By Ben Smith, Director Family & Life Office
I hope all fathers enjoy the presents and affection they receive on Father’s Day on September 6. The wonderful hand-made cards that I usually get from my children are special to me and make me reflect on how fatherhood has changed me over the last 10 years. I believe these changes have been at an emotional, physiological and a spiritual level. This process has been aided by the paternity leave I have been able to access to allow me to spend at least three weeks at home after the birth of each of my five children.
Emotionally, I am more vulnerable now that I have children and I have developed the capacity to shed a tear or two, especially when I am away from home and missing my family. This tendency is new and I think it has resulted from the emotional bonds that I have developed with my wife and children.
At a physiological level, I can recall how in the lead up to the birth of a new child, I experience a vagueness that meant that I became a little forgetful. I think it could be a form of baby brain syndrome. But isn’t this syndrome something that only pregnant women experience? My scientifically trained mind ignored this experience as I thought it was a figment of my imagination. But that all changed recently when I discovered the results of some recent research studies on this topic. Firstly in 2011, US researchers from Northwestern University found that fathers experienced a reduction in testosterone after their baby was born. Another group of US researchers from the University of Michigan in 2014 found that these changes in testosterone also occur in fathers before their child is born. The researchers believe that the reduction in testosterone may reduce the level of aggression in males and make them more committed to helping nurture their child. Now there is an explanation for my prenatal baby brain!
But other researchers have discovered changes in the levels of other hormones. A study published in 2010 by Israeli researchers from Bar-Ilan University found that fathers experience an increase in bonding hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin. The size and duration of these hormonal changes is impacted by the level of involvement that fathers have in caring for their new born child.
This new area of research is bound to reveal a range of amazing discoveries over the next few years and enhance our understanding of the biological basis of fatherhood and its importance in the upbringing of children.
At a spiritual level, fatherhood has taught me to be a lot less selfish. I no longer get to watch much sport on the television and it doesn’t really bother me too much. I regularly have an interrupted sleep but I am happy to tuck my kids back into bed and I love saying a little prayer with them to settle them down. This level of self-sacrifice would have seemed impossible to me before I became a father.
Being a father has developed my spirituality as I now see myself as the spiritual leader of my family. I have grown as a person to be able to be a strong leader to my five strong willed children. I have had to reflect on the example I give my children in matters big and small. A father’s behaviour has a big impact on their children.
Pope Francis has recently spoken about the importance of fathers on 4/2/15. He spoke about the need for a father to “be close to his children as they grow: when they play and when they strive, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they take a wrong step and when they find their path again; a father who is always present.” He also pointed that “a good father knows how to wait and knows how to forgive from the depths of his heart.”
The change that men undergo when they become fathers prepares them to play an indispensable role in their family. Good fathers find time to be present to their children. When fathers let their work take priority over their family, their wife and children can suffer.
St Joseph is a great model for fathers. While he was a man of few words his example spoke volumes to his foster son, Jesus, the Word of God.