Mom Genes: In the New Science of Our Old Maternal Instinct, from Abigail Tucker Gallery Books, Hiding Subtitles
Transformation plays a central role in Abigail Tucker’s Mom Genes.
When women give birth and become mothers, writes Tucker, a science writer and mother of four, they are “rebuilt from scratch” while undergoing a “radical self-revision” that includes “a monomaniac focus” on the baby.
Hormone and brain-based changes are driving this transformation and “making a mother,” she writes. New mothers enjoy their child intensely, experience an increased sensitivity to cues and signals coming from the baby, and are overtaken with the need to help and protect the baby at all costs.
Tucker’s argument is not subtle: point “Babies hold a special place in the hearts of all men and women, and also in our neural circuitry.”
I wonder: has Tucker met someone who just doesn’t have a love for babies? I have; You are just as human as everyone else. And sometimes, unfortunately, a real pathology emerges, as Tucker confirms by reporting that the most likely killer of a week-old American baby is that child’s mother.
Infant feelings affect mothers more than anyone, says Tucker. In one study, the prefrontal cortex of mothers in a different region than that of women who had never been pregnant became active when looking at images of angry, anxious, or happy babies. Mothers’ brains can also be structurally different, she notes. One laboratory found “large differences and reductions in gray matter in the brains of 25 first-time mothers versus the brains of 20 childless women,” Tucker cited. The changes were seen comparing the mothers’ brains to their own pre-pregnancy brains. The changes were as extensive as in survivors of traumatic brain injury.
But Tucker’s descriptions of how radically women can change at the time of motherhood – and as an extension of how this could affect their ability to focus on other things – get pretty harrowing.
In the book she states that mothers are people who are “in the truest sense of the word excited” about their babies and “want to do something for their child at all times”. Because of this compulsion, it is necessary for mothers to “acknowledge our lack of agency,” she writes.
In this series of transformations, anger lurks for anyone planning to work as a new mom, or even to focus clearly. Tucker notes, “If we are completely focused on the texture of our child’s bowel movements, we cannot quite pinpoint the quadratic equation.”
“This idea of being kidnapped, hacked, overwritten, reprogrammed, or otherwise reassigned to a new identity is the stuff of dystopian female fiction from The Stepford Wives to The Handmaid’s Tale,” Tucker writes. Still, she adopts this view under the guise of humor, referring to her new mother as the “organism formerly known as my little sister”.
My main complaint here is that brain scans and lab tests don’t align well with real-world mothers’ behavior. In this real world, US Senator Tammy Duckworth gave birth during the reign. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led a country as a new mother. Scientists, artists, and business leaders routinely do their jobs as young mothers. But this is not all about famous women. Many of us mothers have managed to work well and parent well at the same time, even if the support in the workplace and in the culture is unfortunately minimal.
The view that young mothers are brain-damaged and incompetent is not a sweet meme, but rather harmful to women who may have to fight a barrage of suspicions about their competence. Maternal wall distortion, as it is called, refers to the discrimination against working mothers, including new mothers. “Maternal wall distortions can manifest themselves in different ways when carried out by recruitment boards, colleagues, and individuals who conduct performance reviews.” Reports Science magazine.
Now back to science. What does this mean for adoptive mothers when hormones stimulate mother’s behavior and changes in the brain? “The evidence we have suggests that choosing to deeply care for a baby can awaken and physically sculpt the maternal brain,” Tucker writes. Of course, adoptive parents already know that parenting is not necessarily biology-dependent.
Tucker is associated with the word “instinct”, but she pretty much qualifies it. Instinct is both firm and flexible, she claims. Human mothers somehow don’t magically know what they’re doing because experience makes a huge difference, as does various environmental and cultural factors, she writes. And depressed mothers are less likely to be aroused by infant signals, and that subdued interaction can, in turn, damage babies’ health at the DNA level. “In this way, babies don’t stimulate their already depressed mothers enough and tighten the spiral,” Tucker writes.
(For readers who are sensitive to animal cruelty, this book is difficult in some places: “Deactivate a mother rat’s nose and she can still see her babies. Blind her eyes and she will smell them.” Many follow further examples.)
Occasionally, Tucker breaks out of the book’s heteronormative man-woman-baby structure when she discusses research on gay fathers. In households with two fathers, physiology, including the brain, of fathers “looked more like maternal patterns than the brains of heterosexual fathers,” she writes. Here the reaction to infant stimuli is recognized as primary.
Tucker’s understanding of the environmental stressors of poor women is to be welcomed: “Almost all risk factors for the struggle of the mothers are increased for impoverished mothers.” She writes movingly about class privileges, including in her own life. Their demand for government support for young mothers, who are often plagued by insomnia and at the mercy of capricious work schedules, uses national comparisons. (Here I learned the Dutch word kraamverzorgster, a type of baby nurse who was provided to new mothers in the Netherlands for up to eight hours a day for the first two weeks after the birth. In New Zealand, a different type of baby nurse follows new mothers for 5 years.)
But by the time the stronger chapters emerge, the damage has been caused by the earlier fierce claims that young mothers are falling apart. It doesn’t help that Tucker is referring to “differences between mothers and normal women” and uses the language “mother genes”, although scientists report scientists’ warnings that genetic contributions to mother’s variation are subtle and the quality of mother’s behavior influence in different ways.
Tucker’s deep immersion in the scientific literature on new motherhood and her visits to laboratories to uncover the secrets of motherhood enliven her writing. Unfortunately, the experience of a new motherhood makes her such a draconian that it interferes with biological transformation that these positive aspects cannot provide balance.
Barbara J. King is a retired biological anthropologist with William & Mary. Her seventh book, The Best Friends of Animals: Using Compassion for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, was published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape