Dad’s the word at father-themed festival event

20 May
Dr Anna Machin and Rebecca Stott

Dr Anna Machin and Rebecca Stott

My mind was still reeling from the subject of kids – or rather Kids Company and its charismatic founder Camila Batmanghelidjh – when I sat down to listen to two authors talk about fatherhood.

Dr Anna Machin was billed to talk about The Life of Dad: a study of the changing nature of fatherhood, and the physical psychological changes a man goes through when he becomes a dad.

The changing nature of fatherhood, huh? I guess 50 years ago I might have come home from work, hung up my trilby and trenchcoat, pulled on my slippers, and smoked my pipe while my wife put tea on the table. The children – if they weren’t reading books or painting a go-kart – would be playing with tin toys at my feet.

Life in 2018 is somewhat different. That day, having got the children out of bed, washed and dressed; made breakfast and packed lunches; and sent them off to school, I squeezed an eight-hour day into six short hours before they got back home, and my responsibilities turned to filling their bellies with an evening meal.

Dr Anna found that studies into ‘unusual’ dads – young fathers, old fathers, the effect on children of absent fathers – were common, but no-one had taken a scientific look at the ‘regular’ dad.

And so began a ten-year project, studying fathers – some from the birth of their first child, others with slightly older children who passed into their teenage years as the study progressed.

One interesting finding was that after securing a life partner, and particularly after fatherhood, a man’s testosterone levels plummet, never to return to their bachelor levels. The reason? A biological imperative to find a mate, but then protect that mate and her offspring. We humans are unusual in the animal kingdom – a select group of five percent – in practising monogamy.

That testosterone is replaced by another brain chemical – dopamine. It triggers the reward and pleasure centres. Our brains, then, are telling us it’s great to settle down.

The evolutionary anthropologist also slid mums and dads though an MRI scanner, and showed them pictures of their kids. What was interesting, she said, is that different parts of the brain light up: for the mother, the sparks are in the nurturing and caring part of the brain; in dad, those electrical pulses are popping in the parts of the brain concerned with teaching, and with protection.

That’s fascinating – my wife and I have tried to bring as much equality to parenthood as we can. There are no ‘dad’ jobs and ‘mum’ jobs.

I grew up in a family where Dad worked, and Mum stayed at home and did the day-to-day child-rearing. My dad’s role was at the experiential extremes: the trill of teaching us to swim, ride a bike (or later drive a car) or the doling out of punishments for transgressions during the day. My mum was responsible for fixing meals, and the drudgery in between.

And if Dr Anna’s findings are correct then could it be, despite our attempts to raise our children as equal partners rather than adopting ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ roles, that nature demands the observance of these traditional roles?

Perhaps not. When single fathers are shown pictures of their children during the MRI scan, both parts of the brain light up. “The human brain is amazing,” said Anna.

Then again, perhaps our brains are responding to the roles that are expected of us. Perhaps my innate desire to protect and educate is a result of nurture, rather than nature.

It’s something I would like to have seen explored further in the author’s presentation. But this was a double bill – and with two authors sharing the platform, not only was there half the time for presentations (15 minutes each) but the Q&A session was shared, with listeners’ enquiries bouncing between both authors. With no more common ground than both authors having written about fathers this could, at times, become confusing.

Rebecca Stott also had a story about fatherhood. Her book is a memoir about growing up in a cult – the Exclusive Brethren.

As the name suggests, members of the church like to keep themselves to themselves: the rest of society – even other Christians – are tainted by wickedness.

The Exclusive Brethren follow a rigid code of conduct based on the teachings of the Bible. This firm moral framework is build around a strong family unit, with a strict father.

Things fundamentally changed when the sect leader was found in bed with another man’s wife. Stott’s father – a priest: a kind of morality police officer within the community, extracting confessions from sinners – asked awkward questions and was booted out of the group.

The In the Days of Rain author described her exit from the cult as “being lost in a town where all the signs had been changed into a language I didn’t know”.

As she found her way in the world by discovering books and theatre, but also shoplifting and teenage pregnancy, her father started out on the same voyage of theatrical discovery, but his life quickly spiralled into adultery, gambling addiction, theft, bankruptcy, and prison.

Years later, and dying of a terminal illness, her father asked Rebecca to finish the book her had been trying to write – the story of his life in the brethren.

It was interesting that having experienced such a cloistered upbringing as a result of her father’s religious beliefs, and suffering from him the punishments for digression that the cult demanded, before watching him spiral out of control and abandon everything he had held true, she could still express deep affection for her father.

I guess that gives hope to all dads.

Anna Machin and Rebecca Stott were talking at Swindon Festival of Literature on Wednesday May 16. Words by Peter Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué

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