The other night I read my third child, 2-year-old Grace, a book about mommies and baby animals. “That’s a daddy,” she said, pointing to the cover image of a large owl cuddling with a smaller one.
This never would’ve happened with my first two children. My husband didn’t become an equal parent until Grace was born. With our first two kids, I’d assumed my husband didn’t have the same intrinsic ability to care for our children. And I feared that my kids would suffer if I stepped back to let him step up.
However, while I was on maternity leave with Grace, I panicked. I was already overwhelmed with two children and couldn’t imagine also tending to my third without more support. To quell my anxiety, I called the working mothers I admired to ask them if it were really possible to have both a successful career and healthy relationships with my kids. And could my husband really parent as well as I could?
Ruth Feldman, a neuroscientist at the Center for Developmental, Social, and Relationship Neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and an adjunct faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine, has spent the past 20 years studying the impact of parenting on the brains of both men and women. She says the adult human brain is capable of the greatest plasticity during the period around the birth of one’s child, and that’s true for moms and dads: “While only mothers experience pregnancy, birth, and lactation, evolution created other pathways for the adaptation to the parental role in human fathers, and these alternative pathways come with practice, attunement, and day-by-day caregiving.”
In other words, Feldman’s research indicates that fathers (even nonbiological) may be able to alter their brains as much as mothers, developing the same intuitive capacity to respond to their babies’ needs and wants. But this only happens if a dad shows up for the job. “It’s not just fathers who think about or play with their kids,” said Feldman. In order for this brain plasticity to occur, a father needs to give their babies baths, feed them, and get up with them when they cry at night. He needs to assume a caregiving role and take it upon himself with diligence, commitment, and perseverance. A dad’s ability to sensitize his neurobiological system is dependent on him being responsible for many of the daily tasks necessary to care for his child during the first year of their life.
Fathers forging strong bonds during the early stages of their children’s lives has long-term implications. For all of us.
Men who take parental leave have been shown to be more actively involved throughout their children’s lives. And children do better with engaged dads. According to research by Scott Coltrane, now a senior vice president and provost in the sociology department at the University of Oregon, preschoolers with involved fathers show higher levels of cognitive competence, self-control, and empathy. Researchers at Penn State have found that as adolescents, the children of actively caretaking fathers have more self-esteem, especially the girls.
Mothers perform better at work when their husbands take parental leave. A 2010 Swedish study found mothers’ future earnings increased about 7 percent for every month of parental leave her partner took. And all women, not just mothers, advance in their careers when men show up for early fatherhood. According to a 91-country study involving nearly 22,000 companies, in places where men take parental leave, women are significantly more likely to serve in leadership positions. The study also found that relative to companies with little gender diversity in leadership positions, more women in leadership positions yields an increased profitability of 15 percent.
But still, even when it’s available to them, most fathers don’t take any significant parental leave because they are worried it will jeopardize their careers. Fathers who are seen to have caregiving responsibilities are stigmatized. A 2013 Rutgers university study found that men who take leave to care for a child or a parent are less likely to be recommended for promotions, raises, or high-profile assignments. Another study, conducted in 2013 by Long Island University, found that caregiving fathers face significantly more harassment, such as being teased, put down, or excluded.
Much of this stigma comes from assumptions about what parental leave means for work performance: If you’re a man who takes leave, you mustn’t be serious about your job. But research shows the opposite.
If a soon-to-be dad working in Feldman’s research lab planned to take parental leave, she would encourage it. “The period of greatest plasticity in the adult brain is during the postpartum period, starting from pregnancy for women and up to the first year of the child’s life in mothers and in engaged fathers,” she said. “The relationship an engaged dad develops with his baby will enhance his ability to think out of the box and to contribute to our work.” Many of today’s workplaces require a brain that can take the skill that it has and adapt it to new contexts, new conditions, new windows of opportunity: “The best employees don’t necessarily have knowledge or specific information, but plasticity and malleability in acquiring new knowledge, adapting knowledge to new contexts, and integrating new perspectives.” In other words, dads who deeply engage with their children are altering their brains in ways that can make them better at work.
In 2015, Feldman published a survey of all of the research conducted on the activation of the parental brain. When all neural networks are fully activated, parents are likely to develop the capacity to anchor feelings in the present moment, empathize with others’ pain and emotions, and collaborate well with others. And collaboration, said game theorist Martin Nowak, is the most successful form of engagement. According to Nowak, Darwin was wrong: Collaboration, not competition, is the key to survival. In the long run, cooperators, those who work well with others, are the ones most likely to win almost anywhere—the animal kingdom, in computer simulations, and even in corporate environments.
Adam Rhuberg, the director of analytics at Upwork, a global freelancing platform, took 12 weeks of parental leave to stay home alone with his third child after his wife went back to work. Rhuberg said, “Before becoming a dad, I would’ve been more inclined to get things done on my own. But now, I realize that that’s a silly and exhausting way to go through life. If you’re not using the other resources available to you, you’re not making the best use of your time.” In many ways, parenting is the ultimate leadership and development training program. Making time and space for dads to be lead parents is good for all of us, not just our families, but our workplaces too.
After doing all this research, things changed around my house. When my littlest one cried at night, I shook my snoring husband awake and told him to soothe her back to sleep. We discovered that when he went to her at night, she settled down faster and stayed asleep longer. And I stepped away from other tasks too. I let my husband brush our kids’ hair in the morning, cut their fingernails each week, and determine when they were dirty enough to need baths. And I found that embracing lopsided ponytails and dirtier-than-I-would’ve-liked faces let us settle into a rhythm that was not only manageable but more playful. I was no longer the only one holding the weight of responsibility. And this freed me up to enjoy my kids, appreciate (rather than resent) my husband, and invest more in my career. Our kids are happier now too. Among other things, they love that we eat more grilled cheese sandwiches since their dad takes more turns cooking dinner.
And my husband, who now sometimes wakes before me when Grace cries at night, was recently offered a promotion at work because, according to one of the leaders in his organization, he can “listen and thoughtfully respond to perspectives drastically different from his own.” I can assure you, he did not have this same capacity before he became an engaged father.
Now when I occasionally go on business trips, rather than fighting with a knot of anxiety in my gut, I can breathe deeply. I know my short absence is allowing all of us to grow—me in my career, my kids in their development, and my husband in his own evolution as a leader and parent.