Diapers, Dads, Testosterone, and the Mommy Culture

by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

Two articles about gender differences and childcare have been on my mind lately.  The first is an article by Tara Parker-Pope published early in 2012 in the Times Sunday Magazine.  She reports on research showing the predictable gender differences in child-care activities, even when both parents work, but also showing that mothers enjoy child care more.  The lead author of the study speculates that biology may be at work in the form of testosterone, citing, for example, studies showing that women with high levels of testosterone often show less interest in babies.

The second is a more recent article on a study showing that testosterone levels DROP in men when they are involved in doing a significant amount of childcare.

The tone of this article was much more cautious, lots more ambivalence about the results.  The lead sentence: “This is probably not the news fathers want to hear.”  The worry, of course, is that men will interpret this result to mean that dads who take care of their kids become wimps.  The study investigators, however, put a much more positive spin on the data, saying “…  this should be viewed as, ‘Oh it’s great, women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents.’”

But the point isn’t who is ‘biologically adapted for childcare.’  If we let biology be destiny women would still be barred from the Armed Forces and men wouldn’t be nurses.  The point is that under some conditions, childcare is satisfying and inherently pleasurable, to men as well as women, and taking care of small children may indeed lead to a general ‘softening’ and increased gentleness on the part of the caretakers, regardless of their gender.

These articles got me thinking about what is enjoyable about childcare, as a mother – because some of it IS enjoyable, at least some of the time.  I’ve identified two factors: 1) it’s repetitive and lends itself to slowing down, to a trance or meditation-like state of calm and 2) it involves lots of touch, which is mutually satisfying to both parent and child, and probably initiates a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop of feelings of love and connection.  So why DON’T men get involved more?

Both seem to come more naturally to women.  I don’t know if it has to do with hormones, socialization, or both, but men seem to have a harder time being mushy and cuddly.   I’m guessing more men than women get their touch needs met exclusively through their partners and largely through sexual contact.

Perhaps testosterone interferes with some ‘natural’ biological process that releases bonding hormones, but the culture certainly doesn’t help.  Although we’re going in the right direction, we still see house husbands as suspect – not quite manly, as the article about lower testosterone levels implies.  Because the kind of ‘softening’ you do with kids does tend to make both women and men more androgynous, or perhaps – genderless.  So it may take another couple of generations for ‘soft’ males to be seen as sexy as ‘hard’ masculine ones.

In the meantime, women could do more to teach their male partners how to enjoy routine childcare tasks, and not chastise them for not doing more.

Which brings me to one more reason why men may not enjoy childcare as much as women.  I’ve heard many mothers complain that their husbands ‘do it wrong’ – meaning, not to their standards of caution or with their values.  I’ve heard mothers lace into their husbands for not being sanitary enough,  and I’ve heard countless women complain that Dad does nothing but watch TV with the kids or does nothing but play Wii, apparently forgetting that the last generation of Dads were lauded if they came in time to kiss the kids goodnight as they went up to bed.  Moms tend to be really self-righteous – they think they are absolutely, instead of relatively, right.  Sure, it probably isn’t a good idea for your kid to watch 10 hours of TV a day – but be honest, aren’t we talking more like 4 or 5 on one day of the weekend?  Maybe having parent and child have fun together trumps the purity of the interactional medium.  Many mothers believe that they alone know what is best for their child – better even than the father.  And trying getting your partner to cooperate wholly on your terms is a fool’s errand.  No one likes to be micromanaged, and his ways of caring for the kids may different from yours but – are they REALLY harmful?  In the big picture, wouldn’t you rather have him engaged even if it drives you a little crazy that he always takes them to McDonald’s for dinner?

So it may be that women are more naturally ‘wired’ to enjoy childcare, but it also seems true that men’s biology changes THROUGH doing childcare – so the question becomes, how to accomplish this?  We need a shift in how we define masculinity – but we also need women to change attitudes as well.  If we want our male partners to share more of the responsibility – we’ve got to give up some of the power.


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