Sunday 23 October 2016

Everyone knows that a mother's place is in the wrong

Two reports last week put country's mothers on the Guilty Step

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Carol Hunt Photo:Tony Gavin
Carol Hunt Photo:Tony Gavin

Asthma. Autism. Crap Christmas presents. Missing socks. Serial killers. Failing grades. Obesity. Cheeky teenagers. Naomi Campbell's temper. Megalomaniacs. What do they all have in common? Come on, it's easy. Yes, you've guessed, you can blame them all on mammy.

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Delinquent child? The mother can't control him. Daughter who suffers from asthma? It's practically proven that the cause is an overbearing mother. And as for autism? That's covered by the false notion of the 'refrigerator mother', so cold and unloving that her child develops severe developmental problems communicating with others.

Seemingly, no matter what the problem, everything is a mother's fault. In my house, I get blamed for so much that I've had a T-shirt printed up with the words "Everything is My Fault" on it (sung to the Lego Movie theme).

It's a cross most mothers must bear. Back in the 19th Century, medics blamed birth defects and criminal tendencies on the mother's diet, nerves and even the company women kept during pregnancy. Concerns about the behaviour of mothers were often shaped, not by the actions of actual mothers, but by worries that women just weren't behaving as they should.

Thankfully with advances in science and psychology, we no longer blame mammy for all our problems. (I particularly like Donald Winnicott's "good enough" mothering.). Or do we?

In a recent edition of the science journal Nature, seven scholars of history, philosophy, gender studies and population health offered a commentary entitled Society: Don't Blame the Mothers. They are concerned that a controlling society is once again blaming mothers. They have a point.

Last week saw two reports which put at least half of the mothers in Ireland on the Guilty Step. (Don't mind us, we're very comfortable here - we'll get used to the cold and the dark, just kick us if we get in your way.) The reports hit two groups: pregnant women who drink and mothers who put their children in childcare centres. The first said that: "Drinking during pregnancy is highly prevalent" and "socially pervasive in Ireland and other western countries" (British Medical Journal). That sounds awful, doesn't it? Especially when you go on to read that "more than 45pc of Irish women binge drink in the first trimester of their pregnancy". Dear God.

Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a collection of physical and mental problems in children of women who drank heavily during pregnancy. Does this mean that pregnant Irish women are knowingly putting their children at risk?

The Nature science journal tells us that, in 1981, the US Surgeon General advised that no level of alcohol consumption was safe for pregnant women. "Drinking during pregnancy was stigmatised and even criminalised. Bars and restaurants were required to display warnings that drinking causes birth defects. Many moderate drinkers stopped consuming alcohol during pregnancy, but rates of FAS did not fall."

Why not? Perhaps it was, as my excellent obstetrician told me when I was pregnant on both of my children, because a glass of red wine with dinner could not cause FAS. In fact, he encouraged it (just the one small glass, no top-ups) as a way of easing stress, relaxing and enjoying pregnancy. The sort of drinking that causes FAS is usually only prevalent in women who already have serious addiction issues that need to be addressed.

But what of all those Irish women who binge drink in the first trimester? Interestingly, the research shows that this plummets to just 0.4pc in the second trimester. So that's easily explained. It occurred when they didn't know they were pregnant. 'Binge drinking' for women is calculated at four drinks in a sitting. Before I knew I was pregnant, I attended my father's funeral. Over the course of the day I would have consumed four units of alcohol, ergo I was a binge drinker during my pregnancy. Are my children doomed? Probably not.

As the authors of the Nature journal research tell us: "Although those who drink heavily during pregnancy can endanger their children, the risks of moderate drinking were overstated by policy-makers - a point recently reaffirmed by the Danish National Birth Cohort study, which did not find adverse effects in children whose mothers drank moderately during pregnancy. Nonetheless, warnings about alcohol during pregnancy made in inappropriate contexts still cause pregnant women to suffer social condemnation and to agonise over an occasional sip."

Then we had the report -The Influence of Childcare Arrangements on Child Well-Being from Infancy to Middle Childhood - that told us that children cared for by parents or relations have better language skills by the time they are three years of age than those in childcare centres. So if our kids have problems with Leaving Cert English Paper One in future years and fail to get into college, who can they blame?

Yes, the mothers who abandoned them to strangers in order to gratify their desire to work outside the home.

What the guilt-inducing headlines don't tell us is that children in childcare have better motor skills. And that children of lone parents are better readers. There is indisputable evidence that children in childcare centres have the opportunity to develop social skills that are not available to learn at home. But don't let that get in the way of the inevitable guilt mothers who use childcare centres should be feeling.

Or the bad example those lazy, stay-at-home mothers are giving their over-protected children by refusing to do any 'real work'. Damned if they work, damned if they stay home? That's in keeping with the 'mammy guilt' rule.

And so, it should be obvious to everyone by now that the fact I drank the odd glass of wine during pregnancy and put my children into the college creche means that they will inevitably turn into resentful, illiterate delinquents. The fact that this has not already occurred - and that they are mentally, physically and socially thriving - is pure luck. But it won't last. So don't be surprised if you hear that they've bludgeoned me to death in 10 years' time.

The newspapers will report that I should have seen it coming. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. And of course, it was all my fault.

Sunday Independent

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