Sunday, July 11, 2010

Paternal Instinct

The last few years have seen me experience a new phenomenon in my life: a feeling of paternal instinct. This instinct does not manifest as a desire to have kids of my own. It's best described as feeling as if I could engage in hand to hand combat with a saber tooth tiger. I first noticed it around my baby niece. She was, and continues to be, absolutely adorable. But rather than a desire to hold her (terrifying), make cooing sounds at her, or have one of my own, I felt a desire to beat the tar out of anything that would try to hurt her. I'm sure we all want to protect our families; I'm certain I would also want to tar-beat anyone who tried to hurt anyone in my family. But, this was not an intellectual awareness, this was a noticeable increase in adrenaline and testosterone. A chemical reaction to the presence of baby.

I'm always interested when I experience something that I recognize as evolutionarily built into my brain. Whether I'm scared of an insect I know to be harmless, or spending time babysitting on the lookout for a charging rhinoceros, knowing that the instinctual feeling isn't relevant, or particularly helpful, doesn't do much to change it.

However, even more than my fear of spiders, sharks and zombies, this particular instinct feels almost completely obsolete. In fact, the more I've thought about it, the more I realize that the desire to keep a small child safe from physical harm through the use of protective violence is almost certainly harmful. The protector might be a very natural role for fathers in a more primal, evolutionary setting, but that role is far less clear in a modern world.

First, it's not available as a demonstration of love. Parental love appears to be a fairly important piece of childhood development.* I'm sure that most parents want their children to always know how much they love them, I'm sure I will. Yet, we are all aware of the image of a stoic, seemingly unemotional father figure, who loves his children with all his heart. That male is the centerpiece of many classic TV shows. In such stories this love might be demonstrated in a moment of sacrifice, or in the father's brave efforts to keep his family safe. Clearly culture plays a huge role in creating this particular father role, but I think it's also instinctual and desirable for many men. But, in the real world the opportunities to demonstrate your love for your child by protecting them from harm are few and far between. But, the desire, the fantasy, is going to live strong. I wonder if this creates a certain distance between some men and their children as the men struggle to demonstrate, or even understand, their love of their child and their role, and no opportunities to show this love through action arise.

Second, I could see this protectionism instinct as creating more actively harmful results. Most notably guns in the house. I think we can see the cultural and instinctual role of father as the protector when we imagine approaching a father and saying: "You need a gun in the house in order to protect your family from harm." In fact, it seems that certain advertising takes that exact tactic. Certainly, there are many men who scoff at such a statement, but I'd guess that even many liberals, even many Europeans (outside the gun culture) would balk just a bit. But, we all know that having a gun in the home creates more danger for children, not less. The reality is that when faced with danger in today's world it is almost universally better to contact the authorities than to react with violence. The desire to react with violence, or a bottling up of this protective instinct seems to have a great deal of potential for serious harm.

In all of this I don't mean to create a biological excuse for distant or overly protective fathers. Despite my willingness to do battle with a pack of wild hyenas every time I pass a playground, I don't plan on keeping a gun in the house. Also, I'm sure that women have similar feelings of protectionism around small children. I mostly point this out because these feelings have been unexpected and interesting. There are certainly 'fatherhood' groups out there that seem to be based on the idea that fathers are disenfranchised in today's society. I wonder if some of this feeling doesn't come from a feeling of uselessness regarding their most primal instincts.

I would suggest that we men need to understand that the modern world requires of us actions that are far different, and almost certainly far more rewarding, than the actions of a standoffish protector.

*I don't mean to suggest that source of this love has to be parents.


  1. This is interesting - it's especially interesting as it applies to the gender of the children, and also to some questions of class.

    The protective instinct is obviously a lot stronger when it applies to fathers and their daughters in early dating. Teenage girls rarely get chased out of their boyfriends' house with a shotgun. This all then shows the projections that go on to dating: it's specifically that girls need protection from boys.

    There's obviously a strong grain of truth to that; women are distinctly at greater risk of partner violence and of course, they're the ones who get pregnant. But an overprotective parents, you'd think, would be at least skeptical of partners of either sex, who certainly are intruders that could mess up a kid emotionally or whatever. The construction of fatherhood as violent really creates a wall there, I think, where boys and dads are generally unable to talk about vulnerability and instead just start ignoring each other in that context, if the general schema is unchallenged.

    On a different note, we do have two broad constructions of fathers as providers and/or protectors, and I think as men have generally lost earning power, or at least, the power to be sole earners, there's more pressure on the other side. The rise of the bizarre, right-wing virginity obsession, as specifically a role for fathers, may have some root in this class change: no longer could middle-class men see themselves as sole breadwinners who could comfortably have fulfilled their duty. Forced to share that role with their wives, some men certainly could be tempted to find a new source of that authority, and sought out the purity/virginity movement because it gave them a very gendered relationship with their family - in all its creepy incestousness. It triggered the violent wing once the material wing was damaged.

  2. With the dating protection I wonder if it isn't pent up desire to protect. If your child goes 14 years and you haven't defended her from any wild animals or any real dangers yet, I could see certain fathers feeling unfulfilled. So it seems possible that some of that pent up desire to protect could spill out into the exagerated character of the shotgun wielding father.

    However, I'm not sure that holds water, as it doesn't explain the gender difference. I think the lion slaying paternal intinct I describe applies equally to sons and daughters. It's possible that it is exactly what you say. Father as protector is lost in today's world, and so a certain cultural group just assigns something new to the father to protect: virginity instead of physical safety.