A common, often buried, fear among parents is that our offspring are nothing more than highly evolved parasites, girl- and boy-shaped barnacles slowly draining their parental hosts of strength. A recent story on Quartz tapped right into this anxiety with the headline “Being a good parent will physiologically destroy you, new research confirms.”
“Our kids are killing us slowly!” one parent wrote on Facebook, in response. “Well, it’s been a good ride,” commented another parent I know.
The story is about a new study from Northwestern University that looked at the effect of parental empathy on parents and children. The researchers surveyed 247 sets of parents and adolescent children and found the more empathetic parents were, the better off their children were both psychologically and physiologically. Emphatic parents also report psychological boosts; they reported feeling a greater sense of purpose in their lives and higher self-esteem than the less-empathetic parents. Their bodies, on the other hand, sent a less uplifting message: The more empathetic parents were, the more likely they were to be experiencing chronic inflammation.
Erika M. Manczak, Northwestern psychology graduate student and the lead author of the study, said parents should be careful not to exaggerate her findings. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that parents will be irrevocably physiologically damaged by being empathic,” she said. “Rather, this research suggests that these parents have elevations in risk markers that, if sustained over time, may play a role in important health processes.”
There’s plenty of evidence showing that parenting isn’t an unavoidable path to physical demise. A large-scale study from Denmark found that people with children live longer than those without them. Women who have children and/or breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer, and may get some relief from conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovaries. And a study from the National Institute of Mental Health found that fathers with healthy family relationships have fewer stress-related health issues like chest pain, insomnia, fatigue, and indigestion. Also, having children often motivates parents to make healthier lifestyle choices. In a Babycenter poll, over half of the 30,000 respondents said that they had begun taking better care of their health since becoming a mom.
By focusing only on the ways in which parenting might physically ruin people—or, as Quartz put it, “tear them up”—it’s easy to overlook the more fascinating finding in Manczak’s research: the divergence between psychological and physiological health. Most of us know that we need to reduce stress in order to avoid chronic inflammation; we may assume that if someone doesn’t feel stressed out then their body probably doesn’t either. But this study suggests that it’s quite possible not to feel stress mentally but still experience it physically. (Edith Chen, co-author of Manczak’s study, found similar results in a 2013 study she did on African-American teenagers in the rural south.)
Manczak said she is hesitant to draw any large-scale conclusions from the study because it is correlational, and therefore does not offer a clear relationship between cause-and-effect. Still, her research found that there is something unique about parental empathy and the toll it takes on parents. The researchers controlled for other parental behaviors like stress, depression, how warm parents are in general, and the amount of time parents spend with children, and discovered that none of them had as clear a relationship to inflammation as empathy.
But before we all start taking parenting lessons from All in the Family or Married with Children, Manczak wants to make it clear that her findings should not be interpreted as a suggestion to be less empathetic. “I would absolutely hate for parents to be less empathetic,” she said. “What this tells us is that parents need to make time for their own mental and physical health, and understand that it is a disservice to themselves and their children if they are not.” This goes for parents who feel stressed, as well as those who don’t.