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Fatherhood Scholars Know Best

For Father's Day, here's research on how dads are faring, how they're portrayed in pop culture and how the increasing frequency of stay-at-home fathers is changing gender roles in society.
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The post-World War II era was the age of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, when a benign patriarch's authority over his household was complete and unquestioned. Or was it? Writing in the Journal of Family History in 2004, Georgia State University sociologist Ralph LaRossa concluded the culture of fatherhood between 1945 and 1960 "was a lot more complex than the standard narratives allow." His survey of popular magazines, top-rated television series and child-rearing manuals of the day suggest the role of the father was in flux, with rigid gender roles in society becoming increasingly dominant over those 15 years.

LaRossa notes that the 1951 and 1955 editions of the periodically updated, government-issued manual Infant Care and the 1957 edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care "seemed to expect either lower levels of father involvement, or more traditional kinds of father involvement, than was expected in the 1940s." He finds a similar trend on television, writing that "domestic comedies that were broadcast in the late '50s (versus those broadcast before) were more likely to elevate fathers at the expense of mothers." Father Knows Best, he notes, did not crack the top 10 in the TV ratings until its final season, 1959-60.

LaRossa and three colleagues also conducted a content analysis of 490 comic strips published on either Father's Day or Mother's Day from 1940 to 1999. As the butt of jokes, "incompetent fathers appeared frequently in the late 1940s, early 1950s and late 1960s, but were rarer in the late 1950s, 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s," they reported in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Nurturing, supportive fathers were widely portrayed in the late '40s and early '50s, then largely disappeared until a "dramatic increase beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s." This resurgence, however, coincided with an increased likelihood that comic strip fathers would be mocked, suggesting a lingering discomfort level with the idea of a diaper-changing dad.

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A shocking, shocking study from Sweden reveals that men report diminished sexual activity after becoming fathers. A 2009 paper in the journal Midwifery found commonalities in the stories of 12 men interviewed six to 13 months after the birth of a child. "All fathers accepted the reduced frequency of sexual activities," the researchers write, but about half experienced difficulties making this adjustment. The researchers, led by registered nurse Ruth MacAdam, cautioned that due to the homogeneity of the sample, these findings "cannot be generalized to all Swedish men."

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Back in the U.S., an increasing number of fathers are choosing child rearing as a full-time occupation, thus altering traditional gender roles in society. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated 143,000 American men left the workforce for at least a year to be the primary caretaker of their children while their wives worked. A 2009 study in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity found these Mr. Moms generally feel gratified. Analyzing a national sample of 213 stay-at-home fathers, a research team led by University of Texas psychologist Aaron Rochlen notes these men "report moderate to high levels of relationship and life satisfaction, and moderate to low levels of psychological distress." All in all, "the majority of these men appear content with their lives, relationships and psychological health," they write.

That said, at least some stay-at-home dads reported feeling isolated and alone, and a lack of support from friends "was the strongest predictor of psychological distress among our sample," Rochlen and his colleagues write. So if an ex-colleague has quit his job to take care of the kids, you might want to pay him a visit. Try not to stare at the spittle staining his shirt.

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It's a cliché to say fatherhood changes a man, but new research is showing such alteration occurs on a chemical level. A research team at Bar-Ilan University in Israel reported last year that levels of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes trust and social bonding, increased in fathers as well as mothers after the birth of a child. Dr. Ruth Feldman and her colleagues measured oxytocin levels in 80 couples, all first-time parents, and reported the results in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

They found both fathers and mothers had elevated levels of the so-called "cuddle hormone" six weeks after childbirth and again at six months. What's more, Feldman told The Wall Street Journal, the more the men cuddled their infants, the higher their oxytocin levels rose, "like a feedback loop." In her view, this suggests fathers should be given the opportunity to interact with their children as soon as possible after birth. That information could prove handy to sleep-deprived mothers, who, when awoken by piercing screams at 4 a.m., can now tell their mates, "I'd love to get up, but surely you want to trigger the neuro-hormonal system that underlies bond formation in humans."

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The importance of the father-child connection has also been noted in Britain. A 2007 report by that nation's Equal Opportunities Commission found children of fathers who failed to take paternity leave (all new dads in the U.K. are legally entitled to two weeks) were more likely to suffer from developmental problems at age 3. The likelihood of developmental problems also increased if the fathers engaged in certain behaviors, including "allowing the mother to do all the home-based child care rather than sharing."

The British researchers asked an excellent question to ascertain just how involved today's fathers are in the nitty-gritty of child care: In the main, who looks after a couple's 3-year-old when he or she is ill? Seven in 10 mothers reported they did. (No word on how many prefaced their answer with "Duh!") Three in 10 said they and their husbands shared responsibility. Only 1 percent reported their husband was the primary caregiver under such trying circumstances.

Meanwhile, in a 2007 review of recent parenting-related research published in the journal Acta Paediatrica, Anna Sarkadi of Sweden's Uppsala University concluded a father's "active and regular engagement" with his child "predicts a range of positive outcomes," but added "it is not possible to say exactly what constitutes fathers' 'effective' type of engagement." Granted, such a concept is difficult to quantify. But dads and kids recognize that profound connection when they experience it, whether they're playing catch, having a heartfelt talk or sharing a laugh over those befuddled fathers in the funny pages.

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