In the brain of the father: why men can be just as good primary parents as women

Brain research shows that fathers who are secondary to a female caregiver are more engaged as thinkers and planners. But men raising a child without a female partner were found to have the same level of emotional response as a mother.

Paternal instinct: a father and baby at the Rio carnival in March. Photo: Getty
Paternal instinct: a father and baby at the Rio carnival in March. Photo: Getty

Occasionally, scientific research comes up with banal findings that should nonetheless stop us in our tracks. For example, researchers recently published a study showing that a father’s brain will change its hormonal outputs and neural activity depending on his parenting duties. The conclusion of the research is, in essence, that men make good parents, too. Surely this is not news.

Yet it does provide evidence that is sadly still useful. Those involved with issues of adoption, fathers’ rights, gay rights, child custody and religion-fuelled bigotry will all benefit from understanding what we now know about what makes a good parent.

The biggest enemy of progress has been the natural world, or at least our view of it. Females are the primary caregivers in 95 per cent of mammal species. That is mainly because of lactation. Infants are nourished by their mothers’ milk, so it makes sense for most early caring to be done by females.

Human beings, however, have developed more sophisticated means of nourishing and raising our offspring. Should the circumstances require a different set-up, we have ways to cope. It turns out that this is not just in terms of formula milk, nannies or day care: we also have a flexible brain.

The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scanned the brains of parents while they watched videos of their interactions with their children. The researchers found that this stimulated activity in two systems of the brain. One is an emotional network that deals with social bonding, ensures vigilance and co-ordinates responses to distress, providing chemical rewards for behaviours that maintain the child’s well-being. The other network is concerned with mental processing. It monitors the child’s likely state of mind, emotional condition and future needs, allowing for planning.

In mothers who are the primary caregivers, the emotional system was most active. Fathers who are secondary to a female caregiver were more engaged as thinkers and planners. But men raising a child without a female partner were found to have the same level of emotional response as a mother and the same thinking and planning response as the secondary father. In other words, they are able to perform both roles.

What’s more, for men in both primary and secondary roles, the relative size of the of emotional and thinking responses varied according to how much time they spend looking after the child. To give the child the best care, the brain changes its output depending on circumstances.

Neuroscience tells us that children who are raised by two fathers experience the same caregiving environment as those raised by a mother and a father. Similar studies still need to be conducted on single mothers, non-parents raising children and dual-mother parents but the likelihood is that they, too, will display similar plasticity.

Oregon State University’s Sarina Saturn writes that this will one day be regarded as a landmark study. That is a little depressing – we shouldn’t need scientific research to tell us this. Yet she is right. It will help dispel prejudice, just as the discovery of homosexual activity among animals helped to dispel the myth that this is somehow unnatural. We now know that the brain “is flexible enough to keep up with the times”, as Saturn puts it. Hurrah. Sometimes science needs to state the bleeding obvious.