Monday, July 16, 2018
Health

Parenthood makes us better, if not happier, studies suggest

Parenthood makes us better, if not happier

Not long ago, my toddler, Atlas, bounded into the kitchen exclaiming, "Mommy, come see the river!"

I cringed, recognizing that a river might have several meanings to a 3-year-old who loves playing with faucets and still hasn't perfected potty training. When he pointed toward the hallway where we have a map, a wave of relief washed over me. Maybe I ought to trust this kid more.

Then I saw it - two long black wavy lines of indelible marker coursing down the wall.

"I made a river," he announced sweetly, "just for you!" as I realized I now had a new painting project.

Parenthood isn't easy, but lately it seems to be getting an unnecessarily bad reputation. One widely cited study of 22 countries recently reported that parents tended to be unhappier than non-parents. And they attributed this "parenthood gap in happiness" to the financial and other stress of raising children "in countries that do not provide public assistance," such as subsidized day care and paid parental leave.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans spend an average of $245,000 per child between birth and age 18. And then there's the stress of small stuff like sharing my house with a three-foot-tall graffiti artist.

Children can be exhausting, isolating and expensive. So if they truly make us unhappy, why do we keep having them?

Our ancestors required big families for hunting and farming, but that's not necessary in the 21st century. As a mother, I know I wouldn't trade the experience for the world, but my years as a scientist made me curious about what research can tell us. I dug into the findings, and it turns out there's a lot of evidence for how children affect the physical and emotional life of their parents and a myriad ways in which they can boost both our health and happiness.

Parenthood certainly doesn't start as a cakewalk: Friends and I jokingly refer to the first three months as "100 days of darkness" while on call 24/7 in an endless cycle of feed, wipe, bathe, repeat. Yet we persevere, and that's in part because of the way that nature tricks parents into adoring their tiny new minion.

Early on, we enjoy a kind of natural high by staying close to and caring for a baby. A newborn's scent triggers an increase in a mother's brain of dopamine, a chemical associated with anticipation and reward. This neurotransmitter brings about feelings of intense pleasure and is associated with addiction. Dopamine essentially makes us crave being with the baby. Long after infancy, moms can experience the same dopamine-reward response simply by seeing their child smile. In a sense, when our kids are happy, we feel it.

Dopamine isn't the only chemical working on parents. Yale University scientists have found that both mothers and fathers experience a rise in levels of oxytocin when a baby enters the family. Often called "the love hormone," it promotes attachment, a sense of euphoria and intense love while decreasing stress. It also helps to buffer against challenges like sleep deprivation.

The first months can be tough, with aches and pains, bleary eyes and the baby blues - or worse - for some women.

But hormones and neurotransmitters usually fool us into believing that our baby is the most wonderful creature in the world. Yes, we may be temporarily delusional, but this naturally occurring chemical cocktail helps us make it through the exhaustion and even forget enough of that period so that we're often willing to do it all over again. Fortunately, there are major perks for going through the struggle.

A study of nearly 140,000 postmenopausal women found that those who had breast-fed their baby for at least a year had a lowered risk for several serious health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes. They also had a lower incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease and breast and ovarian cancer. We often hear that "breast is best" for baby, but while it can be a pain for moms - quite literally - it appears to lead to long-term health benefits.

In the shorter term, of course, kids can - and frequently do - make us sick. Comedian Louis C.K. once aptly noted, "Kids are like buckets of disease that live in your house," which seems to be my day-to-day reality.

When my son comes down with a bug, I'm not just exposed to germs, I'm usually elbow-deep in them. On multiple occasions, he has managed to cough directly into my mouth. My husband recently shared our son's bout of hand, foot and mouth disease - timed perfectly for a job interview.

However, the data suggest that parenthood actually offers some protection from illness. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon found that mothers and fathers exposed to a cold virus are less likely to get sick compared with non-parents.

But while health and happiness are strongly correlated in many studies, that doesn't necessarily translate for parents. When Princeton and Stony Brook scientists surveyed 1.8 million Americans, they found that while "parents and non-parents have similar levels of life satisfactions," parents often had more emotionally intense lives: They expressed higher highs and more joy than non-parents, although they also reported feeling more worry, stress and anger.

In other words, parenthood fundamentally changes us, often in surprising ways. Being a mother or a father tends to require that we become less self-involved and more generous with others - that is, with our kids. It provides a strong sense of purpose while fostering lasting social connections - two of the most important qualities, according to a growing body of research, for a happy life.

Some of the changes may even be physical. Psychologists Kelly Lambert and Craig Kinsley concluded that raising children leads to changes in the brain that make mothers more empathetic and nurturing. Evolutionarily speaking, these qualities can help give kids the best possibility of survival.

Parenthood forces our brains to shift from a world mainly consisting of "self" to one consisting of both "self and other." The rules for how we act change when a baby enters the picture. New situations and experience rewire brain circuitry, neuroscientists find, which helps us adjust to life as a mother or a father.

When psychologists at Michigan State University analyzed data on the origins of parenting behavior from 20,000 families around the world, they concluded that genes affect how we express warmth, control and negativity toward kids.

From an evolutionary perspective, parents who are best able to understand and meet the needs of their children are generally most likely to pass on their genes. In this way, evolutionary experts say, the most nurturing qualities may have been promoted to persist in humans over subsequent generations.

Of course, parenthood isn't for everyone, and it certainly is not required to live a fulfilling and purposeful life. Without supportive social policies to ease work-life balance, it can be a financial and emotional drain.

Still, becoming a mom or a dad forges one of the most significant bonds that we can experience, and studies have found that long-term happiness often stems from these kinds of important relationships established throughout our lives.

It's true that those who choose to have kids are saddled with relentless responsibility and little free time. And parenthood also comes with physical transformations such as stretch marks, weight gain and the classic "dad bod" that might not always lift our spirits.

But a review of the research reveals that the return on investing years and energy into having children can't be tallied in terms of a net gain or loss of happiness. It's just not as simple as a one-size-fits-all equation. What data do reveal is that under the right circumstances, kids have the capacity to bring out our best selves, emotionally, chemically and biologically - even when it comes with scribbled hallways and sleepless nights. And I find that reassuring, especially as I embark on the adventure for a second time.

Comments
So far, so good. Doctors at Tampa General find success with a device that fights often-fatal aneurysms

So far, so good. Doctors at Tampa General find success with a device that fights often-fatal aneurysms

TAMPA — Dr. Murray Shames holds a flexible, lightweight tube as wide as two garden hoses pushed together in his office at Tampa General Hospital. The polyester tube, and its thinner fastening branches with metal wiring, will be attached inside someon...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Sunday Conversation: Sherry Hoback looks to move Tampa Family Health Centers to the next level

Sunday Conversation: Sherry Hoback looks to move Tampa Family Health Centers to the next level

TAMPA — Taking over for an administrator who has run a company for almost 20 years can be daunting. • But Sherry Hoback prepared for some time to replace Charles Bottoms as CEO of the Tampa Family Health Centers, a non-profit organization that operat...
Published: 07/12/18
Updated: 07/15/18
How can City Hall improve our health? A new push in Pinellas hopes to show the way.

How can City Hall improve our health? A new push in Pinellas hopes to show the way.

The charitable organization that owns a 20 percent stake in St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Health hospital is working with local governments to improve the public’s health, part of a strategy to make a difference in new and often subtle ways. The Foundati...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
New York organ collection agency, nation’s second-largest, threatened with closure

New York organ collection agency, nation’s second-largest, threatened with closure

The government is threatening to close one of the country’s largest "organ procurement organizations" for poor performance, a rare move against a nonprofit group that collects kidneys, livers, hearts and other organs used in transplantation.In a lett...
Published: 07/11/18
Retirement communities turn their sights on a once-invisible group: LGBT seniors

Retirement communities turn their sights on a once-invisible group: LGBT seniors

In 2016, as Kenneth MacLean was about to turn 90 and was looking to move to a retirement community, he had a question for Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Maryland."I asked, ‘Would there be many gays here? Would gays be welcomed?’ " MacLean,...
Published: 07/09/18
The other victims: First responders to horrific events often suffer in solitude

The other victims: First responders to horrific events often suffer in solitude

The day a gunman fired into a crowd of 22,000 people at the country music festival in Las Vegas, hospital nursing supervisor Antoinette Mullan was focused on one thing: saving lives.She recalls dead bodies on gurneys across the triage floor, a trauma...
Published: 07/09/18
Put your best feet forward with this health, footwear and beauty advice

Put your best feet forward with this health, footwear and beauty advice

All of a sudden, it’s hot and sunny everywhere — summer, officially — and even the shiest, palest, most woebegone toes are peeking out from their hiding places up North. They’ve been scrubbed and buffed, their nails clipped and polished. And they’re...
Published: 07/06/18
Research points to another exercise perk: mood improvement

Research points to another exercise perk: mood improvement

By Gabriella Boston Special to the Washington Post Do you go for a run to clear your head? Do you walk with friends to decompress, lift weights or do yoga to de-stress? In short, do you exercise to improve your mood? If so, you are on the right tr...
Published: 07/06/18
Mayo Clinic Q&A: tinnitus causes, treatments; liquid biopsies

Mayo Clinic Q&A: tinnitus causes, treatments; liquid biopsies

TAMP DOWN TROUBLING TINNITUS SENSATIONWhat causes tinnitus, and is there anything that can be done to get rid of it?Tinnitus, the sensation of hearing a sound when no external sound is present, often is described as a ringing, buzzing, roaring, click...
Published: 07/06/18
Give vegetables a starring role in grilled kebabs

Give vegetables a starring role in grilled kebabs

America’s Test KitchenWhen it comes to grilled kebabs, vegetables are often an afterthought, typically used as a filler on meat-heavy skewers. But this treatment often leads to mushy, burnt vegetables with no flavor of their own. We wanted to create ...
Published: 07/06/18