Science Mom: The ‘Science’ Of Mommy-Shaming

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science momTake 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?)

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