624 men in the Philippines were used for this study. Testosterone levels were measured before these men became fathers, and then again after they had become fathers. The level of decrease in testosterone was between 26% and 34% between “partnered fathers” (as opposed to single fathers) and “single nonfathers.” Furthermore, the partnered fathers who reported spending three or more hours with their children each day had even lower levels of testosterone than fathers who had less involvement in childcare.
Wow. This changes everything. As one (male) scientist quoted in the Times article states, “My hope would be that this kind of research has an impact on the American male. It would make them realize that we’re meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring.” Hmm, yes. Maybe this will create a revolution in how fathers father their children.
First of all, let me just state that there are real problems with the assumptions that are being made about this study. One major assumption is that high testosterone levels would make a man a bad father. But this study didn’t measure behavior or attempt to qualify the type of parent these fathers became when testosterone levels decreased. Just because these Filipino men had lower levels of testosterone doesn’t mean they were better parents. But that doesn’t stop conjecture that lower testosterone equals good parenting. One doctor states, “The descent of a man’s testosterone may even be welcomed by some, perhaps his progeny.” Right. I’m sure that when my little girl prays in her crib each night, she thanks the good Lord that her presence in my life has decreased my testosterone levels, which automatically make me a better dad. I wonder if there might be any situations in which lower testosterone might make me a worse dad. Like if a tiger attacked our house and I, in my decreased masculine state, failed to muster the energy to defend my family from the rampaging animal and instead cried and cowered in the corner.
Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be any attention paid to cultural influences. We don’t really know that fatherhood reduces testosterone in human males; we only know it reduces testosterone in Filipino men who participate in longitudinal scientific studies. Perhaps there is a feature of Filipino culture that encourages dads’ testosterone levels to drop. For instance, I wonder if Filipino men have access to constant 3G wireless which would allow them to watch Packers games even while changing diapers. I’m pretty sure that would raise their testosterone at least twenty percent, and Filipino men could then enjoy the constant manliness of the American dad.
Far be it from my nature to ridicule science. I’m a believer of facts, and the fact is that these 624 Filipino dads all experienced a decrease in their testosterone after becoming parents. But I am pretty skeptical when it comes to inductive reasoning, particularly when it’s used to support or further a particular cultural narrative. And the narrative at work here is the narrative that dads are losers. “Hooray for science!” this study seems to shout. “Men are supposed to be good dads! Science proves it!” Of course, science proves no such thing, but it begs the question of whether men typically aren’t good dads. And where does this question-begging come from? Well, the cultural narrative.
Take the AT&T commercial I cited above. The premise, humorous as it may be intended, is that men care as much if not more about football than they do about raising children. And AT&T has thankfully invented a product that helps to ease this ailment by making it possible for dads to do both at the same time because, otherwise, dads might never change diapers. I’m sure you can think of any number of other commercials in which men are portrayed as idiots who are concerned only with sports, snack foods and beer. And I don’t just mean commercials advertising sports, snack foods and beer; one commercial that raises my hackles is the Excedrin commercial where the husband/boyfriend power washes the deck and nearly destroys the entire house. This commercial isn’t targeting high-testosterone men, it’s targeting women. “Ladies,” it says, “when your man does something stupid – and he will! – use our product for survival.”
This same narrative is prominent in television shows and movies. The romantic “chick-flick” is almost always about how a woman tames a man’s baser natures and turns him into a responsible member of society. Even Knocked Up, a rather testosterone-fueled comedy based highly on pot and balls humor, presents this same theme. And I could rattle off dozens of sitcoms in which the comedy is regularly fueled by situations involving a stupid dad. In American culture, we assume that our dads are idiots who know nothing about what it means to raise children and would rather spend their time on the couch eating Doritos, drinking cheap beer, and comparing the various virtues of twenty-two-year-old models’ breasts.
Guess what? I’m a fantastic father! And you know what makes me such an amazing dad? It’s not low testosterone. It’s low standards. The bar for being a dad is so low, that I can expect to hear people – usually women – tell me I’m a good dad when they hear that I change my daughter’s diapers and rock her to sleep at night. Really? That’s all it takes? Huh. I wonder if my spouse receives the same superlatives about her mothering skills when she talks about changing diapers and rocking our little girl to sleep.
And now, even respected scientists and doctors seem to be reinforcing this stereotype by holding up scientific studies and saying, “No, really! Men can be good parents. It’s true; their testosterone drops.” Give me a freaking break. I’m not a slave to my hormones. I’m also not a slave to low standards. I’m sad that the bare minimum of involvement in my child’s life qualifies me as a great father, and I hope that I can do my part to help raise the bar a little regarding what’s expected from fathers in America. My little girl is super fortunate to have a daddy who loves her so much that he would, you know, actually be her parent. Maybe some her peers might be so lucky, too.