Father Figures


Father’s Day is about thanking Dad for all of the things he does for us: bike and swimming lessons and card games and rides to Quidditch practice. When the cards are written and the posts are tagged, we spend the rest of Sunday thinking of more things he can do: take us to the zoo or ballpark for a discount; test out his new tools on a tree fort; grill up some dinner with his new BBQ apron and get that new tie smoothed out for work again tomorrow. The shape of a Father Figure, it seems, is a being in motion.

Looking beyond the outings and the hot dogs, social scientists have measured the ways in which dads can help keep kids and families happy and healthy. (Shout-out here to the good work my Dad and his co-workers do at Children’s Trust Fatherhood Initiative).

So we know fathers can do a lot for their kids, but what does Dad get out of the deal?

Some results from the lab suggest that other mammals get some surprising perks from fatherhood. The subjects of the study were mice; after their pups were born, the mice that stayed in the nest with their offspring started developing new brain cells. The new cells were related to smell and memory, and likely help the father mice tune in and to their offspring. Fathers that didn’t stay in the nest didn’t develop new brain cells.

The new neurological development is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Prolactin also regulates biological responses in mammal mothers, and the idea that male parents could be connected neurologically and hormonally to their offspring might be surprising to some. The similarities between parental roles on the biological level are striking. (Some thoughtful reflection and reporting on this at Scientific American.) So are the differences. For mothers, the two-way physical connection is immediate and obvious. The study with mice suggests that mammal dads have those connections, too, but they have to wait for them.

It’s great to celebrate dads as the do-ers, the rough-and-tumblers, ride-givers, driving teachers. But here’s a reason to think about Pops’ patience, about the spaces between those bursts of action, which start with Days Negative-One-to-Two-Hundred-Seventyish. I like thinking that Dad gets a nifty neural payoff for all of his patience (not just a sunburn on his noggin’). I also like thinking that he’s happy hanging around anyway.

P.S. I’ll bring the sunblock, Dad.





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