Wired To Be A Dad: Recent Science Fuels A New View Of Fatherhood

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Charles Daniels, founder and CEO of the Boston-based nonprofit Fathers' Uplift, rides down a slide with his 1-year-old son Clayton in the Thetford Evans Playground in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Charles Daniels, founder and CEO of the Boston-based nonprofit Fathers' Uplift, rides down a slide with his 1-year-old son Clayton in the Thetford Evans Playground in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Charles Clayton Daniels Jr. was a "love child," he says, and his father dropped by randomly when he was a little boy.

“Man, it was some of the happiest moments of my life,” he recalls. “I would literally wait by the door and when I saw his blue pickup truck arrive, I would be so happy I’d try to hug him before he came into the house.”

But those drop-ins became less and less frequent. And when Charles Jr. was 10, his father stopped coming.

Flash forward a decade. Daniels is in college -- outwardly successful, a varsity footballer aiming toward a Ph.D. in political science — but a very unhappy young man.

“I was angry at the world,” he says. He envied teammates who had fathers in their lives, cheering them on from the stands. “I thought, Wow, why can’t I have that?”

In 2008, his senior year, he almost killed himself. “I was literally head-out-the-window, ready to jump,” he says.

Instead, eight years later, Daniels — now a father of a 2-year-old son — is devoting his life to helping other men be the kind of father he never had. He's the founder and CEO of a Boston-based nonprofit called Fathers’ Uplift, which coaches men — many with histories of prison time or substance use — on how to get involved and stay involved in their children’s lives.

Daniels' story illustrates the heavy damage that fathers can inflict — but he's also at the forefront of a movement fueled by mounting evidence of the incalculable benefits dads can bestow.

More on Daniels later, but first, let's look at the potentially transformative new emphasis on fathering that he's part of.

In short, fatherhood is hot, and so is the science behind it. Researchers say men are biologically wired to be fathers — and children are innately and uniquely responsive to their fathers. This has enormous implications for the health of children, mothers and fathers themselves.

Recent research finds that involved dads improve pregnancy outcomes, foster babies' sleep, help build children's language skills and reduce teens' risk of self-damaging behavior.

“The importance of fathers equals that of mothers,” Raymond Levy, director of the three-year-old Fatherhood Project at Massachusetts General Hospital, says. “If fathers understand the emotions and needs of their infants, that fosters brain development and more complex neural circuits.”

And today’s fathers are eager to be more involved, according to a recent unpublished survey of 401 men interviewed in MGH’s obstetrics unit. Most respondents said they want more education about their role during pregnancy and early infancy, and six in 10 want more skills to support their partners.

All this is a conceptual sea change. For decades — no, for millennia — fathers were seen as secondary to mothers in the business of raising children. Necessary for conception, but bystanders during pregnancy and ancillary at best in infant care. Society viewed dads mainly as economic providers. Disciplinarians, as in “just wait ‘til your father gets home.” Emotional cripples — distant if not abusive.

Until recently, child development researchers have also focused far more on moms than on dads. And public policy has followed suit. (It still does: Think of the differential between maternity leave and paternity leave.)

"[Over the past decade] there has been a surge of attention and research on fathers and their role in the care and development of their children."

Dr. Michael Yogman and Dr. Craig Garfield, in the journal Pediatrics

“The emphasis was on getting deadbeat dads to pay child support,” says Dr. Michael Yogman, a Harvard pediatrician who’s been a pioneer in fatherhood research.

That mindset has changed, Yogman says. The new emphasis is on the positive role fathers can play -- should play — in child-rearing.

Over the past decade “there has been a surge of attention and research on fathers and their role in the care and development of their children,” Yogman and Dr. Craig Garfield write in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Fathers’ influence starts even before their children are born — as borne out by a landmark 2013 conference at the National Institutes of Health on “Paternal Involvement in Pregnancy.”

One presentation, by Boston researcher Dr. Milton Kotelchuck, characterized the moment as “moving beyond concern with the quality of dad’s sperm.”

The benefits of dads’ early and continuing engagement with parenting are increasingly well-documented. Here are some findings you might not be aware of:

Yogman stresses that the children of single moms and double-mom families don’t necessarily have a disadvantage.

“Kids need comfort, security, protection, love and attachment. But they also need to be encouraged to explore, be independent, problem-solve and take safe risks,” Yogman says. “To some degree, families tend to divide those tasks up and fathers take on the latter. That’s not to say single parents can’t do both. It’s more stressful and harder, but they end up doing both.”

It turns out that the biologic effects of fatherhood run in both directions. Men have inborn hormonal, neurologic and psychological responses to pregnancy and child-rearing. Their testosterone levels fall after their children are born, while levels of oxytocin -- a brain hormone associated with nurturing -- increase.

Perhaps 10 to 15 percent of men even have weight gain, insomnia and other symptoms mimicking their pregnant wives’ -- a well-recognized phenomenon called Couvade syndrome.

Strikingly, fathers’ biological responses are triggered by their own children, but not strangers'.

Yogman did some of the first research showing this way back in 1983 but only recently are the implications being understood. He and his colleagues analyzed moment-by-moment facial expressions and measured heart rates of parents and strangers as they interacted with infants. Fathers and mothers mirrored their children’s expressions and heart rates, but strangers did not.

Interestingly, the peaks and valleys in fathers’ heart rates and their infants’ are larger than with mother-child interactions. This fits with other observations that fathers have a more arousing effect on their infants, while mothers may be more calming.

Recent MRI studies also show other physiologic differences in mothers’ and fathers’ parenting responses. Different parts of the brain light up in fathers and mothers when they’re shown images of their own children versus strangers’.

Yogman thinks this wired-in response to parenting serves an existential purpose. “If you think about it from a Darwinian perspective,” he says, “the survival of the species is certainly helped if there are multiple caregivers who are invested in the ultimately irrational act of sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s offspring.”

Unfortunately, circumstances often overcome biology.

Charles Daniels, for instance, has been unable to make the connection with his father he longs for.

After he discovered through Facebook that he has half-siblings, Daniels decided to attempt a reunion with his father, who lives in Georgia. He showed up unannounced at church at a time when he knew his father would be there. It did not go well.

“Here I am in this crowded church on an Easter Sunday,” Daniels remembers. “My father was in the front pew. After the service, I went up to him and tried to hug him. He pushed me away.”

Later the elder Daniels called Charles Jr.'s mother and told her to keep his son away; his wife has no knowledge of Charles Jr.’s existence.

Charles Jr. made one other attempt to reunite earlier this year, taking infant Clayton to Georgia to meet his grandfather. “I said, ‘I forgive you, I would like you to be a part of his life.’ ”

The father took offense. “Maybe he thought I was disrespecting him,” Daniels says. “Maybe he thought he didn’t do anything wrong.”

Daniels says he understands. "My father has difficulties forgiving himself for what he has done."

The younger Daniels knows he'll never get back what he missed by growing up without a loving father. He thinks about how things might have been different if his dad had had the support to be a good father that Daniels is trying to provide to other men who've made bad choices. But he's almost done with might-have-beens.

"My father deserves to be forgiven," Daniels says in a video blog on the Fathers' Uplift website. "I am not perfect....I deserve to be forgiven. And my father deserves to be forgiven too."

Charles Daniels plays with his one-year-old son Clayton in the Thetford Evans Playground in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Charles Daniels plays with his one-year-old son Clayton in the Thetford Evans Playground in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on June 17, 2016.

Richard Knox Senior Correspondent, CommonHealth
Richard Knox is a senior correspondent for WBUR's CommonHealth.



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