I blame the heroines of my childhood reading for my woeful lack of a scientific education. I passed GCSE Biology and Physics respectably (if, quirkily, without the binding element of Chemistry that might have allowed me to take either further), but it was at arms’-length, my nose metaphorically turned up at something I had no desire to find relevant to me. If Jo March, Darrell Rivers, Anne Shirley and Jo Bettany struggled with all things technical and flourished instead in the world of words, then who was I to try anything different?
So it is that at almost forty, I hide my discomfort around making an evidence-based decision. I seize upon the key figures in a report or piece of research, and try, in vain, to focus my attention on the footnotes sufficiently to draw my own conclusions. I am not in my natural element around statistics, much to my shame and regret.
It’s led me, in general, to avoid reading media stories which are based on studies whose worth I feel incapable of estimating. It’s a difficult manoeuvre when I consume newspapers and online articles with my compass finely tuned for stories on parenting and motherhood in particular. It’s hard not to see the plethora of headlines which allege harm to children or promise benefits proven from some act or omission of their mothers. From the time we conceive, through our behaviour in pregnancy, straight into the mined waters we navigate once our children are born, our every available “choice” is subject to scrutiny and academic study.
It isn’t that I think that dissecting the effects of various influences on a child’s progress is not a matter worthy of balanced consideration or the weighing of available evidence. Of course it is useful to know which chemicals are carcinogenic; that communication with babies and small toddlers is vital for their cognitive and emotional development; that certain amounts of sleep or particular foods in given quantities are indispensable. It is just that it seems sometimes that the whole process tends towards (and please forgive the probably incorrect use of a mathematically-flavoured term) a zero sum game.
I read a piece earlier called “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers“. It was interesting, reporting on a finding that of 50,000 adults across 25 countries, daughters of “working mothers” were likely to go on to to earn more, and sons of the same contribute to a greater degree to household chores than the children of women who worked exclusively within the home. It was interesting, but to a large degree, it was useless. The article itself admitted that “working mothers” is a meaningless term. If a woman reading the piece was to be, as it suggested, reassured that pursuing her career would not harm her children, she would in no way be able to take from the study whether there was any sliding scale of risk or benefit depending on the hours, environment or context of her working life.
The same criticism applies, very often, to studies which talk about the effects of breast or bottle feeding a baby, the impact on a child of being raised in any family setting other than that of two heterosexual parents, or… (and the list is extensive). From a scientific standpoint, doubtless it’s fascinating to tweak out the variables in the infinitely messy world of human life. From any other standpoint, however, particularly that of someone anxiously trying to ascertain if the decisions which she often feels she had no alternative but to make are causing damage to the children she loves, it is neutral at best.
I can’t really comment on or criticise the motivation to study parental impact. I can, however, rage against the way in which the results of such studies are reported. I didn’t (and don’t) parent on the basis that each choice I make needs to have demonstrable, material advantages for my children. When a study shows that breastfeeding may not offer any substantive protection against ear or chest ailments, I don’t start hunting for the receipt so that I can claim a refund for my breastfed children with, respectively, three sets of grommets and incipient asthma. If by staying at home with them while they were small I fail to see them pull ahead in terms of well-paid jobs and snug careers, I have no intention of claiming that I was defrauded into sacrificing years of my own life. My motivations, along with those of everyone else, are complex, contradictory and, quite possibly, indecipherable. I may indulge in some (scientifically illiterate) research, but I don’t approach the raising of my children in the same way that I approach the purchase of a car. I don’t think many of us do.
Media coverage suggests that mothers quite consciously plot their courses in order to secure some kind of cosmic leg-up for their children. The problem for us as individuals though is that the best researched study can’t advise us on our own circumstances. We don’t care if doing “x” causes “y”, we just want to do best by our own children in the situations in which we and they live. Moreover, we don’t need someone commenting on our choices on the basis of some loosely-reported study, or worse, constricting the ways in which we parent by citing – explicitly or otherwise – the reasons why we are unjustified in feeling or acting as we do.
Children aren’t raised in a vacuum; parents don’t start their task from an entirely blank slate. Little wonder that we all feel prey to such guilt when we are bombarded by mutually irreconcilable recommendations about the “best” way to go about it. Who benefits from such relentless reporting? I don’t think that mothers do, and I’m fairly sure their children don’t either.