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Being a mother is crazy hard. Trust me, I was a baby once and saw the whole deal up close. I’m also a dad, but compared to being a mom it’s like the Taco Bell dude comparing himself to Barbara Lynch. Yeah, yeah, I hear you single dads, gay dads, and other guys who take on a mothering role. Fine, we can include you too! I don’t want to hear it in the comments, okay? Why am I rambling about motherhood? I’m glad you asked! A couple of weeks back, the results of long-ass study (in science circles any study that takes more than 10 years to complete is considered of the long-ass variety) dropped in the journal “Child Development” and a bunch of mainstream media outlets jumped on the results. What were these results? Well, let’s chat about that, shall we?


Researchers from various institutes (UCSD, University of Chile, Boston University and the University of Michigan) followed 875 children from ages 1 to 16 from 1991-2007 and looked at the level of depression in the mothers and impact on the children’s learning/mental development. Cutting to the chase, as one might imagine, depressed mothers were less likely to provide emotional and material support to their children. That in turn, translated to lower cognitive test scores. It’s a well-done study and has a good discussion (as all good scientific papers do!) of the limitations and strengths of the work. More on the limitations of the study in a bit, but let’s see how the mainstream media reported the results.

The research article in the journal is titled “Associations Among Mothers’ Depression, Emotional and Learning-Material Support to Their Child, and Children’s Cognitive Functioning: A 16-Year Longitudinal Study.” Nothing grandiose there, right? As legit as MC Hammer.

And now a parade of headlines:

Take care Mother! Because your depression can adversely affect your child's IQ” from CatchNews.com.

Mother's depression might do the same to her child's IQ” from Science Daily.

Mother's depression might do the same to her child's IQ” from Science Codex.

Not sure who plagiarized whom on THAT headline. Maybe it’s so obviously catchy they came up with their brilliance separately.

Moms who have depression early on may have kids with lower IQ scores: Study” from ABC News.

Study looks at long term impact of early maternal depression in children, mothers” WTNH.

There are more, but most are like the first four with very few being more balanced and nuanced like the fifth (or fourth if you want to count that one twice), which came from a local news channel. Almost all the headlines are some form of “Depressed Mothers Make Their Kids’ IQ Drop!” which is what the study showed, but without context, those headlines are doing mothers everywhere a disservice. Pendejos!!

What DID the study show? Here’s the full abstract:

“This study examined the associations among maternal depression, mothers’ emotional and material investment in their child, and children’s cognitive functioning. Middle-class Chilean mothers and children (N=875; 52% males) were studied when children were 1, 5, 10 and 16 years (1991-2007). Results indicated that highly depressed mothers provided less emotional and material support to their child across all ages, which related to children’ lower IQ. Children with lower mental abilities at age 1 received less learning-material support at age 5, which led to mothers’ higher depression at child age 10. Mothers’ low support was more strongly linked to maternal depression as children got older. Findings elucidate the dynamic and enduring effects of depression on mothers’ parenting and children’s development.”

That sounds bad. But here’s the deal, while the study and the actual scientific article are well done and written, the actual drop in IQ points of the 5-year-olds that most of the mainstream headlines grab for getting hits is within one standard deviation of all the kids tested! Yeah, sure, the drop is statistically significant, but let’s look at the magnitude. This particular subset of the test (Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Revised or WPPSI-R for those not getting paid by the word) ranges from a low of 1 to a high of 19 and this was also the range of scores seen in the 5-year-olds. The average was 7.64. What did the children in the “depressed mothers” group average? 7.30. What did the other kids average? 7.78. Oh, and the standard deviation was 1.94. Dude, seriously?

Yeah, maybe it’s statistically significant, but maybe not as a big a deal as most of the headlines state.

The scientific paper also talks about the limitations of the study related to possible bias in reporting results by maternal interviews and self-reported ones; extrapolating “lower-middle” and “middle income” Chilean families more broadly to other populations; cultural bias; etc. None of the mainstream articles do that. You know what else? The 2000 version of the Handbook of Psychological Assessment reads:

In spite of its reported strengths, the WPPSI-R has numerous flaws. The WPPSI-R has an insufficient floor at the lowest age levels, which limits the test’s ability to diagnose intellectual deficiency in young preschoolers (Delugach, 1991). The directions on some of the Performance subtests are not suitable for young children because they are not developmentally appropriate, and the heavy emphasis on response speed on some nonverbal test is inappropriate for young children who have not yet internalized the importance of working very quickly (Kaufman, 1990a). However, Delugach (1991) reports that if the directions are too difficult, the test provides procedures to ensure that the child understands the demands of the task.”

Grain of salt much? So, once again, shock of shocks, solid scientific results are transmogrified into something scary and in this case “depression shaming” a group of women that are already likely nervous and scared about raising little versions of themselves. These headlines and super lightweight discussions of the results do a huge disservice to mothers … and only a few weeks away from Mothers’ Day!! Ay caramba!

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Carlos Sagan

I am a biochemist MexiCAN. I also write screenplays, ever hoping to get one made.

email me at: carlossagan2018@gmail.com

follow me at: @RealCarlosSagan

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