Is there really a “good mother” gene?

Posted by Samantha on September 20, 2012 in Nature v Nurture, Parenting Dilemmas |

I guess I can congratulate the Metro for not massively overstating the recent findings of Dr Ana Ribiero and her team.  Their article is here for those who would like to read it:

In a nutshell, the research shows that mice differ with respect to how much they lick, nurse and retrieve their young.  The headlines are because the scientists have manipulated this behaviour by manipulating a single gene.

Of course it’s a huge leap to say that licking, nursing, and retrieving mice pups is equivalent to “protecting, feeding or raising [human] children” as the Metro put it.

Another publication turns that into “Great Mums have a ‘good mother’ gene say scientists”.

The scientists say nothing of the sort!

My guess is that this highly trained scientist would certainly not claim that some women are born to be good mothers and others are not, nor that the essence of good mothering lies in a few physical behaviours – as the articles imply.

Thinking of my own experience, I was not a young girl who played with dolls as much as I noticed other girls did.  As an older girl I did not enjoy spending time with babies or young children.  As a young woman I was (publicly) certain that children were not for me.  Privately, I wasn’t sure but that’s another story.

Believing this idea that some women are ‘born’ mothers and others are not, I genuinely thought that I might not be ‘mother material’.  I really relate to Lucy Worsley’s point that “the reproductive urge” may have been “educated out” of her.

All that notwithstanding, today I am certain that I am a good (enough) mother.  Why?  Because I have taken the time to learn how to do it well.

Does that mean I am lucky enough to have this “good mother” gene – the one that’s supposedly behind how much effort you put into mothering?

If I have it, my pre-children behaviour makes no sense; if I don’t, then how to explain my post-children behaviour?  Simple: genetics is not destiny.

Parenting is a learned skill.  Mothers AND fathers can learn the elements of how to be a good enough parent.

They are the same skills that make us good enough people: the ability to love, to listen, to defer our own gratification, the ability to show compassion, to be patient and kind.  I could go on but I think that’s enough.

I can still get cross about this kind of reporting – reporting that reinforces stereotypes and encourages us to be deterministic.  (One day I hope I’ll just laugh this kind of thing off). This article and others like it may offer comfort to parents unwilling to look at their own behaviour and its role in their children’s lives.  Or it may promote the air of superiority that one can sense from certain parents.  My sadness is that for other more conscientious, realistic parents it may push the guilt buttons.

Don’t let it!

So, there’s a gene that determines how much you lick your child (I mean honestly!).

The only appropriate response I believe is: SO WHAT?


PS: for anyone thinking about doing something to improve their parenting skills please take a look at my webpage where I outline my series of parenting workshops designed to do just that – help us ALL be good enough parents!


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