Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, I have two observations. First—and this one is easy—I feel empathy for my child on a scale I’ve never experienced before. Second, I can feel my empathy for others sometimes diminish in her presence. A spate of research on parenthood and family suggests that I’m in good company.
In 1956, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described “primary maternal preoccupation,” new mothers’ single-point focus on their infant to the exclusion of almost anything else. Winnicott emphasized that such preoccupation would be a sign of acute mental illness under most circumstances, but postpartum, it equips mothers to respond to newborns’ ever-changing needs. Twenty years later, Martin Greenberg and Norman Morris balanced the parental-gender equation with a study describing new fathers’ “engrossment” with their babies. “Engrossment,” they write, is “more than involvement … engross means to make large. When the father is engrossed with his individual infant, the infant has assumed larger proportions to him.”
Parenthood enlarges parents, too. After having his daughter, my friend and academic mentor Kevin Ochsner told me he was floored by parenthood’s “heart-expanding” effects. His description sounded like a spiritual analogue of wearing contact lenses for the first time: Details he never knew he’d missed had emerged all of a sudden, the world sharpening to a state of hyperrealism.
Psychologists argue that the need to support helpless offspring drove the development of neural, chemical, and psychological sensitivity to others’ needs. These same responses can also inspire all sorts of prosocial behaviors towards non-family, from large-scale philanthropy to everyday acts of kindness. Through the course of evolution, the story goes, children taught parents how to care.
They’ve also taught us new ways to worry. In 1999, the psychiatrist James Leckman found that new mothers study spent, on average, 14 hours per day thinking about their newborns. Much of this time was spent on positive feelings, but it also included recurring fear for their child’s safety. Like someone repeatedly checking the stove to make sure it’s off, new parents vigilantly search for any risk to their baby. In the weeks before her due date, my wife would panic whenever she noticed our daughter hadn’t kicked recently. Meanwhile, I put our bassinet through repeated midnight stress tests in a futile attempt to rid myself of the mental image of it collapsing around our daughter.
Anxiety like this can turn people inward, limiting our ability to care for others. A team of researchers at McGill University, for instance, recently found that stress inhibits empathy for others’ pain in both humans and mice. Parental nerves can also double down on another core feature of human psychology: our tendency to split the world into us and them. These social boundaries can be biological (old versus young), cultural (Yankee fans vs. Red Sox fans), or momentary (one pick-up basketball team versus another). Each type of division causes people to elevate their own side and fail to empathize with the other. And when people are stressed, past research has found, they’re more likely to feel a stronger sense of “groupiness” and to help only others who are close to them.