It’s International Women’s Day again! Last year I griped about the career prospect inequalities for women and I am pleased to say that although it’s not exactly “all change at the top”, I think that the world is waking up to women in the workplace and the agenda for change here has started rolling into place. So this year, I am moving the gender agenda on…
A few months ago I attended a fascinating talk on the impact of post-natal depression in mothers on their children. As you can probably already guess, the impact is not just for the duration of the mother’s depression, but due to the massive development of the baby’s brain in the first year of life in response to its environment, problems in its “environment” (which is largely provided by the baby’s primary carer) can be life-long. For mothers to get depression (or worse still, psychosis) at this time is crippling as not only does it affect them for the duration of their illness, but can impact the child LIFE-LONG. I don’t think any other mental illness can have such a profound effect.
The talk went into much detail about the observed negative outcomes in children and the mechanisms that led to these outcomes. In brief, lack of love, warmth, responsive parenting, talking and interacting with babies in “motherese” lead to abnormal or insufficient normal brain connections in the baby (motherese is the repetitive and sing-song baby-like voice that mothers adopt when talking to babies that is infinitely nauseating to non-parents – isn’t it darling? Yeees-it is! Yeees –it is!). Many clinical trials have been undertaken to treat post-natal depression to prevent these negative outcomes in children, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and anti-depressant medication, but all with marginal effects. Really interesting stuff that I am sure I will blog about in more detail another time.
A PhD student had done some interesting work around the ability of depressed mothers to differentiate between a distressed cry and a non-distressed cry from various recordings of a baby crying. Depressed mothers can typically not differentiate the cries and find all cries aversive. Interestingly though, depressed mothers that had been musically-trained (played grade 4 or above piano) continued to be able to distinguish a distress cry from a non-distressed cry from her baby presumably because of their superior ear in differentiating musicality in sounds. This led to the suggestion that training in music may be protective in some way for the negative impact of maternal depression as these mothers preserved the ability to identify distress in their babies. Someone suggested teaching mothers the piano in pregnancy.
When questions went to the floor, other people suggested a blast of oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin is the “mothering” hormone released in pregnancy and during breast feeding and given to apes has been found to increase “maternal behaviour”.
Tentatively, I put up my hand. From the back of the hall (I have not yet escaped my student-style sitting at the back of packed lecture theatre habits) I wait my turn to be picked. “Umm – wouldn’t it just be easier to ask the dads to step up and do the parenting bit?”
It struck me as obvious that if the best anti-depressants were contra-indicated in breast feeding, and available anti-depressants were not achieving good enough effects and CBT was taking too long to treat mothers, that one should look not to new and under-developed drugs like oxytocin or expensive and frankly bizarre suggestions of NHS funded piano lessons for mothers to “cure” the mother; but to additional support that could take over the “warmth, love, responsive parenting, engagement and social interaction” with the baby. The clue was in the term “parenting”. Dads are parents too.
What amazed me was the response.
Maybe I had asked a silly question. Maybe there were already piles of research, unread by me; that excluded fathers from nurturing a baby. There was an awkward silence as if I had breached some sort of sacred unspoken code of conduct. There followed mutterings from the row of my esteemed male colleagues sitting in the front row. I imagined that they were saying “Trust her (rampant feminist implied) to bring this up!”
The speaker responded to my question thus (as verbatim as I can remember but cannot be vouched to be word for word): “Yes, but people don’t respond well to being told to do things, and of course there is already a large role for fathers to support their wives. Often fathers are at work and are not available to do this.”
I wondered if I had time travelled to the 1960s.
Can it be that in the 21st century, my esteemed, brilliant, talented, caring profession is still stuck in a time-warp? Decades after my predecessors saddled mothers with terms such as “Refrigerator mother”, “Schizophrenogenic mother”, “Good-enough mother”, “Tell me about your mother” and volumes on the paramount importance of maternal bonding and maternal attachment – can it be that we have not moved on from the primeval importance of mothers to babies? I am not disputing Bowlby here; I agree that attachment is vital. My dispute is with the gender requirement. Why can’t fathers bond and attach to their children – particularly if the mother is down or out?
My view on the issue is this:
Parental bonding and responsive parenting to babies is vital.
Biology provides some mothers with an advantage over fathers for bonding through pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding hormones. This hormonally driven advantage is lost once mothers stop breast feeding. In the UK, less than 1% of mothers last to 6 months of breast feeding. The hormones do not make mothers “better” at bonding, but makes them “desire” to bond and care for their young – kick starting the supposed “maternal instinct”. If there is a strong “desire” to parent, maternity hormones are completely unnecessary, which is why mothers who adopt babies are still perfectly wonderful mothers without having exposure to any maternity hormones. Believe me when I say that it was not oxytocin that told me that if my baby is crying I should pick her up, and if my baby is crying and her nappy stinks that I should change the nappy. That’s just common sense and I don’t need hormones for that.
Some mothers lack this advantage over fathers (having low levels of hormones or being unresponsive to hormones) and have no “maternal instinct” and are uninterested in babies (in the same way that many men lack the “aggressive instinct” that they are supposedly stereotyped to possess). Many men possess a “nurturing instinct”, in the same way that many women possess an “aggressive instinct”.
Some mothers get post-natal depression and are completely incapable or are severely handicapped in bonding and responsive parenting.
The conclusion should therefore be that fathers who have a strong desire to bond and care for their babies are no worse parents than mothers. Once mothers have stopped breast-feeding, they and their husbands are equally placed biologically to provide the love, care and nurture that is required to support a baby’s development. If a mother has post-natal depression or is uninterested or incapable of parenting for whatever reason, than the father is better placed to provide the love, care and support (provided he is not also disinterested or depressed), and particularly if he is warm and loving.
And yet, no one is shouting this from the rooftops, because there is no evidence to support this.
Just piles and piles of research on the bad outcomes for babies raised by mothers with problems.
Why is that?
Because in the past, it was the mother’s role to nurture babies and look after children. The body of evidence regarding mothers has built up over time. People writing research proposals and funding bodies granting money for research want to see an evidence base for the work that researchers they fund are building on. There is very little that has been done on fathers as the main carers for babies because up until the last few decades, this just happened so rarely. Even today, the vast majority of funded research in the parenting area relates to looking at mothers and their children. There is no evidence that fathers can care for babies, but equally, there is no evidence that they can’t. There remain large personal and societal incentives for many people and organisations NOT to produce research and data that may support equality in parenting capability. Yet, anecdotally, the gay dads that I have met (both personally and professionally) have largely been fantastically capable of love, warmth and responsive parenting and I am just sad for the many children whose lives are inordinately altered by mothers with post-natal depression where fathers have not stepped in.
The next stage in gender equality is surely to evaluate if the skewed evidence that we have been fed by parenting researchers who lived through a different society is scientifically relevant going forward, and to generate new evidence on parenting; where parenting is not just a proxy for “mothering”. My profession should be at the fore front of this, advocating for this research to take place and stamping out the gender bias in parenting. For if going forwards we are moving towards equality within the workplace (which we are), are we as child psychiatrists going to hinder this progression by continuing the rhetoric of hanging the responsibility of childcare on to aspirant mothers, or are we going to apathetically hang back and allow governments to enact it’s solution: to hand childcare over to the state? I believe we should speak with one loud voice for parental responsibility for parenting. Both parents in concert where possible and gender being irrelevant.
I am reminded of Harlow’s controversial primate experiments. The baby monkey chose to lay with the wire frame dummy covered in faux fur that gave it warmth and comfort, rather than the wire frame monkey that gave it milk. It is love that matters not mammary glands, and I am confident in my assertion that mothers and fathers are equally capable of that.
Gender roles have been slowly changing since the time that women got the vote. Female roles have evolved dramatically over the last 50 years, seeing women being able to reach the top in all professions, and outperform boys on all educational assessments. However women are still yet to emerge from their gender role cocoon to spread their wings and sadly, the men are still on the chomping green leaf stage having made themselves sick with gorging on cupcakes, slices of salami and the like. Whilst women over the last 50 years have been grappling with identity, work-life balance, how they need to adjust/adapt to survive their new role environments, the early men were burying their heads in the sand, adopting the “we can carry on as if nothing has changed” attitude, such that modern men are now needing to play catch-up. Now that women have proved themselves in the workplace, male change is required to follow, and it is men now that need to face the internal struggles and adaptations to keep apace of the new world order.
There has of course been significant change. A father’s duty in the past was to provide financially for the family: the roof over the head, the food on the table. He was the “respected” head of the household, often feared and emotionally distant from his family, using his financial power to dominate. You only have to watch films from the last century to see the difference between fathers of the past and those of the present (try Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and the Sound of Music to name a few). Go even further back and you get versions of Cinderella where Cinderella’s father does not die (as in the Disney version), but is complicit in her enslavement. The funny thing about this is, that Cinderella’s father is never described as being a “wicked” father, that adjective is reserved for the stepmother, as fathers in those days naturally abdicated family matters to their wives and seemingly do not need to get involved even when their child is sleeping in the fireplace and cooking their tea.
My father was a more progressive father than many of his generation. He talked to me about science and encouraged me to write (terrible) poetry as a child, he painted with me, he drew cartoon characters using icing on my birthday cakes, he took me to all my playdates, birthday parties and hospital appointments (as my mother could not drive), he was always home for dinner, he always came on holidays and took pleasure in taking me to my University interviews. That said, there was never any discussion with my mother about whose career was going to be compromised for the children, he didn’t change nappies, he rarely cooked, he didn’t do the laundry, he hardly ever did a school run, he never attended a sports day, he could probably never have named more than one or two of my friends or teachers and there were years in our childhood when he was working abroad. These latter are things that my husband does not have a hope in hell of getting away with. These latter have now become commonplace for modern day fathers.
As women have begun to win at work in significant numbers, so the financial dependence on men within the family and the power this yielded has fallen away. Given that young women are matching their husbands on income, they have begun to question why: they should be the ones to sacrifice their careers, they should be the ones to manage the household, they should be the one to care for their elderly in-laws? Given that there is no legitimate answer to these questions, they have been more able to expect and demand their partners to do more.
Unfortunately, this has led to an identity crisis of sorts for men. For some men of my generation, this pressure to change has come as rather a shock. Brought up by pipe-and-slippers dad and pinny and Sunday roast mum, they had been schooled to believe that their identity and self-worth lay in their career. Their white-haired male bosses with “stay-at-home wives” are even more entrenched in this ideology reinforcing their old-fashioned views. Fearing for their esteem-defining careers, they work ever longer hours citing its’ good is for “the family”. They fear being mocked by their peers for a less prestigious career and being deemed a loser and sexually unattractive by women. They resent their wives’ close relationship with their children and seek to re-assert themselves into the family by authoritarian parenting and old-fashioned discipline. They experience their wives requests to be more involved in the family as “nagging”.
Thankfully, more and more men are rejecting this model of family life and male norm. As a new parent my husband popped in to our neighbour’s fancy dress party with Big Sis in a Baby Bjorn, not bothering with the fancy dress theme. One party guest commented “Hey, great fancy dress idea to come as Suburban Dad” – not realising that the baby was real, this was not fancy dress and that Banker just WAS a suburban dad. So pervasive now is the image of a proud new father walking around with a baby strapped to his chest that it is no longer of comedy value, merely the norm. A baby is worn much as a campaign rosette; a badge of honour and ideology for any man. From Michael McIntyre’s fatherhood repertoire to Jamie Oliver’s family meals in minutes, the remote and respected father figure/ salary-man has definitely been toppled and has hopefully been banished to history. Further, images of desirable male role-models travelling en famille with sexy women on their arms (I’m thinking Pitt and Beckham) are knocking-on-the-head the notion of disrespect for loving and engaged fathers, and contrary to popular belief, I’m pretty sure that the strong and beautiful women of the future will be seeking men happy to roll up their sleeves to change a nappy, not someone for whom to fetch a whisky and the paper for.
I am totally encouraged by the fact that many young men these days have little or no expectation of the traditional gender roles, they wax lyrical about the right spicing for chicken, are forever bursting into tears on Britain’s Got Talent and actively want to be involved with their children. This is thankful as the majority of young women have places to go and careers they aim to achieve. The only stumbling block that I can see is in the corporate world; still run by old male traditionalists who have not yet scanned what is on the horizon – a future workforce pushing for change in work-life balance.
In my children’s eyes, my husband and I are interchangeable parents. He is just as capable as me (although, I still like to think I am a little bit better) of soothing an ailment, of bathing and reading stories, of checking spellings, of watching a school play, of cooking the dinner (although he likes to think he is better at this than me) and doing the laundry. He is just as capable of making my children laugh and understanding their problems, and of asking how they are. I can sleep easy that if I should die, they will be well looked after emotionally, and not left to sweep the fireplace.
To engaged fathers everywhere:
HAPPY FATHERS’ DAY.