Bad Mother: Maternal Behavior & Broken BrainsS

Scientists claim they've discovered "bad mother/good mother" switches in the brain that control parenting behavior. But do these genetic switches really trump a woman's circumstances?

Catherine Bruton of the Times of London reports that researchers at Virginia's Richmond University have discovered "maternal neurons" generated in pregnant woman and "switched on" when the baby is born. Says Prof. Craig Kinsley,

We believe that a certain number of these ‘maternal neurons' need to be ‘switched on' for good mothering to take place. Our research showed that the mothers with fewer than this number of ‘maternal neurons' tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young.

Kinsley sounds almost crazily bullish on the implications of his research, arguing that women with too few "switched-on" neurons have "broken" brains that can be "fixed:"

We are all a slave to our brain function. An abusive mother has something malfunctioning in the brain so, in that respect, her behaviour is beyond her control. But it's not a question of whether we excuse a certain behaviour. The aim of our research is to identify brain malfunctions so we can work towards fixing them.

The statement "we are all a slave to our brain function" is a bit simplistic — our brains do control our bodies, but it doesn't really make much sense to think of a separate "we" that can be a slave to them. And of course, our brains are also influenced by what's going on around us. Says Prof. Alison Fleming, director of the University of Toronto's Center for the Study of the Psychobiology of Maternal Behaviour,

There is no single factor that determines maternal behaviour. The idea that a woman's brain is ‘hard-wired' in such a way that she will abuse her children and that it is not within her power to refrain from doing wrong is based on a misunderstanding of neuro-anatomy. All behaviour is dictated by the brain, but the brain is formed in interaction with our environment.

Might it be, in fact, that the environment influences the number of "maternal neurons" that are "switched on?" Kinsley acknowledges this possibility, kind of — he says that if brain scans showed moms to be deficient in the neuron department, counseling could help trip their switches. But writer and mother Sian Busby, whose great-grandmother drowned her children, disagrees that the brain is the place to start. She says,

I think there comes a moment in every mother's day when she would happily throw her child in the dustbin, but usually something stops her. I don't believe that has anything to do with genes.

That "something," Busby argues, is social support, not brain scans. And insofar as Kinsley's actually talking about offering social support, perhaps his research will be helpful. What may be most powerful about his findings is the suggestion that counseling could have a profound effect on neglectful parents, even changing their behavior at its source. Perhaps this will result in more effective alternatives to putting kids in foster care. On the other hand, Kinsley's emphasis on neurons and switching ignores something very simple about motherhood: support matters a lot. We don't need brain scans to tell us that mothers are less likely to "throw their children in the dustbin" if they have extended family, neighbors, therapists, or nurses to help them get through the day. And while "maternal neurons" could be an interesting field of study, focusing on them to the exclusion of all else is just another example of a mistake that's become common in our increasingly fragmented society: thinking of parenting as an individual responsibility, rather than a communal one.

Can A Bad Mother Help Her Nature? [TimesOnline]