The Science of Mother's Day

Some sad orphans
Some surprising rats
Those orphans again
Day care blues
Mice and men


A California mouse family, with father, mother, and their 5 day old young.

© David Gubernick, 1999.


Of mice and men
If you're a mother California mouse, you won't need to dink around with child care. Not only are you the only mouse that's strictly monogamous, but your mate takes cares of the kids. He's not in the nursing biz, but the old boy does just as many kinds of care, for just as many hours a day, as you do. the happy mouse family
Those attributes interested David Gubernick, an associate research psychologist at the University of California at Davis. By exposing male mice to unrelated infants and checking whether they care for the infants, he's distinguished two kinds of males. Most get "turned on" to the idea of taking care of the young only after the birth. The presence of the young, combined with the presence of the female, keeps him parental. Actually, a chemical signal in her urine is what does the trick -- but only after the birth.

Yet 25 percent to 30 percent of males start feeling maternal much earlier, when they start living and mating with their partner. These males "remain paternal throughout the female's pregnancy, and after the young are born, even if not exposed to the females," Gubernick says.

In both cases, the test for paternal behavior is to expose the males to unrelated young. If they warm and groom the young, they are acting paternal.

Dandy dad duz diapers
Does this prove that only mousy men care for their infants? No, and actually it tells us nothing directly about human behavior. Still, Gubernick says it does give an indication of "What are the conditions under which males are likely to care for the young."

That's a major issue. Eight percent of American households with children are headed by a woman with no man present. Seventy-nine percent of Americans agree that "the most significant family, or social problem facing America is the physical absence of the father from the home," sez a Gallup poll on fathering. For contrast, two percent of families with children are headed by a man without a woman present.

The research also helps put human parenting into perspective of the range of animal parenting behaviors. "There are data in humans that indicate how important is the relation between the mother and father on the male's response to the young," says Gubernick. "A real disruption -- a breaking of the pair bond -- is detrimental to the male's caring for the young."

Similarly, the findings have parallels in the fact that some men naturally act paternal, while others don't catch diaper fever until the baby arrives. (Need we mention that some men -- like the majority of primates - never do?)

As society decides how to make sure more children know their fathers, Gubernick notes that California mice actually need the old feller. In a field study, he removed the father from 11 females when they gave birth. After a new male moved into the nest, eight of the mothers stopped lactating and the pups died (three mothers continued feeding the pups and they survived).

To men who've been wondering about their role in the complex world of parenting, the message was clear, says Gubernick. "The primary reason for the deaths was the females' response to the loss of a mate."

dad! The author is male. He is a parent. He is tempted to make a quip. He will let the facts speak for themselves.

Our Mother's Day bibliography should speak for itself, too.

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