Who cares? How the brain makes us rethink parenting roles.

My 4 am wake-up call is a one-and-a-half-year-old with cuddly rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and an amazingly wide vocal range. That thought might be unbearable to some, but I may have discovered why it tickles me: I’ve just had it in me all along.

Keep calm
… or read this post first. Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

The parental brain – you bear, you rear?

Becoming a parent is a life-changing experience, so the brain prepares young parents to meet the challenges that come with parenthood. Specifically, brain networks involved in motivation, reward, and empathy tune to infant cues and enable parents to read their children’s signals, in order to fulfill their needs.

The idea of a parental brain makes me feel both enthusiastic and skeptical. On the one hand it may be just the endorsement I need, both for comfort and the belief that I’m capable of raising a child. As a first-time parent, a lot of people feel the need to comment on everything you do concerning your child, and, naturally, they know everything better, regardless of whether or not they are parents themselves. The theory of a parental brain means I can keep calm and parent on, knowing that I’m doing the right thing.

On the other hand, I am skeptical about the gender stereotypes that come with the concept of the parental brain. I assumed that the literature would hold on to and reproduce gender roles: women are mothers, men are men.

Diving into research on the parental brain, my apprehensions were met just perfectly. The vast majority of studies examined pregnant women and mothers. Parent-child interactions in a title turned out to stand for mother-child interactions, and parental care meant maternal care. This, of course, implies that mothers alone are responsible for developmental outcomes of their offspring. Ermm… should neuroscience really have nothing better to offer than a Freudian it-is-always-the-mother’s-fault explanation? I decided no and raised the obvious questions: Where are the fathers in that equation? What about their brains? And what about families that do not even include a mother?

Guys can be mothers, too

Luckily, in 2014, a group of Israeli researchers attended to those questions. They investigated parenting behavior and parental brain responses to infant stimuli in three groups of parents raising their firstborn babies: heterosexual primary-caregiving mothers, heterosexual secondary-caregiving fathers, and homosexual primary-caregiving fathers (both biological and adoptive). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the authors identified a brain network involved in parental caregiving that was mainly consistent across parents and comprises two neural sub-systems.

First, the emotional processing network including brain structures associated with vigilance, reward, and motivation. Second, the mentalizing network comprising brain circuits implicated in social understanding and empathy. Importantly, within the global parenting network, homosexual primary-caregiving fathers raising infants without maternal involvement exhibited a co-activation of brain regions that showed stronger activations in either primary-caregiving mothers or secondary-caregiving fathers.

This demonstrates that the parental brain is highly adaptive to the challenges it faces. In the case of homosexual fathers, the brain adjusts to the absence of a mother to secure the infant’s well-being, regardless of whether they were biological or genetically unrelated caregivers. Isn’t that awesome!?

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The who’s who of parents. Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

And it gets even better. In a longitudinal study, the same authors followed heterosexual primary-caregiving biological mothers and homosexual primary-caregiving biological fathers and their children for the first four years of life. They wanted to know whether and how the parental brain supports the development of a child’s social abilities. They found that integrity of the emotional processing and mentalizing network was positively associated with children’s social skills and ability to regulate their emotions. These findings hint at a direct link between the functionality of the parental brain and the child’s social competencies. Crucially, the parent’s sex is not essential in this relationship.

At this point, you may wonder: What about non-biological mothers? Only recently, a first study compared brain responses of adoptive and biological mothers to infant cues. Results indicate that both types of mothers are equally emotionally reactive to auditory infant stimuli. Adoptive mothers’ brains do not undergo changes connected to pregnancy and associated hormones, most notably oxytocin. Thus, they recruit different brain networks compared to biological mothers to meet their caregiving responsibilities. Ultimately, the brain compensates for different preconditions and makes adoptive mothers just as sensitive and able to bond with their infants as biological mothers.

Talking evolution… or revolution?

The brain perpetually changes with our experiences. This plasticity is one of the most fascinating features of the brain. In terms of the parental brain, plasticity showcases not just the brain’s adaptiveness, but also its social implications. Think about it. Whenever we talk about parents, we talk about mothers and fathers, implying the presence of different-sex parents, and that each have different roles in child-rearing. Mothers are females, fathers are males, and they have different parenting responsibilities.

Scientists holding this view usually use inherent differences between males and females in their argument, the most prominent being the female body’s capability to carry and bear a child. Yes, evolution has shaped our brains. And – thankfully – it has shaped the female brain and body in a way that makes females capable of giving birth and – back in the early days – let them survive this endeavor without receiving pain medication. However, I do not share the opinion that evolutionary theory justifies sticking to old habits and medieval attitudes.

The parental brain is a textbook example of how science could inform society and politics, and bring about social change that is nothing short of a revolution. Seriously. Imagine if there was no legislation questioning, impeding or prohibiting homosexual people’s wish to raise children with their same-sex partners. Based on research on the parental brain, there would be no justification to do so.

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At the intersection to equal rights? Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

Beyond that, I think it’s about time to disentangle caregiving and gender roles once and for all! If we observe differences in mothers’ and fathers’ brains, they do not necessarily reflect inherent sex differences but rather adaptations to the specific parenting role. Further, we have seen that those roles are not determined by sex. Thus, it does not seem to hold any longer to think and talk in terms of mothers and fathers. Rather, we should talk in terms of primary and secondary caregivers – and even tertiary for that matter.

Taking care of change

Neuroscience is propelled by the search for differences. Thus, it might be biased to finding them. But sometimes, it is the absence of differences that is the real deal. As for the parental brain, it is not about emphasizing differences, but highlighting similarities.

Don’t get me wrong – differences are great. Unfortunately, some differences are not embraced, but go hand in hand with prejudice and discrimination. I wish it wouldn’t take neuroscience research to grant equal rights for everyone. However, that is not where we are right now. So, let’s make a virtue of necessity and let science push us forward in the hope that some day our object of research is not a mother’s or a father’s brain, but just a human brain. After all, if our brains are adaptive, chances are that society is, too.

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