Mom Genes

 Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct, by Abigail Tucker

This is a fantastic book, and if you're a mom you'll want to read it.  If you're not a mom, it's probably a good idea to read it anyway, because after all, there are a lot of moms around.

Scientists have only recently really started to seriously study the biological changes that come with motherhood.   We've long assumed that adults, on the whole, don't change much.  And it turns out that moms change -- a lot.  Our cells, our genes, our brains...all go through massive reconstruction.

Tucker goes through a whole lot of research (she's a journalist, not a science person herself) and combines it with stories from her own life.  She's a mom of four herself and has plenty of relevant experience.  This is definitely a popular science book for laypeople, and it's got a good deal of humor as well.

Compared to their rapidly developing infants, moms have a reputation for being dull and predictable, hardly hotbeds of sexy hypotheses.  In nature, animals such as baby whales sometimes mistake ocean buoys and other large, inert orbs for their mothers; scientists may make similar assumptions.

Us warm-blooded types who have live births are known as mammals because of our specialized parenting.  Tucker describes a zillion experiments and observations, on rats, mice, apes, and all sorts of mammalian critters -- and all of them go through big changes upon becoming mothers.  These changes are complex and, happily, do not rely upon one mechanism; they're all over the place, genetically, hormonally, and in every other way.  

You can induce mothering in non-mother female rats simply by putting them in a cage with babies for a week or so (and making sure they don't eat the babies while you wait).  Some species need this exposure in order to become competent mothers later on, and in humans, babysitting is helpful training, although not necessary.  A few fun facts:

  • Placentas turn out to be much weirder than anyone had anticipated, and are largely driven by the dad's genetics.
  • Rat moms will push a button to get more rat babies, often indefinitely.  They will pick babies over cocaine, and brave dangers in order to get at babies.   Since I have experienced being pregnant, holding a toddler, and also thinking I need another baby! all at the same moment, I really identified with that. 
  • Mom critters will routinely attack threats rather than running away like a sensible non-mom will do.  Moms are also unusually good at dealing with sudden massive disaster, but are extra sensitive to ongoing stressors that threaten security.
  • Your basic mom is extremely sensitive to anything involving suffering children (as my husband knows from my refusal to watch anything involving a kid in danger).  I first learned this upon seeing a photograph in a book about the rape of Nanking.  It was of a screaming toddler sitting alone among wreckage.  I had an instant reaction that was pretty close to a panic attack, and that photo is still burned into my mind.
  • A support network is very, very necessary.  We're still learning about PPD, but a lack of a solid support system is one big factor.  A mammal critter mom left on her own will work really, really hard, but she'll also suffer a lot.

There is plenty more, and quite a bit about dads too.  They're not left out. It's a fascinating book!  Read it!

 Your basic takeaway here is -- don't mess with moms.  They're hard-wired for the job.



  1. Ooh this sounds really interesting! Do you know if the author is herself a scientist, by any chance?

  2. This goes a way towards explaining my extreme reaction to a book I read on a plane when my son was four, about a three-year-old boy who disappeared. It was The Deep End of the Ocean by Mitchard.... definitely seared into my brain.

  3. Jenny, as far as I can tell she's a journalist, not a scientist -- albeit a journalist who has done a lot of work in this area.

    Jeanne, yeah, I would have had a similar reaction!

  4. What a much needed topic! Right now I'm reading a book that comes at it somewhat from the other side, Born for Love - more about how nurturing or the lack thereof affects the brains of children. This would help to explain what's going on in the nurturer's brain too.

  5. Oh, that sounds great! Reading books like that make me think of the 'scientific' approaches of 100 or so years ago, when snuggling a baby and talking in that swoopy baby voice was considered to be terrible and wrong, and would spoil a baby. Blech.

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