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male carer "tend and befriend"?

Books + Ideas, Life, , — September 2015

There are many areas in which becoming a father has had surprisingly little effect on me, but caring for Helen has clearly changed my social behaviour and probably my neurochemistry ("testosterone levels were lowest in men who reported spending the greatest amount of time caring for their children"). I have a nuturing instinct that I never had before, directed most strongly at familiar children but noticeable with even completely strange children in distress. And there have been changes to my broader social life, most prominently in relationships with my fellow carers.

I wasn't particularly social at high school, possibly one of the drawbacks of going to a single-sex boys school. I was also a (D&D-playing, mathematics-loving) nerd.

I did make friends at high school, a few of whom I'm still in touch with, but I look at the much broader network of friends my sister made at her (also single-sex) school and wonder if I wouldn't have been happier at a co-ed school. I'm actually in touch with considerably more of my sister's schoolfriends than my own, at least looking at Facebook.

That changed when I went to university where, like many people, I acquired most of my closest friends. Women predominate among these, and dominate most of my social networks. So I've been socially active for my entire adult life, with women-focused social networks. But there's definitely been some kind of qualitative change in this since Helen arrived, with slightly obsessive social networking and the development of friendships with some of my fellow care-givers.

This is particularly notable because I was relatively solitary for my first few years in Oxford: I made friends playing with the Oxford Gamelan Society and I co-opted some of Camilla's work friends, but there just weren't that many opportunities to meet people (I might have got to know people in the research seminars I went to if my interests hadn't been so eclectic). And I was largely happy with this: I did miss my friends in Australia, but we had a lot of visitors in our first two years in the UK and that helped. In any event, I remember Camilla worrying about me being socially isolated, which is definitely not a concern now.

I now have what seem like vastly stronger social networks and resources. Some of this is the result of having spent long enough in Oxford to build up connections and strengthen relationships, and some of it is the result of having taken up a job, adding past and current colleagues to the mix. But a big chunk of it is tied up with looking after Helen.

Which brings me to the paper which gives me the title to this post: "Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight". The abstract (with my emphasis):

The human stress response has been characterized, both physiologically and behaviorally, as "fight-or-flight." Although fight-or-flight may characterize the primary physiological responses to stress for both males and females, we propose that, behaviorally, females' responses to stress are more marked by a pattern of "tend and befriend." Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process. The biobehavioral mechanism that underlies the tend and befriend pattern appears to draw heavily on the attachment/caregiving system, and considerable neuroendocrine evidence from animal and human studies suggests that oxytocin, in conjunction with female reproductive hormones and endogenous opioid peptide mechanisms, may be at its core.

The full text (PDF) is available; there's also a slide presentation (PDF) and a Wikipedia entry.

Now this is about stress response in women — and, to a large extent, in rats — but the behavioural responses involved seem to fit my case remarkably well (the slide presentation gives a "qualified yes" as the answer to "Do Men Tend and Befriend?"). And an affiliative friendship-building system triggered by neurochemical changes induced by nurturing-attachment behaviour doesn't need to be sex-linked, and indeed would better contribute to child and carer survival (in that hypothetical Paleolithic East African Savannah where all evolutionary psychologists live, but also elsewhere) if it can be triggered in anyone in appropriate circumstances.

Also, while Helen is hardly subject to predation risks in East Oxford, modern life is so risk-free that even ordinary child-raising probably qualifies as a stressor. (And there's always something to worry about: my biggest proximal fear is motor traffic, but I have background nightmares involving planetary disasters and mass starvation as well; some of my peers worry about abduction by strangers from playgrounds in broad daylight.) And it's a bit late when the hyena appears or you break a leg to start building networks of friends you can trust to help you and your child get up a tree or to feed you and your children until you recover: surely we are looking here not at a direct response to immediate stress but at a long-term behavioural strategy induced by nurturing-attachment, that evolved because it creates social networks capable of dealing with a broad range of risks to children. (For a more expansive evolutionary psychology perspective, see "Shared child care may be the secret of human evolutionary success".)

I'm loathe to invoke biochemistry when social explanations suffice, and being a carer has meant spending time with other parents, which all by itself would have produced new friendships and a broader social network. But there's no necessary distinction here: social and psychological systems are integrated with limbic and neurochemical ones. Social change will drive psychological changes and neural and endocrine concomitants, which in turn drive changes in social behaviour.

Mostly I've been unconscious of how my behaviour has changed, but occasionally something surfaces that brings it to mind. A while ago we had one family over for afternoon tea, and after we'd eaten I ended up with the mother and the children in the playroom while Camilla chatted to the father about their jobs. Overhearing bits of that, the thought briefly crossed my mind "hang on, I did a degree in physics and used to read plasma physics textbooks for fun" (he works at Culham), before it was swamped by the (?)oxytocin induced by three toddlers. (And a couple of times I've caught myself saying things like "I was with the other mothers in my mothers' group".)

The other thing that seems hard to explain without some quite fundamental (chemical?) change is that, where my previous friendships with women have been platonic, these new ones are not. A platonic friendship presupposes at least the possibility of a romantic entanglement, but here that just seems inconceivable, a kind of category error like dividing by zero or conjugating a noun, and even thinking about it has something of the feel of chalk scratching on a blackboard. Which is actually really strange when I step back and think about it.

Obviously not all, or even many, male carers experience anything like this — though perhaps some do but are unable to accept it or make something positive of it, lacking the necessary social skills or experience (or finding themselves in cultural settings where befriending women is just impossible). And not all mothers do, either: plenty of women with children end up socially isolated.

On life-expectancy more generally, there's a factoid going around that a man's best way to extend his life is to marry a woman, whereas the best thing a woman can do is to spend more time with her girlfriends. (The source is apparently this lecture by Stanford's David Spiegel, at around 1h40m.) But I don't understand why any heterosexual man who got over his fear as a six year-old of catching "girl germs" and isn't so macho, libidinous, or misogynist as to make friendships with women impossible can't (like lesbians) have the best of both worlds.

1 Comment »

  1. As a sideline to the title, you may be interested in an observation from my current reading (`On killing'), by Dave Grossman, who says the responses to challenge are not dichotomous `fight-or-flight' but four-fold, with `posturing' and `submission' as added options. Such a range is easily seen in confrontations among many primates at least.

    Comment by Peter Krinks — September 2015

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