A decade ago, when my wife was nearing her 20th week of pregnancy with our identical twin daughters, her doctor put her on strict bed rest. For the next three months, she stationed herself on the sofa all day, with a phone on each ear and a laptop nearby, and continued to run her business, while I took up all the household responsibilities we used to share — from shopping to cooking to doing the laundry.
This situation was obviously more taxing on her. It also came with a price for me. Yet whenever I so much as pointed this out to friends or family, I was swiftly rebuked. My wife was the one who was really suffering, I was told. My job was to shut up and rub her feet.
One of the more satisfying things I learned from Paul Raeburn’s new book, “Do Fathers Matter?,” is that I may have been on to something after all. Dads actually play an enormous role during pregnancy.
Raeburn is the chief media critic for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker site and the author of “Acquainted With the Night: A Parent’s Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children.” As he says at the outset of “Do Fathers Matter?,” he became interested in fatherhood the old-fashioned way: He had children. In the 1980s, he had three children by his first marriage; more recently, he had two sons with his second wife. The first time, he reports, he operated mostly on instinct, confident that love would solve all. This time, stoked no doubt by the current vogue for social science as the cure for everything, he had more questions: What is it, exactly, that fathers do for their children? What difference do dads make?
“Do Fathers Matter?” is Raeburn’s attempt to answer those questions. It’s a clear-eyed march through the history of family studies and a helpful review of the new generation of research devoted to identifying the impact of dads. “The discovery of the father is one of the most important developments in the study of children and families,” he writes. While much of this information is available in scholarly journals and news accounts, “Do Fathers Matter?” gathers an impressive diversity of studies into a single, highly readable volume, covering such topics as conception, pregnancy, infants, teenagers and aging fathers.
Raeburn begins by reviewing how academics systematically ignored Dad for decades, a blot of shame on the first century of psychology. As recently as a generation ago, Raeburn writes, most experts had an easy answer to the question of what role dads play in the lives of their children: “Not much.” A dad was supposed to provide income and be a role model for boys. That began to change in 1976, when Michael Lamb, a developmental psychologist, wrote that the emphasis on the mother in infants’ development was so one-sided that it seemed as if “the father is an almost irrelevant entity.”
Lamb’s research coincided with a number of changes in the culture — an explosion of women in the workplace, the rise of divorce, an increase in the number of absent fathers — that added urgency to the question of what role fathers play in families and society at large. In some ways the answer seems baked into the question: If you look hard enough at any factor in a child’s life, you’re bound to find evidence suggesting that it matters. But the depth of the impact of fathers surprised even the researchers who went looking for it.
Two of the more eye-opening chapters focus on early childhood and, yes, pregnancy. Discussing the work of Philip and Carolyn Cowan, Raeburn describes how men undergo significant changes during their partners’ pregnancies, including growing beards, losing weight and nursing injuries they hadn’t noticed before. These changes are a manifestation of their fears, yet because they think they need to be strong, they don’t express them, instead stewing with resentment. Some expectant fathers in Papua New Guinea, Raeburn reports, retire to bed with unremitting nausea and back pain and demand to be looked after. See, I’m not alone!
Raeburn links these studies with recent work that shows how men’s testosterone levels drop during their partners’ pregnancies, which is believed to prepare them to stop strutting their stuff at the campfire and start gearing up to become caregivers. Also, fathers who are more involved with their partners during pregnancy cut the chances that the mothers will get anemia or high blood pressure, and reduce the risk that their children will be born prematurely or die during the first year. Raeburn concludes, “When we rid ourselves of what we think we know about fathers, and replace them with what we’re now learning, we can do more to encourage fathers to become involved with their children.”
In the arena of early childhood, Raeburn looks at research on children’s language development in middle-class and poor families. There, fathers are not only important — they are more important than moms. How so? Mothers in these families typically spend more time with the children, which allows them to use words the kids already know. Since fathers are less attuned, they use broader vocabulary, which stimulates learning. The same holds true when dads put kids in unfamiliar situations, encouraging creative problem-solving.
“Do Fathers Matter?” is a science book. It consists largely of chapter after chapter reviewing study after study. One longs for a bit of artfulness, poetry or uplift, or even a well-turned phrase every now and then. Fewer rats, more real people.
Still, I learned a tremendous amount and found myself cheering this pioneering generation of researchers. I felt so encouraged that, at a recent gathering of friends, I told the story of my long-suffering service to my wife during her bed rest. Would the reaction be any different? Not a chance. Dads may matter these days, but no one is quite ready to acknowledge it to their faces.
DO FATHERS MATTER?
What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked
By Paul Raeburn
Scientific American/Farrar Straus Giroux. 272 pp. $26