Endocrine Reductionism

Lately, I’ve again been thinking about the corrosive effects of biological determinism on mother’s psyches.

To remind you, I’m referring to sentiments expressed by anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler and surgeon Michel Odent to the effect that mothers who have C-sections or medicated births, or those who don’t breastfeed, somehow miss out on the hormonal oxytocin/prolactin ‘love cocktail’ which prevents bonding with their baby and causes said baby to insecurely attach to Mom. These thoughts are further extended by Sears et al, who imply that sleep training even for a few nights is akin to – and causes the same neuron-killing rise in the stress hormone, cortisol – severe, constant abuse or neglect. The mainstream media also reinforces the “parenting practices change brains” paradigm with shoddy science reporting about studies like this one.

To wit, if you – and only you, Mom – don’t do it the AP/NP way, you blew it. Psychologist James W. Prescott, Ph.D puts it even more starkly:

In summary, the lessons to be learned are clear. If Homo sapiens is to survive as a species, he/she must return to the “life plan” of Mother Gaia who, through her wisdom of millions of years of evolutionary biology and psychobiology, has provided for the intimate physical affectional bonding between mother and her offspring which establishes the foundation for later sexual affectional bonding and for human love itself. For without human love there can be no survival of Homo sapiens.

Prestcott, in context, is arguing that if only all babies in the world were nursed for at least 2.5 years, everyone would always be making love and never war. Funny how that never seemed to work for the ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans…

But here’s the thing: human beings – and in particular, human brains – are far, far more complex than biological determinists give them credit. While we can legitimately infer the genesis of extreme negative parenting results (and possibly, the resulting endocrine patterns) from extremely negative parenting behavior, it’s far more difficult to distinguish between the results of what we would call mediocre and good parenting behavior in today’s terms. Consider the prevailing parenting practices in the period 1910-1940: Crying was “good for the baby’s lungs”, mothers were admonished not to pick their babies up for fear of spoiling them; and babies were rapidly weaned to cows’ milk in bottles, if they were breastfed at all. And yet, those parenting practices provided us with the men and women Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation”. Somehow, a discussion of whether these people suffered from a depression of their HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis when, as babies, waves of stress-induced cortisol washed over their little brains, seems more than a little beside the point.

Conversely, consider the case of Melissa Drexler, AKA “The Prom Mom”, just a regular, all-American girl who had her baby unassisted in a bathroom stall at her senior prom and proceeded to strangle him and dump him in the wastebasket, after which she immediately returned to the dance floor. I don’t know what was going on in her brain at the time, but that ‘horomonal love cocktail’, produced by her oh-so-empowering, unmedicated UC, was quite obviously of no help to her poor baby. And she’s not the only one, in case you want to dismiss her as a complete aberration.

If we were to parent solely by recent endocrinological findings, we should also be scared of damaging our newborns just by bathing them or changing their diaper. Actually, according to current research, moms can screw up their kids even in utero, just by being anxious and stressed during pregnancy (I’m sure that most mothers would find that particular bit of news to be a real stress-reducer. NOT.) . It’s an absolute wonder that Western babies, despite being on the receiving end of such toxic effects, manage to have securely attached babies at the same rate as many carefree ‘noble savages’…isn’t it? Perhaps just loving your baby, and showing them you do, is sufficient?

Hormones are just a part of the (very complex) human picture. An important part, to be sure, but far from the whole story, and they are not the only determinants of what makes a human response to a situation. Reducing human parenting and infant behavior and emotions to mere reactions to involuntary hormonal impulses is not only simplistic, but also demeaning, to parents and infants.

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5 Responses

  1. Hear hear! Personally, the only parenting advice I ever give to new parents is “trust yourself, trust your baby, and see a doctor if you’re worried.” Humans are built to survive. Even as babies, we can withstand a whole lot of “imperfect parenting” without breaking.

  2. Invoking “Mother Gaia” in an academic paper? Does he have a Ph.D. in Woo?

  3. I’m not sure how academic a paper that was, but Prestcott is a serious crank. As far as I know, his Ph.D is legit, though.

  4. That endocrine bonding thing is such a piece of crap. If true, would all the Mothers in the world who adopted not bond with their baby? Total crap.

    It is a bit frightening when I see Witch Doctor Ph.d When someone has a Phd the general public does take a bit of a listen. ARghhhhh

  5. Good argument on your part though. Prom Mom should not have done that if their theory was correct.

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