The Psychology of Fatherhood


Worldwide, 10% to 40% of children grow up in households with no father at all. In the U.S., more than half of divorced fathers lose contact with their kids within a few years. By the end of 10 years, as many as two-thirds of them have drifted out of their children's lives. According to a 1994 study by the Children's Defense Fund, men are more likely to default on a child-support payment (49%) than a used-car payment (3%). Even fathers in intact families spend a lot less time focused on their kids than they think: in the U.S. fathers average less than an hour a day (up from 20 minutes a few decades ago), usually squeezed in after the workday.

Anthropologists are trying to figure out why. Homo sapiens produces the most slowly maturing young of all mammals. You'd think fathers would be hardwired to provide for such needy offspring. One thing that draws a human male to a child of his is that, hormonally speaking, men are a lot more similar to women than many of us realize, particularly during the critical survival period approaching a child's birth and its infancy.

When the men listened to a tape of a crying newborn and were shown a videotape of a newborn struggling to nurse, the ones who reported the greatest urge to comfort the baby were the ones whose hormone levels had changed the most.

But dads have to spend time close to babies for hormones to kick in, and this hasn't always been possible. With Mom often caring for more than one offspring and Dad busy rustling up food, the job sometimes had to be outsourced to grandmothers, aunts and others. It was this cooperative system that allowed mothers to have more babies than they could support and fathers to vary in how they cared for them.


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