Monday, September 26, 2011

My Son is Making Me a Girlie Man

The latest scientific study to get big press is one from Northwestern University that demonstrates men undergo a large drop in their testosterone levels when they become fathers. Previous studies did not show if testosterone dropped when children arrived, or if men with lower testosterone were likely to have children. But now there is proof that becoming a father sucks the manliness right out of you. And the effect is even more pronounced if the father takes a significant role in child rearing, meaning that my cute little son is actually a diaper-soiling male hormone remover. (See! I publicly used the word 'cute'.)

Maybe I wouldn't be so distraught, but the researchers make testosterone sound pretty damned awesome:
While scientists still argue over testosterone's exact function, it's fairly clear it provides a boost to confidence, increases competitiveness, and orients men to achieve more in the social world, said Christopher W. Kuzawa, co-author of the study and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.
Don't worry, though, because I can't imagine any downsides from being less confident, competitive and outgoing. Nope, everything should be just fine.

All joking aside, the article, and apparently the underlying research, do a terrible job of thinking through what this drop in testosterone might mean, instead going with the pat answer that having less of the quintessentially male hormone will make men more 'nurturing' and 'caring'. First, hormones (like most of the other inputs into our biological functioning) aren't simple dials. You don't turn the testosterone way down to make men take on traditional feminine roles. Second, it seems unlikely evolution would be geared to radically lower a 'confidence' hormone when a man is going to have to take on a big new challenge and provide for a growing family. So let me offer some more nuanced takes on why testosterone levels might drop in new fathers:

1) Fewer stupid risks: It seems apparent that young men are often primed to be daredevils, taking crazy chances with little thought to consequences. Maybe this originally evolved to give males the courage to charge into battle when provoked. At any rate, dialing down the big T might help a new father pause before he charges someone with a club, or goes out racing on his dirt bike.

2) Open a bonding window: Children are likely to get more paternal affection and protection through life if they form a connection early on, and a lowering level of testosterone level could bring down the desire to socialize enough to keep dad around more. Less time at the pub means more time with the new baby.

3) Aid to fidelity: Let's be honest: new baby time isn't sexy time. Maybe evolution or a merciful God brings down testosterone levels in new fathers so they don't go crazy during the time when their wives can't imagine using the bed for anything other than sleeping.

Whatever the full explanation, I've decided to forgive my son for any decline in testosterone he might be inflicting on me. And I've realized another benefit of this study: if we can make sure the male cast members of Jersey Shore hear about it, we can be pretty confident they'll never procreate.

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