Tag Archives: fatherhood

Fatherhood: a psycho-chemical view

4 Aug

An old friend of mine suddenly became a father this week. I say suddenly because it’s been a while since I’ve spoken to him and I had no idea that his partner was pregnant with his child.

I don’t have any children (that I know of ) and I have no desire to make copies of myself, so I have difficulty understanding why anyone would want to procreate, but I know that some people do and I respect that. I knew that my friend always wanted to have a baby, so I’m quite pleased for him and I hope that all goes well.

This unexpected news reminded me of the hormonal research I’ve read about what happens in the male brain at various stages of his life, including fatherhood, and decided that this was a good time to discuss the chemical changes that occur in new and expectant fathers. As I continued my research for this week’s post, I was surprised to learn that there are many more things for a father-to-be to worry about besides getting the mother to the hospital in time.

Let me begin by reducing fatherhood to brain chemicals that alter his moods and his perceptions.


Prolactin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, regulated by neuroendocrine neurons in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls temperature regulation, sexual behaviour and reproduction, eight major hormones, and a few other highly important functions. Both men and women have prolactin in their systems but the brain chemical causes very different reactions in either sex especially during pregnancy.

In The Male Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine explains that during the mother’s pregnancy and after the birth, prolactin production is increased in men which sharpens dad’s ability to hear their babies cry by stimulating connections in his brain. The rise in prolactin is accompanied by a decrease in testosterone and this combination promotes paternal behaviour by reducing the aggression associated with testosterone, making men calm and gentle around their babies.

In women, oxytocin, a feel-good brain chemical, pairs with elevated levels of prolactin when the baby is born, as this hormone stimulates milk production for breastfeeding.

In human evolution, there is an amazing reason for everything and so it goes with hormones during pregnancy: with a decrease in testosterone, a father might be able to gently handle his baby, but the hormonal drop also takes down a guy’s sex drive – a lucky thing because mum is probably not paying dad as much attention because it’s all about the baby now. Some men experience neglect because there isn’t enough attention to go around with a small new human in the house, but that’s not all that can happen.

Sympathetic pregnancy

With an increase in prolactin, there is a chance that a father could experience couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy symptoms when their partners are pregnant. I checked a Parenting.com article about couvade syndrome, which is said to affect a significant amount of men, “about 90 percent of men experience at least one pregnancy-like symptom,” according to CNN chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

90 percent may be a high estimation, but there seems to be some evidence that the prolactin chemical can cause otherwise inexplicable “weight gain, nausea, insomnia, and mood swings” in some men. Dr. Gupta described severe cases of couvade syndrome, “among them a father who experienced abdominal pains when his wife went into labor.”

On the psychological end of things, the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology sees the symptoms of couvade syndrome as “a consequence of the man’s envy of the woman’s procreative ability.”

The opposite of penis envy

Early in the last century, Sigmund Freud fathered psychoanalysis and developed all sorts of theories about human sexuality and behaviour. Freud is famous for many things, and one of his better known (and perhaps most ridiculous) theories is “penis envy”.

Freud developed the psycho-sexual stages of children and described the challenges associated with each. By the time a child has passed the oral and anal stages, he theorized, the child reaches the phallic stage, somewhere between the ages of 3 – 7. It is at this stage where Freud borrows from Greek mythology and suggests that little boys experience the Oedipus Complex, a theory based on the story of Oedipus, a king who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Dr. C. George Boeree, a retired psychology professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, has written much about Freud, saying that the mythological components of Freud’s theories  are “without a doubt, the weakest part of his theory.”

Of Freud’s theories about the phallic stage, Dr. Boeree finds two of them particularly unrealistic: castration anxiety and penis envy. Castration anxiety is the fear in boys of having their penises cut off.  (Have any of you readers actually experienced this? I’m curious.)  Penis envy on the other hand, Dr. Boeree explains as “the supposed desire all little girls have to grow a penis of their own. The girl has noticed the difference between boys and girls and feels that she, somehow, doesn’t measure up. She would like to have one, too, and all the power associated with it. If Freud meant these things metaphorically, to represent the power of maleness in male-dominated societies like his own, we could understand them.  But he was serious about these ideas, and they form the basis of his theory of sexual development.”

Enter Psychoanalyst Karen Horney, a student of Freud who branched off from the traditional psychotherapy and developed her own theories as a Neo-Freudian. While Freud was consumed with penis and penis envy, Ms Horney instead examined the social condition of women and decided that though penis envy could possibly occur in particularly neurotic women, she believed that Freud’s theory of penis envy is actually a woman’s jealousy of men’s privilege and power in the world.

Horney took the concept further and came up with her own theory about who really envied what, suggesting that some men were envious of women because of women’s ability to carry, bear, and nurture children. These men were said to have womb envy. Horney developed her theory further and believed that a man’s drive for success or his impulse toward creative work is a substitute or compensation for his small role in procreation (source).

Viewed this way, a father’s role seems undervalued, but at the time of Horney’s theories, men didn’t participate much in the nurturing of their children, so they would have played a small role in procreation. Now in the 21st century, fathers are taking active roles in their child’s growth and upbringing, and they have their own modern issues.

Post-natal depression in new fathers

I came across an interesting article from the Fatherhood Institute that suggests 1 in 10 new fathers suffer from depression before and after the birth of their babies. According to the Adrienne Burgess, lead researcher at the Institute, “Depression for both mothers and fathers arise as a result of  huge life changes a baby brings. The outpouring of hormones, lack of sleep, increased responsibility and general life stresses can apply to men just as much to women.”

During the pregnancy, the article suggests, the relationship between the couple is changing, and with the mother’s concern with the birth, the “nesting”, and the baby, she often leaves fathers feeling “left out”, which may lead them into depression.

When the baby is born, the involvement of the father sometimes comes under serious criticisms from the mother who may blame him for not measuring up as a parent “without thinking deeply [about] how such criticisms go a long way in undermining a man’s confidence in parenting. When the criticisms become sustained, the father of the child may withdraw and then communication breakdown and resentment sets in to compound the post-natal stress for the father.”

The Fatherhood Institute identifies symptoms of male post-natal depression:

1. Men with post-natal depression easily get mad, while women tend to get sad.

2. The men drink too much, engage in self-medicating and indulge in extra-marital affairs.

3. Men dealing with post-natal depression tend to be bullies in their homes.

The Institute also identifies ways to reduce father’s depression:

1. Mother and father of the unborn baby to frequent pre-natal clinics and be in touch with health care providers who can detect any issues that could lead to depression on the part of the father.

2. Fathers with signs of post-natal depression should be encouraged to undergo counselling, psychotherapy, cranial osteopathy, massage, and reflexology, all of which are useful therapies to post-natal depression.

3. Taking good rest, eating properly, and writing down feelings in a journal or a diary could also greatly help reduce fatherhood post-natal depression.

4. Talk about your situation to confidants. Never bottle it up, speak to your partners and friends about it.

So there it is. Another complex issue about the complex masculine condition. Before embarking on this post, I didn’t realize what kind of issues a father-to-be may have to grapple with – psychoanalytic neurosis, neglect, post-natal depression, and much, much more, I’m sure.

My friend Lawrence, himself a father of two daughters, says that fatherhood is the most rewarding and challenging experience that a guy can go through, but it isn’t for everyone (“Think hard before you make the decision to be a father,” he says.). I don’t have the stomach for it, but for all of you new fathers who do, I hope that your baby brings you more joy than challenge.