Why ‘mom guilt’ is an unreasonable term

What is 'mom guilt'? It's a symptom of the tragic state of America's parental leave policies.

LAUREN SMITH BRODY: So mom guilt is unfortunately kind of universal. A lot of women blame themselves first and foremost when life doesn't feel in balance or in check, in terms of managing career and family and home. And it's really, really – it's not reasonable to expect that anybody would have that in balance, given the lack of respect that our country shows for new parenthood. Now, that said, I don't mean to blame the victim, but it's something that we can kind of control. So when I did the research for my book I interviewed and surveyed more than 800 new parents, and what I found when I looked at the transcripts of the longer, deeper interviews is that the word "guilt" popped up again and again and again. Only what I was actually sort of surprised to see is that it meant really different things to different mothers. So there were some mothers who felt really guilty leaving their baby to go back to work and leaving the baby in someone's care who they felt like maybe was not quite as capable as they would be themselves of loving the baby. There were other people who actually felt guilty because they loved being back at work. And I experienced both of those feelings. When I went back to work after having my first son and my second, my husband was in his medical residency. There was no real choice for me to make about the income that our family needed, and so I didn't feel terribly conflicted about going back to work, it just felt like it was too soon and it was not in the most supportive cultural circumstances that I would have wanted. So what I say to women is, first of all, guilt implies that you've made some sort of wrong decision. That there's some other "better, less guilty" working mom out there who you should aspire to be like. But erase that idea, because every single mother out there will admit to feeling guilt in one way or another, right? So if it is just a lowest common denominator, let's just erase it and treat for whatever feeling we actually have.

If you feel regretful, if you feel conflicted, if you feel overwhelmed, if you feel unsupported, let's solve that problem rather than writing something off universally as "mom guilt". You don't really hear people talk about "dad guilt," and I would actually really welcome that conversation, and I think dads would actually quite like to be a part of that conversation. But it feels kind of anti-feminist, actually, to just call all of this conflict that we have about this transition back to work after a baby, to call it "mom guilt". And it's something that's perpetuated if you don't acknowledge the reasons for why you're having these feelings early on, they snowball and they can make it harder and harder for women to stay in the workplace. We know that 30 percent of professional women drop out of the workplace within a year of having a baby.

Even in the most progressive couples, even in couples that came into their couplehood saying, "We're going to be equal partners," if mom is learning everything in that time about how to care for the baby—and mom also probably is part of this generation that I'm part of too where we want to achieve everything as women, we feel we deserve it, and we do, to be great at everything and to find answers and solutions. And so we've become sort of professional perfectionists at parenting. But dad's off at work and we're learning how to do that. And then when mom goes back to work and both parents – and I'm being binary about it but it is obviously for partners as well, same sex partners – when you come home at the end of the day guess who knows how to do everything? Mom. And guess who wants everything done her way? Mom. And there's a term for that, and it's called "gatekeeping." And there are a number of studies that show that if dad has time alone with the baby or the partner has time alone with the baby after mom goes back to work and is able to take intermittent leave—you know, so even a month at home taking care of the baby and learning some of these things on the ground—that it actually sets up a much better balance that continues through forever, essentially. There's a study that shows that fathers who take parental leave ultimately have better relationships with their teenage children, which is amazing. And you think about who's a teenager now, who that study was done on, and these are pretty progressive dads back then. And yet I'm really glad we can learn from them.

We don't stop necessarily to look back and assess and see that sometimes being a little more long-lensed about it, realizing that, you know, offering a parent an additional two months of paid leave will make all the difference in the world. We also, of course, have a huge gender parity problem. There's an amazingly convincing study that shows that for every month of parental leave that a father takes, the mom's lifetime earnings increase by seven percent, which is incredible. And yet when we look at who is actually taking leave, of course, I mean I don't even need to tell you this: Mothers take longer leave than fathers—globally, but more so in the United States than anywhere else.

  • America's poor family leave policies for new parents are the reason why 'mom guilt' is universal – but that guilt is unreasonable, says Smith Brody.
  • 'Dad guilt' is not a term, but men should also be part of this conversation.
  • For every month of parental leave that a father takes, the mom's lifetime earnings increase by 7%. Studies prove fathers who take parental leave ultimately have better relationships with their teenage children.


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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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