We’ve often heard that children need a mother and a father in order to fulfill “complimentary” male/female parenting roles. Not only is the science behind this notion lacking, there’s new research to show that, thanks to our clever brains, gay fathers really can fulfill both roles.
This new research, which was conducted by Israeli scientists and was published this week in the journal Proceedings of Natural Sciences of the United States of America, aimed to investigate how the brain might change when someone becomes a parent. A lot of research has already been done into motherhood and child-rearing but the topic of fathers and whether their brains also change, especially when they are not the primary care-giver, has until now seen scant attention.
Building on her existing work, neuropsychologist Ruth Feldman and team sought to investigate whether the fact that new mothers’ brains appear primed to be hypersensitive to their baby’s cries resulted solely from hormonal changes relating to pregnancy or whether they were a product of the bond with a child that parenting seems to bring. In an extension to that, would any parts of the father’s brain also display some changes?
In order to investigate this, the researchers took 89 new mothers and fathers. The breakdown of sample was 20 mothers to 21 heterosexual fathers and 48 gay fathers. They then videotaped the parents interacting with their infant children in their home environment. The researchers measured the parents’ brain activity while they played those same videotapes back to the parents, all the while monitoring their brain function using MRI technology. They also played the parents videos that did not have the parents’ children in them so as to establish a baseline for things like their emotional responses.
The 20 mothers in the study were all primary caregivers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, when they watched videos of their own babies, their brains began to light up and showed that some changes do appear to have occurred. In particular, the mothers’ amygdala became five times more active than their baseline response, something that we’d associate with a kind of hyper emotional awareness. This, researchers believe, creates a kind sensitivity to the childs’ needs with massive emotional payoffs when this hypersensitivity is resolved by tending to the child.
Among the 21 heterosexual fathers in the study, all were heavily involved in raising their baby but still were secondary care givers. Would they exhibit changes? Interestingly, watching their babies on screen lit up different areas of the brain but did appear to have generated above baseline responses. For the fathers, it was their interpretive circuits that became stimulated. In parenting, these areas tend to be involved when a parent is looking to read, for instance, whether a child’s movements indicate they are uncomfortable or unwell. A more concrete example might be if the child is giving clues that they need changing or feeding by fidgeting or babbling.
Obviously, this suggests a very neat complimentary role for the mother and the father. The mother is primed to answer the emotional needs of the child as they happen, while the father is given a somewhat heightened ability to assess for clues as to why an infant might be distressed. To be clear, though, the researchers don’t necessarily believe that these traits divide up due only to the sex of the parent but rather for which roles that their sex and caregiver status seem to lend themselves.
To test that, the researchers looked at how gay men respond to their children. Would they only display heightened non-verbal cue tracking like the heterosexual fathers, or would they respond only with female emotional sensitivity and thus model the idea that gay men may have more female brains. How about both?
That’s right, among the 48 gay fathers who were primary caregivers, the researchers found that the hyperactive emotional circuitry of the brain matched the heterosexual mothers in the study, while the so-called interpretive circuits were as active in much the same way as those of the heterosexual fathers. To put it simply, the gender-brain responses both occurred in the primary caregiving gay father.
This suggests, but does not necessarily prove, that parenting produces an effect in the brain that gives it hyper-sensitivity even without the cocktail of hormones that are produced as a result of pregnancy. This was especially clear among gay fathers because the researchers were able to show that they had extra communication between the emotional and cognitive areas of the brain that were not seen in either the heterosexual mothers or the fathers. The longer the gay parent had been a primary caregiver to their child, the greater that connectivity appeared to be.
“Fathers’ brains are very plastic,” Professor Feldman is quoted as saying. “When there are two fathers, their brains must recruit both networks, the emotional and cognitive, for optimal parenting.”
The study indicates not that gay parents somehow have better brains than their straight counterparts — of course not — but rather it’s a testament to the plasticity of the brain and how it can adapt wonderfully to the challenges it faces, like parenting. It also may be a boon for single fathers and mothers who have had to fight social stigma and the sense that they cannot be enough for the children.
It also suggests a neat kick in the pants for the Religious Right’s argument, which is still used today to deny gay couples adoption rights, that children need a mother and a father in order to be parented properly. As this research shows, the neural circuitry of gay parents can adapt to fulfill both rolls, and no doubt that’s why research has repeatedly shown that the children of gay parents fare at least as well as their peers.
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