Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's funny you should ask

As a working mom of an almost-2-year-old, I feel terrifically relieved when I read headlines like this: "Working mothers 'don't harm their children's development', major study reveals." All along I've been so worried that I was single-handedly harming her development. Because, of course, if anything goes wrong with her, it must be my fault. In fact, I must have directly and selfishly caused it. You'll notice that the headline isn't phrased like this: "Having two parents who work full time outside the home does not harm a child's development." And it's especially never, ever this: "Working fathers 'don't harm their children's development,' major study reveals." Cause if you printed something like that everyone would be like "well, duh."

This study obviously aims to answer the question "Do working mothers harm their children's development?" And that tells you a lot about the assumptions and beliefs of the people who asked the question, the culture that the question came out of, and the people who are framing the results of the study. In Philosophy, we tend to think there's a lot of significance in the way people phrase things and in the questions they ask. You can tell a lot about a person's worldview by listening to the questions they think are worth pursuing. This is one of the most fundamental ways in which science is influenced by the culture in which it's embedded. Why would anybody even think to do a study asking whether working moms damage their children? Because the attitudes and values of the larger culture saturate whatever kinds of research occur within that culture. It's inevitable.

Another issue here is the complete denial of larger social forces at play in situations like this. If it's the case that we now live in a world with a very different economy such that the breadwinner and stay at home mom model is no longer feasible (let alone desirable) for most people, then why is the mother to blame for potential issues with the kids? Did she bring about these changes in our economy? Obviously not, but then why is the responsibility for the well-being of her kids solely hers? It's puzzling.

Similarly, an article about artificial sweeteners contains this gem:
But in the late 1960s, studies began linking cyclamate to cancer. One noted that chicken embryos injected with the chemical developed extreme deformities, leading scientists to wonder if unborn humans could be similarly damaged by their cola-drinking mothers.
Check out that phrasing. First, note that it's not the cola or the chemical used to sweeten it that damages the babies. It's their mothers. Second, pregnant women who have been told that the artificial sweetener is perfectly safe, who have had diet drinks with this sweetener in it relentlessly marketed to them, who probably couldn't get their hands on the research regarding the risks associated with that sweetener if they tried, and who face intense social pressure to avoid gaining much weight while pregnant, are singled out as the sole cause of the potential damage. The industries that develop the products and ruthlessly push them into the market before adequate testing can take place carry no culpability here. The regulatory agencies that are in the industry's pocket and thus fail to do their job carry no culpability here. And the giant marketing machine that produces the powerful and ubiquitous image of artificially sweetened drinks as safe and desirable has no culpability here. Nope, it's just these horrible women who knowingly and intentionally guzzle unhealthy drinks while pregnant who are to blame. Right. Got it.


  1. It's scary that it's so common to have statements like this that imply that mothers are incompetent and always to blame when harm comes to their children. We often don't even notice it anymore (until somebody points it out) because it's such a common occurence in our culture. Thanks for pointing this out!

  2. Anonymous10/23/2009

    I agree.

  3. Cinders10/23/2009

    This is so right on.

  4. Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Well said.

  5. I'm new to this blog, so thank you for this blog post. I too am a working mother of an almost two year old.
    When I was pregnant, I was given Dr. Sears' book as a gift. I cried every time I read anything he wrote about working mothers. I didn't buy into what he was saying, but the the accusation made me want to crawl into a hole and never come out.
    I don't understand why there is such a criticism of mothers. Do people honestly think that their criticism will help? Honestly, it only hurts mothers and their children. People who want to help need to be supportive not critical. Otherwise they are only hurting the children they are supposedly speaking up for.

  6. I would like to quibble a bit with your language. I know what you mean, but being a mother is WORK! I think you mean paid work here as opposed to the work I do all day every day as a "stay at home mom". I find it very dismissive when women disregard the work of mothers, especially when mothers do it.

  7. @ Alyssa, thanks!

    @ earwicga, I agree that the language is an issue. I guess I was taking my phrasing from the title of the article (Working mothers'don't harm their children's development,' major study reveals). At the same time, I think "working mothers" is shorthand for mothers-who-also-work-outside-the-home in our culture since, sadly, the assumption is that mothers who work outside the home also do all the same work that stay-at-home moms do, except for the childcare during the day, of course. And this is deeply problematic - both the phrasing and the assumptions.

  8. Anonymous11/03/2009

    Well said! Thank you for articulating so well what I'm thinking in a more muddied way when I read stuff and think "what?"

  9. When I read things like that, or hear suggestions that parents should stay home and parent-- (Ahem, DR. LAURA.) I get FURIOUS. Because if someone doesn't bring in the money, whether it's mother or father, THAT is when the children get harmed. "Well, their development is harmed because THEY HAVE NOTHING TO EAT." And no one EVER suggests that Daddy stay home with the kids so Mommy can go to work. It's always the opposite, for very little reason.

  10. Great post. I'd add that it's strange to me how my employers always expect the mothers of my children to pick them up when there's a problem at school or daycare. The expectation really is that the dad should be at work, and the mom's career is secondary.