Study

'Mom gene' discovered in mice: Do you have it?

Sep. 25, 2012 at 11:50 AM ET

Gee mom, you're swell! Mice may have a "mom gene," new research shows, but humans are a bit more complicated.
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Gee mom, you're swell! Mice may have a "mom gene," new research shows, but humans are a bit more complicated.

Is there such a thing as a "mom gene"? A new study of female mice shows that there might be a genetic link to nurturing traits. But the maternal instinct in humans may be much more complicated.

Ask any mom if they had the innate sense they’d be good at motherhood, and you'll get differing views. Some, like Melissa Mattia-Sansobrino, say they’ve wanted to be a mom for as long as they can recall. Mattia-Sansobrino always loved babysitting and knew without a doubt that children were in her future.

Now 35, she takes care of her 3-year old daughter full time, and is expecting a second baby in February. She believes she was born with the “mom gene,” if one exists.

“I gave up a lot be home,” Mattia-Sansobrino explains. “My career especially, a career which required a PhD [in biology] that took me six-and-a-half years to earn.  That wasn’t easy. But every day confirms that it was the right decision for me.”

Mommy mice gone bad

Researchers at the Rockefeller University in New York say they’ve found a single gene linked to key parenting skills. The study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took a group of healthy mice mothers and injected a molecule that silenced their estrogen receptor alpha in one specific area of the brain.

Ana Ribeiro, an author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University, explains: “Once the gene was silenced, not only did the moms not nurse or lick their baby pups, but they wouldn’t even move the baby mice back into the cage or fight off a strange intruder. In other words, our study shows that, without this gene, the skills to be ‘a good mom’ were lost.”

Of course, mice are not humans. And when it comes to human beings, the definition of “good mom” is open to much more debate.

But Ribeiro says the same alpha estrogen receptor is expressed in women, and that a suppressed gene could have an impact on  maternal behavior like feeding and caring for our babies. There’s also some evidence in mice, she says, that changes to this gene that occur in young pups may determine what kind of a mother a female mouse will become later in life. 

Are good parents born or made?

Some sociologists are concerned about the implications the study could have on women, and question the term “mom gene.” 

Given the societal pressure placed on women to become mothers, they worry that finding a genetic link to “good mom traits” may make women who don’t want to have children or who don’t believe that they have these maternal instincts feel even more marginalized.

“Boys and girls are not born fathers and mothers. They are taught how to be parents,” says Amy Blackstone, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Maine, who studies adults who voluntarily remain childless.  “I also worry that this discovery could stall the wonderful progress we’ve made towards granting gay men parenting rights. Being female is not a pre-requisite to being a good parent.”

Labeling something as a “mom gene” or saying that a good parent has certain hardwired traits may also work against the progress women have made in the workplace.

“When we start talking in these biological terms, we are going back a step to that logic the women are only caregivers and that women should be at home, taking care of babies because that’s what they are ‘made’ to do,” says Lisa Ruchti, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at West Chester University.

No mom gene, no problem

Susan Quinn, a New York City parent, can attest that having a "mom gene" is not a requirement for being a good, loving parent.

Before she and her husband decided to have a child -- after careful consideration -- she never considered herself particularly maternal.

"I have no mom gene whatsoever!" she said. "When I hear other women say that they always knew they wanted to be a mom, I know I never had that feeling."

But that doesn't really matter now, as she runs after her 3-year-old son on the playground and gives him kisses. "I still think I'm a good mom," she said, "it's just not something I always knew I wanted to do."

Maybe that's the difference between mice and (human) moms: For us, something we never knew we wanted can end up being the best thing ever.

Jacoba Urist is a lawyer, writer, and Manhattan mom who sometimes doubted whether she had the 'mom gene.' She is Forbes contributor, where she covers financial, legal and parenting news, and has written for The Atlantic, Newsweek/TheDailyBeast and The Wall Street Journal. Follow her on twitter @thehappiestpare. 

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