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.
Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha says
Preach on!! I think if we all just understood the difference between correlation and causation, we’d be a lot better about interpreting research results! I love your point about how research doesn’t “tell” us anything – it provides data we can use to make a decision, in conjunction with all the other data (sleeplessness, ear infections, etc.).
Sounds like an interesting book!
Sarah, I think you — and all of our Around the World Blog Carnival cohorts — would really enjoy it!
Deb @ Urban Moo Cow says
Understanding Correlation vs. Causation: the cure to all our ills. 😉 I jest not! VACCINES PEOPLE. VACCINES. I can’t believe this is the second time I’m writing vaccines on your blog, Jessica! Sorry!!! 🙂
Oh, this is a breath of fresh air. We are dancing to the same tune for sure (out in the that open air.) I just wrote a post saying something very similar – not so much about research though I have touched on that before, but about how parents need support to trust their intuition, not advice that confuses them further.
I read recently that most of the research about having a baby at a later age is wrong – for one thing, the statistics quoted are largely from a France in the 1600s – 1800s!
I haven’t trusted research stats for quite some time. Our second daughter was born very premature, and we were quoted all sorts of horror stories. But she did fine and guess what – they stopped following her up at 2 years old, as tends to happen with preemie babies who do just fine.
Statistics are so hard to figure out if you’re not sure how to read the studies (or don’t have access to them in the first place). And the research on fertility is a good example of that. Research doesn’t necessarily point you in one direction. I’m so happy to make a new connection! We’re definitely dancing the same tune!
Norine of Science of Parenthood says
Wow! Wonderful post. HAD to share this! Thanks for the compassion infusion!
Thanks, Norinne! That’s a great term. It is all about compassion.
I just pre-ordered this book, and I cannot wait for it to come out. I am seven kinds of sick of the “Mommy Wars” and getting tied up in knots about raising my son. If this book is as wonderful as it sounds, I might have to keep a stack of them in my house for gift-giving every time someone tells me their pregnant.
“You’re expecting! YAY! I’m so happy for you. READ THIS.”
I’m so glad. I hope you enjoy it. It would be a terrific gift for a newly pregnant woman. We need to spread the word to lessen the anxiety of expecting moms!
I think the CTFD method is the best one that I’ve heard in a long time!! 😀
Yes, sincerely wish there were more parenting books like this in the past!
Amber @ End the Mommy Wars says
Thanks so much for this. Like you, I try to weigh the pros and cons of all my parenting decisions like pacifiers, feeding choices, dealing with sibling rivalry, etc. every day. I think the problem arises for me when, very often, I wind up questioning my choices or waffling because of the comments of judgmental mommy “experts” whose posts and articles I can’t help myself but read. If more of us would just admit to not always knowing what is best for our own children, let alone someone else’s, I think the mean mommies would lose their traction in this war.
Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. says
Yes! This is excellent, Jessica. I liked your point about weighing your family’s specific circumstances against the research-oh, great, my thoughtful comment is down the drain- both kids are screaming. Great. Just know that I loved this SO much and can’t wait to read the book. Ugh.
Thanks for this post! I was immediately reminded of a great, short post on the Oxford U Press blog about vaccinations and relative risk (http://blog.oup.com/2013/07/vaccination-what-are-risks/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=oupacademic&utm_campaign=oupblog)
Every decision we make in life is one of relative risk. And that’s often the scariest thing about being a parent. When it comes to our kids, we don’t want relative risk. We want certainty that we’re doing the right thing all of the time. And consequently, parents who do different and definitely doing it WRONG. Not only do we want to hear that we’re “right”, but we want to hear constant validation of our correctness.
I’m glad to hear a chorus of voices, including Oster, this blog, and many others calling for some deep breaths and a reality check about relative risk,
As one of my very best girlfriends says, “We are all just doing the best we can, and it is better than average”. Words to live by! Great post.-Ashley
Lisa @ The Golden Spoons says
I tell my kids all the time that “Only YOU can control YPUR actions.” Usually this applies when they are blaming something on someone else, but I think it also applies here because like you said, we should not let “research” dictate our behavior OR our opinion of someone else’s choices. Great post!