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Parenthood changes the bodies and minds of men as well as women

Parenthood changes both men and women "from the inside out." A new report outlines what happens physically and mentally and why it matters.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: June 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm •  Published: June 9, 2014
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At ages 31 and 32, Katie and Cameron Toone are young compared to most parents of a teen. The couple got pregnant during high school. As soon as they realized it, they formed a tight family unit, every decision designed to help their family — their baby, now 14 — survive. They were focused on logistics, not yet knowing the physical and mental changes that would impact them both as they became parents.

While a man and a woman may each “expect” their first child, much more is understood about how a woman's body changes, from her burgeoning belly to hormonal shifts and new priorities. But men's bodies change in multiple ways, too, beginning at the time of the pregnancy and extending into parenthood.

Parenthood's impact on men and women creates “parental synergy,” according to a new report, “Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us from the Inside Out.”

"Why is this the moment to share and reflect on these findings?" the report asks, then answers: "Today it is perhaps more confusing and more daunting than ever to be a parent. In recent decades, profound changes have upended accepted notions of mothering and fathering, providing new opportunities but also often leaving many new mothers and fathers feeling as though they must figure out how to do their parenting jobs largely on their own."

Changing hearts and parts

"What I love about this is that we approach this exploration looking at parenthood from the inside out, beginning with our bodies," said Dr. Kathleen Kovner Kline, a psychiatrist now affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania who co-wrote the report. "Part of our body is our brain. Hormones and neurochemicals that go through one go through the other."

The report sprang from an unusual collaboration between natural and social scientists at a 2008 conference at the University of Virginia, where participants shared research about pregnancy and parenting. The proceedings were published last year in a book, “Gender and Parenthood: Natural and Social Science Perspectives,” edited by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at UVA, and Kline. They were principal investigators and wrote the "Bodies" report, released today.

It is a fresh way, she said, to look at a revolution that started in the 1960s centered on social roles — "who men and women are, what they are capable of and what they should be doing," she said, adding the researchers involved all know women can be chief executive officers and men can be good nurturers. Balancing responsibilities is the challenge.

The transition to parenthood occurs differently for men and women, with life focus shifting more for women, Wilcox said, as they veer toward motherhood and the child. The first child is a shock to a marriage in some ways, and couples can sometimes experience a shift in marital quality. Dad may feel left behind by Mom's focus on the baby.

Among women working full time, part time or at home, most want to work part time, according to surveys. “Not because we don’t love our work and not because we don’t love our children. They are two big, important jobs and we find value in both of them,” Kline said.

Men, on the other hand, change in many ways, but even as they begin to understand themselves as fathers, their worker identity doesn't change.

In the case of the Toones, who now live in Tremonton, Utah, Katie finished school and focused on her babies — Kapri, now 14, and Kinley, 10 — making her decisions through the lens of motherhood. When they first got pregnant, Cameron was a "big baseball player" but decided he needed to forego his season and "get busy earning a living to support my new family. My response was I had to grow up and take care of the decision we had made. I went to work, to school, came home, worked ’til 10 or 11 that night, then started over the next day."

Biology helps the identity shift into parenthood, particularly if the partners are game to let it occur, as the Toones were. Some chemical changes associated with bonding and affiliation increase when the couple are around each other, the report said, but the details are not well understood, though they know pheromones and other chemicals are involved.

Testosterone drops when a man becomes a dad. A father tends to work harder than childless peers and consequently earns more. He engages in an active way that seems to improve his life emotionally.

That's "one of the great things" that has happened in our culture in the family, Wilcox said. We expect more of men, of dads. The engaged-father model has important benefits for kids and men both.

Wilcox said the changes men experience when they are physically close to a mate and children lead them to be less aggressive and more interested in settling down. Their own biology primes them to be better caretakers in the wake of becoming dads. But those who don't live with their kids are less likely to enjoy these benefits of parenthood.

"The changes in the expectant dad seem to be mediated by contact with the expectant mom. He doesn't just automatically get it. It's being around her, mirroring, touching, hopefully in a positive relationship," Kline said.

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