Eggs, Milk, and Maternal Instinct

Eggs, Milk, and Maternal Instinct October 7, 2012

When I saw my eye doctor recently for a potentially serious condition, she recommended that I eat eggs. “Lots of them, especially the yolks.”

I laughed, remembering what an elderly friend, now passed away, once told me. Her husband was a physician, and early in their marriage (which would have been about fifty years ago), whenever she was angry at her husband about something, she would prepare herself an egg for breakfast. Consistent with the medical advice at the time, he was certain that eggs were bad for you. So eating one silently was her way of getting back at him.

I’m intrigued by how medical knowledge goes in and out of fashion.

Take milk, for instance. What could be more basic than milk? And yet it goes in and out of favor like the new kid on the block in the eyes of his peers. One decade you’re told you’ll wither away without a glass of milk a day. The next decade you’re warned that overconsumption of calcium through cow’s milk causes osteoporosis.

So how about calcium supplements? For decades, postmenopausal women were instructed by doctors to take calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis. Now I’m hearing that science says these supplements are harmful to the bones. Today vitamin D is touted as the Savior of bones.

And try to follow the ups and downs of breastfeeding on fortune’s wheel!

When my son was born forty-five years ago, I was instructed not to breastfeed him. I forget why it was considered harmful, but I do remember that one new mother on the maternity ward (who is now my hero) insisted, against all strictures, on breastfeeding her newborn. The nurses scoffed at her and gave her no help.

Times changed. At the start of this century, my daughter-in-law breastfed her babies, just as all mothers were assumed to do if able.

But apparently times have changed again. A fascinating article on motherhood by Diane Johnson in the June 21, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books reports that while breastfeeding is the norm in the United States, in France it is “viewed as mildly disgusting.”

The same article recounts how parenting methods vary from place to place. Nothing has gone on longer in the human race than parenting; you’d think we’d have figured out how to do it by now. But no.

Johnson paraphrases a new book by Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé:

French babies sleep through the night, and French children don’t throw food, because their parents train them to wait for the things they want, even just for five minutes for a hungry infant (“the Pause”), longer for older children, always with an explanation of why the adult can’t instantly gratify the kid’s wishes. [Druckerman] compares this to American parenting theories that teach that infants will feel rejected if they experience an instant of frustration.

I remember my mother telling me that when I was a baby, she was instructed not to hold me too much because it would spoil me. Sounds wacky and cruel and contrary to maternal instinct. But that was the science of the day.

And is there even such a thing as a maternal instinct? This, too, believe it or not, waxes and wanes in the scientific world.

Johnson’s article details some of the scientific controversy currently swirling around the question. Or maybe I should say politically-driven science, because of course much that is claimed as scientific comes from behind-the-scenes power groups. Whether or not milk is proclaimed good for us depends on the current power of the dairy industry.

Among those who insist that a woman’s place is in the home, the maternal instinct is celebrated. Opponents retort that this dictum is a way of oppressing women. I’m astounded that this controversy is back. I’d thought the women’s movement of the 1970s had settled it—in favor of a woman’s place being wherever she personally decided it should be.

Then there’s the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on medical fact. When Fosamax, for instance, was developed by Pharma as treatment for osteoporosis and marketed heavily to doctors, suddenly all postmenopausal women were diagnosed with… osteoporosis!

I’m going to make myself an egg for breakfast tomorrow. But will it be with a glass of milk? I’m stymied.

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  • When I read the restriction in the name of safety we inflict on our children today, I am surprised I made it to be 65. My mother smoked and drank heavily during her pregnancy. I never wore a helmet while riding a bicycle. Seat belts and special car seats were not a part of my childhood. I drove between my house and my grandparents as soon as I could reach the pedals. I’m not saying we should not have safety rules, they do reduce injuries and save lives, I’m asking for a little leniency. By the way I still don’t like bike helmets. If a car hits me on the bicycle I’m probably a goner either way.

    • Timm, thanks for your comments. I, too, remember those days of smoking while pregnant, no bike helmets, etc. Somehow we survived (most of us!). I’m personally grateful for seat belts, though.

  • May common sense prevail!

    • Yes! But isn’t it wild how “common sense” keeps changing?

  • Bob D.

    Other things to add to the list: butter, coffee, chocolate, wine, tea, different varieties of oil, wheat, etc, etc, etc. I believe there is, more often that not, a huge gap between causality and borderline statistical proximity in such “studies.” I think our tendencies to be tossed about on the waves of food theories is at least partly grounded in the popular assumption that Science has the ability to explain everything that relates to the physical world. This mindset seems to ignore that such knowledge is acquired by finite creatures that often employ flawed methodologies with questionable motives. I guess we should not be surprised when such ideas are clung to with a kind of religious fervency.

    • Very perceptive points, Bob. Thanks for thinking this through — and for the fun list at the beginning.

  • Caren

    I continue to marvel at the disconnect I see between promotion of “maternal instincts” and an extension of women’s rights. As a feminist who stayed home with my daughter for a full year and enjoyed breastfeeding. I see a celebration of women’s unique qualities and capabilities to be ESSENTIAL for the promotion of women’s value in our society. I thought we long ago left behind the kind of feminism that said the only way for women to be “equal” with men was to try to be exactly like them! I’m with you, a “woman’s place” is exactly where SHE flourishes—the only limits being what she chooses to value.

    • Caren, thanks for your passion on this issue, based on your own personal experience and choices.

  • This stuff drives me crazy, too, Peggy. Not long ago, there was an article that said eating a certain amount of eggs each week would lead to cardiovascular problems on par with a smoker’s. Why not just say, “Everything in moderation” and stop torturing people with this pendulum approach to food, you know? “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “It’ll save your life.” “It’ll kill you.” Ha! 🙂 So maddening!

    • Yup, Chad — let’s hear it for Moderation, which (BTW) was the chief virtue for the ancient Greeks.

  • Al Vaskas

    I’m afraid you mistake ‘science of the day’ for things that get featured in the popular press. Yes, the practice of medicine often may drawn into fads of one sort or another, but no thoughtful physician allows herself to be influenced by what appears in magazines or gets nagged by patients. Your examples are not exactly untrue, but they hardly capture what informed professionals recommended in the past or recommend now. All doctors are taught about the biological benefits of breast feeding, no good physician ever advised a new mother not to hold her baby close, and to those who are informed, the benefits of eggs and milk have always been clear, as have the concerns about diets too dependent on those foods. I suspect, as well, that you didn’t breastfeed because you weren’t so inclined. That’s fine, though a touch sad. And your mentioning it is fine too, but it’s a wee bit intrusive to trumpet what you daughter-in-law’s choice on the matter was. To most folks, both those who fully endorse breastfeeding and those who shy away from it, it’s still a private matter and not something one person announces about another.

    • Al, sorry that you missed the light-hearted tone of this essay. And that you’re off-target with some of your facts. Just to take one: I can assure you that—when my son was born in 1967—I was instructed by my doctor not to breast-feed.

  • Al Vaskas

    I got the tone. I also got the facts right. What I wrote was that all physicians are taught the biology of breast feeding and its nutritional, immunological, and emotional value and significance. That is a fact now and it was a fact in the years preceding 1967 when your own physician would have been ‘educated’; however, I cannot vouch for whether your physician learned the science or whether your physician applied it in practice, and evidently one or both steps appear to have been failures. I will repeat that no physician who’s of sound mind would instruct a new mother not to breast feed. There are, after all, ignorant doctors, inadequate doctors, and misguided doctors, and you presumably had one of those.

    Furthermore, science moves forward (and it also moves backward sometimes and it often lurches in different directions). But methodologically sound science does arrive at explanations and models (note that I don’t call them ‘facts’ because to me that implies knowledge that is permanent and durable, and I don’t see the output of scientific endeavor as having that degree or finality or certainty) about the natural world that more and more approximate something we can regard as the truth. That does not mean that all science is good science. And it is certainly true that poorly conducted science does foist mistaken notions and models on those who cannot distinguish the good from the bad or inadequate. Much of what you see as fad and vogue is merely the transient products of poor science or bad reporting on science. A light-hearted essay is not the way I feel that misrepresentation or misinterpretation of scientific explanations should be addressed. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to me to serve any purpose other than to be cutesy, and I find that insulting to serious scientists. And in the case of your essay, earnest and thoughtful practitioners of health care as well. Sorry to be critical. It would appear that one isn’t supposed to be critical in comments to your essay. So, for my transgression, I apologize.