What's a father? From anonymous sperm donors to highly involved hunter-gatherer fathers in pre-industrial tribes, to stepfathers, gay dads, and divorced dads, Kermyt Anderson and Peter Gray's new tome on fatherhood (Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior, Harvard University Press) covers all the bases and provides a uniquely comprehensive, truly comparative look at the topic. The authors, anthropologists of the evolutionary bent, provide an overview of every aspect of fatherhood--how it alters a man's biochemistry and rewires his brain, what it does for his sex life and his immune system, how it changes him emotionally and socially. I had a chat with Anderson about what fatherhood means--and why it matters.
Q. Okay, I'll bite. Why does fatherhood matter?
A: As a species, humans are very paternally-oriented. In very few mammals--only about 5% -- are males involved with their offspring. Even among primates, less than half of species have involved dads. You look at our closest primate relatives--chimps and bonobos--and males do not interact with their kids at all. They don't even know who their kids are! And yet every human culture is characterized by male involvement with their children. At some point in human evolution, men started to provision and actively provide care for their children. Some scholars say that's the stage at which we stopped being apes and became human.
Q. Why is there so much more emphasis on mothering in our culture, and so much more writing about it?
A. Maybe this reflects the fact that women spend so much more time with children than men, especially young children. Who is more likely to stay at home after a baby is born, taking extended leave or quitting paid employment entirely? Children spend more time with their mothers than their fathers, especially when young. We know--or presume--that fathers are important, but not as important as mothers, so research has focused on moms and that's what's been written about. What little has been written on fathers, for a non-academic audience at least, tends to fall into the categories of self-help or humor. We felt there was a need for a general-audience book that wasn't full of fart jokes.
Q. Point taken. Any fathers in literature or popular culture that are particularly interesting or instructive?
A. I think we tend to notice good parenting only when it's absent. You can raise your kids well and spend time with them every day and get no public acknowledgment, but dangle your kid over a balcony or get sued for non-payment of child support and everybody's talking. In the book Peter and I avoid talking about specific public figures as either good or bad fathers, though we do focus on a couple of historical figures who had very interesting fertility patterns ... such as King Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty of Morocco, who sired over 800 children through his harem, and Fyodor Vassilyev, who had "only" 87 children--but through two women, as opposed to a harem of hundreds. Charles Darwin, while a father of evolutionary theory, also was a dedicated father to his ten children, seven of whom survived childhood. He lamented the loss of time he could spend with other men once he married and had kids, but it was also clear that he was profoundly impacted by the death of his daughter Annie and seemed to dearly cherish his family.
Q. You and your co-author say fatherhood changes men profoundly, and in unexpected ways. How?
A. Some ways are obvious, such as time use. Men with kids spend more time with kids, more time in paid employment, and less time is leisure and social activities than non-fathers. There's a slender but growing body of evidence about the ways in which fatherhood changes men biologically as well. In the short term, the lack of sleep and exposure to every new germ on the playground worsens men's health, but in the long term, fathers seem to live longer, healthier lives than non-fathers. Also, while the hormonal and physical changes following childbirth are nowhere near as profound or extensive in men as in women, fatherhood does appear to alter men's brains and change their hormonal profiles. These are fairly new areas of research that have only recently begun to get much attention.
Q. Studying fatherhood is different cultures and contexts, what did you learn about how fatherhood differs from place to place?
A. The specifics of what men do as fathers vary tremendously across cultures. For example, while the average dad in most societies spends less than 1% of his waking hours holding babies, fathers among the Aka, a group of hunter-gatherer groups in central Africa, spend over a fifth of their time holding babies. Aka men don't discipline their children, and they never tell kids "no" if they misbehave; at most they'd move a child who is misbehaving to another place. And while many American dads relish horseplay when the kids are older, Aka dads never engage in rough and tumble play with their kids. In other parts of the world, men are much less involved with kids. Japanese men average about 20 minutes a day with their kids. In societies where polygyny is common, men spend less time with their kids, and more time with other men.
Q. How old are your children, and how has fatherhood changed you?
A. I have two kids, a son age 5 and a daughter who's 18 months old. I can definitely attest to experiencing many of the common patterns: loss of leisure time, less sleep, and an increase in infectious illnesses. I haven't measured my hormones so I don't know if my testosterone levels have dropped while my oxytocin levels have increased. I am definitely looking forward to the long-term health benefits that research says I can expect - having just lost an entire work week to family illnesses, I could use some improved health!