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How Mom Ruined Your Life and Economic Prospects Before You Were Born

A spate of new studies looks at the lifelong economic impacts of in-utero stress.

For the first time in recorded history, scientists agree with 13-year-olds the world over: It’s all mom’s fault. According to a spate of recent economic research, in-utero shocks to the mother can produce deleterious consequences for the infant’s adult economic outcomes. In English, this means that a soon-to-be mother’s health could affect her infant’s health and/or baseline ability, which could in turn snowball to impact the infant’s chances at succeeding in school and finding a job much later in life. For example, according to one new working paper, if your mother gets sick when she’s pregnant, it could cause you to make as much as 10 percent less income as an adult. At the median US income of roughly $50,000, that means mom carelessly getting ill while you were helplessly trapped in her body could be costing you $5,000 every single year.* 

Other notable maternal betrayals include:

  • If a parent of the mother dies during pregnancy, the resulting grief may increase risk of complications at birth.
    • If the mother lives in a more violent region during her first trimester — for example, if she lives in a region of Colombia that just happens to have more landmine explosions than other parts of the country at that time, birthweight decreases, which in turn depresses test scores.
      • If your mother’s just especially stressed for whatever reason (and this might be the reason behind all of the above) verbal IQ drops by about half a standard deviation — e.g., if you would have been of exactly average verbal intelligence, which is to say at least as smart as 50 percent of the population, now you’re only at least as smart as about 30 percent of the population.
      • Known as the “Fetal Origins” hypothesis, this idea has been around for a while in the biological literature — that in-utero conditions can have long-lasting consequences for the resulting adults — but only recently have economists started to look at how these physical harms can manifest in money terms. Aside from serving as excellent ammo in arguments with your mother, the theory also describes an important channel for the perpetuation of inequality: poor people are more likely to live in violent areas, are more likely to have poorer preventative care, and just generally are more likely to experience greater stress. The suffering that these mothers endure during pregnancy could harm their children for the rest of their lives, and contribute to the already heavy burden of being born into poverty. So ensuring that every mother has adequate access to health resources – including adequate access to psychological support — is part and parcel with the fight against inequality.

        Although it’s also worth noting that only an economist would think that telling stressed-out moms that stressing out will cause their children lasting harm (all your fault, mom, unless you calm down right now!!!) is somehow a good idea. Because people are rational, right?


        * To any terrified mothers reading this, don’t actually worry: These studies all look at average effects over large groups of people, and may very well not describe your individual case. Also, effects only manifested for very, very extreme situations, such as living in a war-torn region or experiencing the death of a parent; and according to the study even the death of a parent, while it is associated with birth complications, does not produce any other visible effect on the infant after the birth. So really, don’t panic, you’re a great mom. Despite the title (and entire body) of this blog post, it wasn’t actually until middle school that you ruined your child’s life.

        Photo Credit: By Andrew Vargas (Flickr: motherly love, via Wikimedia Commons)


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