in ways they never expected.
Studies in neuroscience have discovered the different male hormone changes during pregnancy, as well as brain activity after their child is born. And these findings point towards fathers gearing up to be the best parent they can be without realising it!
Changes in brain activity
You may have worried about not being able to get into the right mindset to provide the best care for your little one. However, research showed that there is increased grey matter in the areas of the brain related to interpreting and appropriately responding to baby’s behaviours in weeks following fatherhood. The participants, who were new fathers, showed better instincts to care for their children between weeks 12 to 16 compared to the first 4 weeks of welcoming the little one into their lives. And it’s worth noting that these neurological activity levels were similar for mothers as well.
“But wait, fathers don’t respond and care for children the same way mothers do, which is why they’re worse!” Actually, both parents love their children equally, but just in different ways. A study showed mothers have increased brain activity in the core of the brain, which is linked to nurturing and protective instincts. On the other hand, fathers have increased activity around the core of the brain, which is linked to intentional cognitive abilities, like planning and problem-solving. Men’s brains adapt to care for their children despite not giving birth to them.
Fathers experience similar levels of happiness and content when caring for kids
While men’s brains do change over time to learn how to care for their children, there is a fear of whether they will enjoy the journey. After all, it’s a common perception that the mum is the caring one, whom children run to first when in distress, while dads are the “fun” parent. You might worry about whether your children consider the time you spend with them as feeling loved and cared for.
In fact, research has shown that children respond to the different behaviours of both parents. When parents spend quality time with their children, the brain releases hormones that enhance bonding and the feeling of reward, oxytocin and dopamine. Mothers release these hormones when nurturing kids, while fathers experience an increase in these hormones during rough-and-tumble play. But whatever your child is doing, his brain mimics the oxytocin levels in his parents’ brains. Simply put, your child loves spending time with you when you enjoy it, and he will engage in those same behaviours again and again.
Caring for others proves your masculinity
There’s a common trope that being a caring father means you aren’t the man you used to be. But there’s nothing further from the truth!
Studies show that testosterone lowers after becoming a father. This sounds alarming at first. But actually, this is an evolutionary feature to help fathers stay with the family. Testosterone is important in finding a partner. Studies indicate women are more attracted to men with higher testosterone. So when testosterone lowers after a husband becomes a father, this indicates he is preparing to stick by his family and be the best father he can be.
The benefits of a father figure for children is now well-documented. Children with father figures experience fewer mental health disorders and experience better social and emotional development, including improved executive functions and higher IQ.
Lower testosterone does not make you any less of a man. In fact, being the best father possible makes you a role model all men aspire to be!
Dads, the journey of fatherhood is paved with challenges. But take heart in the knowledge that you are equally equipped with the same tools as your wife to care for your children to the best of your ability. Your brain and body changes in ways you might not realise. Stay the course and you’re going to be a great dad. Your children will love you all the same.