Thy wish was father to that thought

I’ve been waiting for something like this -expecting it, in fact, although not holding my breath: an exploration of the neurochemistry of fatherhood. I mean, it seemed obvious to me -a man, a father, and also an emeritus obstetrician- obvious that there are changes in many, if not most fathers with the birth of their child. And obvious that there must be some advantages to this.

Somewhere around 10% of mammals provide regular paternal care to their young, and this apparently leads to larger litter sizes, with shorter lactation and hence more frequent breeding opportunities. The issue is arousing increasing interest, as reported in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine -albeit with a lot of emphasis on the process in bat-eared foxes and clownfish, for some reason.

As for the foxes, ‘These furry fathers play a role in nearly every aspect of child-rearing: grooming cubs’ silky fur, engaging them in play and teaching them to stalk terrestrial insects with their bat-wing-shaped ears… And this commitment pays off: The amount of time bat-eared fox fathers spend monitoring their young is an even bigger predictor of pup survival than maternal investment or food availability.’

‘What drives fathering behavior in the first place? It turns out that, even without pregnancy and childbirth to prime them, the brains of new mammalian fathers undergo many of the same changes as their female mates’. Some of this may be triggered by being exposed to maternal behaviors and hormones even before the arrival of offspring. In other cases, the birth of an infant can stimulate the brains of new fathers via touch, smell or sight… These changes include increases in a few hormones that have massive effects on the brain: oxytocin, estrogen, prolactin and vasopressin… [T]he male body will actually repurpose some of its existing resources to achieve these attentive effects. Testosterone, which occurs in abundance in most male bodies, can be converted to estrogen through the actions of an enzyme called aromatase. During their mates’ pregnancies and in the months after birth, the testosterone levels of new fathers—including humans—will actually plummet as estrogen builds up in its stead, encouraging fathers to nurture their young… Mammalian fathers who pack on “sympathy” pounds, collecting extra fat in their bellies and breasts, may actually be pumping out prolactin themselves.’

And, turning to fish, ‘It’s true that most fish don’t parent their young, which are typically liberated into the vast wilderness at the egg stage, but of the 20 percent of species that do, less than a third exhibit female-only care. A whopping 50 percent of parenting fish are raised by single dads—including the clownfish of Finding Nemo fame… After a female clownfish lays a clutch of eggs, her partner takes over the majority of the workload… [T]he male clownfish spends most of his day meticulously fanning and nipping at the eggs to keep them clean. Meanwhile, the larger, more aggressive mom circles their anemone home, defending against potential invaders and predators.’

Of course, it has been hundreds of millions of years since there was a common ancestor of both fish and mammals, ‘But much of that original brain chemistry is still pretty much intact, according to Rhodes [a biologist and clownfish expert], and the brain-behavior connections in clownfish likely have enormous bearing on our own evolution.’

Interestingly, ‘Nearly 60 percent of mammals who choose long-term mates have shown evidence of males caring for young.’ And, ‘In several mammals, male investment increases offspring litter size, survival and sociability. Fatherhood may not be ubiquitous, but it appears to have evolved independently in many different lineages, lending credence to its importance in the diverse communities it pervades.’

This all takes me back to something I remember from my days as an obstetrician -probably because it seemed unusual, even for the time.

I’d been on call for several of my colleagues and was asked to attend the delivery of a young mother who had just recently been admitted to the ward. It was deep into the early hours before dawn, and I had been awakened from a brief and fitful sleep after another accouchement just down the hall. The lights in this delivery room were thankfully low, however -the mother, and her mother were obviously trying to set the mood, and an honest attempt was being made to keep things peaceful. Only a single narrow light was focussed on her perineum, and all else was dark.

At first, I thought that only the nurse, the patient, and her mother were present, but when my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see a young man almost huddled in a dark corner on the opposite side of the room to the bed. Except for the nervous movement of his face when I entered, he could have been a duffel bag thrown on a chair. Only he and the nurse seemed to want him to sit beside his partner, but other two seemed oblivious. The nurse introduced everybody -including Brian, the father-to-be in the corner- but both the Linda, the young woman in labour, and her mother were far too preoccupied to notice, I think.

I’m not certain whether words had been spoken before I arrived, but only his eyes were allowed at her side -and except for my entrance, they never left his wife. Not once. ‘This is woman’s work’, the shadows seemed to whisper; even I felt a little out of place.

I wondered whether or not this had been an accidental pregnancy -a welcome, but unintended consequence of a meeting of strangers. And yet, he looked far from uninvolved -not at all like someone who was attending the delivery out of a sense of duty. I could see eager anticipation in those eyes. Wonder. Love.

Maybe I was reading too much from a distance; maybe I was projecting my own passion for my job, my own awe at the miracle of birth, but those eyes convinced me otherwise, and I just had to speak up.

“Would it be okay if Brian sat a little closer?” I asked.

His eyes suddenly blinked hopefully, and he leaned further forward.

“He said he was too afraid of blood,” Linda explained, “But sure… If he wants to come closer,” she added, a little doubtfully.

Suddenly, before I could say anything more, he was there at the bedside, clasping her hand like he would protect her from whatever ensued. And her mother backed off politely, her cheeks now wrinkled by a huge smile.

Another delivery called me from the room once their healthy, screaming baby had been born, but I did see them both later in the morning before I went off call.

Neither of them noticed me at first. The mother had gone home, and both Brian and Linda were lying on the bed staring at the now sleeping bundle between them.

I think it was Linda who saw me first, and tugged at Brian’s sleeve for him to look up from the baby.

“Thank you doctor,” Linda said, with a soft, tired smile on her face. “It was easier than I thought…” But her face belied her words.

She reached over the baby and tenderly stroked Brian’s arm for a moment. “But you know what helped the most?” She glanced lovingly at her partner, then blinked in my direction. “It was Brian…”

I could see her sigh, as her lips brushed the baby lightly. “Fathers are so important, you know.”

It was my turn to sigh, and I smiled and left the room. Yes, fathers are important…!