We’re back to blaming mothers in health research—or so it would seem. A number of recent epigenetic arguments drop the responsibility for children’s later-life diseases, behaviors, and emotions firmly into the laps of their moms.
A recent seminar at Harvard focused on new research into "maternal imprint syndrome"—the notion that a mother’s actions, life choices, and genetic patterns shape the health histories of their offspring. Speakers debated such topics as the "fetal origins of health and disease," the relationships between a mother’s diet and "fetal nutrition and growth," and something called the "politics of culpability in the maternal-fetal nexus."
Meanwhile, present-day geneticists argue that stressed pregnant women produce offspring prone to anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and suicide. Present-day scientists contend that a mother’s dietary or smoking habits during gestation can "program" her fetus for a future of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. And a group of obstetricians write in a recent article that “increasing rates of maternal obesity… can have a significant impact on the in utero environment and, thus, on fetal development and the health of the child later in life."
Of course, no one wants their children to suffer from illness, and most parents do absolutely everything they can to help their children live happy, healthy lives. At the same time, the histories of medicine and psychiatry are rife with examples of scientific theories that blamed mothers for a host of ills in their children—only to be later uncovered as bunk.
For instance in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud blamed castrating or schizophrenogenic mothers for producing neurotic or schizophrenic sons. And in the 1930s- and 1940s, neurologists believed that so-called "refrigerator mothers"–mothers so cold in their parenting that they seemed never to defrost—caused autism in their children.
Concerns about mothers also shaped late-twentieth- century beliefs about psychiatric medications. During the height of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Valium advertisements depicted “psychoneurotic” women like “Jan” who required pharmaceutical treatment because of their failure or refusal to attract husbands. And in the 1990s, advertisements for SSRI antidepressants introduced women whose “successful” treatment was marked by babies and wedding rings.
Medicine and psychiatry rightly received tremendous flak for these and other depictions of illness-inducing mothers. But have we progressed? Or is the "new" science of “maternal imprint syndrome” and “fetal origins” just déjà vu all over again?
The answers are complicated, and many scholars disagree.
"I don’t believe at all that epigenetics blames the mothers because it’s not just mother’s eggs and prenatal environment that matter [to science], but also sperm," Vanderbilt genetic anthropologist Amy Non told me. "And moreover, maternal caregiving can be beneficial and improve epigenetic patterns too." Conversely, Harvard philosopher of gender and science Sarah Richardson worries that many aspects of the new focus on mothers in epigenetics research today "very closely resemble past moments of heightened concern about maternal behavior."
If nothing else, history teaches us to proceed with caution. Even if we uncover everything there is to know about the maternal-fetal nexus, we’ve learned that nothing is ever straightforward when mothers and science mix.
What are these lessons? First, if we are not careful, the science of maternal origins can blend invisibly with moralizing and unfounded critiques of “bad” parenting.
For instance, some parents worry that epigenetic science encourages society to judge them for their children’s’ weight and body shape, which unfairly become indicators of their parenting skills. Chubby children become incitements of negligent moms; and society puts undue pressure on parents as a result. As a colleague of mine recently explained it: “I felt guilty for giving my son pizza for lunch and letting him sit around watching the Transformers movie in the afternoon. But its summer vacation, and he’s only a kid!”
Also, all mothers are not treated equally. Concerns about maternal obesity or smoking often function as thinly veiled critiques of the parenting practices of lower-income women or women of color. In these instances, we risk misidentifying social or economic pathologies as family ones, and blaming low-income mothers when we should be investing in the economic programs and support systems designed to help them spend more time with their kids in the first place.
Finally, history teaches us that sometimes when we talk about the pathology of mothers, we aren’t actually talking about mothers at all. As we learned all-too-well in the 1940s, concerns about the behaviors of mothers are sometimes shaped, not by the actions of actual mothers, but by fatherly concerns that women aren’t acting "as they should." In this sense, we need always be wary of societal and scientific narratives that blame mothers, even as our science moves us ahead. Sometimes these narratives tell us a great deal, not of the biologies of women, but of the projected anxieties of men.
Jonathan M. Metzl MD, PhD, directs the Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. His books include "Prozac on the Couch," "The Protest Psychosis," and "Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality."