Why are mothers better parents than fathers? Mommy’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” In a climactic scene in the 1999 horror movie The Blair Witch Project, Heather Donahue’s character, sensing her and her friends’ impending deaths in the woods, turns the camera on herself and says “I just want to apologize to Josh’s mom, and Mike’s mom, and my mom. ” Given that her film project eventually led to Mike’s and Josh’s (as well as her own) deaths (sorry for the spoiler), an apology might make sense. But why did she apologize to their mothers, and not to their fathers?
The answer, from an evolutionary psychological perspective, is that Heather instinctively knew, as do most of us, that children are more important to their mothers than to their fathers, and, as a result, their loss would be more devastating to their mothers than to their fathers. It is not difficult to find abundant evidence for the fact that mothers are more dedicated to their children than fathers. For example, when married couples with children get divorced, chances are that the children stay with the mother, not the father, especially if they are young.
According to the 1992 March/April Current Population Survey in the United States, conducted by the US Census Bureau on a nationally representative sample, 86% of custodial parents are mothers. Further, many of the noncustodial fathers who have agreed to pay child support, either voluntarily or via court order, default on their commitment and become “deadbeat dads. ” The first national survey of the receipt of child support, conducted in 1978, reveals that less than half (49%) of women awarded child support actually received the full amount due to them, and more than a quarter (28%) of them received nothing.
The percentages have remained more or less constant since. In 1991, 52% of custodial parents awarded child support received the full amount; 25% of them received nothing. So the question remains: Why are women so much more dedicated parents than men? Why are there so many deadbeat dads but so few deadbeat moms? On the surface, this massive sex difference in the dedication to children may appear puzzling, since both the mother and the father are equally related to their children genetically; each parent transmits half of their genes to their child. However, there are two biological factors that ombine to make fathers far less committed as parents than mothers. The first is paternity uncertainty. Because gestation for all mammals (including humans) takes place internally within the female’s body, the male can never be certain of his paternity, whereas maternity is always certain. And paternity uncertainty is not a remote theoretical possibility. As I mention in a previous post, the estimated incidence of cuckoldry (men unwittingly raising and investing in another man’s genetic offspring) in contemporary Western societies is substantial (between 10% and 30%).
Thus, this is a very realistic possibility for any father in contemporary Western society and probably elsewhere throughout human history as well. Naturally, men are not motivated to invest in children who have a distinct possibility of not being genetically theirs. The twin concept of paternity uncertainty and maternity certainty is captured in the common saying “Mommy’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe. ” Every single mother, not only among humans but among all mammalian species, has been certain that the child that she has just given birth to is hers; no woman has ever wondered, as a child is coming out of her body, “Hmmm….
I wonder if this child is really mine…. ” In contrast, every single father wonders, either explicitly or implicitly. Some wonder more than others, but no father has ever been completely certain of his paternity. The best he can ever say is “Maybe. ” The second biological factor that makes fathers less committed parents is their higher fitness ceiling (the best they can do reproductively). Fetuses gestate for nine months within the female body, and infants are, at least in the past, nursed by the mother for several years after birth, during which the mother is usually infertile (lactational amenorrhea).
Women also have a much shorter reproductive life than men do due to menopause. These two factors combine to create a much higher fitness ceiling for men than for women. Men can potentially have many more children than women can. The largest number of children that a man has ever had is at least 1,042. The last Sharifian emperor of Morocco, Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty (pictured above), maintained a large harem, as many ancient rulers did, and had at least 700 sons and 342 daughters. The exact number of children that Moulay Ismail had in his lifetime is lost to history, because they stopped counting them after a while.
The reason the recorded number of sons is more than twice as many as the recorded number of daughters is because they stopped counting daughters long before they stopped counting sons. In contrast, the largest number of children that a woman has ever had is 69. The wife of an eighteenth-century Russian peasant, Feodor Vassilyev, had 27 pregnancies in her life, including 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets; amazingly, Mrs. Vassilyeva never had any single births in her life! And all but two of her 69 children survived to adulthood.
Exactly how many children Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty and Mrs. Vassilyeva had is not important. What’s important is this: The largest number of children that a man can potentially have is two orders of magnitude greater than the potential number of children that a woman can have (thousands vs. tens). The massive sex difference in the largest possible number of children means that, while reproductive success is equally important to men and women (in fact, to all biological organisms), each child is far more important to the mother than it is to the father.
Each child represents a far greater proportion of a woman’s lifetime reproductive potential than it does a man’s. If a 40-year-old mother of five deserts her children and they die as a result, she will likely end her life as a total reproductive loser, having failed to leave any copy of her genes in the next generation. If a 40-year-old father of five does the same, he can go on to produce five (or ten or twenty) more children.
Both paternity uncertainty and the higher fitness ceiling make fathers less committed parents than mothers, and this is why there are so many more deadbeat dads than deadbeat moms; very few women abandon or neglect their children. Ironically, it is the mother’s greater commitment to her children that allows the father to neglect them even more. Knowing the mother’s greater commitment to her children, the father can abandon them, secure in the knowledge that the mother would never do likewise, because if she did, the children would be virtually certain to die.
In other words, divorced parents with children are playing a game of Chicken, and it is usually the mother who swerves. Most fathers would probably prefer to invest in their children and raise them by themselves rather than see them die, but they normally do not have to make this difficult decision, because they know that the mother would never abandon them. The mother’s greater commitment to her children ironically allows the father to have his cake and eat it too, by moving on to the next marriage and family in which to invest.