Testosterone Tumble: Does Fathering Make You Any Less of a Man?
Old School, the 2003 Todd Phillips film about male debauchery and the categorical refusal to grow up, was a favorite for men and women alike, especially men who were steadily (or unsteadily) grappling with the prospect of maturity. The film, besides being a simultaneous indictment and concession to contemporary male culture, also has a few indelible moments (as any fan of the film will tell you). Less a moment and more a running site gag, is watching Vince Vaughn’s character (in stock male predator mode) goad his friends to search out and “conquer” prospective young women, while literally being saddled with a Baby Bjorn and a sleeping baby on his chest – a very obvious, but humorous, commentary on pulling the reigns in on unchecked testosterone.
Something Vince Vaughn’s character (or maybe not even Vince Vaughn himself) didn’t realize is that the simple act of caring for a young child for any length of time (let alone having one strapped to your chest) will effectively lower a man’s testosterone levels. According to a recent study (as reported in The New York Times) testosterone levels significantly dip after a man becomes a parent. And the more a man gets involved in caring for his children, with the day-to-day tasks like feeding, diapering, and general child care, the lower his testosterone drops. The idea behind this physiological decrease in hormone levels is that a lowered testosterone level will curb the male desire to wander and search out other mates, and instead focus on their role as parent. For obvious reasons (sizable hormone shift) this news will likely alarm many men. However, social scientists view this finding as a key indicator that men are intended to play a significant role in child-care, and that parenting is, and should be, a shared responsibility between mother and father (this is assuming that the parents fulfill the normative heterosexual paradigm). “The real take-home message,” said Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who was not involved in the study, is that “male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men.”
The study measured testosterone levels when the test subjects were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines, more than double that of the childless men. And men who spent more than 3 hours a day playing and caring for their child/children had the lowest testosterone levels of the group. However, as would be expected with any study making such claims, it is unclear whether engaged fatherhood brought testosterone levels down or lower-testosterone men were just more likely to become fathers. If a lowered testosterone level is, as these social scientists would suggest, an undeniable good thing, then why is it that when other outside mitigating factors (like various products and activities) monkey around with hormone levels (whether it be estrogen or testosterone) we become so immediately alarmed? If there were an activity or product (say riding a bike or drinking a sport drink) that lowered testosterone so significantly, most would cry foul and advise mature men to stay away from such behavior. From an evolutionary perspective this drop in testosterone levels makes perfect sense for the safety and perpetuation of the species, but what if we were to read the study differently and interpret the drop in testosterone to be evidence of the opposite – that an engaged fatherhood was something that negatively impacted hormone levels and was thus undesirable and possibly unnatural? Is it maybe reckless, or possibly dangerous, to jump to conclusions about such evidence? What are your thoughts about the role of testosterone in parenting and if a drop in testosterone means much of anything at all?