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For too long, we've thought of fathers as little more than sources of authority and economic stability in the lives of their children. Yet cutting-edge studies drawing unexpected links between fathers and children are forcing us to reconsider our assumptions and ask new questions: What changes occur in men when they are "expecting"? Do fathers affect their children's language development? What are the risks and rewards of being an older-than-average father at the time the child is born? What happens to a father's hormone levels at every stage of his child's development, and can a child influence the father's health? Just how much do fathers matter?
In Do Fathers Matter? the award-winning journalist and father of five Paul Raeburn overturns the many myths and stereotypes of fatherhood as he examines the latest scientific findings on the parent we've often overlooked. Drawing on research from neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, geneticists, and developmental psychologists, among others, Raeburn takes us through the various stages of fatherhood, revealing the profound physiological connections between children and fathers, from conception through adolescence and into adulthood-and the importance of the relationship between mothers and fathers. In the process, he challenges the legacy of Freud and mainstream views of parental attachment, and also explains how we can become better parents ourselves.
Ultimately, Raeburn shows how the role of the father is distinctly different from that of the mother, and that embracing fathers' significance in the lives of young people is something we can all benefit from. An engrossing, eye-opening, and deeply personal book that makes a case for a new perspective on the importance of fathers in our lives no matter what our family structure, Do Fathers Matter? will change the way we view fatherhood today.
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Paul Raeburn is a journalist and the author of four books, including Acquainted with the Night. His stories have appeared in Discover, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and Psychology Today, among many other publications. A past president of the National Association of Science Writers, Raeburn has been a science editor at BusinessWeek and the Associated Press; and the creator and host of Innovations in Medicine on XM satellite radio. Raeburn lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, and their children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Roots of Fatherhood: Pygmies, Finches, and Famine
Fathers who are expecting a baby might work with their wives or partners to prepare the nursery, paint the walls, or shop for a crib. Depending upon their budgets, the male parents-to-be might join their wives in assembling an IKEA bookcase, a global twenty-first-century bonding ritual. But while these activities can get men thinking about fatherhood, much of what prepares them to be parents was done long ago. At least three forces are at work. One is natural selection, which has shaped them to be well suited for fatherhood. The second is their own family’s genetic inheritance, which is part of what makes each father different from all the others. And the third is diet and toxins and other factors in men’s environments. We are now learning not only how these forces shape fathers, but how and why they can sometimes go awry.
Not long ago, on a tranquil summer night in South Florida, I had an experience that made clear how unusual and important human fathers are. I joined scientists observing sea turtles nesting on a beach. We watched a female green turtle dig a deep hole in the sand, midway up the beach, and drop some 150 eggs, each the size of a softball, into the hole. She then buried the eggs with a rhythmic flapping of her rear legs against the sand and scuttled back to the water, leaving her young to hatch, find the ocean and food, and mature with no parental help at all.
While she was laying her eggs, drops of a clear liquid began to fall from her eyes, as it does from many turtle mothers. Legend has it that they are crying for the children they will never know. We were moved as we stood on the beach, watching. But these secretions were not tears—merely a way to shed excess salt that accumulates in the turtle’s body. Crocodile mothers also cry sham tears while laying eggs—which gave rise to the phrase “crocodile tears” to describe sorrowful insincerity.
The truth is, the turtle has no regrets. Her artful use of her limbs to dig a hole and conceal her eggs represents the beginning and end of her parenting. The story is the same for many, many other species. The eggs are untended, and the young that hatch are set free to make their own way. Mothers who give birth in this fashion often produce vast numbers of offspring to combat the overwhelming odds against their survival. While the mothers’ contributions might be slight, they dwarf the contributions of males, who scarcely play any part in this primal ritual at all, beyond their brief role in conception.
The circumstances are different for mammalian mothers—but not so different for many fathers. Unlike newly hatched sea turtles, who are hungry and on their own from the moment they clamber out of their shells, mammals—the warm-blooded vertebrates that include everything from shrews to human beings—have a ready source of nutrition from their lactating mothers. The arrangement has a price, though. Newborn mammals often take a long time to mature. The mother’s nutritional investment prevents her from bearing other offspring for a time. And, as with turtles, in most mammal species she gets little or no help from the father.
But in the 5 to 10 percent of mammal species in which males help, the family arrangements can be strikingly different. Certain monogamous titi and night monkey fathers are among the most devoted parents in the animal kingdom. They set a standard few human fathers could meet. Titi monkey fathers provide food for their offspring and follow mothers around all day, so that whenever the babies are not nursing the fathers can carry them on their backs. By the end of the first week, the mother’s contact with her infant during the day is limited to four or five periods of nursing. The father carries his infant 90 percent of the time. Many fathers lose weight carrying their infants around. The baby monkeys, in return, are very attached to their fathers—experiments have shown that the infants tend to be more attached to their fathers than to their mothers. A titi monkey becomes more upset when separated from his father than from his mother. Infants deprived of their fathers squawk more and show a greater elevation of stress hormones than they do when deprived of mothers. And whether it’s to be sure that he is the father of her children or just out of affection, a titi monkey father rarely lets his mate get out of his sight.
Human fathers might not show quite the same dedication to their children and spouses, at least in terms of hours spent feeding or carrying the kids. But they are among the most committed mammalian fathers of any species on Earth. There is no example of a human society in which fathers do not help raise the children. Admittedly, some fathers are better at this than others. Some abandon their families for other mates, and some for reasons we can never be quite sure of. But most human males, at the very least, put food on the table. It would be exciting to trace the evolution of fatherhood over the past few million years to find out whether men were always as invested in their children as they are now, or how that contribution might have changed over time. Did our earliest male ancestors put time, energy, and resources into offspring who would be heavily dependent on parental care for years to come? Or did they swiftly resume the search for other willing females, to multiply again and again, increasing the chance that some of their offspring would survive? And if so, when did that change, and why?
Those are questions we will probably never answer. We’re not even sure exactly when, in the course of human evolution, males and females began to forge relationships with one another. But we have some hints, sifted from prehistoric remains examined by archaeologists and paleontologists. They tell us that among australopithecines—the earliest members of the human family, who lived 4 million to 1 million years ago—mates were involved enough for males to have provided food and care for infants and protection from predators. Long-term male-female relationships likely began with the appearance of Homo erectus about 1.5 million years ago. Fathers, mothers, and children slept together, so children could watch and learn from their fathers, and their fathers could protect them. In the Late Pleistocene period, about 120,000 years ago, men hunted for large game and often had multiple wives. They spent a lot of time in camp between hunts, and were often available to their children. As the Late Pleistocene period progressed, more complex technologies and art forms arose, and we know that fathers helped to transmit that culture to their children. Circumstances changed at the end of the Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. Foraging and rudimentary farming became part of the subsistence pattern, and women contributed more to the diet, gathering vegetables. Monogamy was more common, and fathers, no longer pulled away from camp by the hunt, had more time to care for their children and grow closer to them.
Many authorities think the increasing size of the human brain, which has grown continuously over the past 2 million years, was one reason that fathers became involved with their children. It’s unclear why brain size increased, but it might have been to provide the social intelligence needed when human ancestors began living in larger groups. As human brains swelled in size, the bobble-headed infants who threatened to topple over under the weight of all that gray matter had to be born earlier in their development. If they got too far along in their mothers’ wombs, their brains would get so large that their skulls wouldn’t fit through their mothers’ birth canals, a problem that can put a sudden crimp in an otherwise promising evolutionary path.
But being born earlier had a cost—the infants would need more care. Human children take longer than any other animal to reach the point at which they can find enough food on their own to survive. For those of you who might count calories on occasion, think about this: It takes 13 million calories’ worth of breast milk, Cheerios, and mashed peas to raise a child to the age of “nutritional independence” at eighteen. Mothers were not going to be able to manage that investment by themselves. They were going to need help.
* * *
To try to fill the gap between what we would like to know about human development and what fossil remains tell us, anthropologists often turn to societies whose circumstances most resemble those of our ancestors—namely, hunter-gatherer groups. Contemporary hunter-gatherer groups are still living much the way our ancestors did for almost all our evolutionary history. Agriculture was invented only about 10,000 years ago, and the industrial age is even more recent, beginning only a couple of centuries ago. Before that, humans were hunters and gatherers, so today’s hunter-gatherers should be able to tell us something about fathers before the development of agriculture and industry.
One of the most interesting such groups can be found in the western Congo River basin—not quite the heart of Africa, but close. The landscape there is covered with a sweeping emerald-green canopy, broken by occasional patches of sun-bleached savannah. Gorillas, chimpanzees, red hogs, several varieties of monkeys, squirrels, and small antelopes called duikers wander through the canopy’s shadows. Elephants and larger antelopes—the sitatunga—keep to the swampy sections near river valleys. The temperature scarcely varies, and the weather ranges from very rainy to less rainy (the “dry” season).
What might seem to be a tropical paradise is actually a tough place to make a living. Hunters quickly discover that animals are scattered and hard to find. Living off the plants that grow under that green canopy isn’t easy either; many of them are inedible. The soil isn’t especially good for agriculture. Ecologists refer to the western Congo as “marginal” habitat. But it is not uninhabited. Among those who live here are the Aka pygmies, for whom this is home, a place that has been home to them and to their ancestors for so long that they have learned how to survive and prosper there.
The Aka’s skill at foraging and hunting with nets keeps them comfortably fed and content, with time left over. You might even say they live a life of leisure. On hunting trips, men bring their families along to help. Wives are there for more than companionship; they help to chase animals into their husbands’ nets. The parents can’t pack the kids off to day care, so the kids come, too. The hunts are efficient, the families are almost always together, and the Aka men spend as much time with their children as they can.
Barry S. Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University Vancouver, began studying the Aka in 1973. He did not initially focus his research on Aka fathers, but that changed when he briefly left his studies of the Aka to take a job as a health coordinator for a child development agency in the United States. There he began to study the psychological literature on child development. And he realized that the Aka represented something unique. The descriptions of Western fathers’ role and behavior were completely at odds with what he’d seen in Africa. He went back in 1984 intending to focus on the behavior of Aka fathers, and that research continues. Hewlett now has a house in an Aka village that he visits every year, for weeks or months at a time. He’s also had occasion to practice the things he’s learned about fatherhood; Hewlett has seven children.
Aka parents, Hewlett quickly discovered, are different from Western parents. Hewlett observed that Aka infants are held almost constantly by someone, usually with skin-to-skin contact, because the Aka usually don’t wear shirts. Parents and others “talk to, play with, show affection to, and transmit subsistence skills to their infants during the day,” Hewlett writes. Infants “are nursed on demand, and attended to immediately if they fuss or cry.” Children as young as a year old, Hewlett reports with some unease, are taught how to use machetes, pointed digging sticks, sharp spears, and miniature axes with sharp blades. It’s admirable that children are given responsibility while they are young, and taught to use the tools that their parents use. However, the practice of giving metal axes to one-year-olds might not be one of the features of Aka life that we would choose to emulate.
Despite all this attention and contact, Aka families, unlike many American families, do not let their world revolve around their children. “American parents allow their children to interrupt their conversations with other adults; they ask their children what they want to eat and try to accommodate other desires of the children.” That’s what Hewlett calls a child-focused family.
Aka society, in contrast, is adult-centered. “Parents seldom stop their activities to pay undivided attention to their children. If an infant fusses or urinates or defecates on a parent who is talking to others or playing the drums, the parent continues his activity while gently rocking the infant or wiping the urine or feces off with a nearby leaf.” Aka fathers spend 47 percent of their day holding their infant children or keeping within arm’s reach of them. According to Hewlett, infants frequently crawl to their fathers, and fathers pick them up because they intrinsically enjoy infants. The babies are even part of dads’ nights out. Hewlett watched men take their kids along when they gathered in the fields to relax and drink palm wine. (Try to imagine an American father slinging his kid on his hip before heading out for a drink with the guys.)
One morning, Hewlett watched a father named Yopo who was in bed with his eight-month-old son, Manda, when Yopo’s wife left to fetch water for the camp. Yopo put Manda on his lap, humming to him. Manda reached for a twig on the bed and played with it. Yopo sang as if they were on a net hunt, holding Manda on his chest. Manda cuddled up to Yopo’s neck, and Yopo put a leaf on his head. Manda squealed happily. Yopo continued to sing and hold Manda for about an hour, even after his wife returned. On another occasion, a father and a mother saw their fifteen-month-old son have a bowel movement outside, near their hut. The father dropped his work—making string for his net—and cleaned up the boy and the ground, using a handful of leaves. The father then sat down, resuming work on the string. His son walked toward him, put a hand on his leg, and quietly watched him work.
One of Hewlett’s many interesting discoveries was that Aka fathers do a lot of their child care in the evenings, when field anthropologists often aren’t watching. The usual practice is for visiting scientists to observe when it’s convenient, during the day. And they miss what fathers do at night. Too many anthropologists conclude fathers do little child care because they aren’t there to see it. We can recognize this in our own families: failure to account for what fathers do at night has bedeviled studies done in industrialized countries, too. “Infants in all cultures wake often during the night, and it is my impression that fathers are often involved in infants’ care during this time,” writes Hewlett. Since psychological researchers don’t generally set up observation in new families’ homes, they often miss this. They don’t know much about the role of the father because they haven’t seen him in action, and so they conclude that he doesn’t do much.
Hewlett observed that Aka fathers held their infants about 9 percent of the time during the day, but 20 percent of the time in the evenings. This is not all what we would call quality time—the fathers with children in ...
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