Last summer, my fiancé, Emily, and I traveled to La Jolla, Calif., to see my father. We’d recently discovered that Emily was pregnant, and La Jolla’s upscale little village is a perfect place to shop for our impending arrival. That is, if the mother of your child happens to be one of the sultan of Brunei’s sisters.
In one hipster maternity store, an array of parenting books were on display. One was John Pfeiffer’s “Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad.’’ I immediately thought of the progeny of one of my surfer cousins who grew up here receiving just such a book from the fuming-but-trying-to-make-nice father of the 19-year-old surfer girl he’d knocked up at Wind N Sea cove one dark summer night. “Mr. Anderson, thanks. Fatherhood’s, like, gnarly!’
If you’re tempted to both hate and mock a literary subgenre, the growing library of daddy lit is among the lowest hanging fruit. Among the titles I’ve perused since becoming a dad several months ago are “Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad’’; “Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads’’; and “What to Expect When Your Wife is Expanding.’’ What’s next? “Godzilla: Confessions of a Dinosaur Dad’’? “The Hangover Guys’ Guide to Infant Care’’?
The more interesting question may be why we are witnessing such a proliferation of dad-centric guides and memoirs. Could it simply be that the collective dad is trying to say that his role has evolved beyond the commuting hunter-gatherer?
In Paul Raeburn’s “Do Fathers Matter,’’ the science journalist addresses societal prejudices against dads, from their portrayal as inept buffoons in popular media to the long-held concept that attachment only exists between mothers and their children.
Raeburn tells the reader in his introduction that he is more interested in discovering what he knows to be true about the nature of fathers than what we think we know. “The more I began to question what I knew, the more I found to question. Is infant bonding limited to mothers? Do fathers contribute to their kids’ language development? How do fathers affect children’s performance in school . . . And do older fathers as we’ve seen in the news, pose a risk to their children?”
The book begins by examining the paucity of studies in which the roles of fathers are examined by the scientific community. Raeburn shows that researchers and scientists, long convinced by attachment theories of the preeminence of a mother’s role, considered the influence of fathers to be tangential.
With impressive thoroughness, Raeburn examines theories of gender attraction, citing in detail one study of zebra finches: “The females who mated with the enriched males devoted more resources to their offspring and engaged in more thorough maternal behavior . . . females invested more in their offspring when had a more desirable mate.”
In subsequent chapters, Raeburn shows with mounting evidence the role of the father and his effect on the care and nurturing of children. One of the studies I found particularly interesting has to do with synchrony, “which refers to mothers’ ability to match and encourage infants’ positive emotions when the two are face-to-face.”
In an Israeli study, it was found that fathers were equally successful in matching their emotions to that of their children and, in fact, the intensity was even higher with fathers when it came to play.
Even when delving into Mendel’s early genetic research or neuroscientist Kelly G. Lambert’s behavioral studies with rats, the narrative moves along crisply without getting bogged down in the data.
Halfway through the book, a pattern begins to emerge in Raeburn’s research. He’s not making some chauvinistic case for dads (Hey, it’s our turn, move over, moms!), he’s providing a trove of scientific research that shows how nature has not only provided for, but absolutely insisted on, a delicate balance between mothers and fathers, no matter what the species.
In the Israeli study, cited above, the researchers conclude that while the high intensity interactions between fathers and children is a force that propels and challenges a young mind intellectually, the low to moderate intensity provided by mothers provides safety and balance. Children, as endless social studies would support, can be adversely affected by the loss of one or the other.
As the father of a rapidly growing and changing little girl, I gained more from Raeburn’s work than all the daddy lit put together. My diaper changing and burping techniques still need work, but now I am asking myself what kind of father will matter to my daughter.
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.