Fatherhood Transforms Men, but Only if They Live With Their Kids (Sorry, Kanye)

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 14 2013 7:22 AM

Daddy’s Home

Fatherhood transforms men. But only if they live with their kids.

Berlin resident Nicolas W. changes his 8-month-old daughter at home 21 April 2006.
Berlin resident Nicolas W. changes his 8-month-old daughter at home in 2006.

Photo by John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

It’s an open question, but I’d say the odds are against Kanye West benefiting much from his impending father status. That’s because the transformative power of fatherhood only seems to work its magic for the better when men live with the children they father, and with their baby’s mother. And, given the on-again-off-again status of the Kanye West–Kim Kardashian relationship (Kanye West recently celebrated his birthday with friends in New York, more than 2,000 miles from his baby’s mother), I’m guessing Kanye and Kim won’t go the distance.

That would be a tragedy not only for Kanye and Kim’s child, but also for Kanye. That’s because fatherhood is transformative for men’s bodies and their lives—if they manage to live with their children and the mother of their children. Of course, we’ve known about the transformative power of parenthood, since time immemorial, for women. Now, we’re learning more and more about the ways that fatherhood is also transformative for men’s bodies and lives, as my new book, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (co-edited with Kathleen Kovner Kline), points out.

For many men, the transformative physical power of fatherhood first manifests itself when the pounds start piling up. One recent survey found that the average father puts on more than 10 pounds while waiting for baby to arrive.

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But there are more significant transformations afoot than weight gain for many men. Studies suggest that after the arrival of a baby men’s testosterone falls, while their prolactin levels rise. These hormonal shifts are significant because testosterone is associated with aggression and heightened libido, whereas prolactin is associated with heightened levels of parental care. Taken together, these hormonal shifts seem to prepare men to settle down, steer clear of attractive alternatives, and engage their children. Or, in psychologist Anne Storey’s words, this new research “suggests that hormones may play a role in priming males to provide care for young.”

But these hormonal changes don’t just happen for any father; they appear to be most likely for men who are living in a long-term relationship with the mother of their children; indeed, our book reports that men’s hormonal changes move in synchrony with their partner’s hormonal shifts when they live together. Moreover, research by anthropologist Peter Gray indicates that drops in testosterone are most pronounced among men engaged in “affiliative pair bonding and paternal care,” i.e., men who are married to and living with the mother of their own children. Fatherhood, then, appears most likely, or only likely, to prime men physiologically to settle down when they are living with the mother of their children.

The importance of physical proximity, when it comes to fatherhood, may help explain why the sociological story about fatherhood is remarkably similar to the biological story. Fatherhood is socially transformative for men—but only, once again, if they are living proximate to their children. By contrast, men who don’t live with their children, either because they never married the mother in the first place, or got divorced, often don’t look much different than childless men. Three findings illustrate the point:

1) Steering clear of the blues. Fathers who live with their children are significantly less likely to be depressed and more likely to report they are satisfied with their lives, compared to both childless men and men who lived apart from their children, perhaps in part because men who live with their children are more likely to be married. In other words, men who don’t live with their children don’t seem to benefit psychologically from being a partnered parent.

2) Bringing home the bacon. After the arrival of a baby, new fathers tend to work more hours and pull down more money, according to research by the late sociologist Steven Nock. But these findings only apply to married fathers. By contrast, men who have children outside of wedlock, Nock found, are less likely to be employed, earn less, and have higher rates of poverty compared to their peers who did not father children outside of wedlock.

3) Attending bars less, church more. After baby comes, married men are also less likely to be found in a bar on any given weekend and more likely to be found in a church, according to Nock’s research. By contrast, men who live apart from their children attend church infrequently and drink more frequently, perhaps in part because they are less likely to be married to the mother of their children. 

Thus, when it comes to fatherhood, it’s all about location, location, location. Men who manage to live with their children, and the mother of their children, are most likely to experience the physically and socially transformative power of fatherhood. And given what we know about the stability afforded by marriage, men are most likely to enjoy this prime paternal real estate when they have their children in marriage.

Update, June 19, 2013: This article has been updated to clarify that fathers who live with their children are significantly less likely to be depressed and more likely to report they are satisfied with their lives, compared to both childless men and men who lived apart from their children, not just men without children. It was also updated to suggest a reason why men who live apart from their children attend church infrequently and drink more frequently.

W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

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