Photo courtesy Johan Bävman from his series ‘Swedish Dads’.
Sweden’s hands-on dads represent an alternate male form forged by lowered testosterone and the potent hormones of attachment
‘Something happens to the men who come here,’ says Lisa Lindell, observing the first arrivals at her drop-in centre for new parents in Malmö, Sweden. One, a straggly haired Israeli scientist, has built a perfect pyramid out of Play-Doh for his daughter. A Swedish restaurant manager is sprawled on the floor as his son presents him with various objects.
‘We think it’s a revolution,’ her colleague Karin Hallback Stigendal chimes in. ‘These daddies here, they’re very much closer to their feelings. They couldn’t harm another person. Children will change their minds, and that will be good for our society.’
Sweden is leading the fight for gender-equal parenting – men here get three months of paid, use-it-or-lose it paternity leave for each baby (in fact, many take more) – and Lisa and Karin are its warm, welcoming stormtroopers. Since they started trying to lure dads to their centre a decade ago, numbers have grown steadily until, recently, the fathers began to outnumber the mothers.
‘My patience levels have sky-rocketed,’ reports the restaurant manager. ‘There’s not so much “me” in focus any more. It’s all “him” now.’
The scientist hasn’t noticed much change, but as we bond over having given our daughters the same rare Nordic name, I’m struck by something about the way he is standing, his one-year-old perched on a stuck out hip. He’s one of a legion of Sweden’s ‘latte pappas’, as the country’s legion of scruffy men with prams are known. I’ve been one myself, taking six months off twice over the past four years to be the main carer for my daughter and then son. One afternoon in the playground, I began to notice the high, exaggerated voices many of my latte pappa acquaintances used with their babies – clear ‘motherese’.
I felt compelled to find out if I was imagining it, and quickly discovered an explosion of new research demonstrating the dramatic impact that fatherhood has on men’s hormones – along with their affect and talent for staying attuned. A 2011 longitudinal study of 624 Filipino men showed evening testosterone dropping by a median of 34 per cent in the first month after becoming fathers (the most extreme case saw a drop of 75 per cent). Levels of oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’, almost double in fathers between the time the mothers become pregnant and the first months of fatherhood. Prolactin, the hormone that triggers lactation in women, was almost a fifth higher in fathers of infants than in non-fathers. Fatherhood also physically alters the brain. In a 2014 study, researchers scanned men’s brains in the first month after their children were born, and then again after the fourth month. It turned out that gray matter grew in areas linked to reward, attachment and complex decision-making.
These are the changes recorded in countries such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines, where mothers still do most of the childcare. But could the impact be even greater in Sweden, where men like me often take six months or more off work to be the primary carer for their babies? According to Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, who pioneered research into oxytocin at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s medical university, no one has tried to find out. ‘This is a unique experiment that we are performing right now,’ and the consequences might be profound.
Lee Gettler, director of the Hormones, Health, and Human Behavior Lab at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and the lead author on the Philippines study, suspects that Swedish fathers might be further along the spectrum than the fathers he has studied – truly hormonally and temperamentally transformed. They would have lower testosterone than less involved dads, and their testosterone would stay reduced during the early parenting years. ‘Their prolactin might also be high, and their oxytocin would likely frequently spike up during affectionate, sensitive moments, reflecting father-child bonds and familiarity.’
I’ve seen the changes in myself. For several years, whenever my baby daughter or son made the slightest whimper at any time of night, I would find myself instantly awake and stomping over, as if controlled by a chip in my head. I’m restless and fidgety, but within a week of my first child being born I was able to rock from side to side singing ‘rock-a-bye-baby’ for hours, night after night, and I can still read my children the same story five times back-to-back without getting bored. A few years ago, there was a moment when, cradling my infant son, my nipples began to tingle strongly as if preparing to lactate.
As first one and then two children have absorbed more and more time, my life, and that of my wife, has been reduced to caring for them and working to provide for them. We rarely go out, and the only other adults we meet are those with children who can entertain our own. After a decade working in far-flung places such as India and Kazakhstan, my world has shrunk to two square kilometres of Malmö bounded by my children’s daycare, the playground, my office and my home. The strangest thing about this is not that it’s happened, but that, nestled in my warm oxytocin cocoon, I don’t mind…