Fathers Really Matter!

Of course fathers matter.  Is anyone surprised to hear that?  The real news is that fathers matter in ways we had not suspected.  A fascinating article in the New York Times of September 9, tells us that recent research points to the fact that “the health of unborn children can be affected by what and how much men eat; the toxins they absorb; the traumas they endure; their poverty or powerlessness; and their age at the time of conception.”  A man’s life experience leaves biological traces on his children!   

Of great interest in this article is the clear explanation and discussion of epigenetics; the way our bodies modify their genetic makeup.  “Our genes can be switched on or off by three environmental factors, among other things: what we ingest (food, drink, air, toxins); what we experience (stress, trauma); and how long we live.”  In other words,  the expression or suppression of our genes is determined in some measure by the environment,  and plays as much of a role as genes themselves do in shaping our development.   

The influence of such factors has long been made clear to prospective mothers.  The list of things pregnant women are told to do on behalf of their unborn children expands and is modified with each new research finding.  Not drinking or smoking during pregnancy is an old story.  The dangers of drugs, both recreational and pharmaceutical have been well publicized.    The issue of the impact of a woman’s behavior on her unborn child has actually been politicized, with a movement in some states to enforce legal penalties for drug use during pregnancy.

But instructions and warnings to mothers-to-be aside, women themselves are quick to examine their behavior and blame themselves if something goes wrong, or a problem in a child emerges later on.  “Mothers’ guilt” is always at the ready.  In part this is because women carry babies in their bodies, which establishes a most personal connection.  But in very large measure this is a legacy of years of mother blame for children’s problems and criticism for children’s behavior.  Mothers are blamed both from a biological and an environmental perspective.

Having worked for many years with mothers of children with developmental disorders, I learned firsthand from mothers themselves about their feelings of responsibility for their children’s difficulties.  Before any awareness of epigenetic factors,  mothers attributed certain problems to a particular trauma they had experienced during pregnancy, to stresses that had occurred in difficult relationships, or the loss of beloved family members.

At the same time, the history of attributing psychiatric disorders to mothers has left its mark.  Early on. we heard about the “schizophrenegenic mother” as the cause of schizophrenia, and the “refrigerator mother” as the cause of autism.  This was during a period of mental health research that was focused on finding environmental causes for behavior.  As such thinking was discredited, much effort went into an attempt to assure mothers they were not responsible for such disorders. The irony is that as we have moved into a period of focusing on biological causes, women are still being held responsible in the form of warnings about their behavior during pregnancy.

This history carries an alert to fathers who are on the verge of becoming equal opportunity guilt bearers.  It is unfortunate that the interest and research in epigenetics has pointed to the father’s role in the cause of schizophrenia and autism.  Advanced paternal age is now considered a culprit in these disorders, and the aging of the parent population is raised as a possible explanation for the seeming rise in autism cases.

Unfortunate, because only recently has the importance of fathers come to the fore in more positive ways.  As women have returned to the workplace, and the division of labor in families has changed, we have come to think about fathers as nurturers and caregivers as well as breadwinners.  Some families have undergone role reversals, with mothers in the workforce and fathers as primary caregivers.  The traditional role of women as mothers and caregivers brought with it unwarranted idealization, but also unwarranted expectations and blame.  Let’s not saddle fathers who are just growing into their new roles with both unrealities.

We need to look at the relatively new understanding of epigenetics as an  opportunity, rather than a way to assign blame.  So many factors are at play in our children’s development.  As we learn more about the role of genetic endowment, it is exciting to learn also that biology need not be destiny.  The way we live affects the way our genes unfold.  We can use this understanding in a positive rather than a negative way as we live our lives.

Fathers, as well as mothers, matter. What they do right matters even more than what they might do wrong.

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