Wednesday, November 23, 2005

So That's Where Mother-In-Law Jokes Come From!

Study of German peasants in 18th and 19th centuries claims they could be deadly

By Jennifer Thomas
HealthScoutNews Reporter

SUNDAY, Sept. 29 (HealthScoutNews) You think you've got mother-in-law problems?

She can't be as bad as German mother-in-laws in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For young women back then, having their mother-in-law around increased the chances of their child dying, says a recent study in New Scientist .

Researchers say their study gives some insight into the origins of the "evil mother-in-law" stereotype, an image that cuts across cultures and centuries.

The researchers, from Giessen University in Germany, studied church birth and death registries for low-income families from the Krummhs region of northern Germany.

They found that if a mother's mother was alive when the child was 6 months to 1 year old, that child was 79 percent more likely to survive than if the grandmother was dead. In contrast, the babies of women whose mother-in-law was still living at that tender age were half as likely to survive than if the mother-in-law was dead.

Lead researcher Eckart Voland says in the study that mother-in-laws in the strict religious society prevalent in that region during that time might have been overly suspicious of a baby's paternity. As a result, they may have harassed the mother, which would have had a detrimental effect on her ability to care for the child and the family's interest in the baby.

Harold Euler, an expert in the evolution of family relationships at Kassel University in Germany, says another factor could be at play. The mother-in-law might have had an interest in destabilizing the relationship between her son and his wife, Euler says.

Strife in the relationship could encourage the father of the child to explore sexual relationships with other women, thereby resulting in more grandchildren for her, he says.

However, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, says both explanations are simplistic and putting too much emphasis on biological determinism.

"They are stupid biological arguments," says Scheper-Hughes, an expert in maternal behavior and infant mortality whose research includes studying a nearby region of Germany during the same time period.

At that time in Germany, infant mortality was about 40 percent during the first year of life.

While she is not surprised by the German researchers' findings, she believes their interpretation of the data is off. Instead of seeing the mother-in-law as a culprit in the baby's death, she believes the reverse is true: the mother's mother played a very important role in ensuring the newborn's survival.

Without her mother around, the young mother would have had a more difficult time keeping a child alive in impoverished conditions.

"Worldwide, one of the most enduring bonds in the world is a mother-daughter relationship," Scheper-Hughes says. "Even with all the tensions that exist between mothers and daughters, if you really look at family composition, especially in areas that are subjected to poverty and scarcity, you'll find one of the primary measures of support is going to be a mother-daughter relationship."

In areas where men move in and out of a household and take minimal responsibility for their children, the mother's mother is often one of the primary caretakers of the child.

So, it's not that the mother-in-law is hurting the child's chances of surviving, but that the mother's mother really helps the child's chances of surviving," Scheper-Hughes says.

"Rather than say the mother-in-laws are bad, what they are finding is the mother-daughter relationship is so strong. That's what extraordinary," she says. "The daughter's child is another version of mother's child, pure and simple."



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