by John Hoffman
I was intrigued, and a little amused, to see this headline the other day: “Fatherhood has changed my judging style: Simon Cowell.”
Ha! So the famously critical celebrity judge, who has trashed all sorts of performers on shows like American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, has gone a little softer now that he’s a dad. Awww. Simon says he now understands how it would feel if his own son were the one who was up there singing his heart out and hoping his dreams would come true.
Actually, it’s cool and, inevitable really, that even Simon Cowell experienced the daddy shift in worldview. Becoming a father does change you. Some of the change is in your head. Like Simon said, you start seeing the world in terms of how your child would experience it and how it would affect your child.
That happened to Geoff, a father of two I spoke with recently. Geoff is a teacher. So by the time he became a dad, he’d had more experience with children than many men. But even so, fatherhood altered his viewpoint. Often it starts with a much stronger sense of responsibility for someone other than yourself. “Before you have kids, life is mostly about putting your own needs first,” he says. “Then suddenly you have this big weight of responsibility for your child.” Geoff also started looking at his students with different eyes. “I started to see my own kids and even myself in what I was seeing in some of my students.” That had a number of effects. At times it made him worry because of the negative behaviour he saw in some kids. But he says being a father, and knowing what a hard job it was, also made it easier to empathize with kids who were struggling.
And their parents, I would guess. I remember how judgmental I used to be, at times, about the parents of poorly behaved kids. But once I started going through some of those struggles myself, my attitude changed in a hurry. When I see a struggling kid now, I’m much more sympathetic about the parents.
But here’s another way that I think fatherhood has changed me forever. Even now that my kids are grown, when I see a preschooler who is not near a parent, I keep an eye on her. The parents are always close by (I check that). But even so, I’m always monitoring how the kid, even when the child is doing just fine (which is usually the case). It’s none of my business, but I can’t help it because I’ve spent so much time looking after little kids and my biology seems to be primed to watch them. And little kids still fascinate me and bring out my nurturing instincts.
And there is a biological basis for that. A number of studies show that becoming a dad changes men’s hormones. Fathers have lower levels of testosterone than childless men. And it’s not just having children that matters. Being with kids, touching them and caring for them further affects men’s biology. For example, fathers who spend a lot of time doing child care have lower testosterone levels than dad who spent little time doing hands-on care. Other research has shown that experienced fathers feel more sympathetic and alert than non-fathers when they hear someone else’s baby cry. That sympathy is partly driven by higher levels of prolactin, a hormone, that among other things, helps mothers make milk. In fact, there is quite a bit of research now that shows that fatherhood, and looking after kids, affects the workings of men’s hormones.
Here’s what it boils down to for me:
Hormones don’t make you a father. What they really do is respond to and try to support what a father is doing and needs to do. In other words, on a biological level, fatherhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get involved, do the daddy things, and your body will help you feel right about doing that. So, the more involved you get, the more experience you get, the more biological support you get. And all of that helps you go further into to wonderful web of fatherhood.
So, in honour of Father’s Day 2016, I wish all the best to Simon and all the other new (and old) dads out there. You’re doing such an important job. And your efforts are not just affecting your kids. They are affecting your partner. And, by and large, the fathering work you do makes you a better man.