I hate to say it, but all shortcomings can be blamed on your mother
Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30
Here's a jolly anecdote for Mother's Day next weekend. Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin walk into a bar and find two laboratory mice serving drinks. The mice are mother and daughter and both are heavily intoxicated. "Tell me," asks the mother mouse. "Why is my daughter an alcoholic?" "Bad mothering," says Freud. "Bad maternal genes," says Darwin. Either way, it's the mother's fault.
We all try to be nice to our mammies on Mother's Day if we still have them, or to think about them if we don't. And maybe that's a compensation for mothers carrying so much responsibility for the rest of the year. And taking the blame for so much too. First we had Dr Freud telling his patients their mother was the cause of their neuroses: she was too dominant, or too passive, or too cold, or too smothering, or the source of the Oedipus complex.
Freud has fallen out of favour, but there is a new line of specialists inclined to saddle mothers with the responsibility of life-long influences, sometimes baneful: these are the neuroscientists, the boffins of the brain who are increasingly powerful in the field of ideas. And their main message is that everything in your personality was encoded in your brain when you were in your mother's womb.
Upbringing may have a modifying impact, but most of our mental baggage is already in place, not only from birth, but from conception. If we're depressed, schizophrenic or alcoholic, it's because we were born that way, maintains Dick Swaab, the Professor of Neurobiology at Amsterdam University, considered the leader in this specialisation. He's on Darwin's side: genetic inheritance accounts for every personality trait, from musicality to madness.
In one way, this lets mothers off the hook. If an infant plucks, at random, a set of genetically inherited characteristics, it's hardly the parents' fault. But Dr Swaab and his cohorts think maternal influence in pregnancy is crucially influential. Our personalities may have been fixed at conception, yet Dr Swaab also claims that everything our mothers did during pregnancy moulded our development. If our mothers smoked in pregnancy, as my Ma did, it probably affected us; it could have made our brains smaller or made us liable to ADHD. That explains a lot. If mothers take any medication or addictive substance during pregnancy, it may affect a person's brain or temperament in later life. Alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and anti-epileptic drugs, among other hazards, taken by a pregnant woman may produce depression, phobias and trans-sexuality in the child. Inter-sexuality, aggression, impaired motor skills and social and emotional problems can be triggered by medication or even sleeping pills taken by the mother, according to neuroscience.
Alcohol in pregnancy, says Dr Swaab – the author of a terrifying book called 'We Are Our Brains' – activates stress in the unborn child, prompting depression and mental disorders in later life. Even fearfulness or stress in the mother has an impact on foetal development. The brain starts to develop in the first few weeks of pregnancy, so women can be blamed for "stress" or "negative thinking" even before they know they're pregnant. Women who have calm pregnancies and spend as much time as possible relaxing while listening to Mozart and speaking to their developing infant are nourishing and nurturing the baby's brain. Nice suggestion – completely unrealistic.
Some of these pronouncements are alarming, making us feel that we have to be perfect mothers from the off and inducing feelings of guilt in those of us who have fallen short of the ideal. I'm grateful that I didn't drink alcohol during pregnancy, only because wine turned to vinegar in my mouth and became repellent to me, but I did lots of other negative stuff, and reading the neuroscience studies makes me feel woefully inadequate. (How comforting was the child expert DW Winnicott, who said we only need to be "a good enough parent".)
The neuroscientists reject the theories that sexual stereotypes come from "social conditioning". Sex and gender are fixed at birth – and homosexual orientation in males is mostly inborn. In rare cases, sexual ambiguity or trans-sexuality can result from drugs taken by the mother, or from a brain-wiring dysfunction in utero. The mother's responses during pregnancy may have some influence on the hormones – girls who display "tomboy" behaviour in childhood probably got a dose of male hormones in the womb, possibly through a stress (or shock) reaction in the mother.
But generally, gender-based differences are set before birth and, Dr Swaab maintains, continue universally all our lives. Males and females use eye-contact in completely different ways: boy babies make less eye contact than girl babies. Even in adulthood, females use eye contact to understand other women better, whereas males regard eye contact from other males as challenging.
All this neuroscience is fascinating and depressing. The research being done on the human brain is riveting and will bring great advances in knowledge and medical treatment. But it's discouraging to be informed that our limitations as well as our abilities are genetically set in stone, and our scope for self-improvement is less than we imagine.
Neuroscience is also tending to endorse an ominous warning I first heard from my mother-in-law: "You'll find that a mother's place is in the wrong." Except, maybe, on Mother's Day.