Science Mom: The ‘Science’ Of Mommy-Shaming

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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.

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