Whether we like it or not, our parents play a big part in who we become as adults. From our taste in music to our social values, their imprint often stays with us, good or bad, well past childhood.
Now new research suggests that we still rely on them well into mid-life — at least when it comes to our health, that is. Alexandra Kissling and Corinne Reczek, a team from the Ohio State University, found that while we look to our mothers in much the same way we do when we’re children — asking them for advice and hoping they’ll be there to help us through periods of bad health, for instance — fathers act more like “cautionary tales”, examples of what not to do.
To explore this phenomenon, the team conducted 90 qualitative interviews with midlife adult children: 45 gay, lesbian and straight couples aged between 40 and 60 years old. As they interviewed the couples, the researchers examined the influence of both the participants’ parents and their in-laws.
Each participant, interviewed separately from their spouse, was asked open-ended questions about their their health and their relationship with their family, such as “tell me about your relationship with your parents and your spouse’s parents”. More specific and targeted questions were also introduced, including “how do your parents support you during hard times” and “do your in-laws talk to you about their health?”.
Unsurprisingly, many participants explained that family provided support throughout illness or injury — helping out after surgery, for example, or providing material support through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. This provided a boost to well-being for both children and their partners, with the extra support often allowing partners to continue going to work and managing the household alongside caring for their spouse.
But 37 participants described parents as acting as “cautionary tales” — making a positive impact on their health, but doing so by acting as warnings. And this was particularly true of fathers. “Adults in our study talked about how they were affected by their fathers having really poor health behaviors, like smoking or heavy drinking,” says Kissling. “They really wanted to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes.”
In contrast, the continued support of mothers in adulthood could be related to “intensive mothering” — the idea that mothers are not only primary caregivers but that they also put everything into parenting, often placing the needs of their offspring before their own. “The level of caring never stops, and mothers are there to help their children even as adults,” Kissling explains.
How much we can read into these results is up for debate, however. Self-reporting is not always the most accurate way to measure impact: many of our behaviours run contrary to what we might say, on paper, we believe or feel. It’s easy to imagine that this could particularly include our relationships with our parents: as the researchers note themselves, we are often “closely intertwined” with members of our family, meaning we don’t always have the emotional distance to judge how those relationships impact us. In cases where familial relationships are difficult or complex, this may be even more true.
The sample size, 90, is also small, especially when you think of the multitude of family dynamics that play out across the wider population. In non-traditional family set-ups — single parent or same-sex families, for example — these findings may not apply. And in a society in which gendered norms are currently being renegotiated and rethought, it’s hard to say how long these particular relationships and assumptions about the roles of mothers and fathers will last. Advances in parental leave may mean the practice of “intensive mothering” levels out, for instance: mothers may traditionally have done the bulk of a family’s caring activities, but this is by no means set in stone.
But however our parents actually do impact our health, this research does provide important insight into how we perceive this impact. Though we may not always have the most accurate or objective understanding of how our family relationships work, understanding the way we experience them is still worthy of attention.