Take a moment and reflect on how many news pieces you’ve seen in the past month that contained fear-mongering over how a mother’s lifestyle choices might irrevocably change her child’s life. How many headlines have you read that claim that the wrong pregnancy diet can affect a fetus’s risk of a host of ailments? How often have you come across a magazine article shaming mothers for having a glass of wine while pregnant or before their babies have weaned? Sloppy science reporting plus widespread scientific illiteracy equals a never-ending cycle of blaming moms for anything and everything that goes wrong with their kids’ health.
As much as we’d like to think that science is an independent process untouched by human flaws, the reality is that what we choose to research reflects our social values. And two of our social values include 1.) putting motherhood on a pedestal and 2.) tearing down anyone who casts the slightest shadow on what we think that pedestal should be. Digging for ways to point the finger at moms is the hot new trend since approximately the dawn of time. In medieval times, society blamed birth defects on the mother’s sexual history. In the 1950s and 1960s, children who grew up to be non-neurotypical were believed to have been “made that way” by insufficiently attentive mothers. And now, every molecule that passes through a mother’s body, from the time she’s born until she gives birth, is the finger-pointed as the probable culprit for autism, asthma, and ADHD. It seems like moms can’t win, but a recent article published in the scientific journal Nature is trying to re-settle this age-old score by asking us to think twice before we blame mothers.
To some extent it’s hard to blame researchers for digging into the gold mine that is mommy-shaming. When you have to fight tooth-and-nail for funding, choosing a topic that’s trendy and likely to get a lot of attention has to be tempting. But the result of this kind of result, as the authors point out, tends to be reported by non-scientific media sources in a very particular way:
Headlines in the press reveal how these findings are often simplified to focus on the maternal impact: 'Mother's diet during pregnancy alters baby's DNA' (BBC), 'Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes' (Discover), and 'Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children' (The Guardian).
Making this research about how women are harming their children has had wide-reaching social consequences. Breastfeeding women are arrested if they’re observed consuming alcohol in public; suicidal women are jailed for the protection of their fetuses; the media loses its collective shit when a pregnant Kate Middleton is observed being too thin/too active/too high-heel-wearing in public. But where’s the actual social support for these women? Where’s CNN to point out that having one beer while pregnant or nursing isn’t going to do a kid any harm (and might do a bit of good, especially for the stress levels of a mom who feels under constant scrutiny)? Where’s the actual social support for depressed pregnant women? And who the hell are any of us to tell Kate Middleton she’s a bad mom for what she puts on her feet?
There’s a definite disconnect between the dire warnings about how all of us moms are destroying our children’s future and the apparent lack of interest we as a society have in actually doing something valuable to help with issues that exist. (But then again, helping mothers is so much less fun than judging them, huh?)
And here’s one more huge disconnect that’s often looked in our haste to mommy-shame. Remember that exercise in the first paragraph about how many ways you’ve seen the media hating on moms recently? Now try to remember: how many times have you come across an article with dire warnings about the ways that Daddy Dearest’s health could affect his offspring down the road? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “seldom/never”.
But guess what: even if Dad doesn’t gestate the child for nine months, his lifestyle choices before he makes his salty little contribution to the cause of reproduction can also impact the health of his child. Epigenetics is the study of how our genes are regulated: while we get a certain set of DNA from our parents, those genes can be turned “on” or “off” by what happens to a parent before their child is conceived. And yes, Mom’s pregnancy diet can change which of her baby’s genes will be switched on – but so does how much stress Dad goes through. So does his smoking habit, even if he quit long before the baby was born. So does the heavy metal exposure he had from the drinking water when he was a kid. So do a lot of things.
There are a lot of things that can affect a child’s health, and yet most of them are spoken of as things that merely happen to a child – while maternal effects are described as things that the mother does to the child. So what can we do about it? The authors of the Nature study have some good ideas, mostly intended for an audience of fellow scientists, but with lessons we can walk away with, too.
First, when you read that latest and not-so-greatest article about the new way that you’ve ruined your kid’s future hopes of health and happiness, start by asking some questions. Was this research done in humans, or is someone making a logical leap from the neurological development of a zebrafish to a human infant? What other factors could be at play: does a parent’s use of a particular drug or medication actually cause this issue in children, or is the underlying issue that required the drug use in the first place involved?
Second, let’s not forget that it takes two parents to make a baby. When you see these stories cropping up on social media, remind people that Mom wasn’t the only one involved. If her childhood diet or her maternal grandmother’s access to nutrition mattered, then Dad’s probably did too. And nine months is a fairly small percentage of parents’ pre-kids life; dads have usually have had a a couple decades or more to rack up their own epigenetic effects to pass on to their kids.
And last but definitely not least, let’s take the opportunity provided by research into these kinds of developmental effects on health to find ways to make social changes rather than individual ones. Science reflects the values we have as a society – so let’s get rid of the smoke and mirrors of finger-pointing and mommy-shaming, and look for better ways to take action on what we learn than to use to judge women. Maybe then when we look back on our reflected values, we’ll actually be proud of what we see.