So, how’s Mom doing?
Tom Spears
Ottawa Citizen

Friday, May 07, 2004

So, how’s Mom doing?

The hunt for this simple question leads through the tangled underbrush of scientific research without finding clear answers.

There are 30 million people in Canada. Roughly half of them are, or may one day be, mothers.

How are they faring in 2004? You’d think that with all the researchers at all the universities and hospitals and think tanks, someone would have an overview.

So I set out to see.

But there is no look at the state of motherhood, or mothers, as far as I can find. I’ve sent out inquiries to every research university in North America through a network to which they all subscribe, and drawn a blank.

Instead, research on mothers tends to focus on very narrow areas - medical, economic and sociological, and a lot of them are rather dreary:

• The babies of diabetic mothers in northeast England are four times more likely to die than those born to healthy mothers, says the British Medical Journal.

• Three thousand new mothers are physically abused each year in North Carolina.

• Mothers with alcohol and drug problems punish their children more than women who do not have substance-abuse problems, according to the University at Buffalo.

• Antiretroviral therapy (potent drugs) given to babies soon after birth protects 36 per cent of them against HIV infection from their mothers.

And this cheery thought from a Canadian university: pregnant women need a regular exercise regime.

Oh, right. I think I’ll tell expectant mothers to celebrate this special day by getting on the treadmill because they need to tone their abs.

Luckily there are also happier research results: In Cincinnati, doctors found that mothers’ heart-to-heart talks with their teenagers do help prevent the kids from binge-drinking when they go away to university.

Still, somehow the big picture is still missing. I can’t look at any of these topics and recognize the face of any mother I know. That’s because science looks at narrow issues where things can be measured and quantified, not at broad-brush pictures.

The search for Mom brought me, eventually, to Amy Mullin, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Institute of Women’s Studies, and also in its philosophy department.

She was a little surprised at being called. She’s a philosopher, she explained, not a research scientist.

Still, she suggested a book, popular since it came out a year and a half ago: Mother Nature, by Sarah Hardy. An anthropologist at Harvard, she thinks. It’s about the different ways that primate mothers behave.

Primate mothers are not always nice, warm and cuddly, she cautions. Did I know that female bonobo apes have quickie sex with lots of different males when they think they’re pregnant? It draws more males into baby-rearing later.
Hmmm... maybe not quite the thing for Mother’s Day.

We kick around some ideas, including recent research that morning sickness protects mother and fetuses against possible food poisoning.

Don’t talk to me of morning sickness, she groans. Turns out she had hyperemesis - an extreme form of nausea and vomiting - in each of her three pregnancies. There was nothing to do but connect her to an intravenous drip for five months each time, as she couldn’t even keep liquids down. Worse, she knew after the first pregnancy that it would happen again with each future one. It didn’t help that some people believe it’s psychosomatic - a sign she wants to reject her baby.

She went ahead anyway.

“I just love all three of my children,” she offers, as if that explains everything.

Maybe it does. It certainly cuts across all the slices of the academic pie into which motherhood is carved with a single, neat, and very powerful overview of its own.

It’s a tough world out there. There’s depression; there’s physical and emotional wear on mothers and babies; there’s disease and abuse. But Mom loves the kids dearly, and more often than we have the right to expect of her, she’s up to the job.

© Ottawa Citizen 2004