Like most parents, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how the various things I do might impact my daughter’s emotional and intellectual development because, thanks to social science research, I know that everything I think is good is actually bad. I’m told, for example, I can’t tell my very smart daughter she’s smart because this will make her afraid to try difficult things; if she doesn’t do something right, she’ll supposedly think that means she’s actually not smart.
Similarly, I have to ration admiring comments about her appearance because if I tell my beautiful daughter that she is in fact beautiful this will make her think her self-worth comes from her physical appearance which will lead her to become a stripper or something. So I find myself constantly over-thinking what I say and wind up awkwardly shifting my word choice in mid-air so when my daughter does something particularly smart I wind up saying things like “you’re so smar—er, um…here?” No word yet on what social science says the effect on children is of having mush-mouthed and obviously dissembling parents.
While fretting about how anything I say or do could be damaging my 20-month-old daughter’s psyche, I stumbled upon several recent studies that show that the damage can go the other way, too: In effect, children (and especially daughters) screw up their parents (and especially their fathers) in ways I never would have imagined. The Pew Research Center, for example, recently published a study showing that having a daughter can turn even very politically liberal people into conservative parents who vote Republican.
Thoroughly dismayed, I initially dismissed the study’s findings. But I’ve reluctantly come to concede there is at least some small measure of truth to this—e.g., even well before my daughter’s second birthday, my long-standing support of comprehensive and serious gun control measures has started to loosen because I now realize the original intent of the Second Amendment was to allow me to have a shotgun on hand to greet any and all of my daughter’s suitors in the years to come. Other than that, though, I remain skeptical that I’m being politically reshaped in any significant way.
A couple of studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, point to even more dramatic changes that may be in store for me. A 2011 study showed that while men with higher testosterone levels are more successful at attracting a mate and having children, testosterone levels drop dramatically once a man becomes a father. But here’s the kicker: testosterone levels fall further still for fathers who take an active role in raising their children. Fathers who reported three or more hours of daily childcare duties had further reductions in their testosterone levels compared to fathers who were not involved in the raising of their children. A similar study published in 2013 goes a little further: a man’s “testicular volume” varies inversely with child nurturing behavior. The more time fathers spend with their children, the lower their testosterone level and the smaller their testicles. This is supposedly a salutary evolutionary adaptation. While high testosterone is important to attracting a mate and having children, it makes for bad husbands and fathers if sustained. Lower testosterone makes men better husbands and more nurturing fathers. In other words, the invisible hand of nature has fathers by the balls, but it’s supposedly for our own good. Or is it?
As far as I know, there are no studies showing just how far the inverse relationship between being an attentive father and masculinity goes. Does the decline in testosterone levels and testicle size stop at some critical minimum point or does it just keep going with every playdate, story-time, and tumbling class? I think it’s safe to say no one actually knows where this is going and what the long-term effects will be because the really involved father thing is, at least as a general sociological phenomena, something entirely new under the sun. Other studies suggest that men who have fully embraced the role of nurturer are regarded as unattractive and even embarrassing by their female partners, although it’s not clear if the basis for this is primarily physiological or sociological (i.e. even women who have eschewed traditional gender roles for themselves are not comfortable with men who have done the same).
I’m not a stay at home dad, but I do spend a huge amount of time with my daughter, which apparently puts me in the at-risk male population. How would I know if I’m spending too much time with my daughter and getting close to some tipping point? Will I start talking about my feelings and watching Bravo or will I merely start using more emoticons? Can I have it all by taking a more masculine approach to nurturing and doing things like father-daughter bow hunting or ultimate fighting? Should I use a timer when I interact with my daughter and limit my nurturing behavior to less than three hours since that seems to be the cutoff? Or should I just stop wearing the matching outfits my wife buys for me and my daughter? What if both the political and gender transformation studies turn out to be true? Will I one day look in the mirror and see Mamie Eisenhower—or will I become even more conservative and even more feminine and become Marcus Bachmann?
While I wait for science to tell me what to do, I’ve started talking to other at-risk fathers to come up with strategies to slow down or moderate this transformation. Right now, we meet for tea once a month and talk about how we feel about what’s going on with our bodies. The goal of these gatherings is to embrace our lives and where we are within them and push back at the stigma on the mature, nurturing man within our society. Above all, we strive to provide a safe and supportive environment for men who have lost testicular volume. We’re easy to find—to show that we’re not embarrassed about who we are and where we are in our lives we wear red hats in public. And we’re looking for new members. Bravo should do a show about us!