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Let's stop pointing the finger at mothers and address the real issues around children's health

The judgment falls heaviest on poor, single and minority mothers. Upper middle-class moms may obsess about organic food, breastfeeding edicts and the occasional pinot grigio, but they don’t worry about the authorities showing up to take their kids, or face judging looks on the bus for being too young or too poor. By making it the fault of individual women, society gives itself a pass on more pressing, harder-to-solve problems.

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Mothers couldn't be an easier target if they stood in front of a dart board. Bad at math? Blame mom, for not taking the right hormonal supplements. Are you an emotional eater? Mom should have hugged you more. Bad gut? Anxious brain? Mom wasn't chill enough when she carried you in the womb.

Over the years, mothers have been declared culpable for a long list of ills, medical and social: autism, serial murderers, low self-esteem, too high self-esteem. Not that this has stopped society from also summarily declaring moms the natural nurturers. Praise. Slap. Praise. Slap. It's a wonder moms don't have perpetual contrecoup.

In the early 1900s, one form of mother blame was the belief that pregnant women could permanently "mark" their children with birth defects if they saw a deformed animal. Then the scientists took over. Where mothers were concerned, this didn't necessarily herald an age of reason. Skip ahead to 2014, where modern science, in particular a new field called epigenetics which explores environmental influences on DNA, is discovering its own "marking" theories – the latest being that pregnant women who don't eat and exercise properly doom their baby to a life of obesity. To pile on the helpless sense of guilt, the blame game now goes back to circumstances the newly pregnant woman can't control, no matter how many veggies she eats: Grandma's fatty diet. A woman's weight as a teenager may also beget a pudgy progeny.

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For starters, this is patently sexist and unfair. It takes two to make a baby, right?

Surely teenage girls already have enough body image pressure, before adding a nagging worry about far-off children to the list.

The latest obesity study, in what has become standard overhype, was announced with a press release headlined, "Evolution is the cause, mothers are the cure." It arrived via e-mail accompanied by this turgid tagline: "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the health of future generations." Go ahead, cradle-rocking hands: Flip back a less-than "motherly" gesture. (It's only one more egregious act; the kids are already ruined.)

What's missing from this discourse is reality. Mothers live in a complicated world, one loaded with external stress, pollution and inequality. Not so for the lab rats upon which most of these studies are based, which makes drawing oversimplified links to humans not only dubious, but dangerous. As a recent article in Nature cautioned, these exaggerations "make scapegoats of mothers," possibly leading to stepped-up surveillance or regulation of pregnant women.

"There needs to be vigilance," says Sarah Richardson, a Harvard history professor and lead author of the Nature article. This is "an opportunity not to repeat the problems of the past."

That past, after all, has a record of "unworthy" mothers being tossed in jail or losing their kids, in many cases because of supposedly solid science that proved rickety years later. In the 1980s, for example, there was a panic about "crack babies" targeted at moms with drug addictions. According to the Nature article, in the United States, more than 400 mothers – mostly poor, and mostly African American – were prosecuted for harming their fetuses. (In Canada, the response was less punitive, but equally stigmatizing.) Today, the judgment persists, even though the research has been debunked – crack and cocaine, according to studies, is no more dangerous during pregnancy than smoking or alcohol, although mothers aren't thrown in jail for the latter transgressions.

Mothers, who have a finite number of eggs and fulfil the role of incubating the baby, are easier to study than fathers, who make a one-off contribution. Though behavioural fallout from dads is harder to track in the individual babies produced, fathers are finding themselves in the epigenetic spotlight more. A headline last year warned: "Fear Can Be Inherited Through the Sperm." But even when the harmful role of men is clear, it's still mostly mothers who get the blame.

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"It's about what we choose to see," says Susan Strega, a professor of social work at the University of Victoria and one of the editors of the 2013 book Failure to Protect, who studies child protection services. "Even when the father is patently the source of the problem, we seem to have difficulty focusing on them."

Baby deaths from shaking, she says, are overwhelmingly caused by young fathers – a fact rarely publicized. Strega adds that child-welfare staff focus investigations on mothers, sometimes never interviewing fathers. Being exposed to partner violence accounts for 34 per cent of substantiated child-welfare investigations – in the majority of provinces that's defined not only as witnessing the assault, but seeing the mother's injuries, hearing a later conversation about the abuse and even going to a shelter. The result, argues Strega, is the mother is made responsible for the safety of the kids. Again, it's all about mom.

But then, not all moms are created equal.

As epigenetics explores the consequences of past behaviour, and previous generations, the chance for redemption is lost. "If you are an evolutionarily unfit mother, then you are screwed," says Molly Ladd-Taylor, a history professor at York University, who studies motherhood. "The only answer is that you don't have kids."

The judgment falls heaviest on poor, single and minority mothers. Upper middle-class moms may obsess about organic food, breastfeeding edicts and the occasional pinot grigio, but they don't worry about the authorities showing up to take their kids, or face judging looks on the bus for being too young or too poor. By making it the fault of individual women, society gives itself a pass on more pressing, harder-to-solve problems.

Instead of dumping on mothers, look at the wider world. If we want working women to feel less stress so their babies do better, perhaps affordable, accessible daycare and more family friendly workplaces would help. Don't tell a pregnant woman to eat better if she can't afford healthy food. Or not to feel stressed when she's struggling to pay rent. If we want moms to focus on their health, we need to address the fact that low-income Canadians access family doctors less often, resulting in inconsistent care for chronic conditions such as diabetes – a risk factor for the next generation. Step back from mothers and consider the influence of child-focused advertising by fast-food companies. Or the downsizing of physical education in schools. The time-crunch burden on families. And so on.

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"It's so much easier," says Ladd-Taylor, "to blame pregnant women than it is to address other issues affecting children's health, which require us to tackle more powerful interests rather than some of the most vulnerable, marginalized people in society."

What's frustrating about this insidious narrative is that the science of epigenetics has the potential to do real good, to help us understand how to better support mothers and families. But researchers and policy makers can't leap to conclusions that suggest women somehow have exclusive control over their lives. Except, that is, when society chooses to throw a dart in their direction.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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