Another Reason Not to Be a Mom: They Get Blamed for Everything
Originally published on Care2 Causes
One more reason for women not to have kids: those who do get a raw deal. We’re familiar with moms getting discrimination at work and an oversized share of the tasks at home, and we all know the stereotype about mothers causing their children’s psychological problems.
Here’s a new one: moms could harm not just their children, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren — even without meeting them.
What’s even richer is that one of the biggest contributors to good mothering is avoiding stress. So moms, know that everything you do could affect your child’s life forever, but make sure you don’t worry about it!
Two male (color me shocked) scientists are credited with founding the branch of epigenetic research responsible for these conclusions. Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf posit that nurture — one’s experiences and environment — can alter the expression of DNA permanently. Early childhood experiences have a stronger effect than later life does.
Methyl groups and acetyl groups are the key substances involved. “Methylation [adding methyl groups to DNA] switches genes off. Acetylation [adding acetyl groups to histones, which are the proteins wrapped around DNA] switches them on.” The DNA remains the same, but it is expressed differently because different genes are off and on as a result of life experiences, and it looks like those changes can be passed down.
Don’t worry about it if you didn’t understand that paragraph (especially mothers of young children: don’t worry! Just generally!). The point is that people can inherit the chemical results of their progenitors’ experiences. Discover Magazine dubbed it “postnatal inheritance.”
Most of the experiments demonstrating these effects involved subjecting mice to bullying or neglectful parenting. The Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute went a different route, injecting the hapless rodents with nicotine. The results showed that a smoker’s offspring could suffer diseased, asthmatic lungs even if they didn’t smoke themselves.
The good news is the evidence that methylation and acetylation can be reversed. When injected directly into rats’ brains, a drug that removes methyl groups undid the methylation that their “rotten mothers” had caused.
The Economist struck a moralistic tone after describing the nicotine study.
Epigenetics is a reminder that when making choices about what you eat and drink and put into your body, and what you do (go for that daily walk or hunker down on the couch with a bowl of something salty), you’re not only doing it for yourself, but for future generations and for the future of all of us.
Discover Magazine’s article about this area of study had similar subtext. In addition to the “rotten mothers” language quoted above, it stated that “miserable mothering” made children into “nervous wrecks,” and the damage could be seen in the second generation’s brains.
If you aren’t feeling bad enough, moms, how about being blamed for suicide? A study comparing the brains of people who committed suicide with others who died from different causes found lots of methylation in relevant parts of the suicide victims’ brains. Childhood abuse was particularly closely associated with excess methylation.
One study of paternal contributions to messed up gene expression managed to blame mothers even for dads’ shoddy genetic material. First the researchers locked male mice up with meaner mice who bullied them for days. Then they got each of the bullied mice together with a female mouse who became pregnant. The bullied father never met his kids, who came out pretty messed up emotionally.
Here’s the twist: when researchers artificially inseminated female mice with sperm from the bullied mice, so that neither mother nor babies ever met dad, the kids wound up fine. That’s why this is all mom’s fault: when she knew she had mated with a “loser,” as Discover put it, she neglected the resulting babies. I guess she figured they were doomed no matter what she did. But when she didn’t know that the sperm donor was such an undesirable, she nurtured her babies well and undid the damage dad’s genetic contribution caused. Or so goes the theory.
After hammering mothers, the science offers them two rays of light. The first is that orphans suffer more methylation than children never separated from their biological parents, so even if these studies have left you nervous, don’t give the kids away to a better mom. Just being with you is beneficial. The second is that one of the most effective things moms (and presumably dads) can do is touch their babies a lot.
Women, when deciding whether to have kids, consider how much you would be bothered by science-backed accusations that you single-handedly ruined their lives. Also, isn’t stressing bad enough without having to stress about it?
Photo Credit: Finsec