On Sunday, when I think about my departed dad, I’ll inevitably conjure up memories of things he used to say, like “I don’t feel a thing.” This is what he usually told me when I scraped my knee or banged my nose—although he sometimes substituted, “rub dirt on it.”
Conventional wisdom is that this kind of expression is what passed for intimacy for fathers past. They were seen as simple folks, at least compared with mothers, who, according to that conventional wisdom, were warm and deep and infinitely complex. But now that I’ve had a son of my own for a while, I’ve come to appreciate the larger meaning of what at the time seemed like a throwaway line. “I don’t feel a thing,” in its oblique way, carried two messages: “We’re in this together” and “Let’s move on.”
Today, fathers tend to be much less cryptic and considerably more involved in their kids’ lives. But there’s still much to learn about the role they play and the impact they have on their families. Here are 10 things researchers have learned about them since last Father’s Day.
1) Do the dishes. It’s for your daughter: Dads who want their daughters to aspire to prestigious careers should make a point of handling more chores around the house. That’s the suggestion of a study published in the journal Psychological Science, which concluded that when a father helps out a lot at home, his daughters are more likely to break out of the mold of traditionally female jobs and instead seek more high-powered careers. Researchers at the University of British Columbia said they found that girls raised in homes where chores were shared evenly between both parents tended to have broader career goals.
2) Finally, a reason to eat brussel sprouts: It’s not just pregnant women who need to eat healthy for the benefit of their offspring, According to a study at McGill University in Canada. it’s important for prospective fathers to load up on vegetables with folates, such as spinach, sprouts and broccoli, says a recent study based on mice. If a father's folic acid level is too low when he and his partner conceive, he may increase the risk that the child will have abnormalities. It’s long been recommended that women boost their folic acid level during pregnancy, and now, it may turn out that men need to do the same before trying to conceive.
3) And lay off the fries: Here’s another reason dads should watch what they eat: Obese fathers may pass on genes that raise the risk of their offspring being overweight, developing diabetes, or both. This is particularly true for their daughters, according to researchers at Ohio University. Keep in mind that the study was done with mice, but it did determine that male mice made obese on high-fat diets seemed to pass on alterations in genes that speed up or slow down metabolism.
4) When Daddy comes marching home again: Military fathers deployed overseas during the early years of their children’s lives have a hard time reconnecting with those kids when they return home, according to ongoing research at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Though the soldier dads in the study were excited about being reunited with their children, whom they knew only as babies, they reported having a lot of stress when they attempted to reestablish relationships with their children as toddlers, and often had trouble staying calm when their kids acted up.
5) Mom and Dad rolled into one: A recent study in Israel concludes the brains of gay dads react like both new mothers and new fathers when it comes to responding to their babies’ needs. For the study, researcher Ruth Feldman videotaped new mothers and fathers, both straight and gay, interacting with their infants at home. She then measured the parents' brain activity as they watched those videos while sitting in an MRI tube. When they watched their babies, the mothers had heightened activity in the emotion-processing regions of their brain, particularly the amygdala, while the straight fathers had increased activity in the parts of their brains that interpret behavior. But the gay fathers had as much emotional brain activity as the mothers and as much interpretive activity as the straight fathers.
6) You’re not the boss of me: A longitudinal study by scientists in Australia suggests that young sons of fathers who typically work more than 55 hour per week are more likely to exhibit aggressive and bad behavior. But long days at the office by fathers didn’t appear to have the same negative impact on daughters, according to the research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
7) War and peace: Adolescents who seek outside advice after fights with their fathers tend to feel better about both themselves and their relationships with their dads. Researcher Jeff Cookston at San Francisco State University says that when teenagers talk with someone who can help them understand their father’s reaction in an argument and discuss which of the two might have been at fault, they are more likely to develop a stronger connection to their dad. The key, says Cookston, is helping adolescents to understand conflict and their roles in their families.
8) When Dad gets depressed: According to research published in the May issue of Pediatrics, young men are more likely to suffer from depression during the first five years of fatherhood. In the study, symptoms of depression increased on average by 68 percent for men who were around 25 years old when they became fathers. Scientists at Northwestern University who did the research say that it’s important for doctors to watch closely for depression symptoms in young fathers because those early years in a child’s life are critical for bonding and making emotional connections.
9) Size matters?: Previous research has found that men with lower testosterone levels tended to be more caring dads. Now, a study published the National Academy of Sciences concluded that men with smaller testicles also seemed to be more active in rearing their children. The researchers, at Emory University in Georgia, determined that when shown pictures of their children, men with smaller testes reflected more activity in the part of their brains related to nurturing.
10) Empty your pockets: And for those who hope to become a father one day, some fresh advice: Keep your mobile phone out of your pocket. Researchers at the University of Exeter in England determined that the percentage of a man’s sperm with normal movement dropped by an average of eight points if he carried a mobile phone in his front pants pocket.
In honor of Father’s Day, here’s a video that goes to show that sometimes, you just can't reason with babies.