Do you feel exasperated by the constant merry-go-round of parenting advice which seems to be thrown out as soon as it has come in? When it comes to raising children, if it feels like parenting advice is always changing then you’re absolutely right. It is!
New mothers face a barrage of confounding decisions during the life-cycle of early motherhood and raising children which includes… Should they change their diet or mindset to conceive? Exercise while pregnant? Should they opt for a home birth or head for a hospital? Whatever they “choose,” they will be sure to find plenty of medical expertise from health practitioners to social media influencers (myself included!) telling them that they’re making a series of mistakes.
So how do we know what to really believe? Today I have the authors of
You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise – Bethany L. Johnson and Margaret M. Quinlan – to help us get to the bottom of this absolutely confounding situation.
Why does medical expertise directed at parents seem to change so often?
Well first, the historian in our research partnership says: it does and it doesn’t! We found consistent “threads” or trends. For example, we found in doctors’ papers at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University that doctors told women how to prepare their bodies to become pregnant and have “healthy babies” is similar to the what women are told today in order to be prepared to be a mother.
In the 1940s, Dr. Louise Hortense Branscombe wrote that you could use the timing of intercourse to increase the chances of conceiving a female child, which is similar to what we see in Dr. Shettles method people reference on the Internet today. Dr. Shettles’ methods have been extensively disproven at the cellular level with upgraded microscopes and filming, but some doctors don’t know about the research and will still advise Shettles’ method to their patients.
In terms of pregnancy behaviour, we studied how far back “eclipse behaviour” (did anyone you know hide inside during the full eclipse while pregnant?), or avoiding spicy foods, lifting their arms overhead, etc., goes back and where it might have come from. Why do we (even some doctors!) still say these things today, even though we know they are demonstrably untrue?
We also found cyclical practices—babywearing is popular again as it was centuries ago (and has always been done in some cultures). In the 1930s, some practitioners were very concerned about “delicatessen” lunches; today people are told to avoid deli meat. But in the 1950s, pregnant individuals ate plenty of it!
What do all these restrictions mean and how do they play out on the Internet? We examine these issues more closely in the book and wrestle with individual vs. structural responsibility (e.g., it’s hard to “avoid air pollution” when it is in the air, which is regulated by a host of systems individuals cannot control alone).
How has medical expertise directed at parents changed over the years?
This is something Maggie and Bethany have talked about for years—and our book grew out of the hundreds of screenshots we were sending each other of information and expertise exchanged on social media platforms. We were encouraged, helped and horrified by these exchanges; we started to see some main themes. Bethany often talks about pressures being numerous and consistent over time, but the focus changes.
As a historian, Bethany is careful not to mistake less knowledge with fewer pressures. For example, now we know about genetic expression and parents might wonder or worry about genetic predisposition—something no one wondered about in the 19th century. But then, they worried over things we wouldn’t today, like how to ensure food and milk weren’t tainted when they fed their toddlers.
Context is so important to understanding the unique challenges faced by parents in each historical moment. Some things haven’t changed: you should feed your kids. But medical experts no longer advise feeding them stewed peaches at three months old. However, as Maggie realized when her son fell off his developmental growth curve, we still hold our children up to American eugenicists’ movements standards of what babies should be able to do (and weigh!) at different milestones.
Although the famous child developmental expert Dr. Arthur Gesell cautioned against norms (the very ones he created) being misused, our babies are still measured against the curves patterned on midwestern farm children in the early 1900s and receive health and development ratings on some of those early materials.
Sure, we’ve updated some of the tests, but not the one where we ask a 12-month-old to draw a straight line to show fine motor control! My baby will be 12 months in two weeks would absolutely fail this test. But he can do a zipper, which amazes me. When these tests were made babies didn’t regularly interact with zippers. So is his fine motor on par or not? It is an interesting question, but I’m not worried. He’ll need to use a zipper before a pencil anyway.
In terms of the Internet—similar to the Better Babies contests that began in 1908—we see mothers posting milestones and/or cute images of their babies, with the best editing and prettiest context. Most days these cheer us up! Other days…it’s a bit like an early 20th century Better Babies contest—it’s just that it doesn’t end and no one really wins.
In our research, we interviewed mothers with disabilities or who have a child with disabilities (and we are careful to use their language here!). They discussed their experiences using platforms like Instagram when one’s baby (or yourself as a mother) do not “measure up” to normative standards. Ultimately, they felt silenced and thus posted less, which actually reinforces norms because the wider community sees less and less that doesn’t uphold perfection. In the end, that’s not great for anyone.
And while it helps us to remember that influencers, paid to post perfect pictures of their babies on Instagram in hats in flowery fields are doing a job they love, it isn’t real life we also wonder how this impacts folks looking for a community online and feeling like they don’t measure up.
Can you give us some examples of medical expertise given to females historically that we would now baulk at?
We did some work in the Clemson family papers (the Clemsons of Clemson University Library Special Collections and Archives) that families regularly “lanced” their children’s gums to help them when teething. Teething was thought to bring on dangerous illnesses. Have you ever heard that children get colds or fevers when they are teething? Doctors say this isn’t the case (and have some studies to support that), but mothers in our study shared how they believe there is a connection. We wonder!
We found that many 19th-century doctors instructed parents on this connection the dangers teething posed to babies’ health. However, it was likely the tainted water and the communicable diseases (measles, mumps, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, influenza, polio, etc.) which often killed children buy diarrheal illnesses and not teething. Nina Clemson, who died of a diarrheal illness and fever at 3.5 years old had her gums lanced regularly during teething.
However, parents were so worried their children would die from teething complications that they used sharp knives or lances to cut their gums open a bit to “let” the teeth come through. It’s hard to imagine parents doing that today.
Also, if your child was uncomfortable but needed to sleep, would you give them a substance that contained opioids? How about opioids and alcohol? Or maybe cocaine? First of all, that would qualify as child endangerment today (thank goodness), but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and up until the 1920s in some places) products with these ingredients were available on drugstore shelves for fussy babies.
Eventually, informed by researchers, lab technicians, doctors, and concerned parents the FDA started to understand the impact these substances had on babies and young children. Then the organizations pulled these so-called “baby-soothers” from shelves heavily regulated anything with that marketing.
Certainly, there is plenty to critique about the FDA (just like anything else, we can always find a complicating factor) but these substances were available to parents desperate to help their kids—many suffering from preventable diseases that would kill them if the opioids didn’t first. So yeah—we think parents would baulk at giving their kids controlled substances and cutting their gums with tiny knives…
Is there any medical expertise that has stood the test of time?
Feed babies food. We wanted to say “love your kids” but there was definitely a time when no one would have understood parenting or talked about kids that way, despite their deep connection with their babies. So many babies died in the first five years that talk about “parenting” wasn’t often based around love in the way we conceptualize it today.
Still, parents have always loved their children, even when the chance of losing them was much higher. Parents were devastated by their loss and most were changed by it forever, as we discovered by reading archival collections, including letters. Even though we study crises in this book, and many of the chapter topics can read as “heavy,” what we are trying to show is that no one is alone. The questions or worries that keep you up at night are, in effect, what has worried parents for ages.
What role does the media have to play in all of this?
This is another aspect that might surprise folks. We write about what Tomes (a historian) and others refer to as “protoscience journalism,” which is the practice of writing about health and medicine for the public. This phrase also represents the history of all those wellness and health-based newspaper, magazine and online media blog spaces, like NPR’s “Shots” health blog.
There are numerous podcasts and spaces on the Internet, in print and even on social media platforms (some doctors have an Instagram account tracking their work) that wrestle with the complications and ethics of medical science, new technologies and treatments, and recent research findings.
This all started in the major “golden age” of American medicine, at the turn of the 20th century. (For example did you know the survival rate from meningitis was slightly better before 1910 in New York City that it is today?!) At any rate, these discussions have a history and that development was interesting, yet remarkably static, until the birth of the World Wide Web, and then another big adjustment came with social media.
On social media, everyone is an expert and no one has to offer any context for their expertise…or even their views. Ever read an “article” on Facebook in which a really passionate about feeding their kid organic food and steering clear of white sugar?
That’s great for them! But it often makes readers, who aren’t attaining this in their own lives feel like 1)it is what they should be doing 2) it reflects a lack of love or commitment to their children’s health if they aren’t meeting this goal 110% of the time 3) they’ve already failed at life if there are other complicating factors getting in the way such as: not being able to afford organic food, having inadequate transportation, living in a food desert, having issues like needing a feeding tube, being a single parent, working two jobs, etc.
We found two extremes: social media was literally life-saving, like finding soy-free, dairy free donated breast milk when there were no funds for formula. Alternatively, we observed people reaching out for help in the postpartum period when they felt overwhelmed and the needed support, only to get brutally shamed for it (e.g. “I dealt with it. You should too”).
If you feel anxious, walk away for or a bit, or, as one of our interviewees who is non-binary trans poignantly said, they had to “quite the noise” by leaving mums groups or unfollowing groups or people on social media, especially when they felt anxious and isolated, finding people locally helped them feel trust their gut.
What can parents do when faced with all this change in medical expertise?
One of the things we try to do in our book is demonstrate the difference between advice and expertise. Advice is something you don’t generally pay for. In fact, it is often offered freely when we don’t want it. Expertise is something that you might be receiving in a different kind of relationship—with a doctor, a fertility specialist, occupational therapist, lawyer or mechanic—a person with extensive training, knowledge and specific experience with their speciality.
Another thing to consider with advice—if advice is “wrong” or doesn’t pan out, there aren’t consequences for the giver, unlike expertise which can have monetary and even legal ramifications if it is “wrong.” Remind yourself that was has worked over history is paying attention to what works for you and your kids. That might look really different from someone else and that’s okay. Social media is not a good barometer to base how you are doing as a parent and it often appears like everyone is happier, healthier and has it all figured out.
As a “working mum” who likes to keep busy Maggie has found slowing down has helped to focus on the needs of her family yet realises that is not a possibility for all. Bethany’s method is to research and talk to different types of experts, then make choices based on what she knows about herself and her family—she also believes slowing down helps, but neither us are great at this. Our brains are always churning and we are passionate!
If you had to give a pep talk to my readers about taking parenting advice on board it would be:
Again, remind yourself that was has worked over history is paying attention to what works for you and your kids. Second, remind yourself that it is impossible to know what you don’t know, and you can’t be held responsible for that. Someday people will baulk at what we do with our kids today, but that shows that we are learning more, not that we failed in the present.
Maggie was surprised at how much comfort she found interviewing other parents as she was navigating the lifecycle of early motherhood. Most surprising to her was how knowing the history of some of the crises we discuss helped her to feel less alone and better advocate for her children and herself. No matter what, someone will always tell say you are doing it wrong—we’ve both spent too much time second-guessing ourselves. We have an easier time landing on what works now that we know someone will think we are doing it wrong. That’s okay—maybe it isn’t right for them. But as always Bethany says, the historical arc can be a comfort.
We’ve always been doing it wrong, and human society has still managed to produce some pretty excellent people. Our goal is different—we don’t worry about “getting it right.” We worry about getting it equitable. We would both like to shift the focus from blaming parents and caretakers for circumstances and systems they can’t possibly fix alone, to building a more equitable and just society for everyone and their children. So, you know, small goals!
You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise is available to buy at The Eurospan Book Store with an 20% exclusive discount for my readers using the code RutFriendsFamily at checkout here.
Well I don’t know about you but I thought that was an amazingly refreshing look back at how the medical advice given in relation to raising children has changed over the ages. It really helps to put everything into perspective, and makes you realise…we probably aren’t doing such a bad job after all!
What are your thoughts on some of the fascinating insights shared above? Do leave a comment and share.