- Women have faced scrutiny about the way they approach motherhood for many years.
- From books and websites to social media influencers, the commercialization of parenting advice in the age of the internet has led to a wide range of “experts” whose advice isn’t always accurate.
- Sometimes, those voices can be helpful. Other times, they can drown a mother’s natural instincts out.
When researchers Margaret Quinlan and Bethany Johnson first met, they had a shared an interest in how women and healthcare providers communicated with each other throughout history.
But as their friendship bloomed and they both became parents, that interest evolved into wanting to explore the nature of how society tries to dictate how women should parent.
“We kept getting the messages that we were doing it all wrong,” Quinlan told Healthline of her experience with early motherhood. “The medical community, alternative community, lactation community, fertility community, doctors, friends… everyone had a different opinion on how we should parent.”
She explained that once she and Johnson realized they were having similar experiences, they began to wonder what messages other women were getting about their parenting.
From that question was borne their book You’re Doing It Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, an investigative look at the messages about motherhood throughout history.
After beginning their research, Johnson and Quinlan found that women have been facing scrutiny about the way they approach motherhood for many years.
“Take infertility,” Quinlan explained. “We found examples of people telling women dealing with infertility to ‘just relax’ throughout history. We even found records of doctors telling women they shouldn’t work so much because working causes stress and takes away from reproduction.”
She pointed out that even when women have verifiable medical conditions that cannot be cured by “relaxing,” the idea that it’s all in their heads, or somehow within their control to fix, is a message mothers been continually given for years.
But while that messaging isn’t new, today it’s amplified by the media.
According to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) spokesperson Dr. Corinn Cross, one reason these messages continue to be perpetuated today is that there’s a real market for this type of advice.
From books and websites to YouTube influencers, there’s a range of products and outlets dedicated to telling mothers how to parent.
“Because it’s been commercialized, they make everything a bigger deal,” she said.
She gave the example of introducing solid foods to young babies for the first time.
“When I was training, I was told mothers should start feeding a specific way. You start with rice cereal, then one food at a time, start with greens, then the reds, because you’re told if they get sweets too soon they’ll want nothing else,” Cross said.
There’s a very specific order of things to which mothers are told to adhere, Cross explained.
“After I had a child, I realized this is crazy. Feed your child what you have. Why are we making mothers nuts?” she said, admitting she started giving her babies mashed meatballs almost as soon as they were on solids. “We stress families out with all these rules and nuances. It’s ridiculous.”
As Cross points out, there are a lot of “rules” out there about how women should be approaching the various milestones of parenthood. However, those so-called rules and nuances often contradict one another.
“We have access to a lot more voices because of social media,” Quinlan explained. “A lot of us are now living away from family, but we can have a lactation consultant, a pediatrician, a mother of 6, someone who has a master’s degree; they can all be communicating together at the same time.”
Sometimes, those voices can be helpful. Other times, they can drown a mother’s natural instincts out.
“Looking to the experts can be overwhelming, confusing, and can steer one away from their child’s needs,” says Shana Averbach, a women’s and maternal mental health therapist in San Francisco.
“To start, it can be hard to decipher what qualifies one to be an expert to begin with. So many people have access to far reaching platforms these days that credentials, peer-reviewed research, and quality experience with the subject at hand — or lack thereof — can get lost in the shuffle,” she added.
All of that information can be overwhelming, especially when a mother doesn’t know who they should be listening to.
“The end result of that seems to be, ‘I’ll never figure this out,’” Averbach said. “Instead of, ‘Why are people telling me different things?’ An unsure parent can turn against themselves in the midst of information overload.”
As if parenting isn’t stressful enough, the added anxiety of feeling like you can’t do anything right can have lasting impacts on both mother and baby.
“What I see in the therapy office and on the playground is a lot of moms spiraling about the decisions they are making,” Averbach said. “And these spirals — which include thoughts, worries, guilt, and doubts — can take away from a lot of present moment information.”
She explained that when moms are caught up in the pressure to do everything right, they often lose focus on everything they’re doing, period — forgetting that parenting is a lot, and that doing “well enough” is actually pretty great.
The stress of that pressure and building anxiety can also have a trickle-down effect.
“I’m seeing a lot more children that have anxiety, more than I feel like was around when I was a child or when I started practicing,” Cross explained.
It’s easier to say than to do, but as parents we’re allowed to tune all these additional voices out.
“I would say that for the most part, people have very good judgment,” Cross said. “Trust your instincts.”
Without adding to the chorus of voices telling women how to parent and live, Quinlan said that one of the things she eventually needed to do was disconnect.
“I took social media off my phone after I had my baby,” she explained. “It was leading me to unhealthy places.”
She acknowledged there are a lot of beneficial uses to social media too, and brought up the example of how she used Facebook to connect Johnson to donor breast milk when she needed it.
But if what you’re seeing is bringing you stress or making you feel “less than” as a parent, it’s okay to look away.
“As scary as it can feel for those who want absolute certainty, there is often no right answer, only what’s right for you,” Averbach said. “My advice is to get intentional about where you get information from. Whether that be a doctor, midwife, teacher or other professional team, learn whose input and support lands well with you, and expand out from there.”
She also suggests parents spend some time exploring their own values and then asking themselves how different choices align with the values they’ve already set.
“This gives you your own compass,” she said.
For mothers feeling overwhelmed by all the advice out there, Cross said it’s important to remember that “kids are pretty resilient” and chances are you’re doing everything just fine.