Why Daddy Love Is Different

Evolution designed fathers to perform a different role from mothers. In prehistoric times, the male of the couple was more expendable once a baby was born.
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Mom gets flowers, presents, breakfast in bed on Mother's Day; Dad gets a tie. But fathers get short-changed every day of the year, because we don't understand, accept -- and honor -- all the ways they're not like mothers.

Evolution designed fathers to perform a different role from mothers. Honestly, in prehistoric times, the male of the couple was more expendable once a baby was born. If the father of a child was killed, the mother might be able to stay alive long enough for their child to grow up and pass along their genes. Without her breast milk, a baby didn't have a chance.

Because of this, a male is less sensitive to pain, and his system reacts more strongly to the fight-or-flight impulse. Because of his higher level of testosterone, he's more likely to get charged up in times of danger or stress.

Even a father's love is different from a mother's. While the brain chemical oxytocin is responsible for the feelings of trust, generosity and love of all kinds -- in both men and women -- a man's love is flavored by another chemical, vasopressin.

"I think of vasopressin as something that promotes the animal being active, brave and investigating things," says Karen Bales of the University of California at Davis.

In what we used to call The Olden Days, gender roles in European societies reflected this neurochemical difference. Quite simply, the men went out and did strong and brave things, reflecting the drives of testosterone and vasopressin; the women stayed home and nurtured, reflecting their oxytocin-based bonds.

I'd be the last person to suggest that we stop asking fathers to play less of a role in childcare and house husbandry. In fact, it may be childcare itself that creates the bond between father and child.

Women get a huge boost of oxytocin during pregnancy and, especially, during labor and childbirth. So their bodies are already primed to fall in love with the newborn.

Dads, on the other hand, don't get this intense burst of oxytocin as the baby is born. It's perfectly natural if he needs a little time to bond with the pink squiggler his woman has birthed. In rats, the sights and sounds of newborn pups stimulate the beginnings of paternal behavior. It's likely that the sight of his newborn, the baby's smell and sounds -- and, of course, the baby's pleasure in physical connection -- are what get his paternal juices going.

Therefore, the more physical contact a father has with his baby, the deeper the bond is likely to be. Fathers often get short-changed in this respect. Even if he's entitled to parental leave from his job, he may get pressure from his managers not to take it. Neither may the couple be able to afford both of them taking time off.

At the same time, a father needs to express his vasopressin-based bond. He needs opportunities to play the protective role. It can be as simple as going out for donuts on Saturday morning, or getting up from bed to make sure the windows are shut.

In short, a father's balancing act is no less complex than a woman's. He needs to be a strong nurturer and a gentle defender. No wonder finding that balance point is so difficult.

If you're lucky enough to have a father around, the best thing you can give him for Father's Day may be asking him to help you.

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