Are Women Better Parents?
It's time to give the "maternal instinct" a new, gender-neutral name, as a recent study has found that men are as suited to parenting as women. The study, conducted at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, compared the brains and hormone levels of "traditional families," (consisting of a mother and father, with the `mother as the primary caregiver) with homosexual couples where one of the males was the biological father but the two men shared the caregiving equally. And, guess, what? All parents showed activation in what scientists refer to as the "parenting network." That's great news. But why is this still news?
In the study, the parents' nurturing instincts were tested in a couple of ways. Their oxytocin levels (what scientists call the "trust hormone") were measured and they were placed under fMRIs to determine how their brains reacted to videos of them with their infants. All parents showed activation in the amygdala, insula, and nucleus accumbens (the brain regions registering strong emotions, attention, and reward) as well as in parts of the prefrontal cortex and superior temporal sulcus (regions that register learning and experience). While the secondary-caregiving fathers showed less activation in this first collection of areas, both members of the homosexual couple showed the same level of activation here as the mother. The secondary-caregiving father's activation level was proportionate to the amount of time he spent caring for the child.
These results suggest that it is the experience of parenting, and not some inalterable genetic factor or hormone, that constitutes what we call the "maternal instinct." Pregnancy and childbirth aren't necessary to cultivate this.
Although this is a wonderful finding, I'm disappointed this still has to make headlines as "news," as it proves society's ongoing belief in nature over nurture and in neurosexism — the idea that there are hardwired differences between male and female brains.
A New York Times article challenged such beliefs way back in 2011 when it reported on a study showing strong decreases in testosterone in parenting fathers. The more involved the father — the more bedtime stories read, diapers changed, and meals prepared — the lower his testosterone levels. Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who commented on the study for the New York Times, interpreted the study as showing that "male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men.”
Women aren't the only ones biologically fit to care for children. This is not new information. But, just in case you missed it, let's put it in another headline.