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How Your Brain Chemistry Changes After Becoming a Father

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Last week at preschool drop off, my four-year-old son and husband were doing their usual morning swing routine before saying goodbye. My son had decided to kick off his shoes and jump off from an extra-high push. He landed hard on his bare feet and started to cry. My husband went to him, lifted him in the air, and wrapped him in his broad arms. He stroked his back and told him a story about how once, when he was a kid, he too landed hard and it hurt. He cradled his small feet and moved them around, making squeaking noises as if fixing a rusty joint, and slowly my son cracked a smile. Another dad looked over with a judgmental you’re-coddling-him glance and piped in: “Walk it off! Go rub your feet in the dirt!”

I silently fumed at this fellow parent’s toughen-up-kid mentality, and wondered if it were me doing the comforting, or if it were a girl who’d been hurt, would he feel the need to interject? Wiping his tears, holding him close until he is calm — I don’t see this as coddling. In fact, quite the opposite. I think (and research backs me up here) that my husband’s empathy and nurturing will go far towards raising our son as a strong, confident boy.

Moms typically get the distinction of being the more empathetic parent. But, as I’ve written about before, men are clearly wired for nurturing as well. It’s established science that fatherhood changes a man’s chemistry in ways that draw him closer to the family unit and orient him towards caretaking. For example, dads experience a rise in prolactin levels, a hormone involved in bonding and nurturing, that begins when mom is pregnant. Testosterone levels fall after birth, which scientists believe may direct a father’s attention away from mating and towards childrearing. Studies of dads also show a shift in brain processing with the arrival of children. For example, although women are wired to respond more strongly to infant cries, when men become parents, this difference fades. Men who are fathers show dramatically different brain responses (heightened activation in regions, like the amygdala, that are involved in attention and emotional processing) than nonparents of both sexes.

The dad transformation can be seen in other primates as well. For example, male marmoset monkeys — devoted fathers who carry, protect, and feed their babies — grow more brain cell connections in the prefrontal cortex after their mate gives birth, most likely to stimulate their caretaking abilities (amazingly, they carry their infants up to 70 percent of the time). As new dads, they also have a boost in prolactin and develop more receptors for the bonding chemical vasopressin.

My husband has always been kind, but I see how fatherhood has made him even more generous and empathetic, especially when it comes to family. And his tenderness isn’t just a feel-good bonus, it’s a huge advantage to my son. Current psychological thinking tells us that kids whose parents help them identify and process emotions are happier and more successful. Talking about feelings with our kids is not just touchy feely stuff, it helps to shape them neurologically. It’s both mom and dad’s job to be that kind of “emotion coach.”

Mind you, my husband is far from being a 24/7 mush-ball. The two roughhouse constantly, and I’ll hear dad — a muscular 6’4”, trained in mixed martial arts — shouting things like “ground-and-pound!” and “rear naked choke!” as he teaches my little guy wrestling moves. They play soccer together, they take epic two-hour hikes, they blast hip-hop in the car. The tenderness is more in their subtle, day-to-day interactions. When my son talks, dad listens intently. He’s enthusiastic about my son’s passions (right now, mainly superheros and bees). And when my son feels nervous about something, say, picking up worms to put in the garden or scaling to the top of the climbing wall, he talks him through it and challenges him gently. I can tell that my son feels comfortable being vulnerable in his presence, and I know that’s going a long way towards building his little self-esteem.

When I asked my husband about the recent swing incident, he agreed that as a father, there’s sometimes pressure to nudge your child, especially a boy, towards being tough. But he remembers being a gentle kid and his father always encouraging his sensitive side — if anything that made him a more self-assured person later on.

“It’s not my job to make him tough — it’s not like we’re coal miners here,” he said. “If he wants to be tough, he will be. But in that moment, when he’s hurt or upset, that’s not the time to be tough, that’s the time to turn to your dad.”

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