Father Involvement: The Cortisol Effect

by John Hoffman

When people talk about fathers these days they often use the words “involvement” and “children.”

“Father involvement is good for children.”

“Today’s fathers are more involved in the lives of their children.”

It’s great that people who work with families are paying more attention to how fathers’ involvement benefits children. However, that ignores another pretty important part of why effective, emotionally supportive fathering is important for families. It’s good for mothers too. And a recent Canadian study found biological evidence on one of the ways this plays out.

Researchers at the University of Calgary measured women’s levels of the hormone cortisol at various times during pregnancy. Cortisol is often called “the stress hormone” because our adrenal glands give us extra shots of it during stress. Cortisol helps our bodies and brains find the extra energy and focus we need to deal with a threat or challenge. That’s a good thing. But our bodies and brains were not meant to be in stress mode all the time. So, in non-stressful times, higher levels of cortisol are a sign of an overactive stress system, which is not a good thing.

Besides measuring cortisol, this study also looked at how much social support pregnant women were getting from their partners (who were all men in this study).  Social support means the practical help and emotional support people provide to help each other get through difficult moments. It also – and this is key – includes a person’s perception, or belief, that other people are “there for them.”

Women who got good social support from their partners had consistently lower levels of cortisol, which means that their stress response systems weren’t as active. It’s almost as if the automatic parts of a woman’s brain – the parts she doesn’t consciously control – can somehow sense the degree to which her partner is there for her. If she is getting good support, the stress response system knows it doesn’t have to work as hard. In other words, support from her partner is not only good for a pregnant mom’s state of mind, as we would expect, it has a biological impact on her.  With good social support a pregnant mom won’t feel “stressy” inside (tense and anxious) as often, and she’ll waste less of her physical and emotional energy on coping. That allows her to devote more energy to positive things like looking after herself and enjoying life.

This study looked at pregnant women, but it’s only logical that similar benefits of Dad’s social support for Mom would continue during parenthood. And the reverse is true of course. There is a mountain of research evidence showing that, in Mom/Dad families, one of the biggest influences on the kind of father a man becomes is support from his partner and a good relationship with her (1). There is also very clear evidence that supporting the Dad-Mom relationship is one of the best ways to help both fathers and mothers parent effectively (2).

So this study has two important take-home messages.

Positive father involvement begins before birth.

Social support for your partner is a big part of being a good Dad.

Of course, a father’s direct care and interaction with his children are important too. We’ll talk about that another time.

Good social support is much more likely to happen when Dad and Mom have a good relationship. Dad Central’s booklet, Dads! Renovate Your Relationship gives Dads 14 tools to use to maintain a healthy relationship with their partners.

If you want to know more about the study, here is a link to a story written by co-authors, Gerry Geisbrecht and Nicole Letourneau. <http://www.troymedia.com/2014/06/04/dads-important-to-babys-development/>&gt;

1. Hoffman, J. (2011). The “Mother of All Influences. How Dads are shaped by Moms. Chapter 2 in Father factors: What social science research tells us about fathers and how to work with them. Father Involvement Research Alliance. http://www.fira.ca/cms/documents/211/FatherFactorsFinal.pdf

2.  Supporting Father Involvement by Supporting Couple Relationships http://www.fira.ca/article.php?id=148>>

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