What Are the Effects of Children on Fathers?

How kids impact men’s physiology, time allocation, sexuality, health and more.

Posted Sep 25, 2013

Asclepius: Greek god of medicine, dad

Having kids can have a variety of impacts on fathers. Watching team sports on TV was one casualty I recall in the wake of having a newborn. Being put in a different tax category was another. And seeing my parents in an entirely new light was still another. Each dad could describe the impacts of fatherhood on his life, extending the conversation well beyond these starting points.

As one effort to address this life transition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently held a panel discussion devoted to “The effects of children on fathers” (videocast.nih.gov). As a participant on that panel, I attempted to overview some of the most central health-related effects of children on fathers. My effort drew upon the Fatherhood book Kermyt Anderson and I authored (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674064188). While sacrificing detail for synthesis, here are a few of the most recognized effects of children on fathers.

  • Neuroendocrine (illustrating these effects vividly, a recent study observed relationships between paternal behavior and ventral tegmental area activity, as well as testosterone and testis size: pnas.org)
  • Time allocation and social networks (when men become fathers, their work hours don’t tend to change much, but they do tend to have less time for male-male leisure activities and their friendship networks may contract)
  • Sociosexual relationships (marital quality often decreases in the wake of having a child; frequency and range of partnered sexual activity tends to diminish across the transition to having a child in monogamous unions)
  • Psychological (both positive and negative, with validation and reward contrasted with postpartum paternal depression in some men: sad-dads)
  • Health-related behaviors (marriage is associated with alterations in risk-taking behavior such as same-sex homicide as well as changes in diet and physical activity, although additional influences of fatherhood beyond marriage are mixed, such as on sleep or physical activity)
  • Mortality (similar to health-related behaviors, marriage is associated with protective mortality, including in some longitudinal data sets, although effects of fatherhood beyond marriage are less consistent and seemingly smaller impact)

If these are some common impacts of children on fathers, they may also vary, in good part because paternal itself can be quite variable. That was a theme in discussant Elizabeth Peters’ comments—the heterogeneity and complexity of paths by which men become fathers. Some early-starting fathers may move down channels that result in lower lifetime earnings, for example. Child support policies also need to recognize the diversity of fathers’ experiences; that’s a move beyond attempting to get deadbeat dads to pay their share. Additionally, the variable social contexts in which fathers are born provide new opportunities for research. We don’t know whether men in small-scale societies report diminished marital quality after having a newborn because such data have not been published. We don’t know whether fathers elsewhere in the world experience ventral tegmental area activation when focused on photos of their children because such studies have not been conducted.
While scholars have explored the effects of children on fathers, there’s clearly much more to learn, and with health and policy implications at stake.

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

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