Want to be a good dad?
The best way to start is by being a good partner to the mother of your children. Yes, the relationship you have with your children is very important. But the social support you provide to their mother is just as important and it’s also where fatherhood begins. A recent, very interesting Canadian study gives us a little window on one of the ways this works.
Researchers in Alberta are doing a big study on prenatal nutrition, birth outcomes and child development. It’s called the APRON (Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APRON) study. (Nice acronym.) One of the things I like about this study is that it pays attention to fathers. So many child development studies still don’t do that.
The most recent paper from this study is about the impact of partner support (all partners were men in this study) on pregnant women’s’ stress, specifically their levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is part our body’s physiological response to stress. It is often portrayed negatively because researchers use cortisol levels as an indicator for the negative impact of stress. But actually, cortisol does a lot of good things for us, like helping us regulate the levels of glucose in our blood. Cortisol also helps us deal with stress and then, very importantly, get back to feeling normal when the stress is over. It’s chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol (usually from chronic exposure to abnormal amounts of stress) that becomes a problem.
Excreting cortisol is not our only physiological response to stress, but researchers like to use it because cortisol is easy (and non-invasive) to measure using saliva samples.
In the “APRON” study they tested pregnant women’s cortisol levels at certain points during pregnancy and asked them to rate their level of psychological distress at the same time. Women were also asked how much social support they generally got from their partners and how effective it was.
Women with better social support tended to report less psychological distress. No surprise there. Social support is one of our important buffers against psychological distress.
But here’s the interesting finding. Even the moms with better partner support were distressed at times. But when they were distressed they had lower increases in cortisol than the moms with less social support. In other words, even when these women were having a tough time, parts of their brain that they don’t consciously control were, in a sense, able to tell that they weren’t going to need that much cortisol to help them. It’s as if their brains had learned these women’s partners would support them.
The researchers spun this as showing that father involvement is good for babies. The thinking is that Dad’s support for Mom could prevent the fetus from being exposed to too much cortisol from Mom’s body, which could harm the baby’s developing brain.
Theoretically that could be true. But I’m much more interested in the father’s influence on the mother herself. Because anybody who pays any attention to early mothering knows that good support for mothers is crucial. Science has proven this, but people – well, women – have known this for centuries. All cultures have had their ways of supporting new moms because they knew that supporting the mother helped babies survive and thrive. Traditionally, that support came from women – grandmothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, aunts, and female neighbors. It still does. However, in Western society, women are not always as available as they were in the past to provide the pregnancy and post birth care and support that all mothers need. So fathers need to step in and fill some of the gap. And they have, although I suspect that many guys don’t realize how important this support is these days. One way I like to put it is, if it takes a village to raise a child, a father is a more important villager than he used to be, or at least, important in a different way. Obviously, that speaks to the importance of father-child relationships, interaction and care. But it also applies to the care and support fathers provide to their spouses.
This study looked at the impact of partner support on pregnant women. But I’m quite sure you’d find a similar positive impact of Dad’s support after the baby is born. I’m equally sure you’d find the same effect in same-sex parent couples and that support of other relatives and friends has a biological impact on mothers. I mean, doesn’t everybody do a better job of dealing with challenges and stress better when they feel supported?
But – key point here – talk to your partner about the kind of support she wants and needs. It’s not always easy to figure out exactly what kind of support a mother wants. And we guys sometimes guess wrong. Most of us are fixers by nature – “Just tell me what needs to be done and I’ll do it. That’s very useful sometimes, but it’s not always what a new mom wants. Sometimes they just want to be heard; sometimes they want their feelings acknowledged. Sometimes, as my wife put it, they just want us to be nice to them while they cry. (It took me three babies to really learn this!!).
So, to sum up.
1. If you didn’t already know it, an important part of being a good dad is supporting your partner, because that support helps her be the best mom she can be, which is good for your kids (good for you too).
2. Your support has a biological impact on your partner even when it isn’t obvious to you. So stick with it even when the going gets tough and your partner may not be giving you the positive feedback you’d like to get.
3. Even if you’re finding it a little hard to find your feet as a new dad hands-on caregiver, by supporting your partner you’re making a useful, and biological, contribution to her well-being, and your child’s well-being.