Dads are wired to ‘mother’ too

     Eric Bennion said he thinks the morning routine of reading and discussing the newspaper every day before breakfast with his two sons enables better communication between them. (Max Green/for WHYY)

    Eric Bennion said he thinks the morning routine of reading and discussing the newspaper every day before breakfast with his two sons enables better communication between them. (Max Green/for WHYY)

    Fathers don’t just function as male mothers — they provide a kind of caregiving that’s unique to dads.

    When Eric Bennion’s sons were first born, just a year apart from each other, he was looking for a way to care for them that was unique to him as a dad.

    He decided to become the designated diaper changer.

    “As silly as that sounds, I wanted a connection with my kids,” he says. “My wife had the easy connection because they got hungry, she fed them. They had a need, she solved it. And so I can’t feed them at that age, but I can change their diapers, so when they have that need I could hopefully create some sort of connection.”

    Bennion says he’d be out with his kids, they’d need a diaper change, and, more often than not, the men’s restroom didn’t have a baby changing station.

    “I get in the bathroom and I’m changing my kid’s diaper on the floor of the bathroom,” he says.

    Bennion tells this story to help illustrate just how much we expect moms to fill the role of caregiver for infants — Why would men ever need baby changing stations in their bathrooms?

    Today, Bennion’s sons are 12 and 13. Bennion works outside of the home and says he and his wife Shelly share parenting responsibilities pretty equally.

    He thinks being an involved caregiver when they were small has paid off. Even though Will and Walker are becoming more independent, Bennion says his boys still want to spend time with him.

    “We have the language to work through rough times, and there’s an emotional benefit to me just having created these two kids that also want to be connected still,” he says. “Hopefully that continues for the next, you know, 40 years.”

    As the boys get closer to that age when kids start to pull away, Bennion is still trying to connect. One way he does that is with a morning newspaper routine. The boys each pick out an article to read over breakfast, and then the whole family talks about what they’ve read.

    “Discussing the news and world events helps them become better citizens of the world,” he says. “It also makes it so that we can have an open conversation about anything. They’ll feel comfortable.”

    Maybe Bennion’s instincts as a young dad were right. Some research suggests that babies whose fathers are hands-on from a young age tend to have better cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development.

    Bennion says he thinks there’s a growing awareness in society that dads care for their kids in ways that aren’t exactly the same but still fill the traditional role of “mom.”

    “I think we’ve slowly become more tolerant of men being caregivers rather than authority figures, and I think that’s important too,” he says. 

    Bennion blogs and podcasts about being a dad, and he’s part of a large Chicago-area dads group. When he and other fathers get together they sometimes talk about the stigma they face as dads who do their share of childcare.

    “I know dads that do stay at home, and when they first talk about being a stay at home dad, they kind of get the eyebrow raise and the ‘Ok, you couldn’t hold a job? That’s weird.’ And it shouldn’t be,” he says.

    As women stake a growing claim in the workplace, Bennion says that’s allowed dads he knows to stake their claim at home.

    “When we talk about gender equality, I don’t think gender equality was just towards the work place, I think gender equality meant what you wanted your role to be,” he says. “You’re able to say, ‘Yeah ok, I want more of that and less of the other, or a combination.”

    Evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin says outdated ideas about men and parenting can get in the way of dads taking more initiative as caregivers.

    “One of the oldest stereotypes is the fact that ultimately all fathers are a bit useless at looking after their children,” says Machin, who studies father-infant relationships at Oxford University in England.

    “I think that idea about fathers being a little inept does make it harder,” she says.

    There are actually certain types of nurturing where scientists think fathers play a more critical role than mothers, Machin says.

    “We know that fathers have a much greater influence, for example, on their children’s mental health than a mother does,” she says. “They seem to have a particular role in pushing their child’s developmental boundaries, trying to prepare them to be independent in the world as adults.”

    Men undergo biological changes when they become parents, just like women do.

    “For a very long time it was felt that mothering was innate, because we have all the hormones and the process of birth, and pregnancy, and breastfeeding, but that fathers had to learn to be fathers,” she says. “Well, actually what we’re finding is evolution has primed men to father.”

    So when men are preparing to become dads, their brains will pump out more oxytocin — the love hormone — and curb the production of other chemicals.

    “When you become a father for the first time, your testosterone level will significantly drop, and that’s to shift the man’s focus from mating to parenting,” she says.

    Machin says fathers don’t just function as male mothers — they provide a kind of caregiving that’s unique to dads.

    Eric Bennion, the Illinois dad with two boys, says society is catching up with that idea. Bennion’s wife Shelly says they’ve started to see signs of change.

    “I can’t even remember where we were at, but you went in the bathroom and there were changing tables and it was like the celebration dance,” she says. “We’ve been parenting for 13 years now and just in those 13 years things have changed significantly.”

    Shelly says now everywhere she goes she sees postings outside the men’s room letting dads know there’s changing station inside.

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