In contrast, what does a blue man hormone look like in the popular imagination? It’s thought to be impolite to imply that men have hormones, as blaming behaviour on hormones is often reserved for patronising women. If a man does have a hormone, it needs to be the most manly of them all so that he doesn’t come across as feminine. It’s got to be testosterone because all other hormones are pink.
In pop culture, the man hormone makes you angry and aggressive, and apparently more stupid too (unfortunate). In short, the way we use it in everyday conversations, testosterone turns you into an angry caveman. The lady-hormones in everyday conversations in contrast make you nurturing, prone to mood swings, compelled to make sure only you get to hold your baby, and makes you great at looking after them.
If someone asked you what hormones men get that help them with childcare, you’d be forgiven for answering ‘none’. With the way hormones are spoken about in pop literature on sex differences (Men from Mars and Women from Venus, The Male Brain etc) and by certain Google engineers, we get the impression that men don’t get the chemicals that mothers do to bond with their babies.
When writing this, I’m sitting in a café looking at a dad drive is baby into hysterics. He’s got a huge smile on his face, and it’s not entirely clear who, him or his daughter, is enjoying the game more. The mum sits quietly reading her book. Listening to the baby’s ecstatic giggles, I’m feeling a warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach. As a guy, I’m probably not meant to wave at her, but I can’t help myself. Her smiles and waving back at me make me feel happy. Asking both parents how old she is prompts the dad to stand up with enthusiasm and explain her 10 month old noises and her recently changing sleeping patterns.
After a lifetime of being trained not to talk about my feelings, I’m finding it difficult to repress talking about feelings every time I hear a kid giggle like that. Especially when it’s my Little Bear. 25 years ago I showed no interest in dolls, 6 years ago I showed relatively little interest in kids, 3 years ago I started getting a little broody. Now I’m happy getting the chance to spot a 10 month old discovering that she can move her index finger separately from her other digits and then cover her face with her hands. This is of course nothing compared to spending time with my own toddler.
What is it that makes us feel like that? Well, despite what some people will say, we are very far from knowing. But it appears hormones play a pretty big part in it.
Flexible brain: rewiring not hard-wiring
Contrary to what some people try to argue, there is little evidence that brains are hardwired very differently for men and women. Some have tried to argue that hormones, especially testosterone, shape male brains in the womb and prevent men from empathizing making them ‘naturally’ ill-suited for the feminine task of childcare.
There are plenty of places that point out the circular reasoning and poor science behind these claims (Brain Storm; Delusions of Gender; Pink Brain Blue Brain to name a few). This doesn’t mean you can’t spot small differences between the average bloke and the average woman, just that the idea that these differences are significant, ‘built-in’ and unchangeable is very dodgy.
Our brains are exceptionally adaptable. It’s what distinguishes us from all other species and explains why we take so much time to grow our brains, from newborn to toddler to adolescent to adult.
One of the most obvious signs of how our brains change is when you become a responsible and active parent. When this happens the hormones start flowing. The more you get involved in looking after your kid, the more hormones you get that change the way you think and feel around kids. The more your brain gets 're-wired' to become obsessed with looking after these little creatures. But popular conversations around baby bonding and hormones is stuck around these effects on mums.
Which parent does hormones better?
When talking about hormones and babies, most people assume you’re talking about mum. I’ve tried mentioning my hormones in public a few times when looking after Little Bear or spotting other toddlers, and heads always turn and start thinking. ‘Is he secretly a woman?’; ‘get your man-hormones away from my baby’.
My wife has refused to test people’s reaction in public by mentioned her maternal hormones, but I’m pretty confident no one would give the same reaction because it’s normal to talk about women being influenced by their hormones.
Well, testosterone isn’t the only male hormone, nor is it only male. In fact, women also have testosterone, just less than men. When dads hold their babies and, get this, spend more time with them on their own looking after them (like parental leave), then the angry testosterone hormone starts to go down, and instead, a mix of paternal hormones start to spring up.
That’s right, there are a bunch of fathering hormones that start running around your bloodstream when you become a dad and get involved in bringing up your baby! Who knew? I didn’t until Little Bear came long, and I’d guess that most people don’t think about all those fluffy and cuddly nurturing hormones when they see a man next to a toddler.
Feeding, changing and tickling your baby, even looking out for them, starts gearing up your male-brain for being the dad you always wanted to be. The little fellas running around your bloodstream help you bond with your baby, calm you down to help cope with the inevitable stress of parenthood, tune you into your little person’s cries and babbles, and just make you happier. They may even increase your life expectancy. It’s not just mums that get the baby-bonding hormones, it’s dads too.
The slightly awkward fact for people who claim that there’s an immense gulf between the sexes is that these hormones for dads and mums, are largely the same hormones. They’re doing the same things. Granted, anatomy means that mums can prompt the hormones through breastfeeding. But dads, adoptive parents and bottle-feeding mums equally prompt them from staring into their little ones’ eyes and holding them. Put simply, there’s more than one way to bond with a baby.
Researchers found that dads that get more involved with childcare as ‘primary carers’ not only show high levels of the parental hormones compared to dads that step back, but the brains of the more active dads start changing how they see and react to the world. When mums also stepped into the role of an ‘active mum’ and as primary carer (like a Mrs Dad), they got similar hormones going, and their brains started to behave more like the responsible dads. The more times you spend looking after your baby, whether dad or mum, the more of a parent you feel and become (sounds a little obvious, but at least we have some science behind it now).
So when we hear about studies that show mothers wake up to baby cries but fathers sleep through, or that mothers understand their babies moods and needs more than the dads, we should ask ourselves: do the dads in these studies need more hormone encouraging time with their little tykes to fix this?
If people want to point to hormones as the source of excellent parenting and an inner parental instinct, then we should start challenging the idea that only mums have these little critters. We need to get more comfortable with saying to dad that his hormones let him form a special bond with his baby, that they give him that irresistible urge to tickle his kids into hysterics, that sometimes his hormones are ‘all over the place’, and even that they give him that special parental instinct.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots