A recent study found that men who spend three or more hours a day on childcare experience a drop in testosterone. When I first saw reports about this study, I wasn't sure what to make of it. Tweets on the subject seemed dominated by a “watch out, dudes” tone and the New York Times report opens with “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” It proceeds to wax dramatic, saying that testosterone drops with each reading of "Goodnight Moon."
This all seemed a bit panicky to me, so I was relieved to find the interpretation sociologist Hugo Schweitzer offered on the website The Good Men Project. I was also struck by how much his perspective reflected my understanding of Christian faith formation.
Schweitzer writes that this research is great news for men because it means that being a good father doesn't require a man to fight his own body and its tendencies. While some seasons and events demand the aggression testosterone can promote, others do not, and our bodies adjust hormones to the kinds of behavior required. Men aren’t “hard wired” for aggression; the metaphor of “wiring” suggests a kind of permanence that this data denies. Instead, they are designed to respond appropriately to a variety of situations. Schweitzer doesn't point to the wisdom of our creator in making us so complex and flexible, but as Christians we can appreciate how much beauty and thoughtfulness is included in God’s design.
The abstract for the study also suggests that this testosterone drop might account for why partnered fathers tend to be healthier than single men. The authors call it a “likely explanation.” This suggests our bodies might actually be built to function better in response to a balance between seasons of aggression and seasons of nurturing.
This perspective on the data also reinforces my understanding of how Christian faith formation works. When we engage in the activities of the church - worship, prayer, service - we are shaping ourselves to be more the kinds of people God wants us to be. If spending time nurturing makes men more biologically inclined to nurture, it seems to follow that spending time in worship might also change us to be more inclined to worship. Many Christian traditions believe that a real, literal change takes place when we participate in sacraments like communion or baptism, though we disagree on how that change works. Given this research, it doesn't seem so outrageous to suggest that something material in us may change as we develop habits of devotion and a relationship with God.
This perspective is great news for Christian formation. It suggests that how we mold our behavior has an influence over what our bodies incline us to do. What a great gift God has given us for centuries by providing Christian practices to help form us closer to His image!
Bethany Keeley-Jonker is a blogger and PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Georgia. She is married to Justin and lives in Athens, Ga.
(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)