Over a mojito at a bar in Brooklyn, near the flat he shares with his wife and two children, he admits that he is not a stereotypically macho guy. Most of his friends are women, he says. He was never much of an athlete and his marriage is a fairly egalitarian two-career juggling act.
Yet there is something about his bond with his boy that feels particularly profound. Partly, he thinks, it is because his four-year-old son is older, and therefore more interesting.
As the first-born, his son is also teaching Matt how to be a parent, which provokes all sorts of potent new emotions and anxieties. But perhaps the most compelling reason is also the simplest: Every time I look at him I see myself when I was four years old. In rich countries, where children are more like luxury goods than savvy economic investments, and where gender is simply one attribute among many, parents tend to pride themselves on their open-hearted, unconditional love for every member of their brood.
Admitting a stronger emotional connection with one child over another, one sex over the other, is taboo. Yet the presence or absence of children of either sex has a real impact on the dynamics of a family — even, it seems, on whether the family survives as a unit. Gordon Dahl at the University of California, San Diego and Enrico Moretti at the University of California, Berkeley noticed more than a decade ago that men are more likely to marry, and stay married to, women who bore them sons rather than daughters.
In an analysis of American census data, they found that men were more inclined to propose to their partners if they discovered that a baby in utero was a boy, and they were less prone to getting a divorce if the first child was a boy rather than a girl. In the event of divorce, men with sons were more likely to get custody, and women with daughters were less likely to remarry. To confirm this relationship between sons and marital harmony, Laura Giuliano, an economist at the University of Miami, analysed a survey of parents of children born in America between and She found that couples with a son were indeed more likely to be married three years after the birth of their child than those with a daughter.
This effect can be seen in data on households across a number of rich countries, which show that adolescent boys are more likely than girls to live with both biological parents. What is going on here? Do fathers simply prefer sons? Or are there other forces that bind fathers to homes with boys?
People will also reveal to pollsters preferences they might keep from their families. In every Gallup poll since the s, when asked which sex they would prefer if they could have only one child, Americans have consistently pulled for boys.
Results from the most recent poll, in , were startlingly similar to those from the first: Americans said they favour boys over girls by a margin of 12 percentage points. This preference is driven mainly by men; women are largely agnostic. By granting their children opportunities that they themselves lacked, and by behaving as the parents they always wanted, many seek to remove the same obstacles they believe were set on their own paths as they were growing up. This desire is hardly exclusive to men.
Mothers offer babies their first opportunity for attachment; their bodies are literally essential for nourishment. Many fathers find it takes longer to connect with their children, not only because they lack that physical bond, but also because they are often stuck at work during the day.
So it makes sense that the activities they are most eager to share are the ones they enjoy themselves. Over a dinner of lentils and broccoli at his flat in Brooklyn, they are quick to make each other laugh.
It would be something that we could have in common. The hope, he explains, is that his son will ultimately fill that gap. But the burden of parenting often creates tension among couples. American time-diary data from to found that married fathers with a child between six and 12 years old spent nearly 40 more minutes per day with sons than with daughters, mostly doing things like playing sports and watching television. In married families with two children of the same sex, fathers with sons spent between 22 and 27 minutes more per day on child care, and said they had less leisure time than those with daughters.
Married mothers, on the other hand, spent only around six minutes more per day with a daughter than a son. Sons also seem to push fathers to be more productive. Studies of Americans and Germans born after found that having a child of either sex spurred fathers to bring home more bacon, but the difference between a son and a daughter was considerable: Lundberg, who has spent years trying to untangle the economics of child gender and parental behaviour, suggests this gap was a sign that fathers were keener to provide for families with sons.
Parents of sons seem not just to earn more but also to spend more. He is creating his own traditions of what he does as a dad. And my oldest son always likes to do things the way his dad does it. When Giuliano delved into the reasons why more couples with a son stayed together after three years than those with a daughter, she found that fathers of boys were not only more likely to say they were excited to become a parent, but also more helpful around the home.
Mothers of boys, in turn, were more likely to praise their husbands as fathers, and were happier in their relationships than those with only girls. But there was a telling detail in the data Giuliano examined: A wealth of research shows that family structure — and the presence of fathers especially — makes a far bigger difference to the lives of boys than girls.
A recent analysis of American adolescents, for example, found that boys who lacked a father figure at home were more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour. For daughters, however, the presence of a father did not make much of a difference. As the number of single-parent households rises, the resilience of girls may help to explain the widening academic gender gap across much of the industrialised world.
A recent study of 1m children born in Florida between and found that boys born to poorly educated, unmarried mothers in neighbourhoods with bad schools were much more likely to have cognitive and behavioural problems than girls raised under the same conditions. Not only did the boys perform worse academically, but also they were more likely to drop out and sell drugs or become violent. Women tend to get more of their emotional sustenance from their daughters, says Botnick, and they may also feel the need to be a strong female role model.
The job of modelling manhood for the next generation is not easy. Grover offers group therapy sessions for both mothers and fathers. The differences between the two, he says, are stark. Just cried and cried and cried. Their sense of isolation was profound.
So it makes some sense that many men set their sights on having a son. Raising a boy affords fathers a chance to be both strong and sensitive, to be powerful yet tender. With a son, a father may believe he has been delivered an adoring male ally in an atmosphere — the home — that often feels like the domain of women.
This profound sense of kinship comes with a similarly profound sense of responsibility. Many of the men I spoke to said they understood it was their job to guide their boys through the choppy waters of adolescence. He mentions a conversation he had with his party-bound year-old son the night before.
But it bears noting that identifying more closely with a child can often come at a cost. A number of the fathers I spoke to found that their relationships with their sons were not only more intense than those with their daughters, but also more fraught.
Grace Malonai, a clinical therapist in San Francisco, observes that men tend to be especially gentle with their young sons, but they grow more critical as the boys get older. With the girls, they may feel the disconnect, but they are not as harsh in their expectations. Parenting is a messy, humbling business, full of grand expectations, mundane fears and long days. Most of the people I talked to found that life and experience regularly challenged their assumptions.
Sons may nudge some fathers to take on more responsibility, while daughters may make it easier for mothers to ditch disappointing husbands. Ultimately parenting is an endless game of trial and error, and no one gets to be perfect. But does sex addiction exist? Emily Bobrow investigates the trials of modern manhood.