Why Some Men Go Nuts After Their Wives Give Birth
A New Yorker report alleges President Trump engaged in multiple affairs just three months after his son was born. A psychologist explains why that could be.
On Friday, The New Yorker dropped a bombshell report by Ronan Farrow detailing President Donald Trump’s systematic concealment of affairs he had with multiple women soon after the birth of his new son, Barron, who was just 3 months old. At the time, though, Trump was at a pool party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
Farrow writes of Trump’s first meeting with Karen McDougal, 1998’s Playmate of the year:
Trump seemed uninhibited by his new family obligations. McDougal later wrote that Trump “immediately took a liking to me, kept talking to me—telling me how beautiful I was, etc. It was so obvious that a Playmate Promotions exec said, ‘Wow, he was all over you—I think you could be his next wife.’”
Darby Saxbe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California’s Neuroendocrinology of Social Ties lab, said that Trump’s behavior is emblematic of a hands-off new dad. Saxbe’s research has focused on the psychology of new fatherhood and its associated psychology.
“From [the story published by The New Yorker], Trump is not invested in the caretaking of his baby and is pursuing status through mating opportunities,” Saxbe told The Daily Beast. Translation: When his son was born, Trump could care less about his kid and more about who he was going to woo next.
That would seem to go against evolutionary biology.
New fathers traditionally experience a dip in testosterone with the birth of a child, according to research Saxbe published in September 2017 in the journal Hormones and Behavior. That dip makes evolutionary sense. “Caring for a baby is emotionally challenging work that rewires the brain and body,” Saxbe said. The mechanics of this hormonal change, however, aren’t understood. Some research suggests that hormones like cortisol, which regulates the immune response, sync up and co-regulate between partners, becoming “contagious” in a way; “If a mom’s hormones are changing during postpartum, a dad’s might change to correlate hormones,” Saxbe said.
That’s so that a father is involved in taking care of the child. Across the animal kingdom, the birth of a child alters the chemistry of a father’s hormones to keep them from competing for other mates and provide for their children.
The same rings true for new human fathers, Saxbe found in a related study published in April 2017 in Hormones and Behavior. “When testosterone levels fall, [men] are not looking to mate with partners,” Saxbe explained. “That also helps for a man to be more nurturing and non-aggressive to their offspring.”
While we might associate postpartum depression with women, it’s something that new dads can easily experience, according to Saxbe, which occurs between the first six and 24 months of a baby’s birth. “Yeah, definitely,” Saxbe said of how falling testosterone levels can affect a new father’s mental health. “There’s some evidence that depression risk can double in new dads compared to men of the same age in the same population.”
Saxbe said the process of having a child and adjusting to not only its needs but also identifying with the baby as their parent can rock a father’s hormonal levels—even though he did not physically carry or bear the child. “There’s heightened stress and diminished sleep, and a change to the romantic relationship,” Saxbe said.
But back to Trump. Farrow’s piece chronicles the president’s alleged infidelity to June 2006, when Trump had been married to his wife Melania for about a year and a half, who had just had their son Barron, then 3 months old.
Trump was a brand new parent, and if the allegations are indeed true, then he was flouting the very evolutionary biology of new fatherhood that would indicate he’d want to be nurturing his child and protecting his wife.
But that would be for a father who is involved and hands-on with their son. By all indications, Trump was not involved with the day-to-day caring of Barron, especially during his infancy. In April 2016, BuzzFeed unearthed interviews the then-business mogul had with the Opie and Anthony show, among other outlets.
From the piece (the unearthed tapes have since been removed):
“Do you actually change diapers?” host Anthony Cumia asked Donald Trump on the Opie and Anthony show in November 2005.
The then-59-year-old businessman, whose wife Melania was pregnant with his fifth child and her first, responded bluntly: “No, I don’t do that.”
“There’s a lot of women out there that demand that the husband act like the wife, and you know, there’s a lot of husbands that listen to that,” Trump added. “So you know, they go for it.”
“If I had a different type of wife,” Trump said, laughing, “I probably wouldn’t have a baby, ya know, cause that’s not my thing. I’m really, like, a great father, but certain things you do and certain things you don’t. It’s just not for me.”
That arguably sexist comment is not an isolated instance in which Trump seemed to not prioritize the nurturing of his child. Barron is the fifth and youngest of his children, and plenty of interviews exist where the elder Trump children explain their relationship with their father growing up. A 2006 New York Times profile included a quote from Eric Trump: “My father, I love and I appreciate, but he always worked 24 hours a day.” Don Jr. echoed his younger brother in a 2004 interview with New York Magazine, saying, “My father is a very hardworking guy, and that’s his focus in life, so I got a lot of the paternal attention that a boy wants and needs from my grandfather.”
So Trump wasn’t exactly the most present dad. Which makes Saxbe think that Trump’s testosterone levels didn’t necessarily dip as they otherwise would for a more present new dad—suggesting that his testosterone remained at “normal” levels. “When you become a parent you adapt to your mate’s hormonal levels,” she said. “Based on Trump’s actions”—being present for neither his wife nor his newborn child and allegedly engaging in multiple affairs with multiple women—“he’s still seeking status and mates.” The actions described by Farrow immediately after Barron’s birth suggest that Trump isn’t in the fatherly point of testosterone; he’s still trying to impress women by giving away real estate and reimbursing flights to parties.
To be sure, Saxbe said she’d have to get a sample of Trump’s saliva to test his testosterone levels at the time—“which I’d love to do,” Saxbe said—but Farrow’s reporting makes Saxbe think that Trump’s got a different “reproductive strategy,” one more focused on mating than parenting, shown especially with Farrow’s reporting of Trump juggling multiple women at a time and getting jealous when some of these women had other partners despite the fact that he was allegedly cheating on his wife.
Still, how a dad is affected by his partner’s pregnancy is not yet understood. It’s not because it’s difficult; Saxbe laid out a plan when asked about how such a study could be carried out: “You’d need longitudinal research, where you recruit dads before a pregnancy, then measure how their hormones are changing during the pregnancy and after.” The problem, though, is that it’s not been done, probably because of the indirect effects a baby’s birth has on the mental health of a father and the assumption up until now that because a man could not physically give birth, his health was not compromised.
Saxbe said there are myriad ways a man takes on fatherhood, and that there are no universal experiences. “Some dads support their family and partner,” she said. “Some dads chase other opportunities. And some dads just aren’t there for their partner and kid.”