Are gay dads better than straight ones?

29 May 2014

Jeremy Davies writes:

Newspaper headline-writers love nothing more than a black-and-white story, boiling the most complex of debates down to good vs evil; right vs wrong; and all too often, male vs female.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the milky world of parenting, where mums are heroes and dads are…well, generally a bit useless. But what to do when gay vs straight enters the fray?!

This week a story started doing the rounds, with news reports like this one heralding a new scientific discovery: that gay dads’ brains adapt to enable them to play the role of mother and father. The implication being that by virtue of their sexual orientation, gay dads act like a unique breed of ‘super parent’ – mum and dad rolled into one.

In fact, what the study in question suggests is that all fathers can be capable, sensitive parents – and that their brains adapt to accommodate whatever level of responsibility they take for looking after their children.

The study, by researchers at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, measured first-time parents’ brain activity when they watched films of themselves playing with their children. The sample included straight mothers who were ‘primary caregivers’; straight fathers (their partners) who were ‘secondary caregivers’; and gay fathers (couples, made up of one biological and one adoptive father – both of whom were ‘primary caregivers’, with no mother involvement).

The study identified two aspects of a ‘parental caregiving’ neural network that manages parenting in both men and women: an ‘emotional’ circuit (governed by a part of the brain called the amygdala, usually spurred into action in mothers by pregnancy, birth and lactation) and a ‘mentalising’ circuit associated with social understanding and cognitive empathy.

A key function of the ‘emotional’ circuit is to regulate a parent’s vigilance and awareness of the child’s safety, making them chime in with their child’s needs and make sure they’re met.

The brains of the mothers studied showed more activity in this ‘emotional’ circuit, while those of their partners showed more activity in the ‘mentalising’ circuit. In the gay fathers there was activity in both circuits, and greater connectivity between them.

What’s happening, the authors suggest, is that as the gay fathers take on the role of independent, hands-on caregivers, their brains change as a result – the ‘mentalising’ circuit connects with and stimulates the ‘emotional’ circuit more commonly found to be active in mothers.

But crucially, the authors found that in all the fathers, it was time spent on direct childcare that led to this adaptation.

So the real story here is not, as the headline-writers would have it, that gay dads are some kind of new parent-species. It’s that when fathers do more hands-on caregiving (and especially when mothers are not around), their brains adapt accordingly. If the researchers had looked at straight fathers who regularly look after their children on their own, it’s likely their brains would have shown similar changes.

As study author Ruth Feldman told Bloomberg: “When mothers are around, fathers’ amygdala can rest and mothers do the worrying. When mothers are not around, fathers’ brains need to assume this function.”

Here’s a summary of the study from the Independent.

You can download a PDF of the full study here: Abraham et al article.


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