Why mothers are generally better parents than fathers

Mike wanted to buy a new bike and was short of cash. He decided to ask his parents for money. He first thought of going to his father, but, on a second thought, he dropped the idea. He went to his mother instead who happily complied with the request.

Mike had always felt that his dad loved him slightly less than his mom. He knew that his father loved and cared for him and would do anything for him, no doubt, but his love and care wasn’t comparable with that of his mother. Initially, he thought only he felt this way but after talking to many of his friends he came to realize that most dads are like his father.

Mothers typically love, care, support and provide for their children more than fathers. This is the general trend observed in humans and other mammals.1

Mother’s love is put on a pedestal and ascribed a divine status. Father’s love, even though its existence isn’t denied, is hardly given the same status or importance.

But why is it so?

mother carrying baby


Parental care is costly


Mull over the phenomenon of parental care for a while.

Two people come together, bond, mate and devote most of their time, energy and resources to raising their offspring. By investing in offspring, parents lose out on resources that could be as well devoted to themselves.

For example, these resources could instead be channeled toward finding additional mates or increasing reproductive output (i.e. finding more mates and having more children).

Also, parents who protect their young jeopardize their own survival. They’re more likely to get wounded or even die whilst trying to fend off predators in order to protect their offspring. 

Due to such high costs, parental care is not universal in the animal kingdom. Oysters, for example, release their sperm and eggs into the ocean, leaving their offspring adrift devoid of any parental care. For every oyster that manages to survive, thousands die. Reptiles also show little to no parental care.

Thankfully, we’re neither oysters nor reptiles and natural selection has programmed humans to care for our young, at least till they reach puberty. The costs of parental care are, more often than not, outweighed by its reproductive benefits in humans.


Parental care is more costly to human males


Parental care is more costly to human males than to human females because males have more to lose reproductively than females if they engage in long-term parental care.

Effort directed toward parenting cannot be directed toward mating. Since men can produce much more offspring than women, if they engage in parental care they miss out on additional mating opportunities that could have increased their reproductive output.

Women, on the other hand, can produce a limited number of children throughout their lifetime and raising those children carries its own costs. So they generally cannot afford to increase their reproductive output by capitalizing on additional mating opportunities.

Plus, beyond a certain age (menopause), women become incapable of producing children at all. This physiological strategy probably evolved to ensure that women take good care of the few children that they do bear.  

When they reach menopause, other avenues of reproduction become practically non-existent for women. So their existing children are their only hope- their only vehicles for passing on their genes. On the contrary, men can continue to produce offspring for as long as they’re alive. Hence, additional mating avenues are available to them all the time.

Men have built-in psychological mechanisms that can lure them away from parental care to seek out additional mating opportunities because it could mean more reproductive success. 

Hence there’s a bias towards lesser parental investment in men because the lesser they invest in their current offspring the more they can allocate toward potential future reproductive success. 


Paternity certainty

Another reason why a woman invests more of her resources, time and effort into her offspring is that she can be 100% sure that she’s the mother of her child. After all, she’s the one who physically gave birth to the child. The child is essentially a part of her body. She’s 100% sure that her offspring contains 50% of her genes. 

Men don’t enjoy this sort of certainty. From a male’s perspective, there can always be some probability that another male has impregnated the female.2

Males suffer tremendous costs by channeling their resources to other men’s descendants. Resources devoted to a rival’s children are resources taken away from one’s own. Therefore, they have a subconscious tendency to be stingy when it comes to investing in their children.

In conclusion, lost additional mating opportunities coupled with paternity uncertainty have shaped the human male psyche to invest slightly less in their offspring than the females. 

Note that if these two factors are taken care of, men are likely to invest more in their offspring than they might be inclined to. For example, being romantically attached to their partners in a monogamous relationship eliminates the scope for additional matings and men in such relationships are likely to invest more in their offspring.

Furthermore, if paternity uncertainty is reduced somehow, it should also lead to increased investment in offspring. For instance, if a child looks a lot like his father, the father can be more certain that the child is his own and is likely to invest more.3

This is why children are more likely to look like their fathers than their mothers. 

References:

1. Royle, N. J., Smiseth, P. T., & Kölliker, M. (Eds.). (2012). The evolution of parental care. Oxford University Press.

2. Buss, D. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. Psychology Press.

3. Bridgeman, B. (2003). Psychology and evolution: The origins of mind. Sage.

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