Why Looking After Kids Can Make Men Soppy (Well, Me Anyway)

14/08/2014 17:02 | Updated 20 May 2015

Why looking after kids makes men soppy

As Father's Day approaches, I've started to think more and more about my role as a dad. And, to be frank, it's making me a bit broody.

This culminated last week, my wife and I were deciding on what to watch on the box when I piped up: "How about The Secret Life of Babies?"

After my wife picked her lower jaw up from the floor she asked me if I was feeling broody or was simply getting further and further in touch with my feminine side.

"Both," I replied

And her jaw dropped even further. But it gets worse.

For the hour the programme was on, I spent 90 per cent of it in tears: half with joy, half with sadness. And I spent the other 10 per cent Cooing and Aahing.

This is not a confession any self-respecting man who grew up on a Manchester council estate should be making.

But my self-respect went out of the window four years ago when I was made redundant and reluctantly became a house dad to our three children. And since then I have become soppier than a wet nappy.

At first, my wife found this endearing, but now it makes her nervous and a little queasy. Nervous because she worries that I might be having some kind of breakdown, or that I will actually do something about my broody state of mind – which just cannot ever be allowed to happen, given I'm 50 and exhausted and my wife is 45 and fantasises about one day getting her pre-birth body back.

Apparently this soppy state of mind is a common thing in dads like me who are the primary carers of their children.

Research suggests dads' brains adapt to become more like those of mothers' when bringing up kids. My wife agrees this is what has happened to me.

When I was working full-time in an office in a high pressure management position, I wasn't the most in-tune father in the world (says my wife).

This, the research says, is because dads who aren't the primary carers demonstrate increased activity in cognitive – or 'mentalising' - circuits which interpret a baby's cries and non-verbal cues such as which squirm means 'I'm about to scream' and which means 'change me'.

But men who are primarily responsible for bringing up children demonstrate both maternal and paternal changes in their brain activity as they perform the dual role of mother and father.

Scientists at Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University, Israel, filmed 89 new mothers and fathers interacting with their infants at home.

They then measured the parents' brain activity while watching these videos in an MRI tube, as well as watching videos their children did not star in.

For the 20 mothers in the study watching their babies triggered heightened activity in the brain's emotion-processing regions, particularly in a structure called the amygdala, which was five times more active than when watching other videos.

Co-author Ms Feldman said: "These are regions that respond unconsciously to signs of an infants' needs, and that derive deep emotional reward from seeing the baby."

For the 21 heterosexual fathers, who were very involved in raising their baby but whose wives took the parenting lead, watching their infant increased the activation of cognitive circuits, particularly those that interpret a baby's cries and non-verbal cues.

However, 48 fathers with primary responsibility for raising their children had emotional circuits that were as active as those of the mothers.

Ergo: the more time a man spent as primary caregiver to a child, the greater the connectivity i.e. the greater his sensitivity.

Well, this certainly explains why I burst out crying at the story of a baby who had half a brain on The Secret Life of Babies, and explains why I tear up when I watch my children asleep. But what about my broodiness? I think that comes from another place.

My youngest son is nearly seven, yet we still treat him like a baby. But he is growing ever more independent.

A prime example of this was when his mum and I went away to Paris for a couple of nights, leaving him and his older siblings with a couple of close friends.

It was only the third time we'd spent a night away from him and he didn't just cope with our absence: he thrived on it.

He's still a huge hugger, but he's becoming semi-detached: the cuddles are on his terms, when he needs some comfort, not on ours, when we need him to make us feel needed. And it is especially true of his relationship towards me.

There's a while to go yet – four or five years, I believe – but he's catching up with his older, nearly 10-year-old brother, who has become so independent he heads off to the local park on his own to meet his mates.

He gets himself to and from school, to and from play dates. And I even send him to and from the shops. Well, it's character-building, innit?

When we're all out as a family, as we were on Sunday, my wife and her 12-year-old daughter saunter off in front, chatting away, but when I try to do the same with my lads, they hang back, preferring each other's company, telling each stories about snails and sword fights. Leaving me as Housedaddy In the Middle.

And if latest research is to be believed, it's only going to get worse – and not just because my sons are finding their feet in the world.

No, when they become teenagers, apparently, they will find me increasingly embarrassing. I know, hard to believe isn't it?

In fact British teenagers find their fathers so embarrassing that they stay an average of 25 foot away from them if they're out together in public, for fear of being seen by friends.

My boys aren't there yet (they keep a 10 foot distance from me) but it won't be long before they're dragging their knuckles and pretending I don't exist – which is probably why I have the occasional pang of broodiness for a new baby to replace the ones I'm losing.

It's for this reason that Father's Day takes on an extra special significance. Right now, I can visualise them in their classrooms making me lovely 'Best Dad in the World' cards.

But in a few years time, I'll be lucky to receive a text from a gangly teen I barely recognise with the message: "Mum's told me to get you a card. Any chance of a sub?"


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