Who gets to be a parenting "expert"?

Maybe we can start by assuming everyone knows at least something. | Photo by  Daniel Cheung  on  Unsplash

Maybe we can start by assuming everyone knows at least something. | Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Lots of women boast about timing their pregnancy just right: a baby who shares a birthday with another family member, an August-less pregnancy, a weekday afternoon delivery. I had the best timing of them all, because just weeks after I saw my first two pink lines, Emily Oster’s Expecting Better was published.

For those of you who didn’t cart her book around for nine months, Oster, an economist, studied the risks of partaking in various activities (drinking a glass of wine, eating a sandwich, cleaning the litter box) so that moms-to-be could make informed decisions about their pregnancies. Oster was the perfect resource for a newly-pregnant woman like me, still weeks away from her first obstetrician appointment and yet panicking about every small decision.

Well, maybe not all newly-pregnant women. As I eagerly await her next book, Cribsheet, I’ve been thinking about the negative press Oster received when she dared talk about pregnancy back in 2013. One 1-star Amazon reviewer labeled Oster “a nut-job” and encouraged pregnant women to “take your advice from a doctor.” Another turned her criticism to any woman willing to read pregnancy books written by non-doctors: “People!!! I cannot believe that people so badly want a pass to drink while pregnant that they would take they would listen to an economist tell them it is ok to have a drink or two at a time while pregnant!”

I’ve previously suggested that most of Oster’s early critics did not actually read her book, so the consistent references to drinking in the 1-star reviews are hardly surprising. What is surprising is how many of those reviewers expected pregnancy and parenting advice to come from physicians. The reviewers’ consensus was that pregnancy advice should only come from medical professionals...and that academics should stick to their subjects. One reviewer asks “would I take mechanical advice from a chef and expect my car to run well or would I hire a veterinarian to build my house and expect my house to stand?” Another reviewer suggests Oster should know her place and stay outside of medicine: “There is a russian saying that i like: In life, there are plumbers and there are ballerinas. A plumber shouldn't perform Swan Lake and a ballerina has no business under my sink.”

If reviewers didn’t want an economist dispensing pregnancy advice, it might have been because they misunderstood what economists do. One reviewer suggested that Ms. Oster has “business” credentials, and that she is therefore “all about making money.” Another reviewer suggested that, because the work was written by an economist, it should be shelved in the fiction section of the bookstore.

Serious misunderstandings of economics aside, all of the negative reviews of Oster’s book might be summed up in one reader’s comment: “Ms. Oster is not a medical doctor - she is one of us.” She’s just, as another reviewer put it, “another mother in the world who thinks they are experts after having 1 child so I'm sticking to what my doctor and the REAL bible of pregnancy books (What to expect when you're expecting) say.”

But here’s the problem: Oster is not a veterinarian building a house or a plumber dancing Swan Lake, nor is she an economist giving medical advice. She is not, aside from the suggestion to quit cigarette smoking, giving any advice at all. Oster applied her expertise in economics to a new topic (parenting) and created a book that can help expecting mothers accurately weigh risk.

I know so many well-educated, intimidatingly talented women who, the moment they have children, cede all of their authority to a very narrow field of experts. Women with PhDs in literature, a field that encourages its members to think deeply about the world and our place in it, suddenly have nothing to say about how to raise a child. Women who run complicated statistical models at work who won’t feed their children more than one food at a time despite scant evidence of actual allergic risk. Women with medical degrees and bustling clinical practices, who, because pediatrics isn’t their speciality, rush to the emergency room when their children have fevers that wouldn’t concern them in their own clinical practices.  

Instead of shedding our expertise along with the our placentas, I hope that we can develop a different model of expertise, one that assumes that there are no “parenting experts,” but instead lots of experts who can bring their expertise to shed new light on parenting.

But before we can do that, we need to go back to that pregnancy bible, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Its author, Heidi Murkoff, was one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world in 2011. Her occupation? Author. When she wrote the book, Murkoff was just a newly-pregnant woman looking for answers. She submitted her book manuscript two hours before going into labor with her daughter Emma, whom you may not know personally but will certainly recognize, as she graces the cover of the book’s fifth edition.

Murkoff was not a medical professional. She was just a curious parent who wanted to learn more...and share that learning with other women. That’s why criticisms of Oster as being “one of us” fall flat. Murkoff, Oster, and every parent-writer who will come after them are all “one of us.” They’re all parents who used their talents to make the world of pregnancy a little less uncertain.