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Of Mice & Moms: Is Maternal Instinct Wrapped Up In One Little Gene?

Researchers may have identified the genetic secrets that separate good mothers from bad ones. Are we happy about that?

Researchers LIVE to generate a moment of buzz like the late September announcement that a single gene may determine a woman’s maternal instincts and parenting skills. Pop culture ran with the news that a “mom gene” might explain everything. I’m speaking for the women – Moms and NotMoms alike – who sighed and thought, “Oh geez. Here we go.” 

First, the science: Rockefeller University researchers looked at female mice with babies, MomMice, if you will. They found that maternal behavior was triggered by an estrogen receptor that mice produce genetically at the same levels humans do.  The gene in question is located in the preoptic area of the brain which also controls aggressive behavior and sexual receptivity in mice.

In this test, scientists “silenced” the gene by reducing ER alpha levels. What that means, I don’t know, but the result was that the MomMice ignored their offspring and failed to groom them. Worse, they didn’t even protect them from a strange intruder.

Lead researcher Ana Ribeiro succinctly concluded, “Our study shows that, without this gene, the skills to be ‘a good mom’ were lost.”

And so, the headlines:

  • Is There a Gene for Motherhood?
  • ‘Mom Gene’ Discovered in Mice. Do You Have It?
  • Mom Gene Linked to Key Parenting Skills

Just what women needed. More stress.

Women living childfree by choice frequently share painful stories about how their decision is deemed to be abnormal by ”concerned” friends. How to feel if genetic mutation - an abnormality – is responsible for their missing Mommy urges? Their ‘mean girl” friends were just handed another razor-sharp sword.

New Moms? Well, they were already fretting about being a good mother. Now they can wonder if they’re so genetically mangled that their baby’s childhood is doomed. And since parenting is difficult for every Mom, will each bump in the road spark a question about how genetics might be guiding their actions?  Will this be the impetus for more women to seek genetic testing before pregnancy?

Of course, anyone who lived with a mother who was neglectful, mean-spirited, or even abusive has surely thought their Mom had a screw loose.  Maybe it was a gene.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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