Science writer Emily Anthes was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, June 14, to discuss the physical and hormonal changes new dads go through. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Emily Anthes: Hi, everyone. I'm Emily Anthes, and I just wrote a piece for Slate about the physiological changes that men go through when they become fathers. I'm here to answer (or at least try to answer) any questions you have.
New Jersey: I found this very interesting. As a recent adoptive parent (this is my first Father's Day), I'm curious: Do these pro-parenting hormonal changes appear in dads who are not around pregnant spouses before they become parents?
Emily Anthes: That's a popular question. I'm not aware of any studies that have directly compared changes in adoptive fathers with biological fathers. There are two main theories about how these changes occur (and they're not mutually exclusive). There is some evidence that men have to spend a lot of time around pregnant mates—live with them, for instance—in order to experience some of the pre-fatherhood changes. Some also theorize that the hormonal and brain changes that occur after birth are related to contact with the baby, so those changes should appear in adoptive and non-adoptive parents alike.
Washington: When do all these changes in the dad take place—right from the start of the pregnancy, or only when the mom is further along?
Emily Anthes: Good question. Studies show that the changes in men happen in what scientists call a U-shaped curve. That is, the so-called "symptoms" of couvade are most noticeable during the first and third trimester of a woman's pregnancy, fading away somewhat during the second trimester.
Ligonier, Pa.: Would these hormonal changes be the same for fathers not entranced with the idea of fatherhood? Those who secretly didn't want the pregnancy? Or those not involved as much, as fathers several generations ago were not?
Emily Anthes: Interesting idea. I'm not sure how a father's mental state and attitude about parenting would play into this. Now that we're beginning to discover some of these biological phenomenon, though, it would be interesting to see if the men whose bodies are most responsive to their mates' pregnancies have any psychological, social, or other environmental factors in common.
New York: Has there been any research to your knowledge on variability in male fathering biology? Is the line "I'd be a good father, but I'm genetically pre-disposed against it" far off?
Emily Anthes: The only research that I know of shows that there is, indeed, significant variability (even among men who are all living with pregnant women). But I don't think anyone's been able to pin down exactly what causes that variability. There could be a genetic component to it, but we don't seem to be all that close to being able to actually screen a man's genome and determine whether or not he's a "natural-born father"—if there even is such a thing.
Alexandria, Va.: These brain changes ... might they explain the inability to do laundry to my wife's expectations? ;-P
Emily Anthes: Ha-ha. I wish I could help you out on this one, but I think that's one of the many studies of fathers that has yet to be done.
Washington: What an interesting piece. I'm so glad you wrote about this. As a pregnant woman whose husband has gained a few pounds and—I swear—become more "maternal" these past few months, why do you think this topic isn't studied or written about more often?