Just how much do fathers matter?
In the growing world of single-parenting, along with a Westernised trend of many women “going at it alone” (some through choice, others not), fatherhood has taken a bit of a knock over the past few decades. Many will argue that fatherhood is becoming less and less important, often supported by fallacies such as the idea that any strong, independent woman can do the job of both mother and father. But how true is this sentiment exactly and are we fathers far less important than we may like to think?
In his book, Do Father’s Matter?, Paul Raeburn provides interesting evidence as to why the latter could not be further from the truth. In fact, these findings support the importance of fatherhood as early as conception. So how important are we in the lives of our children?
At Conception: scientists (more specifically research biologists at Harvard) have found that imprinted genes (those coming from either the mother or the father) actually compete for resources in the womb.
In pregnancy: It’s been shown that infants whose fathers were absent during pregnancy were more inclined to be premature or carry a lower birth weight. These babies were also more unfortunate in that they were 4 times more likely to die within the first year when a father figure was absent. Complications in pregnancy were also more prevalent when male counterparts were absent. This research however is merely correlational, and whilst it is interesting, it cannot infer a causal relationship between the presence of a biological father and complications. The positive correlation between the two factors may well carry a relationship, but one would need to bear in mind a multitude of additional environmental factors such as the mother’s age, her living conditions, previous history with regards to pregnancy, genetic predispositions to such occurrences, etc.
@birth: now that the delivery room is no longer a mother-to-be and doctor affair, the presence of fathers has seen a decline in the request for pain relief. As an added bonus, it has also improved attachment between fathers and their infants, leading to a higher level of involvement from the father’s side.
Postpartum: how do we possibly measure the importance of a parental figure when it comes to infants? As I have focussed on before, there is a high increase in the number of fathers reporting postpartum depression. This may more than likely limit the father’s ability to emotionally engage and connect with their infant. Research has shown that infants of fathers who have had major episodes of postpartum depression show an eight times more likelihood of behavioural problems as they grow up as well as a thirty-six times more likelihood to have a lack of pro-social efficiency (getting along with peers).
Toddlers: Researchers from Oxford University observed that toddlers who had remote/absent fathers displayed higher rates of aggressive behaviour irrespective of the mother’s interaction with that toddler. To increase the validity of these findings, research conducted in Sweden also found that where fathers were more involved with their children, these toddlers displayed fewer behavioural problems in early childhood and were less likely to become delinquents in adolescence.
Early Childhood: When it comes to language acquisition, fathers tend to matter more than mothers. The thinking behind this theory is as follows: as mothers tend to spend more time with their children (generally), they are more likely to use child-like / child-friendly phrases, words and sentences (words which are familiar to children) when in the company of their children, whilst fathers, who might be less aware of their children’s linguistic comfort zone, will tend to introduce a wider, more complex vocabulary.
The Teenager Years: Why do girls with absent fathers tend to reach sexual maturation earlier than those whose fathers are still present? Why do girls with absent fathers statistically display higher rates of teenage pregnancy? Where young girls have grown up in homes where parents split, it has been found that younger female siblings tended to start menstruation, on average, 11 months earlier than the oldest female sibling who had had more exposure to the father being around before he left. Evolutionary psychologists will explain this in terms of those who are younger siblings will innately determine the father’s leaving as men don’t stick around so I need to mature quick enough to secure a mate. The source of this belief could be explained through pheromones; yip, the father’s scent. In animal research it has been found that prolonged exposure to a father’s pheromones can slow down puberty – can we extrapolate that to humans...well, I guess you can make your mind up and decide on that one yourself.
Although there is plenty of research referred to here, one cannot assume that there is, necessarily, a cause and effect relationship...in other words, male presence equals healthier, more stable children. Many single mothers have proved otherwise; I know of many single mothers who have provided in such a way that their children have developed and flourished in a single-parent home. There is, however, little doubt, that we fathers do have a massive role to play...and a little scientific support to reiterate this very notion can’t be a bad thing.