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April 14, 2012

When In Doubt, Blame Mom

Filed under: Feminism,Health,Random Annoyances — Twistie @ 12:29 pm

Okay, I know Joan Crawford isn’t up for Mother of the Century, and I’m down with that.


Last week Liz asked me to share my thoughts about the recent study that claimed to link autism to maternal obesity, and I don’t even have to go very far in depth with the study to have an opinion. There are a lot of people out there who have taken the study apart, pointed out that what was found was a weak correlative link rather than any sort of causal mechanics, and questioned every possible aspect of the study.

I’m not going to deal with the specifics of this particular study. Do a Google search, find an article or three.

What I’m going to discuss here today is not one single study that may or may not hold a clue to one potential health question… or may be a steaming pile of cassowary refuse.

What I want to talk about today is the assumption that when something is ‘wrong’ with a child, it’s the mother’s fault.

Don’t try to tell me this isn’t the case. Henry VIII used it in his second divorce, claiming – among other things – that Anne Boleyn ‘practiced not to have a son.’ After all, at that time it was assumed that since the baby comes out of the mother, she’s in complete control of things like the placement of its genitalia.

Turns out, that wasn’t so much the case.

More recently, one of my own brothers gleefully (it really is the only word for it) informed me that I’m left-handed because of a birth defect, so it’s all Mom’s fault. Funny, I have two perfectly normal hands, and I don’t consider myself in any way damaged because I’m a southpaw. And of course most mothers don’t go into the delivery room thinking to themselves ‘hmmm… I bet if I really try, I could give this kid a birth defect! I’m gonna go for it!’ But he’d heard some blurb somewhere about a theory that left-handedness isn’t just a thing that happens sometimes like blue eyes (which I also have) or red hair or a natural gift for a particular sport, but an actual problem that occurs when there’s severe trauma in the birth canal.

Then again, like so many, he’s always looking for a way to blame Mom for whatever ills there are in the world… he’s just really into blaming one specific mom.

As for autism, well, some of us are old enough to remember Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘refrigerator mother’ theory that autism occurs because the mother withholds affection from her baby.

Yeah, not so much, it turns out. The mothers of children on the autism spectrum vary widely in their parenting styles, emotional natures, and available parenting time. In fact, they vary just as much in those things as the mothers of children born with blue eyes or red hair or a dominant left hand. Oh, and so do their fathers. You know, those other parents who contribute half the genetic material and are sometimes also present in the home? Those guys whose genetic contribution – against all assumed logic of centuries – determines the gender of the child?

It’s just possible that – as unlikely as it seems to many researching the question – the determination of whether a child turns out to have some degree of autism might lie with the male of the species. It may well not, but I’d be interested to see just one study focus on what daddy brings to that particular table. You know, to see whether there’s any possibility.

Mommy blame? We’re soaking in it. I love the Law&Order franchise on television, but I’m constantly amazed at how often they manage to find incest and a guilty mother at the bottom of case after case after case. But I’m also watching with a critical hat on. How many others simply watch and don’t ever sit down to think about the messages being fed them? And advertisements for tutoring programs for kids always seem to feature the distraught mother who cannot make her child learn better… never the father. Never a teacher, male or female.

It takes two people (and sometimes more) to make a baby. Each one brings some genetic and/or environmental factor to the making of that child. Every child comes into contact with a lot of different people along the road of life, each of whom may well contribute something for good or for ill.

Let’s stop assuming the mother is responsible for everything from the complete genetic profile of the child to its eventual prison record or lack thereof. Let’s stop assuming that the average mother more or less chooses – by agency or by ignorance – to make her children ‘abnormal’ in some way.

Because maybe – just maybe – if we remove the assumption of guilt, we can look more clearly at what’s going on and what really comes into play that creates the variations in life.

And maybe we can just let most of those variations simply exist without trying to erase entire populations.


  1. Firstly, thank you for addressing this.

    Secondly, I’m always amazed that no one blames the Daddies for any of this. Not that that would be a good thing either, mind you, but aren’t fathers important?

    You hear a lot about the importance of male figures in childrens’ lives. That’s all true, but what annoys me is that it all goes out the window the nanosecond something goes wrong (or “wrong”.)

    Comment by Liz — April 14, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  2. I can’t speak to any occurrences of autism except the one in my family, but in that particular case, it would be absolutely STUPID to just peg responsibility on my mother and leave my father out of it. As we learn more about my brother’s condition and behaviors that are influenced by his Asperger’s, we notice more and more parallels to the way that my father acts – it seems clear that there is, at least in our case, a genetic aspect to autism, passing down my father’s side. Are we to blame his mother, then?

    As a pregnant woman, I keep getting stressed out (how ironic!) by articles that say I’m irreparably damaging my fetus and his/her chances for health, success, or happiness by being stressed out — I mean, seriously?? If there’s some legitimate science at work here, then I do want to just deal with it, but if it’s just “oh, well, we’re seeing a correlation…” then I just don’t want to hear it yet. Mothers are under an INCREDIBLE amount of pressure in our society without adding pseudoscience to the pile.

    Comment by KESW — April 14, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  3. There’s also a tyranny of experts at play. Partly, I think, because of the isolation of the nuclear family – when people get married and have their own kids they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience (passive or active) with babies and children. And the other part is that everything has to answer to Science(TM), even if it’s crappy science. So you have experts telling you how warm the room should be, when to start spoon-feeding, and so on. And you doubt your own ability to use common sense and your own sense of your child because some “expert” is calling the shots.

    Obviously, there’s stuff really saving lives – like the recommendations for preventing SIDS. On the other hand – there is SO MUCH FEARMONGERING.

    Comment by Rebekka — April 14, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

  4. Well, Twistie, there’s the catchall “mother’s are at fault” thing, then there’s the “obese mothers are at fault” thing, and then there’s the “obesity is at fault” thing. I thank Gaia that my mom drank unpasteurized farm milk instead of thalidomide when she was pregnant with me. My younger brother likes to blame Mom for his perceived personal/social/economic deficiencies. Mom, meanwhile, says things like, “He takes after your father.” My sister contends that she could have been an Olympic athlete if not for mom’s suspect genetic contribution. Mom, a petite 5’2″, 115 lbs, is not an obvious genetic source for my own globular profile, but I do blame her for packing my school lunches with two-slice-white-bread sandwiches. Then again, those early fibre-free carbs may have made me the well-adjusted, socially astute, economically stable, non-athlete I am today. Thanks a lot, Mom.

    Comment by Desideria — April 14, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  5. I could never do the ‘blame Mom’ thing because, a. she just wouldn’t have it, b. my parents definitely parented as a unified team & c. I am such a complete carbon copy inside & out of my father! =D

    Comment by Leah — April 15, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

  6. It’s just misogyny, pure and simple. And “medical science” has been torturing women for profit with this kind of thinking (because it can never actually be supported with any proof) for centuries. Just because more women are doctors and researchers now doesn’t mean there is less misogyny in the discipline. It’s so wrong, but medicine still operates under the delusion that the female body is “not the norm” for the human body, the male body is. When you start off on that logic, everything then underlines that perceived “deviance”.

    So it goes like this: women’s bodies are differentiated from men’s bodies by fat, therefore fat is pathological. The differentiation in fat distribution between men and women allows women to a) menstruate; and b) create, gestate, and nurture babies. Unless we fully control this, it can’t be good! So if there’s any pathology we can’t explain in live births, it’s clear that fault lies with the mothers.

    Comment by ChaChaHeels — April 16, 2012 @ 8:47 am

  7. There was actually just an article related to possible genetic links to autism published in the NYT about a week ago (

    They discuss, among several factors, a correlation (not causation, I should highlight) between the age of the father and the presence of certain mutations that may be linked to risk for the disease. Very interesting reading, although they’re also careful to make it clear that, while locating genetic mutations is a breakthrough, they are still a long way away from any kind of profound understanding about autism.

    Comment by crewbie — April 16, 2012 @ 9:56 am

  8. The truth is mother’s are having babies when they are older. The eggs start having issues and the father’s sperm does too as they get older. This rush to blame fat for everything, to blame mother for everything crap that keeps going on in ummm “scientific studies” is becoming stupid and amazingly over simplified. Sigh.

    Comment by Nikita — April 16, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  9. Scientists are just starting to recognize the risks for issues of children whose fathers are over 40…..but it so much easier to blame mom generally

    Comment by Thea — April 16, 2012 @ 10:33 am

  10. KESW….congratulations!! Woo woo!! Perhaps a hiatus from news jabber?

    Can I blame being fat on my autism? Can I blame my fat-hating mother for my autism?

    It would be more productive go outside with my tea and watch the hummingbirds.

    Comment by Lisa from SoCal — April 16, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  11. The way out of the blame game is to ignore it. Remember when eggs were bad for health, then they weren’t. Remember when BMI was the thing, then it was not.

    You’ve just got to play the hand that you were dealt, and float above.

    The times I’ve been pregnant – I absolutely refused to read anything about pregnancy and actively stayed away from toxically well meaning pregnant women, and hyper-competitive new mommies and daddies.

    Some of these research studies seem to have been planned to be controversial from the outset and the flaws in the methodology is ignored.

    Comment by retna — April 17, 2012 @ 6:03 am

  12. And you might point your brother toward the Handbook of Clinical Child Neuropsychology where they point out that motor asymmetry can occasionally be seen as early as 15 weeks in the womb. IN. THE. WOMB. FETUSES, y’all! (Although, at that point, it’s head turning direction rather than handedness.) Did he then go on to gleefully tell you how *wait for it* “sinister” he found you?

    Comment by megaera — April 18, 2012 @ 4:28 am

  13. I’ve also heard about the link of older fathers to autism and other birth defects. I guess nature wants us to have kids young since it never expected us to live past 40 or 50 anyway.

    When I was pregnant (and fat) I was TERRIFIED of giving my kid a birth defect because of my fat. Funnily enough my doctor never ONCE mentioned it. I think she thought me stressing out about my weight would be worse for the baby than my actual weight.
    I had a very healthy pregnancy – low blood pressure throughout, no diabetes, … the only problem I had was when at the 20 week ultrasound they couldn’t see my baby’s heart so well and for two weeks we thought that our baby might have a heart defect. Well, two weeks later I had “popped” enough for them to see everything clearly and I ended up with a healthy baby girl.

    Comment by Ali — April 19, 2012 @ 10:25 am

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