Sleep was never my struggle—until my son Ben came along. Ben is 4 now. I won’t get into the logistics of why he suddenly dropped the two-hour nap he typically got most days. But the nap is gone—and on top of that, he’s waking up an hour and a half earlier in the morning.

And mamas, I am hurting. When I grumbled about my tiredness recently to friends on Facebook, a lot of people seemed to dismiss my difficulty. Where was the empathy?

Why was I getting responses like, “Sleep is overrated!” and, “You’ll miss this age one day!” when I was sharing my struggle? I thought being vulnerable at least warranted a heart emoji, no?

Empathy after parenthood

When I scanned the comments, I observed that the messages from those who didn’t have kids (or didn’t have young ones), tended to write me off with a “no big deal” kind of statement.

Sure, I knew they were only trying to help, but their responses got me thinking about the capacity we have to be empathetic and give advice—and how that may shift when we have kids.

Does empathy increase after you become a mother? Or do we only relate to people (and take the time to give truly useful support) when we’re in the exact same boat? Or are we simply so swamped that we care less about others, may not have the time to support them and therefore may be more apt to be dismissive?

Empathy vs. sympathy

In exploring all of this, it’s important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is defined as when you share the feelings of another person, while empathy refers to being able to understand another person’s feelings but not sharing them. 

As mothers, we can be both sympathetic and empathetic. But what I’m really focused on is empathy, because that means we have to step outside of our bubble to relate—and possibly comfort or support—another person.

Is motherhood really a sisterhood? 

In my experience, my mom friends are inclined to be very understanding about others’ struggles—and take time to lend valuable support. 

Now, I’m not saying that people who don’t have a high-energy little boy (or that those without kids) don’t have the capacity to understand, relate and give useful advice. I have so many kid-free friends that give me great advice—or at least show a supportive emoji.

The moms I know, even if not dealing with the same issues as me, don’t seem to dole out advice that seems dismissive.

I reached out to a source to see if what I experienced was the norm.

Suniya S. Luthar, PhD, founder and executive director of AC Groups, a resource for mothers seeking connection, and professor emerita at Columbia University's Teachers College, said being a mom makes us highly sympathetic and empathetic towards our kids and other moms. That’s not to say you can’t be that way if you don’t have children. But you’ll likely be more understanding—and perhaps apt to give support or advice—having been “softened” by the experience of having your own child or children.

“Mothers themselves come to see how keenly attuned they are to their children’s ups and downs, how their own well-being is tied so closely to how their kids are doing—they do tend to recognize all this as experiences that are unique to motherhood,” she explains.

As I understand Dr. Luthar’s take on it, being a mom makes you more sympathetic and empathetic—maybe not both—but that’s maybe why more people who were moms gave the most supportive advice in response to my post. (And why the most practical tips were from moms who also had children with sleep difficulties.)

As Dr. Luthar puts it, those who are dismissive or outright unkind are probably coming from a place of unhappiness or anger. In the case of the moms who I thought were indifferent, maybe they gave up on the idea of getting a good night of sleep and just came to the “I don’t need sleep” conclusion. Having worked for them, they may have tried to support me by telling me the same. (Or maybe some were truly being rude.)

Understanding empathy

Scientists have studied empathy and motherhood, but most of that research is centered on being pregnant or being a new mother. 

Recent research not yet published indicates that moms have a stronger empathy response than non-mothers, whether dealing with a child or an adult. 

Not everyone thinks that we become more empathetic as parents. When all of your energy is tied to your child, it’s hard to have “room” for anything else, a theory dubbed “primary maternal preoccupation.” While the empathy we feel when our infant is bawling inconsolably can be overwhelming, others say that empathy in general can be a beautiful aspect of motherhood.

Becoming a better version of myself

Having taken the time to ponder this, I’ve had time to reflect on myself, too. My conclusion is that motherhood has changed me for the better.

Even though, yes, I am chronically tired.

Becoming a mom has made me even more empathetic to others and made me want to help those around me—even if I don’t personally get what they’re going through. I don’t go around doling out advice left and right, but I certainly listen when a fellow mom is sharing a struggle. And I try to give advice when I think I can help. (Sometimes just sharing your own story when asked is a great way to offer validation to another parent!)

In helping another mom—by listening or giving advice—it actually helps me deal with my own struggles. It also lets me pay forward all the great support and advice others have given me. I like letting another parent know that they aren’t alone… even if I can’t totally relate to them. You may feel alone in your struggle, but know that support can be just a Facebook post (or a text or a phone call) away.