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Dads' Brains Change When Caring for Babies

Photograph by Getty Images/Moment Open

The deeper I get into mothers' rights work, the more often I end up thinking about men and fathers. While there is no dispute that women, even now, do much more of the caregiving and homemaking than men, men's lives have changed both at home and at work as a result of women's leaps in education and employment outside the home. Changes in the activity of one gender are necessarily going to be felt, one way or another, by the other.

Data about men and work-life in recent years would reliably appear around Father's Day in June, and never come up again the rest of the year. No more—just last month, I was in a roomful of men for a briefing titled "Men, Fathers and Work-Family Balance" that introduced a fabulous report updating the experience of dads.

The audience contained far more men than the usual family policy crowd. There were even a few fathers with babies strapped to their chests—and everybody thought that was cool. Whenever an infant cry or sigh was heard, people smiled and relaxed and were charmed. This is all highly unusual for buttoned-up, "we mean business" Washington D.C.

The briefing featured a dialogue between a new dad working in the White House, fatherhood experts and economic analysts. They all emphasized the expansion in the definition of fatherhood caused by shifting women's roles.

And the report showed that men have good reason to be bewildered by the many changes occurring in just the past few decades. Manufacturing jobs (mostly male) are down and service economy jobs (mostly female) are up. Good-paying jobs with benefits and regular hours are disappearing and being replaced by lower-paying jobs, with no benefits and variable hours. More wives are out-earning their husbands—now up to 37%. Two-thirds of all wives are primary or co-breadwinners in their households, bringing home essential income. In the first 10 years of the 21st century, the number of stay-at-home fathers doubled. American fatherhood is being transformed right before our eyes.

As a result, many men are more involved in domestic work and childrearing than their own fathers (but still not as much as their wives). They report a greater awareness of work/family conflict, and increased pressure to be both more involved fathers and better performers at work. They are performing more care for their elder parents and relatives, and support paid family leave policies at work, especially millennial fathers.

A new development is men's reports of stigma and negative impact if they actually take paid leave or use flexible work arrangements. Specifically, performance reviews are lower, they make less, and they are more likely to be passed over for promotion. Women, of course, have faced these challenges for years.

Science supports an expanding definition of fatherhood as well, making "the good father" a provider of care as well as financial support. Brain studies show that men's neural circuitry changes like women's when they give hands-on care to their children. Also, levels of oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone," rise in these dads, promoting their engagement with their children and making their children more responsive to them. When dads are involved in the earliest weeks and months, their confidence and comfort levels keep them more engaged as the children grow older. This has significant implications for women, relaxing our rigid rules of gender-specific behavior, and expanding women's opportunity to move more towards paid employment. Performing the caregiving function makes the caregiver, research suggests—not the gender of the parent doing the work.

I discussed the findings with a full-time father of three I know, who told me the following:

"I totally agree with the comment that early hands-on experiences with babies is fantastic. I can certainly say that in my case it has made everything else that came later a lot more natural and normal. Also, although I am no scientist, I can certainly understand the studies on hormones. I will tell you that I never feel more placid and nurturing than when I am giving the baby a feeding from the bottle, especially late at night or early in the morning when it is very quiet."

With more dads on board, maybe progress in valuing family care and its economic consequences will come more quickly. But we still have an uphill climb to face. As my correspondent wrote, "The early bonding is crucial. But obviously it still needs to be worked on and emphasized. And the greatest challenge is still societal acceptance. A lot of those things are still very frustrating." So that's another thing moms and dads have in common!

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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