It’s hard to feel supported as a parent when your parenting decisions are described as “neglect,” “abuse,” or “cruel.”
Yes, maybe a lot of the media reporting on the Mommy Wars feels artificial, inflated, not reflective of women’s everyday lives and struggles. But I can tell you, based on my own experiences, those “wars” can also feel very real when you’re on the receiving end of a chat room squirmish.
Last week I wrote about my continued shock at the fault lines between mothers that are opened up when sleep training is discussed, and I called for moms who discuss sleep training to take a Mom Pledge to have a respectful dialogue on the subject. (As Bethany Ramos at Mommyish wrote yesterday, “Bringing up the subject of sleep training among friends or online is enough to get you crucified. I feel that the most common attack is on those who sleep train since you are often considered cruel, negligent, and inattentive to your baby’s needs.”)
Breast vs. bottle. Stay at home vs. working. Sleep training vs. co-sleeping. Attachment parenting. Free range parenting. No TV. Educational TV.
By some, these parenting choices are viewed as battle lines. For others, instant shortcuts for judging another family’s values.
But they are none of those things.
During the past few days I’ve been reading a book by Harvard-trained economist and journalist Emily Oster, whose writing in Slate and The Wall Street Journal I’ve admired. It’s called Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know, and I would have thrown out every other pregnancy book if I had read this when I became pregnant. It will be published on August 20th, and I’ll be writing a review about the book itself soon. It’s fascinating, reassuring, clear, funny — and takes apart nearly every “fact” that you may have thought that you knew about what you should — or should not — do during pregnancy.
The book is an application of her decision-making framework, one that she developed using the tools of economics. And I think it could help us end the Mommy Wars.
According to Oster, every decision that we make — whether we’re deciding on which house or car to buy or whether to drink a glass of wine during pregnancy — is a process of weighing pluses and minuses for us as individuals. We all start out with data, but we might make very different choices based on what’s important to us and our specific life circumstances at the time.
All of us as mothers (or future mothers) take in information — the data — and combine that information with our own estimates of the pluses and minuses for our own lives. In economics, this is called cost and benefits. The purpose of Oster’s book is to arm expectant mothers with data, the true risks of the most difficult decisions that women need to make during pregnancy, because the numbers and statistics right now often result in unnecessary fear and anxiety.
So how could this book end the Mommy Wars?
By helping us to look at data in a new way. This book reminded me — once again, something that was drilled into my head during my research methods classes for my doctoral program — that information doesn’t “tell” us what to do. It’s so easy to start thinking and talking about it this way. Information and numbers always require interpretation, and not all studies are created equal. (And this book provides one of the clearest ways to evaluate research studies — by explaining in everyday language, for example, the difference between correlation and causation — that I’ve ever read.) There are tons of poorly designed studies and poorly interpreted studies.
Research is not a prescription for behavior. Yes, experts can make recommendations. But all of our choices and behavior are ultimately about deciding what’s important to us because every decision has costs, as well as benefits.
I’m tired of seeing statements like “Research says that cry it out hurts babies” used as weapons in battles between moms. Or another statement such as “Studies say that breastfeeding promotes attachment between infant and child” hurled around as “proof” that breastfeeding moms are more attached to their babies.
First of all, we do need to look closely at the design of the studies themselves. (For instance, much of the research that is used to “prove” that sleep training hurts the bond between parent and child is conducted with neglected or abused children and have all sorts of other methodological flaws.) But even if we could draw conclusions like these, and say, for example, that cry it out does have a harmful effect on short-term infant emotional development — it doesn’t! — there may still be a situation in which a family still decides to try it. They may weigh the risks — a small risk of potential harm — against the benefits — the psychological and physical health of the mother — and make a decision that is right for their family.
We all do this. We all make calculations. No one’s life is without risk. Research doesn’t “command” us to do anything. So let’s pledge to stop using “data” as weapons in our battles. (A real-life example: today I sent my two year old son to preschool with his beloved pacifier. He’s getting over a little bug so it comforts him to use binky. My son also has a history of ear infections. Now, the research “tells” me that pacifier usage increases the risk of ear infections by potentially increasing the amount of fluid in the ears. However, I weighed the pros — my son’s comfort when he’s getting over a virus — against the risks — another day of increased risk of ear infection — and am putting off the imminent binky battle for yet another day. And, believe me, people make judgments and recommendations when they see a toddler with a binky without knowing anything about my son or me.)
Research doesn’t help us understand what another mother’s life is like: her struggles and her small victories, her history and her anxieties. It doesn’t help us understand what it’s like to be in another mom’s shoes on any given day. It doesn’t help us treat others kindly because, really, aren’t most parents doing the best that they can most of the time? Research doesn’t decide anything for us. Even with the same information, we all make different parenting choices because we all lead different lives and each kid is unique.
So let’s stop throwing around judgmental terms using the “evidence” as our weaponry and realize that our choices may be different, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. We’re all just decision-makers doing the best that we can.