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Dr. Elaine Heffner: Blame the mother

At a moment when health care is front and center in public awareness, a new book makes an important contribution to current thinking. “BLAMING MOTHERS: American Law and the Risks to Children’s Health” by Linda C. Fentiman, a professor of law at Pace University, gives us an understanding of the way in which historical and cultural patterns of blaming mothers, have been incorporated into the law through the interpretation of basic legal concepts as applied to matters relating to children’s health or well-being.

In a compelling analysis, Fentiman shows how various themes come together to affect the application of the law in real life issues. One theme is that we tend to think of legal concepts used in such cases as objective, based on factual definition, while in reality they are subjective, influenced by psychological and social factors. Such factors influence the definition of risk and “the reasonable person,” as well as negligence, which involve judgments of behavior.

A second theme is the way in which these concepts when applied in actual cases bring to bear the biases of judges, juries and others who make judgments that come into play legally. Yet the meaning given to these legal concepts has influenced the way we think of the legal and social responsibility for the health of our children.

An underlying theme that emerges from the application of these concepts and other legal principles is that mothers are blamed and held responsible for harm to their children. In extreme cases, pregnant women have been convicted of damaging fetuses by their own behavior, have been forced to have medical interventions against their wishes, and mothers have been punished for abusive behavior of children by their partners.

Fentiman identifies social constructs that also operate to make mothers the culprits in issues involving children’s health and well-being. One such is the need to find the cause of things. We tend not to think in terms of multiplicity of causes, for example that illness may be caused by many environmental or genetic factors other than a mother’s neglect. Blaming mothers can provide an answer when true causes are difficult to identify.

Psychiatry has given us the “schizophrenigenic” mother as well as the ‘iceberg” mother as the cause of autism, theories that have since been shown to be false. These supposed medical findings reflect the kind of bias that is often used in legal proceedings to explain outcomes in terms of maternal culpability.

Assigning blame to mothers also allows us to avoid responsibility for the role of social causes in determining children’s health. Instead of considering how poor nutrition, exposure to environmental hazards such as lead in paint and drinking water, poverty, poor educational or work opportunities, and easy availability of guns may explain outcomes for children, it is easier to hold mothers responsible.

It is easier to blame mothers than to take larger social responsibility for the lack of daycare, the economic reality of mothers’ need to work outside the home, and a work world that does not allow for staying home to care for a sick child. Legal decisions tend to favor the still prevalent belief that caring for children is a mother’s responsibility and she is responsible for whatever may go wrong.

Unhappily, many mothers share that belief about themselves as well as about other mothers. Unfortunately, much that is written for and about mothers ultimately supports that belief and promotes the guilt to which mothers are already prone. A finding of guilt legally serves as a reinforcement.

“BLAMING MOTHERS” is a welcome and much needed antidote to such reinforcement.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.

Elaine Heffner