Like most writers, when I come across an idea for a story, I tear out the article from the back pages of a newspaper, or lift a magazine from the doctor’s office, or scratch disjointed words in the back of my checkbook. I tore this story about bad mother rats from the New York Times a full 13 years ago –I was obviously impressed big time, or I would’ve tossed it by now. I’m glad I didn’t: what with Republicans – and Democrats – on both federal and state levels slashing everything from medical care to education to food (the WIC program), it seems like a good time to talk about what might cause a mother to neglect her children.
The gist of the story is this: NASA sent a spaceship up with 170 mama rodents and their newborns on board. When an alarming number of the babies died, their human caretakers concluded that the cause was “bad rat mothering.”
This struck me as no different than the way scientists and other experts interpret the behavior of human mothers. The creation of the Bad Mother Rat Syndrome (BMRS-my phrase, not theirs) is much the same as the social construct of bad human mothering. Think about it: in the case of the rats, NASA put mothers and babies into outer space — an untenable, unnatural, and, for all we know, an unsurvivable living situation. Under these conditions the mothers’ energies must have been instinctively directed towards self- survival, which meant taking time and attention from
mothering duties. The humans studying the rats saw only neglect of babies, without taking into consideration the effects of their living conditions.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? What NASA did to the rats is a lot like letting human mothers raise their children in poverty, offering low-paying jobs and no wages for mothering; providing little or no support; ignoring the plight of women with abusive husbands, or intermittent husbands, or no husbands at all. Too polite to blatantly call human mothers “bad,” the experts slap on the label “dysfunctional.”
Who gets blamed when the kid who needs clothing shoplifts? Who’s delinquent when a kid with learning disabilities falls behind in his school work? Just as NASA’s methods bear no responsibility for BMRS and their dying babies, the country’s legislators accept no blame for dysfunctional families. In a society where everything’s stacked against mothers and children, where social services get slashed while congressmen are paid six-figure salaries, it’s those damned negligent mothers who get blamed for ruining the kids.
Most of NASA’s baby rats died in orbit, and were reported by the media as “victims of maternal neglect.” The astronauts claimed they kept close watch on the 170 rodents, especially when the baby rats started dying. Surrogate mother rats had been brought along for the ride, but even they could not or would not step in to do the job. Apparently it never occurred to NASA to bring a few daddy rats on board.
Mission Control congratulated the astronauts for “a historic mission that elevated neuroscience research to record heights.’” NASA program scientist Mary Anne Frey said “The data obtained are really a precious resource that will help us to unlock some of the mysteries of the brain.”
It occurred to me that, 13 years later, I could find out just what this data yielded in the long term. After clicking through the archives of the New York Times as well as Yahoo’s science database, unfortunately, I couldn’t find the
original story or any follow-up references to it. My own perspective, however, has shifted slightly: at the time I was purely enraged, but now I think I’d be in favor of this experiment if it had focused on social science rather than neuroscience. It might’ve been valuable in determining the ways in which an inhospitable environment affects child-rearing. Now that would have been historic! That might have unlocked the so-called mysteries of family life down here on earth.