Fact: Men will never best women in the competition for who suffers more through pregnancy and childbirth. But that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer at all — or that their suffering is insignificant. Two recent studies (both from Dr. Craig Garfield, an associate professor of pediatrics and medical social sciences at Northwestern Medical School) show that their suffering can in fact be measured. And though it doesn’t involve morning sickness, labor or cracked nipples, it’s still no picnic.
It starts with weight gain. Garfield found that the average 6-foot father gained 4.4 pounds if he lived with his child, and that the average 6-foot father who didn’t reside in the same house as his child gained about 3.3. Similarly, a previous survey of 5,000 men found that new fathers can gain an average of 14 pounds. The reasons are fairly intuitive: Less time for exercise, more snacks around the house, eating in solidarity with their pregnant partner.
While this is hardly the weight struggle mothers face — they’re told to gain anywhere between 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy (more than half gain more), and many retain some of that weight afterward — it’s not a risk-free exercise in indulgence for fathers. The increased BMI can increase their risk for other health problems, like heart disease, diabetes or cancer — health problems they’re typically loath to talk about.
In fact, one of Garfield’s most interesting findings is that a father’s well-being — whether it’s his weight or something more serious — rarely comes up until he interacts with his child’s pediatrician, if at all. (Dudes just refuse to go to the doctor.) This is part of a larger trend of pediatricians treating parents as another way to treat their children — helping the parents quit smoking, addressing the need for vaccines or picking up on signs of postpartum depression.
And postpartum depression for fathers is a real thing. Again, it’s much higher in women — typically reported as 10 to 15 percent, though some experts argue it’s more like 25 percent if you consider how many cases go unreported — but Garfield’s second study found that at least 5 to 10 percent of men report the same symptoms. And for reasons similar to women: fluctuating hormones, sleep deprivation and the layers of stress that having a child places on a couple.
The impact can be significant. Research shows that depressed fathers are less engaged and less likely to read to their children (which is crucial to their brain development); meanwhile, they’re more likely to use spanking as a means of punishment. According to Garfield, the solution — or at least the start of a solution — is greater preventive care, similar to the depression screening the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently suggested for all new moms.
For new fathers struggling to adjust to a drastically altered reality, Garfield’s research is fairly obvious — Duh! Parenting changes men and women in profound ways. But in the case of stubborn, persistent misperceptions about the roles men and women play in families, this research finally backs up with data what was surely an inevitable outcome, no matter how much we resisted the idea: The more men engage in parenting, the more they will suffer some of the same radical changes in their bodies and brains that women do.
Part of the problem is that men aren’t traditionally vocal about emotional weakness. Dads, like moms were up until a few years ago, are still under a cultural imperative to suffer in silence. For instance, to date, there hasn’t been a celebrity dad who’s come out to discuss postpartum depression in the way that celebrity moms such as Hayden Panettiere and Brooke Shields have.
Meanwhile, commercials only recently began showing men doing laundry competently. Others have tried to show men changing diapers — such as the recent Huggies campaign built around dads finally trying to figure out the whole diaper thing. But like the kids in commercials, Huggies s— themselves while doing so. One ad in particular was met with widespread criticism from moms and dads alike who interpreted its premise — dads too busy watching sports to change their kids’ diapers — as condescending. The backlash was intense enough that Huggies ended up pulling the commercial.
It was tone-deaf, or at least clumsy in its interpretation of the role of the contemporary father. Today, fathers are more engaged with their kids than ever before. Research shows that as women earn more, there is less pressure on men to fill the breadwinner role, meaning they are more able to share in the burden at home. But Garfield aside, not many people have studied how this role reversal — and fatherhood more generally — has affected men. As Emily Anthes pointed out in Slate back in 2007, “Few scientists treat the physiology of fathers as a serious subject in its own right.”
They should, however. New studies have found that a father’s brain begins to resemble a mother’s brain in terms of emotional engagement. In one such study, men and women (both gay and straight) watched videos of children, including their own. Their brains showed the same level of engagement in emotional processing, leading researchers to conclude there’s a “global parenting caregiving neural network” linked to time spent in direct childcare, regardless of gender.
Fathers also experience increases in hormones like estrogen and oxytocin and decreases in testosterone from direct contact with their children, which researchers think lowers aggression. There is evidence that having kids leads to greater neural connectivity in the brain for fathers, too, improving their planning and memorization skills — a bonus during a child’s infancy. And fathers can pick out their baby’s cries as well as mothers can. Dads are just as hooked by the parenting experience.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine dads ever being as criticized as moms. Women have always taken the lion’s share of heat for parenting missteps. Take, for instance, the recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. There was an avalanche of outrage from nearly everyone in existence, all directed entirely at two places: the zoo for killing Harambe the Gorilla and the child’s mother for losing sight of her son. No one seemed to realize until much later that the child’s father was there the whole time, too.
We have a long way to go before men and women are recognized as equals in either earning power or parenting. But at least we’re beginning to understand that fathers experience an increasingly more profound transformation in fatherhood than we ever imagined. If fathers have always shared the joys of parenthood, it’s increasingly clear they share the miseries, too.