Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

Is there a mommy gene?

Posted in news, pregnancy, science by jenapincott on October 17, 2010

At four o’clock in the morning, in the street in front of our home, I nearly lose it. Our three-week old has been crying for ten hours. I’ve wrestled her into a sling and am jumping up and down under a streetlight, singing “Amazing Grace” in agitated bursts.

Things have taken a turn for the worse. Earlier in the day when I lifted the baby up to my face, eyeball to eyeball, she jerked her head away and cried harder. The infant has been rocked and bounced, shushed and swaddled – with increasing force and desperation. It occurs to me that maybe I should ignore her for a spell. I could lay her down on the dewy grass, let her scream at the stars and the moon, while I drop my head in my hands and weep. How sweet the sound.

If there’s a mommy gene, I don’t have it.

Mommy genes! The idea started about fifteen years ago when a doctoral student named Jennifer Brown and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School noticed something wrong with their mice experiment. Pups were dying. Whole litters, in fact, were wiped out just a day or two after birth. This was strange, because the babies were healthy and so were the mothers. One glance at the mouse cage solved the mystery. Pups were scattered everywhere, shivering and starving, while the mothers nonchalantly went about their business. Normal mother mice round up their brood and feed and lick them. But these dams didn’t give a damn. They acted oblivious to their babies’ frantic squeaks.

The mother mice were specially bred to lack a gene called fosB. Brown and her colleagues had no idea that knocking out fosB would make mice into deadbeat moms, but it apparently does. It turns out that the gene, when activated, creates a protein that turns on other genes and is partly responsible for the function of neurons in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls emotional behavior — including nurture. If you’re a murine mother, just being around your babies usually triggers the fosB gene to express itself. Because mother mice lacking a working copy of the gene are not motherly, fosB hit the headlines as the first “mommy gene.”

Several years later researchers found that genes called Peg 1/Mest and Peg3 also have an effect on the motherliness of mice. When scientists disabled these genes the result was similar the FosB experiment: cold-hearted mothers, empty-bellied pups. Both these genes influence how oxytocin, the “love hormone” behind caressing and nursing and other mothering behavior, is processed in the brain. When oxytocin doesn’t get to where it needs to go, the result is less nurture, more neglect. (Interestingly, in mice and humans, only the Peg1/Mest and Peg3 genes are imprinted and only the one inherited from the father is active. This means an afflicted mouse can blame her lack of mothering instinct on her dads. An attentive one can give him credit. )

“More Mommy genes!” the headlines raved. Mice and humans share many of the same genes, so these genes may influence women’s nurturing instincts, too. Perhaps we can test every wannabe mom to see if she has working copies of FosB, Peg1/ Mest, and Peg3. Then we’ll know who can soothe babies into submission and who thinks it’s a good idea to leave them to cry under the stars. Perhaps we can use genetic engineering to make us supermoms. No new parent would feel exasperated and hopeless again. Let’s make sure everyone has warm fuzzy mommy genes.

The scientists doing this research never claimed they found mommy genes. That sort of bravado would be embarrassing. Humans are obviously more complex than mice, and our behavior is more nuanced.

To say a gene makes a woman a good mother is a little like saying the carburetor is what makes a plane fly. Sure, the plane wouldn’t get off the ground without the device to blend air and fuel. But to credit the carburetor for flight? What about the wings, the pilot, the fuel? Or even the screws and the steel? And what about air around the plane, and the molecules in it? We can’t give all the credit (or blame) to one widget.

The same goes for “mommy genes.” Sure, genes influence how proteins are transcribed and neurons fire and signals are dispatched and hormones are received and processed, and so on. Every part of this infrastructure supports our nurturing behavior. We may be especially deficient if particular genes are defective or if they malfunction. There’s no doubt that researching these genes gives us valuable information about our nurturing behavior. But it’s likely that any one gene is just a widget in what makes us fly.

What’s a good mommy, anyway? That’s a debate beyond the realm of science. It’s slippery. When my newborn finally falls asleep in my arms, angelically, clutching my pinky, I feel like a good mommy again. It doesn’t require mommy genes.

It takes amazing grace.

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54 Responses

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  1. The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

    This was beautiful. I love the last line. I don’t doubt you are a loving, grace-filled momma. Keep up the good work!

    • alexandrajeancoffey said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:12 pm

      Go stand with her under a tree. Babies grow reverant under trees. Something about the wind and the sound I suppose.

      ganbatte ne.


  2. Lindsay said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Yeah that last line of yours gave me chills.

  3. WorstProfEver said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Very nice post on parenting, and congrats on being Pressed!

    But I just gotta ask — why didn’t they look for this gene is guy mice? Why not a “parent gene” and not a “mommy gene”?

  4. The Gates of Lodore said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Interesting post. I find it interesting that one subtle genetic difference can have a huge impact on only one aspect of an individual’s personality (human or animal), yet much of the individual is unaffected.

    By the way, some babies just cry…

  5. mmgoodsongs said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:58 am

    BEAUTIFUL! As the mom of 4 I can totally relate. When I was pregnant with #1 I was working at an elementary school so there was no lack of helpful advice from parents. One mom said something to me that I still carry with me and share when ever I can. “Everything is a phase…so when it’s bad, hang in there it will pass. It is also true however, that when it is good, it will pass so hang on to it and appreciate it.” Thank you for posting.

  6. brasch1985 said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:10 am

    I think so , many have it , some don’t.

  7. Conflicted Mean Girl said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:15 am

    What a great post. And yes I’m learning sometimes it does take amazing grace. Other times it just takes a smile from who kid who spent the previous 45 minutes whining.

  8. lifeintheboomerlane said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

    There are certain things that can be analyzed to death, and with all due respect to science, I tend to agree that some people are far more suited to motherhood than others. But in order for species to survive, it seems a no brainer that virtually all females are hardwired with a certain amount of mommy genes. Otherwise, life would

  9. lifeintheboomerlane said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:20 am

    whoops! I meant to say: Otherwise, life would disappear from the planet except for maybe some fish and Courtney Love.

  10. Stay at Home Barbie said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

    loved this…thanks for sharing!

  11. Barb said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Fascinating!! Thank you for sharing this information and I love your insights about it. As for being a “good” mommy – if your child is loved, fed and encouraged MOST of the time – you’re there. Hang in there and by the way – some babies just want to be left alone – mine did!

  12. edebock said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I agree; parenting definitely takes amazing grace… and patience! Don’t be afraid to let your baby cry as long as you’ve made sure that she’s warm, dry, and fed. I know that some say you should never let a baby cry itself to sleep but I don’t think a good mommy necessarily lets the baby control her to the point where it won’t go to sleep anywhere but in her arms.

  13. CrystalSpins said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Good luck. I really feel for you. I don’t think I have the mommy gene either. Luckily, I’m also not actually a mommy. (And the jerk who posted above me “By the way, some babies just cry…” should be flicked in the ear. That’s not helpful in any way. Jerk.)


  14. rain2rainbows said, on October 18, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Great post. I know exactly that feeling from the first section. Instead of screening potential mom’s (lol), hopefully this research can pave the way for some hormone/gene therapy for mother’s who are low or lacking on this gene to help them cope with post-partum depression or just mommy-apathy.

    🙂 To the some babies just cry guy…. LOL… ALL babies cry, but there is a difference between waaah for 3 minutes and that soul stealing, psychosis inducing, never ending wail that makes you wonder how we continue to bring kids into the world. My son had colic and it was the worst 3 months of my life. If you’ve never experienced that… you are a LUCKY guy 🙂

  15. notesfromrumbleycottage said, on October 18, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Sometimes babies do ‘just cry’ for no apparent reason. You change them, feed them, look for anything causing pain, comfort them but the crying continues. If you start looking patterns when it has been going for hours or days, you might find a cause.

    But after hours of dealing with a crying baby, you put the baby in his or her crib, raise the side, leave the room and have a cup of tea. The fact that you are still concerned, still wondering what to do while faced with total failure means you have the mommy gene. You are three weeks in and it is a terrible time considering the lack of sleep and showertime.

    Good post about the genetics end of it. Makes sense considering some of the parents I have met.

  16. Shood1943 said, on October 18, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Well let’s not blame genes for everything.

  17. Wally J said, on October 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    This is great. Even as a Dad (and not a Mom), I still enjoyed this a lot. Thanks so much for posting this.

  18. Rivki @ Life in the Married Lane said, on October 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I can empathize (I also have a three-week old. Congrats on your baby!). My first baby also cried. A lot. All the time. New babies are more challenging, since they are so needy. Wait until your little one starts to give back more. A smile here, a coo there, eye contact, turning over, crawling, waking, talking! Personally, I found it easier to feel the pleasures of motherhood once my baby started “giving back.” So now, with my second child, though it’s grueling and I’m sleep deprived and I know the smiling is just gas, I know that there are moments of unbearable cuteness ahead, and it makes it easier.

    Hang in there, good luck, and try to take some time for yourself as well (that you are blogging and made FP is a good sign!).

  19. travelingmad said, on October 18, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Great post. Congratulations on being freshly pressed.

    I think there is a mommy gene and I don’t think I have it.

  20. Kayla LaFleur said, on October 18, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I really enjoyed your post : ) And wow am I impressed by how coherent and witty your writing is considering you’ve expressed that you’ve been sleep deprived because of your wee little one for 3 weeks straight! You are Super Woman with a diaper bag strapped to your chest! LOL. Congrats on getting freshly pressed! I’m going to mosey through your blog now…


  21. Marion McCristall said, on October 18, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed!
    Having a screaming infant is incredibly difficult. Thankfully Mother Nature gives us those moments of tenderness when the baby falls asleep and new moms get a chance to bask in their glow. Your baby is blessed to have an articulate, thinking, creative, caring, loving woman as a mom.

  22. Nora Weston said, on October 18, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Wonderful post! I have to agree with Kayla…you must be a super mom. You do understand some days are better than others, but at the end of the day…you and your child are a match made in heaven. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  23. [postage stamp required] said, on October 18, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    i don’t think there’s anyone alive who wouldn’t consider putting their baby in the grass and letting him or her cry if that baby had been crying for 10 hours. that’s a long time. great post

  24. barb7802 said, on October 18, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I will echo others thoughts as well. We are stricken with self doubt as mom. Everyone I know has periods like this. What matters is what we do after the “storm”. Looking at your child at peace sends the same through our bodies. We feel it. You felt it. You will always feel it. Nice Post.

  25. perfectperfectionist said, on October 18, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I’m absolutely terrified of motherhood. Terrified of possible failure. Of being entirely responsible for another entity. Thank you so much for your post, as it addresses my fears so eloquently.

  26. gmomj said, on October 18, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Great post.
    Amazing Grace that we survive the little darlings.
    The mommy gene is also contained in running washers and dryers,showers and
    running cars,(why do you think when you were dating you always ran into bleary-eyed couples at 3 a.m. with babies at the drugstore?)

    Next time sweetums can’t calm down put on the shower and rock her in her stroller in the bathroom.
    Really works.

  27. jan godown annino said, on October 18, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Many thanks, Jena. An amazing 10 hours you & the wee one experienced.
    And I do believe from years of informal observation that there are Moms & Dads hotwired to be attentive in the right ways, yet also to be able to carry on well with their worlds.
    This is a beautiful meld of science with stuff for the soft spots in our hearts.
    I liked the post about neither the worst times or best times lasting long.
    Reminds me of the lines

    I sit rocking my newborn
    Who tumbles off my lap
    And toddles off to school
    A tall youth walks her home, holding her books for her
    They pull a shawl up around my shoulders as I sit rocking and napping by the fire.

    Thank you again for your post.


  28. thesoftspace said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Fascinating topic! I’m going to keep my eyes open for more research on this. Thanks for sharing!

  29. bowie games said, on October 18, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Yeah that last line of yours gave me chills! hi2

  30. Evie Garone said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    Great post & Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! You definitely have the Mommy gene and you & your baby will have many happy & challenging years ahead! Enjoy!! They’ll be over before you know it & you’ll miss them, they grow so fast, not just a cliche, truth! Don’t worry so much, relax and enjoy!

  31. Bipolar Pensante said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story!!!

  32. She.Is.Just.A.Rat said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Well…if there is a mommy gene…and I suspect there is…I am completely void of it. Congrats on being FP’ed…

  33. jenapincott said, on October 18, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Thanks so much for all the kind words! I wrote most of this eight week ago, and there have been fewer round-the-clock crying jags since. Oh, I know there will be phases…. Today she was all smiles and coos! I’ll be posting more on the science of mommyhood whenever Baby gives me a moment….

  34. patissonne said, on October 19, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Lovely post. Asked myself the same question some time back. Especially liked your ending sentence “It takes amazing grace”, yes it does! 🙂

  35. text me, love mom said, on October 19, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Mommy gene – hhmmn. I have four kids – adults now. I loved holding them, rocking them, walking them but sometimes nothing worked with a crying baby and a tired, exhausted me – nothing but the baby swing! My eldest is the daughter of a three month old who is only really happy in someone’s arms these days. My daughter felt that purchasing the swing would be like deciding not to ‘be there’ for her little daughter – but after a long night and a aching shoulder she did it and found baby loves to swing and she can take care of a few of her own needs and feel okay.
    Love your writing.

  36. april said, on October 19, 2010 at 1:48 am

    wow. been there done that and so glad to know I am not alone. A very VERY well written piece indeed. Thank you for sharing.

  37. munira's bubble said, on October 19, 2010 at 2:04 am

    yes, what about the screws and the steel and the molecules and the air pressure and the wings and the pilot!!
    giving credit everywhere it’s due, that’s gracious indeed 😉
    good job!

  38. allusiveme said, on October 19, 2010 at 2:11 am

    I love the last line, its true, when they fall asleep or do the ‘right thing’ you feel amazing and accomplished.

    This was a really good post, i really enjoyed it and really needed to read it atm.
    thanks x

  39. schnapper said, on October 19, 2010 at 7:15 am

    If there is a mummy gene, I definitely don’t have it. Babies have no effect on me, I only feel mildly disgusted by them.

  40. alternativelyme said, on October 19, 2010 at 7:25 am

    I beg to differ on it being a gene – what ever it is I didn’t have it – then it suddenly turned on a few years ago – if it was genetic that would not have happened? Hmm maybe I’m just a confused parent…

  41. Baby Mama said, on October 19, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Amazing grace – that’s no lie. My now 15 month old Baby Girl screamed for the first three months of her life – 24/7. No matter what my hubby or I did, nothing helped. I don’t know how we made it through those first few months but by amazing grace (I still cry when I think about it). But, somehow, I made it through and I now have this beautiful, happy and bubbly 15 month old Baby Girl who is filled with love and who simply just loves me. Its amazing and I thank God for His grace that helped me through that really rough patch and still continues to help me today. “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who gives me strength” Philippians 4:13

  42. cc said, on October 19, 2010 at 8:55 am


  43. myfullcup said, on October 19, 2010 at 9:20 am

    It does take grace and grace is so very amazing.

    Can I encourage you that it does get better? You won’t always have to do that? I had a baby who seemed to think crying/screaming was better than anything, she is now a few weeks away from turning 8 and is the happiest little girl on the planet.

    But I will never forget the endless screaming.

  44. Rio said, on October 19, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I do believe what we expect of ourselves as mothers is extreme and that causes us to feel we fall short of being “good mothers”. However there are bad mothers. Not meeting some ideal (like doing everything right all the time) is not the same as being neglectful or abusive. It really is not.

    Lack of sleep, lack of support and unrealisitic expectations can make us feel like we are bad mothers and even at times we may act out in “bad mother” ways.

    But I do think there are mothers who are basically psychotic and they are often the ones who really think they are great mothers. They don’t have empathy to nurture. They are scary. They might even have REALLY WELL BEHAVED CHILDREN.

  45. Angie said, on October 19, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Great post! If I wasn’t born with the Mommy Gene, my 3 kids brought it out in me. My baby just turned 17. I’d do it all over again 🙂

  46. Veronica Samuels said, on October 19, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Lovely post! I remembering reading one of Jane Goodall’s books about how new chimpanzee moms often lost their first born because of their lack of mothering skills, something like that. Luckily, we humans have the internet, mom blogs and other people who have been there to help us work it out. You can do it! You are a great mom!


  47. mrG said, on October 19, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    “It occurs to me that maybe I should ignore her for a spell. I could lay her down on the dewy grass, let her scream at the stars and the moon, while I drop my head in my hands and weep. How sweet the sound.” — that’s your mommy gene talking.

    I’ve raised 6 six of these little beings, and let me tell you, the best thing you can do is RELAX. Be attentive, investigate and nurture, but relax: people have been having babies for millions of years, literally. My own mother said, “With the first child you boil the bottles for 15 minutes. With the second you run the nipple under hot water for 2 minutes. With the third you just kind of blow the dirt off and give it back to them, a little bit of dirt will do them good.”

    And I’ll tell you this much: number 6 is the healthiest of the lot, the most inquisitive, the most secure and self-reliant, so who knows, maybe a little dirt did do him good, or maybe it was the grassy dew.

  48. Anxiety Depression : said, on October 26, 2010 at 4:19 am

    baby swins are nice addition to your home, it also improves the motor skills of the baby:,-

  49. Another mommy said, on October 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Yeah, when all else fails(been fed, burped, been changed, been comforted, bathed, etc.) . Put them down and let them cry it out until you know they are needing what they need that actually is suppose to make them cry.
    Some babies just cry, some just cry to be picked up, for attention etc. Or they are just use to it. There are just so many reasons, if Dr. says nothing is wrong. Than I suggest what I said in the beginning!
    Good luck!

  50. Nithya said, on November 2, 2010 at 1:51 am

    What a thought! Very true though! Managing my Ethan is really a piece-of-cake. But when he cries, I weep. It not only hurts me, but angers me too. I have to gather up more courage.

    Nice post!

  51. Trike Motorcycles · said, on November 12, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    my baby enjoys playing on the baby swing, baby swings can really make your baby happy *’`

  52. Joyce Maggio Pardon said, on March 24, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    what is a good mommy?-beyond the realm of science? maybe. But science has a LOT to say about it. see T.Berry Brazelton’s the Irreducible Needs Of Children for a tiny start. Science has found parents do have a important minimal role to play at least, at best, they control the context and the environmental influences that will impact on their child.Any developmental psychologist has a lot to say about the parenting effects of the first five years anyway: attachment theory accounts for a lot, then there is the classic authoritarian parenting styles, quantity and quality of communication studies, Science has a lot to say about good mommys. Informed parenting doesnt have to be hyperparenting. But it is still beyond the scope of the text, I suppose.

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