When I was pregnant with my first son, the year was 2005. The internet existed, and we all had home computers by then (a handful of years before, that had not been the case!). The internet as the main force of information and commentary was just starting to take hold, but at that time, information for to-be-moms like me mainly existed in books and magazines.
I know, it sounds like I was alive in the 1800s to tell it like this, but it’s true: When I wanted to know about something related to my pregnancy or my soon-to-be new identity as a mom, I would order a book, borrow it from the library or a friend, or read magazines that featured articles I was interested in. Most moms I knew read What To Expect When You’re Expecting, but I found that book full of fear-mongering and paranoia-inducing diagnoses, to be quite honest. Instead, I read all of Ina May Gaskin’s books such as Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth. I read Mothering magazine. I was a mom-to-be of the printed word.
The craziest thing about “the 1800s” was when you had a baby and you had questions, you asked other people what to do. Or you joined social groups like The Holistic Moms Network or La Leche League International, where moms got together to ask questions they needed answers to. Breastfeeding and baby stores also hosted groups — “Mommy Groups” we called them — and that was how we got information.
I am told that some of that still goes on — although Mothering is now all-digital — but I fear that the vast majority of moms are seeking answers to their questions from the internet rather than in person. I am not judging, I promise you; it’s a sign of the times, and of the past decade in particular, that the internet has become the main source of information for so many moms. Heck, when I was pregnant with even my second son, I didn’t even own a smartphone. The only way I could surf the web was sitting on my couch or at my desk at home with my son attached to my breast so I could have some “alone” time to look something up. I even tracked my contractions with a real watch rather than an app — imagine that!
With all of this change comes the age of what I call anecdotal parenting. It’s an outgrowth of the internet and I hate it. Anecdotal parenting is the term I use for people parenting and making decisions about parenting based on anecdotes posted by other parents on the internet. Typically, anecdotal parenting uses the most unusual, rare, horrifying or outlier-type stories and makes them either the norm or the basis for deciding globally what everyone should or shouldn’t do. All kinds of parents are guilty of anecdotal parenting.
Anecdotal parenting utilizes extremes such as death, disfigurement and irrefutably tragic evidence — usually from a distant acquaintance such as the next door neighbor’s mother-in-law’s second husband’s ex-step sister’s mechanic — to convince other parents (and maybe themselves) that their decisions are right. I am guilty of this sometimes; don’t get me wrong, but I work hard to fight it because I think it leads to so much dissension and unproductiveness in our conversations as parents and as humans.
Here are some real examples I have heard for some of the most popular and oft-debated topics in parenting. (For the sake of fairness, I will present both “sides” of each anecdote; blank lines indicate where debaters would insert the name of the friend, relative or vague acquaintance who had the awful experience being discussed.)
NO: My_________ vaccinated their kid and he had an adverse vaccine reaction and ended up in a mental institution.
YES: My _________ didn’t vaccinate and their kid became blind from the flu.
NO: My ________ did and she had breast infections and couldn’t go out anywhere and her life was basically over because she was miserable as a milk machine.
YES: My ______ used formula and her child had constant ear infections, was always sick,and needed all kinds of therapy for poor brain development because formula has so much crap in it.
NO: My ________ did and she and her husband lost their entire sex life and the husband left her for the housekeeper because he was so starved for attention and love and sex.
YES: My ________ didn’t and their kid is autistic, social anxiety, depression, is violent and needs therapy 3 times a week.
No: My ______ did have their baby boy circumcised and the doctor accidentally amputated part of the baby’s penis.
YES: My _____ didn’t have their baby boy circumcised and their son got penis cancer.
Natural Childbirth (with no medication) and/or Vaginal Childbirth
NO: My ______ didn’t take any painkillers; she said she would have preferred to die, it was so painful and horrible, and she never wanted to have sex again or have more kids, and her husband left her. And my _______ had a vaginal (non-C-section) birth and said her vagina will never be the same and her husband won’t have sex with her and he left her for her best friend.
YES: My ________ took the epidural and the baby wouldn’t descend; they had to try a forceps delivery but that didn’t work either and she couldn’t feel anything to push… then they pumped her full of saline so she couldn’t breastfeed and she had to have an emergency C-section and there were complications and she spent four weeks in the hospital.
These are some of the most controversial examples, but I also hear people getting all angry and anecdotal about which brand of stroller to use, which diapers to use, which baby shoes to buy and what school to send their kids to.
We all make different choices. Breastfeeding as all primates do is the globally-recognized way to feed a human (by the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, etc), but we all get to make choices about what we want to do because we are human and we have different opinions and we are allowed to exercise them. And we all do the best we can with the education, support and resources available to us.
We don’t need to use statistical outliers and extreme exceptions — death, disfigurement, divorce — as evidence that our opinions are justified. If you have had personal tragedy, of course you can — and should — use that information to inform your choices and share it with others. But as parents, we need to realize that statistically speaking, husbands don’t leave women who have had vaginal births, and penises don’t routinely get amputated when a circumcision is performed. Exceptions to the rules are not new rules.
I implore parents to get real answers to their questions rather than relying on internet searches and the fear-mongering that this sometimes leads to. Talk to your pediatrician and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Don’t be afraid to get second opinions. Be open to other’s experiences, especially when they challenge what “everyone” is doing (such as the natural birth/breastfeeding/stop buying tons of expensive toys and gadgets and cleaning products camp I am a part of). And don’t rely on anecdotes to support your decisions when cold, hard facts are out there. Warning: sometimes they are in books so it might be time to renew your library membership!