09/26/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

It's Not the XX Factor -- It's the Relationship That Matters

It has become the talk of the blogs and proverbial water cooler -- "the XX factor" -- the study findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that men's testosterone level drops when they have children.

The scientific commentators on the study have been careful to report this finding as positive. Peter Ellison of Harvard University said, "Male parental care is important. It is important enough that it's actually shaped the physiology of men." And co-author of the study, Christopher Kuzawa of Northwestern University similarly said, "Raising human offspring is such an effort that it is cooperative by necessity, and our study shows that human fathers are biologically wired to help with the job."

But the word on the street has been far less temperate. The debate has centered around whether men who are fathers are "wimps" or "beleaguered"--consigned to wearing their wives' polka dotted breast feeding pillows to give their babies a bottle or simply too tired to think of "testosterone and the other delicate matters it leads to". Others counter that they are every inch the man--out bow hunting, fishing and using chain saws. The battle about what it means to be a man or a woman in today's world of changing gender roles is on, in full and fiery force.

We have added to this debate in publishing the Families and Work Institute's study this summer called "The New Male Mystique" exploring why men have more work-family conflict than women and concluding that the pressures of being a breadwinner and a family member are weighing as heavily on men today as they did on women in the past.

My response to this debate, however--like most of us--is deeply personal and it comes from the history I have witnessed over the decades. My husband was very involved in our children's lives in the 1970s, long before the time when being an involved father was becoming the norm. Our first child was born just at the time when his own father was retiring from a job that he had disliked. My husband's response was not only to quit his job to become the artist he had always wanted to be AND to become the father he had wished he had had. Both of us worked, although anyone who knows the life of an artist knows that it is a volatile profession. And numerous times I was asked if my husband was still sleeping when I was leaving in the predawn hours to drive to my job. And numerous times we went to the pediatrician together, only to have the doctor look at me when he was dispensing medicine and advice. But when our children were applying to college, each of them wrote how important it was to have their father so present in their lives. It has become clearer and clearer to me as I look back on our history and the history of our friends and family that is not the strictly socially defined roles we play or the XX factor that matter to our children. What matters is who we are as people; what matters is the relationship we have with our children.

The weekend, our family attended a memorial service for the father of one of our son's close friends, a close friend of the family of ours too, and a distinguished doctor. First, his daughter spoke. She told stories of the safety, the comfort she felt in falling asleep on her father's warm chest as a young child, clutching him. As he lay dying, just days before his death, she told of lying beside him once again, as she had done almost every day during his long bout with cancer. She talked to him of her marriage, her career, and her dreams for the future. She reminded him of how much it had meant to her to rest on his chest as a child. He pulled her to him, once again, though he was now ravaged by this disease. And she was, as always, comforted.

Then his son spoke. He told of having some dark moments during his growing up years and his father sitting with him in the basement, as he tried to express himself by picking up and trying to learn to play the guitar. His father delighted in his son's efforts to overcome this dark period and in tribute, his son sang the song in his father's memory that he tried to learn long ago--"Meditations" by Antonio Carlos Jobim:

In my loneliness
When you're gone and I am all by myself
And I need your caress
I just think of you.
And the thought of you holding me near
Makes my loneliness soon disappear
Though you're far away
I have only to close my eyes
And you are back to stay

From the long view, these debates over proper gender roles fade. It is our relationships that matter. Cat's Cradle--the neglected son who neglects his aging father--need not be the theme song of this generation as it was for too many in my generation of parents. Perhaps it will be replaced by Meditations:

Yes, I love you
And that is for me all I need to know