Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting

Obstetrician Amy Tuteur, M.D. is on a no-holds-barred mission “to help women escape the feelings of guilt [attendant to] the currently popular philosophies of natural childbirth, lactivism, and attachment parenting.” Though Tuteur readily admits that aspects of these movements have value (e.g., “There is a considerable body of scientific evidence suggesting that the presence of a doula can improve the childbirth experience”) and that those who embrace them mostly mean well, she takes each phenomenon to task for using falsehoods and pseudoscience to disempower women while claiming to do the opposite.

It can be difficult to swallow Tuteur’s unflinching assessment. “You or I might imagine that dead babies would cause midwives to reassess their aversion to technology,” she writes: “Instead it has caused them to reassess their aversion to dead babies.” But Tuteur makes a convincing case that her bitter medicine needs to be taken, and I found it manageable in small doses over the course of a week or two. Any attempt at a cover-to-cover read, a bolus, in the language of medical analogy she so adeptly employs throughout, is sure to end in frustration, however. That’s because the repetition and long-windedness of Push Back are as annoying as they are reinforcing. 

I struggled throughout to decide whether I wanted Tuteur to tone it down a notch, to lay off the vitriolic gas and not flog quite so many dead horses. “Many midwives, doulas, and childbirth educators have an inappropriate level of confidence despite their own lack of knowledge, and a significant proportion of lay advocates suffer from the delusion of believing themselves ‘knowledgeable’ after having done ‘their research,’” she writes in an emblematic passage, concluding that “[t]he world of celebrity natural childbirth and homebirth advocates is filled with … ‘confident idiots.’” On the one hand, oof. On the other, she ain’t wrong.

In fact, she’s right about a lot of things. Labor is dangerous. The idea that it’s not has caused many women to internalize the message that an unmedicated vaginal delivery is both possible and ideal in all but the rarest cases. From this “glorification” of one birth method, we get the disappointment and shame that come with unmet expectations.

No one claims that if you eat with a spoon you ought to feel guilty because you aren’t eating “as nature intended.” Similarly, if you faint every time you stand up, no one claims that it wouldn’t happen if you just “trusted hearts.” So why should birth be approached so differently” with women being instructed to just “trust birth”?

As for inductions and c-sections, Tuteur writes: 

The natural childbirth literature is filled with stories of women who ignored medical advice to induce labor and their babies survived. That’s because induction is recommended when the risk rises; doctors don’t wait until that risk is 100 percent or even close to 100 percent. The same reasoning applies to putting babies in car seats.

Her defense of the medical establishment extends to formula: “The existing scientific evidence shows that breastfeeding has real benefits, but in industrialized countries, those benefits are trivial.” Nursing has nonetheless “been aggressively promoted in public health campaigns.” As a result, breastfeeding has become a moral issue in recent years, she writes, lending a little personal perspective: “Back when I was nursing my babies, breastfeeding was recognized as one of two excellent ways to nourish an infant. Breastfeeding was considered marginally better, but not so much so that it was worth hounding women.”

She keeps race and class in mind as she analyzes each of these trends: 

The dominant mothering ideology in the United States today is attachment parenting, also known, revealingly, as intensive mothering. It’s the dominant ideology not because it is the way that most people parent, but because it is the ideal held by middle- and upper-middle-class mothers who are often highly vocal on the Internet and social media.

There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuteur acts as an apologist for modern obstetrics which isn’t without its flaws. But she acknowledges some of them, and her thoughts undoubtedly add value, one-sided though they may be:  

Among middle school girls, there is probably no insult more devastating than “no one likes you….” Among new mothers, there is probably no insult more devastating than “your baby hasn’t bonded to you.” That’s why lactivist and natural childbirth bullies wield it so promiscuously among new mothers. There is no evidence that bottle-fed babies are less bonded to their mothers than breastfed babies; there is no evidence that C-section babies are less bonded to their mothers than babies born by vaginal delivery. That hasn’t stopped activists from repeatedly invoking bonding to force new mothers into compliance with the ethos of the group.

And Tuteur’s bottom line is difficult to argue with: When it comes to birth, feeding, and parenting, several methods are reasonable, and it should be up to individuals to decide, unencumbered by pressure to conform to ideals of dubious origin and validity.

Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting

Anna Quindlen’s latest book offers a satisfying mix of advice and reflection, but mostly reflection, about what it means to be a grandparent these days. 

We are now the people whose names come in the smaller print in the movie credits. It’s not that we are unimportant, as anyone who has ever had a grandparent knows. After all, secondary characters are what flesh out the plot: what would Great Expectations be without Miss Havisham, or Romeo and Juliet without the nurse?


It comes as no surprise that the Pulitzer Prize winner nails the mechanics of her task, writing with milkshake-esque prose: it goes down easy, and it feels special but also familiar.

“And goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘hush,’” I say to Arthur, pretending to read although I am really remembering, falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.

Her descriptions soar in their precision and relatability, especially when she embraces the vernacular:

Nooooooo. For some reason at this moment his “yes” and “no” are elongated and the vowels oddly shaped, so that he sounds vaguely Swedish. After a while you realize that most of us use language to communicate but that that’s not always true of toddlers. They tend to roll the words around in their mouths like hard candy, repeat them over and over to show mastery.


It seemed like another country, getting old, when I was that age. The future seemed very far away. Now it seems very close and very narrow, the darker swath of sand on the pale beach where the water laps.


A big part of our grandparent job is expressing ecstatic appreciation for everything from urination to reflexes. We must always silence the irritated voice of adult competency: Okay, I get it, I get it, you drew a 3. But, honestly, a 3 isn’t that hard. A 5, now, there’s a number. And this 3 doesn’t even look that much like a 3. No. It is the greatest 3 that anyone has ever drawn. Look at that 3!

It is with this literary prowess that Quindlen’s insights about grandparenthood are packaged. She calls out parents’ “natural inability to see a child as himself alone, not hung about from the first with similarities, expectations, and assumptions like the familiar ornaments on a Christmas tree.” Grandchildren, by contrast, aren’t a reflection of their grandparents’ performance: “It’s pretty immaterial to me at what age he learns to read, whether he has a good throwing arm or an eye for color and form. I am much more capable of seeing him purely as himself than I ever was with his father,” Quindlen writes. What results is “an undemanding love.”

She highlights the benefits of the grandparenting endeavor like “seeing things from the perspective of a small person” (e.g., “bugs crawling across the pavement are mesmerizing” and ham has the texture of “a salty pencil eraser”) and being transported back to a world where “there is nothing but sensation: the water, the sunshine, the feel of both on his skin. There is no subtext, just text. Just the moment.” And she calls out the challenges as well:

You get used to wearing white pants without fear …. You get used to being able to do what you want, and then you’re back on the clock, your schedule synchronized with naps or school pickups or camp visiting days. You have finally gotten to the point where you no longer have to share: time, space, ice cream, clothes. Place the pillows carefully on the couch, and a week later the pillows are where you left them…. There are some people who want untrammeled pillows, who decide that their sharing days are done. They don’t want cocoa or crayons in their living rooms.

Each reflection is offered with the benefit of perspective, and humor is kept close at hand:

The current assumption of unconditional love would have been ridiculous to [my grandparents]. Love was purely conditional, on what you accomplished, on who you became, on how you behaved. Love needed to be earned. Otherwise, of what value was it?… Children played and tried not to bother anyone. Adults had cocktails and talked among themselves. You could interrupt to tell them one of your cousins had broken a leg in the backyard, and you might still get in trouble for interrupting.

She even tackles that big thorny issue, the one likely to get her in trouble with parent readers: “[W]hen your son becomes a father, so much that follows depends on how your daughter-in-law feels about you. I saw an article once about advice to the mother of the groom. The headline read: WEAR BEIGE AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. I look bad in beige.” And though Quindlen’s approach to the topic of daughter-in-laws is colored by her role as a mother-in-law, albeit a satisfied one, she ultimately offers up a balanced take:

One young woman said to me of the grandmother of her children, “She buys them the kind of clothes that kids don’t really wear.” I happen to know her mother-in-law, who said, “I never see the kids in the outfits I buy them.” And in those two sentences was an entire universe of disconnect that I assumed would have been worked out had the two been mother and daughter instead of in-laws. 

Many of these ruminations lead back to the primary nugget of wisdom Quindlen imparts, again and again, rephrased so that she’s beating fellow grandparents over the head not just with a frying pan, but with a spatula and dishcloth too:

Thank God that Christopher and I were together that afternoon at the dining table, or else I might have run the ten blocks south to the hospital and insinuated myself where I was not needed or wanted. Lesson one of being a grandmother: do not do that.


“Did they ask you?”

Did they ask you? When our grandson is throwing a fit and his parents are dealing with it. When he has a slight temperature and is cranky. When he wants to go in the pool, doesn’t want to go to the potty, wants a cookie, doesn’t want peas. I have opinions on all of those things to a greater or lesser extent. That boy is crabby. That boy is sick. He needs Motrin. He needs a good talking-to, a good night’s sleep.…[But] Nana judgment must be employed judiciously, and exercised carefully. Be warned: those who make their opinions sound like the Ten Commandments see their grandchildren only on major holidays and in photographs. There are really only two commandments of Nanaville: love the grandchildren, and hold your tongue.


[T]oday there is also a great faceless mob of strangers passing judgment, in magazines and newspapers, on television programs and online, saying that you haven’t breastfed long enough, that you haven’t chosen the right preschool, that you haven’t handled sibling rivalry or stranger anxiety or Oedipal transference properly. There are so many people giving young parents conflicting information and telling them that they are botching what they understand is the most important job they will ever have. They certainly don’t need Nana adding to the din.

As a current member of the sandwich generation, I appreciate this instruction for its deference and pragmatism. Even more so I value Quindlen’s reflections, which encourage me to attempt more mindful caretaking now while simultaneously offering the reassurance that I’ll have another swing at it later.

Motherhood So White

College history instructor Nefertiti Austin could not find a parenting book that spoke to her experience as the Black single mother of an adopted Black son. She writes, “[M]y quest for narratives about Black mothers would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the white woman’s story would be told over and over.” Her book is not, however, primarily a manifesto or academic take examining this form of white centrality, though it certainly does do that. It is at heart a memoir, peppered with historical and cultural knowledge, meant to fill the gap she identified and give Black women encouragement in deciding “how to curate a family.” In other words, Motherhood So White is not written for me, and every word of this review should be taken with a grain of that salt.

Motherhood So WhiteThat said, Austin also writes to “begin to bridge the racial divide that currently encapsulates motherhood.” She seeks to inform white mothers what it’s like to have the word “single” synonymized with “welfare” when you happen to be Black. What it’s like to tell your child “that no one would look at him and assume he was a train aficionado or catcher for the championship Cardinals. The opposite would be true. White people would see a Black boy and judge him according to their preconceived notions.” What it’s like to have white teachers call a boy “angry” whenever he “may have been frustrated or annoyed or irritated.” What it’s like to be denied affection and softness, inculcated into “a hypermasculine culture that would protect [an African American male] on the outside but slowly kill him on the inside.” 

Women like me need to be informed and reminded of these differences between the two experiences of motherhood, as well as our duty to “be aware of … privilege and seek to build community with all mothers, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomics.” On the flip side, Austin seeks to remind us that “Black mothers have a lot of child-rearing experience and plenty to say about the state of preschool, family leave, healthcare, nutrition, bullying, video games, and our socioeconomically segregated school system.” If we can focus on these commonalities and “coalesce[] around even one of these issues, it would ease the emotional and financial burden of parenting we all experience,” she writes.

It is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor.

As for execution, Austin’s prose not infrequently disappoints, becoming repetitive at both the level of theme and detail. But it can sing too, especially when she reflects on her father: “He never kicked his drug habit and was hooked on heroin when he was murdered in 1991, a victim of his own misdeeds and Black men’s expendability in America.” Austin also nails her takedown of a CNN article: “Blake did what mainstream media typically did to communities of color: affixed a label and then left us holding a bag filled with scandalous statistics, half-truths, and self-loathing.”

All told, Motherhood So White is both a worthwhile read and a valuable addition to the genre, even for those sitting outside the target audience.

Gail Cornwall is a former lawyer and public school teacher who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco.


Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home

Megan K. Stack’s “private problems are no doubt duplicated in households all over our planet. And yet housework is seldom considered as a serious subject for study, or even discussion.” This, writes the Betty Friedan of our generation, “is an injustice on a grand scale.”

Women's Work

Women’s Work is not just about housework. Equal parts memoir and manifesto, the book uses the stories of four women who “stumbled through a house that was also a job site” to tackle motherhood, marriage, and other tidy, manageable topics like exploitation, poverty, gender, and the human condition. “Our routines were disrupted by pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, weddings, domestic violence, funerals, sick children, and school fees. Mine, theirs. The stuff of women the world over. We lived together in the space left by men who were temporarily elsewhere.”

It is a beautiful, horrifying reflection of domesticity rendered in prose that’s just the right amount stark and ornate in turn. “Imagine you are so tired your face feels like permanent putty and you cry at the slightest provocation and, in general, you are about as raw and crumbly as the flesh of a pale white mushroom with its skin rubbed away,” Stack writes, putting words to a state known intimately to sleep-deprived parents the world over. Some of them will also be familiar with the woman described by an unflinchingly introspective Stack: “I lived in terror of waking the baby, and I shared this terror with deliverymen, houseguests, and anybody else who made the strategic error of existing in the vicinity of my sleeping child.”

Descriptions like these are where any analysis of Women’s Work must begin. “Crescent stains of fatigue hung below her eyes,” she writes. “On those long afternoons of early summer, when our rooms steamed and thickened in the slanting sun, Pooja’s sadness hung like laundry that wouldn’t dry,” she writes. She writes of “anger so hot it could sterilize a wound” and a husband “dragging his eyes from his computer with the air of a disgruntled student forcing himself to contribute to class discussion for the sake of his final grade.” She writes, and I see and feel.

I haven’t hired full-time help like Stack, just a babysitter a few hours a week and once every two someone to clean. And yet, I recognize myself and my experience in her words. I too “assumed that, to the extent that our lives would be exploded [by having children], the disruption would be evenly shared.” My family also slipped into a troubling status quo: “It began with biology—I’d been pregnant, then breastfeeding. I’d been a physical necessity, which had been a role of exquisite privilege and total destruction. And somehow my rarified status stayed unchanged even as the babies grew. The habits we’d all adopted—my centrality, the children’s dependence, [my husband’s] slight remove—had stuck.” 

Those parts of her story that didn’t bring my own past emotions rushing back still resonated deeply thanks to Stack’s ability to tell a story both evocatively and self-critically: “I didn’t even know her full name, and I don’t think she knew mine. She called me Excuse Me.” Of a housekeeper who became pregnant, Stack says: “I promised myself I would not pressure her to add to her load, and I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. The best I can say for myself is, I could have been worse, and she wasn’t expecting anything better.” Of the entire endeavor, she writes: “I had loved Xiao Li, and she had loved my baby. To write about her was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.”

In only a few places did this self-awareness seem to falter. “She had to work long days in my rooms, fine, but she wouldn’t let me congratulate myself as her benefactor,” Stack writes, and I cringed. (Though that may very well have been the point, as Stack repeatedly offers herself up as an effigy of white privilege.) I also found something indelicate about how Stack describes her employees’ offspring: “The children of Mary and Pooja and Xiao Li had to trade like grown-ups, and their trade was the most brutal of all: they got money, but they grew up without mothers.” On the one hand, she again acknowledges her privilege and its cost to others. On the other, the critique is firmly grounded in the American nuclear family model.

I also got the feeling Stack lost steam a little near the end, with the penultimate portion of the book less finely crafted than the rest, but these minor criticisms are offered in the manner of a diamond jeweler whose job it is to find flaws amid overwhelming brilliance. Not many people can write like Stack. Not many can step outside themselves and think like her. The two strengths together produce a must-read not just for mothers, but for anyone who has a household or who benefits from others’ leaving theirs, which is to say, everyone.

The following quotes both explain why that’s so and provide a feel for Stack’s style: 

The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me. I’d known enough, already, about harassment and domestic violence and pay differentials and the incessant, exhausting focus on how you look and laugh and talk. But it had all been basically manageable—not ideal, certainly, even enraging, but navigable—right up until the baby came. It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position. The obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men. The cause was not, as I had been led to believe, that women had been prevented from working. Quite the opposite: we had been doing all of the work, around the clock, for centuries. 


[My husband and I] fought because we were both exhausted and secretly convinced the other one had the better end of the deal. We fought because we were neurotically careful not to fight in front of the baby, and that meant we almost never got a chance to fight at all, and by the time we fought the annoyances had fermented to a potency that obscured altogether their original cause. We fought because we used to baby each other and now nobody got babied but the baby. As for me, I fought because I was reeling in shock, and because Tom was hardly there at all. He had slipped easily back into his old life while I had been bombed back to some prehistoric version of myself. And I was angry that he had accepted this superior position, this lesser disruption, as a sort of birthright. And so I fought with his absence. 


I made no effort to discover whether her lifestyle was a grand adventure or heartbreaking drudgery, or some combination of the two. Those questions lined themselves up in my thoughts, but I left them silent. They lit too starkly the discrepancy in our positions. That I had money and would not have to leave my baby behind. That she was poor, she had not been educated, she didn’t have choices. I had the vague idea that my silence was magnanimous. I told myself I was sparing her from embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I was the one being spared…. If I found out too much, if the facts were too grim, then I might conclude that my domestic arrangement was fundamentally unfair. That was my formless and underlying fear: that if I understood too much, I might have to rip apart the status quo. I could either drown or I could wear Xiao Li as a life vest. There was no third choice. 


I’d given my time to Tom, so that he could rush off to the office that very first morning and every morning thereafter. I’d given my time to Max, who was scared and unsettled and needed a parent down through the hours…. Every outgrown pair of shoes, trip to the dentist, or preschool obligation—any crisis or errand affecting anybody in the family—inevitably devoured another chunk of writing time…. My time had been used as capital. It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position. I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two. I paid and it’s gone. My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I’m not asking for a refund. Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 


I’d already cataloged the downside of depending upon impoverished women, but never had the limitations of employment in my house been more obvious. Just as Mary was not a day care and couldn’t guarantee a steady flow of childcare, I was not a company and couldn’t offer benefits and insurance and broader social protection….  That’s why ad hoc domestic labor is, ultimately, a bunk system. It’s a jerry-rigged, flaw-riddled compromise that will never live up to its promise of upward mobility for one woman and personalized childcare for another. 


Tears filmed my eyes. I was deliberately manipulating Mary. I was also speaking with unfiltered honesty. Both were true, both at once. I was showing Mary my buried fears, but I was doing it strategically. I wanted to leverage my vulnerability to make her more trustworthy. 


These women migrant workers are crucial because they solve a conundrum: middle-class and wealthy women demand a place in the job market—or at least a measure of leisure time commensurate with their social ranking—but their male partners don’t want to do more housework…. This model for women’s emancipation depends, itself, upon a permanent underclass of impoverished women. But of course these stories are not only about women—they also scream the reality of men who manage to duck not only the labor itself, but the surrounding guilt and recrimination. All those well-meaning men who say progressive things in public and then retreat into private to coast blissfully on the disproportionate toil of women. In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work! Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth? It’s a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it’s a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work. No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don’t make a big deal out of everything. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy. Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success.

Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime

Bob Emery is a psychologist, researcher, professor, and mediator who has lived and breathed divorce for decades. In Two Homes, One Childhood, he speaks to every divorced parent’s deepest fears (“Is your child’s challenging behavior part of normal development or a sign of something deeper, perhaps owing to the upheaval of your divorce?”) and hopes (“Children shouldn’t be defined by divorce…. And you can make sure that doesn’t happen.”). The insights gained from his professional roles are deepened by personal experience. (He recently grabbed drinks with his ex-wife to celebrate the arrival of their grandchild.) He knows firsthand how difficult it is to construct a parenting plan that “grows and changes along with the developing needs of children”—and how essential. 

Two Homes

Emery’s tone is clear and steady with no beautiful turns of phrase but nothing to trip the reader up either. My one complaint in terms of style is the repetition, both on the sentence level and between chapters geared to different ages. Emery says, “I do this for a few reasons. I know some readers will skip around, so I raise a few key issues repeatedly so no one will miss them. I also repeat myself some, because, well, some things bear repeating.” Fair enough, but it can still grate for a cover-to-cover reader. 

Two Homes nonetheless adds substantial value by synthesizing nuanced research and offering both big picture recommendations and tips and tricks to get there. “Here is what your children need,” Emery summarizes: “a good relationship with at least one authoritative parent, that is, a parent who is both loving and firm with discipline” and “low levels of conflict between parents.” A second high-quality parental relationship is ideal, but not as important as not “living in the middle of a war zone between two parents.” When it comes to the nitty gritty, Emery is blunt: Be the adult. Shield the kids. Do your job.

With the long lens that comes with age and an academic background, Emery reminds readers that marriage is what demographers call “an incomplete institution,” one that is still evolving. So too are best practices for raising kids together outside of marriage. We know some do’s. We know some don’t’s. Emery folds them together to establish a psychological compass to help us navigate the gray areas.

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

Parents these days are inundated with advice—on everything from breastfeeding to sleep training, from childcare to screentime—almost all of it purportedly evidence-based. Who better to sort the wheat from the chaff than Emily Oster, an economist who distinguishes “the good studies from the less-good ones” for a living? She did just that in Expecting Better, a book about pregnancy that, like Cribsheet, leads with the following premise: No expert, even Oster, can tell you what’s right for your family in most instances. Instead, she summarizes what high-quality science reveals about the risks and rewards attendant to any given choice, and describes a way of weighing those pros and cons in combination with your own preferences. “The data is the same for us all, but the decisions are yours alone,” she reminds.


Here’s an example of how that goes in the context of having your baby sleep in your bed: 

The finding that co-sleeping carries a small risk even if done as safely as possible is largely consistent across studies…. Among families with no other risk factors, roughly 7,100 of them would have to avoid co-sleeping to prevent one death….

[S]ince the data suggests that there is some risk to sharing the bed, and possibly also to having your child sleep in their own room, we may conclude the absolute safest thing is to have your child sleep in your room in their own bed for these first few months. 

Yet this setup may not work for your family. Let’s imagine that your preference is to share your bed with your infant—maybe you think it will be easier to breastfeed, or you simply want to have the baby close. 

If this is the case, there is a strong temptation to dismiss the evidence on risk. It is easy to find parenting sources that point to one study that doesn’t show significant impacts of bed sharing and say it proves there is no risk. This is not a rational way to make this decision. If you want to do this right, you need to confront the idea of risk, think about how to make it smaller (if you can), and then think about whether the (minimized) risk is one you are willing to take…. 

[T]he evidence suggests that bed sharing [for sober nonsmokers with full-term infants] increases the risk of death by 0.14 per 1,000 births. The death rate from car accidents in the first year of life is around 0.2 per 1,000 live births. The bed-sharing risk is therefore a real one, but it is smaller than some of the risks you are likely taking regularly. 

Now, that excerpt might leave you thinking Cribsheet is exceptionally dry, and it is, but not in the bad way. Oster writes with precision and an almost British wit, a style that truly delights once one gets used to it: “In the first days and weeks after your baby arrives, you will experience a wave of hormones. Most women find they are emotionally sensitive during this period. This is not, for example, the time to watch the first fourteen minutes of the movie Up.” Here’s another taste: “One trial shows some benefit of something called gua sha therapy, which involves scraping the skin to produce light bruising. Gwyneth Paltrow swears by this, so take what you will from that.”

Wry and understated is not the norm for parenting books, nor is Oster’s awareness of—and comfort with—her own neuroses, something more reminiscent of David Sedaris or Jenny Lawson (e.g., “I have many notes from the first months of Penelope’s life about her rolling ability (very early rolling to the left, but poor rolling to the right)”). The resulting tone strikes just the right balance for a brilliant person seeking to communicate effectively with the masses: “There is another type of evidence, one that you see a lot on the internet. I’d refer to this as … ‘it happened once to my friend’ evidence. You know: ‘My friend didn’t vaccinate, and her kid is super healthy!’ Here is what we learn from this: nothing.”

Cribsheet is also exceedingly well-organized, complete with a “Bottom Line” synopsis at the end of each chapter.

That’s not to say the book is flawless. Oster sets out to provide “a basic, data-derived map of the big issues that come up in the first three years of being a parent,” but her success is necessarily confined by a few limitations: (1) research constantly evolves and she has access only to that which has been published as of her release date (data that came out after Expecting Better called one of its core conclusions into question), (2) the extent to which her methodology is the right one (figures in the field of public health have criticized her for examining studies using an economist’s eye rather than their own set of standards), and (3) her ability to dig up all relevant information. I’ll focus on the third of these here.

Oster acknowledges that “the problems get more varied as kids get older, and much less amenable to data analysis.” But she still chooses to tackle toddler discipline, and there she falls short. To explain how, it’s important to look at a topic she nails: TV watching. Oster takes what she calls “a Bayesian approach,” incorporating logical reasoning based on background knowledge about how the world works when existing data doesn’t paint a full picture:

There are only thirteen or so waking hours in the day for kids. If they spend eight of those hours watching TV, there is not enough time to do pretty much anything else. It seems very unlikely that this won’t have some negative impacts. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that watching an hour a week of Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer will lower your child’s IQ, or have much of any effect on them in the long run. You can subject the iPad to similar logic. A two-year-old who is on an iPad all day: likely bad. A half hour of math games twice a week: probably not bad.

Finally, our intuitions should be informed by the economic idea of “opportunity cost of time.” If a child is watching TV, they are not doing something else. Depending on what that “something else” is, TV watching may be better or worse. Many studies of this emphasize that (for example) your kid can learn letters or vocabulary from Sesame Street, but they are better at learning those things from you. That’s almost certainly true, but … [i]f the alternative to an hour of TV is [instead] a frantic and unhappy parent yelling at their kid for an hour, there is good reason to think the TV might actually be better.

Here, Oster trounces other commentators on screentime, using fair inferences and arguments waged on both sides of the debate to reason toward a likely ideal: low screentime with a high-value alternative activity. Only after that step does she bring reality into the calculus.

But when it comes to discipline, Oster fails to do this. She profiles several “rewards and punishments” programs and concludes that they “have been shown to improve children’s behavior,” without factoring in possible externalities of inducing compliance in this fashion. Many parenting commentators point to social science research on fostering intrinsic motivation, independence, and healthy self-image, and say using natural consequences rather than punishment produces desirable behavior without undermining autonomy and trust. Oster takes the opposing view as a given: “[K]ids … need to be punished sometimes.” Stickers, M&M’s, and time-outs have also been called into question by child development experts as means of control that backfire in the long run, but she refers to the practices unquestioningly. (Contrast Oster’s treatment of baby-led weaning which catalogues many of the theories cited by proponents and opponents of the practice prior to concluding that the data is inconclusive.) She rounds out the section by saying spanking has been shown to be counterproductive “so if hitting is the alternative, then one of these programs is probably worth a try,” but it’s unclear why that would be the bar.

There are other blind spots. The section on crying, for example, doesn’t state that some babies do so because they need medical attention. To be fair, this isn’t just Oster’s problem. Lots of parenting commentary meant to calm can lead parents of sick babies to try to tough it out at home for too long.

That said, stress reduction is one of Cribsheet’s great strengths. “There are lines you shouldn’t cross with young children,” she writes: “but there are many more gray areas.” Making it clear that there’s often no one right way to do things is likely to diminish new parents’ anxiety considerably. Conversely, so too can definitive, unequivocal advice like the following: 

  • Your toddler or young child does not generally need a multivitamin.
  • Although antidepressants are passed through breast milk, there is no evidence of adverse consequences.
  • Despite the warnings, there is simply no evidence that the use of pacifiers impacts breastfeeding success. 
  • There is no need to pump and dump
  • Across virtually all studies of sleep location, the one thing that jumps out as really, really risky is babies sharing a sofa with an adult.

In Cribsheet, Oster offers all this and much, much more—like debunking the “no sex until six weeks postpartum” thing, a rule she says “appears to have been invented by doctors so husbands wouldn’t ask for sex.” You might want to wait, deciding that dealing with the vaginal dryness caused by breastfeeding (an Oster fact) is a burden not fully mitigated by the risk of a decline in marital happiness from less sex (a second Oster fact). “Not everyone is going to make the same decisions,” she says, “and that’s okay.” 

It’s also okay to both point out Cribsheet‘s limitations and call it a job exceptionally well done.

Co-parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce

After becoming “the poster children for divorce” in their community, Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas started the blog Co-Parenting 101 “to provide a place for cooperative co-parents to share their stories so that others might be encouraged, and to challenge the stereotype of the always-messy divorce.” Their streamlined paperback presents the wealth of information the two acquired in a well-organized format and authoritative-yet-conversational tone that makes it easy to read and relate (e.g., “You can’t commit to honoring your child’s relationship with the other parent and commit to punishing that parent forever at the same time. Guess which ‘commitment’ has to go.”).


After demonstrating the benefits of successful co-parenting to both adults (less depression, grief, anger, and money lost to legal fees) and children (lower rates of attachment issues, depression, teen pregnancy, behavioral problems, suicide, drug abuse, poor academic performance, school dropout, and delinquency), they offer “do” and “don’t” lists that lead the way to “civility, compromise, and cooperation.” 

DO: “Vent about your ex only when your children aren’t around” and “insist that family and friends also refrain from bad-mouthing your ex.” DON’T: “Burden your children with details about money and other problems related to the breakup.” DO: Take the high road. (Spoiler alert: It pays dividends for you as well as the kids.) DON’T: “Indulge children with gifts or by being overly permissive in an effort to ‘make up for’ the divorce or assuage [you]r guilt about it.” DO: Let your child know they are “free to love both parents openly” by being positive and interested when they talk about time with the other parent. DON’T: “Treat your child like a confidante, counselor, or fellow ‘victim.’” DO: “Recognize that during his parenting time, it’s his house, his rules, his way.” DON’T: Implicitly or explicitly ask children to agree that divorce was the right call. DO: “Put on your game face, cry in the car after your child has left, do whatever you need to do to hold it together so that your child is truly free—emotionally free—to go with the other parent and enjoy herself.” The lists go on.

Philyaw and Thomas also cover the basics of different legal mechanisms (mediation, collaborative divorce, litigation) as well as the various schedule options and other logistics. But their strength lies in encouraging self-regulation and acceptance of a bottomline that should be familiar to parents, happily married or not: “There will be times when you’re called upon to be uncomfortable or shoulder a burden so that your children don’t have to.”

In part, they do it through modeling. Philyaw and Thomas live on the same street. They have always invited one another inside for transitions to give their girls a feeling of ease, even in the years when that was emotionally rough for the grownups. Though both have since remarried, they all spend Christmas Eve and day together. They sit together at school and extracurricular events. The “whole family—children, spouses, and stepchildren—socializes from time to time and goes on annual vacation.” Most kids, they say, “dream about their parents getting back together, and having their parents get along is almost as good…. Kids want reassurance that even though the family they have known is breaking up, they are still part of a family.”

Throughout the book’s pages pro-tips are sprinkled, little practical gems derived from collective experience that facilitate bigger principles. If you can afford it, buy two of all but the most expensive things your child owns so they don’t have to lug bags and both houses feel like home. Set up a staging area like Philyaw’s “Dad Basket” to keep artwork, forms to sign, and other things headed for the other parent as a physical manifestation of ongoing cooperation. Find humor in the hard moments. And remember, “it’s never too late to commit to improving your co-parenting situation.”

We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor

In We Got This, editors Marika Lindholm, Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk share the quotes, poems, and short stories of more than 75 individuals impacted by solo parenting. Like most anthologies, the result is both hit and miss. That said, there’s quite a bit of hit.

We got this

The book is packed with relatable moments and contains some truly evocative prose. “His presence was like an imaginary door that he swung open and closed,” writes Terri Linton. Along similar lines, Melissa Stephenson lists rarely shared details of parenting in the shadow of an absentee: “How there is no one to help them buy me presents on holidays, so they make them in secret after bedtime. How we spend those holidays alone, all the friends we call family busy spending time with their real families. How when their father last visited, my son smiled and said, ‘Now everyone at school will know my dad is real.’” 

The editors include work of their own. Dr. Lindholm, who founded ESME.com, the solo parenting website on which several of the book’s essays originally appeared, writes: “[M]y daughter’s walls, sheets, blankets, and pillows were festooned with purple and pink butterflies. The tiny blue parakeet, which I purchased at PetSmart after a particularly devastating mediation session during which her father accused me of destroying his life, was my latest nod to Ella’s obsession and my bottomless guilt.” Co-editor Cheryl Dumesnil also speaks to the experience of a dissolved union: “My marriage broke, irreparably, years before it ended. I had done my level best to create a healthy life for myself and the kids, despite the brokenness, hoping someday, eventually, maybe my ex and I could fix it. This was a lot like trying to live a fulfilling life while a shark is eating your leg.”

Short quotations break things up along the way, quotes such as Nina Simone’s “You have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served” and Katie Couric’s “You don’t have the bad cop when you’re the good cop and when you’re the good cop you don’t have the bad cop; you’re like the whole police force in your family.” Also lending the compendium a carefully punctuated flow is its intersectionality: the reader hears disparate voices, including many from backgrounds that rarely receive representation in the mainstream media. 

All of these bits contribute to make We Got This a generally worthwhile endeavor to produce, but its highest value to readers lies in a handful of truly stunning works. “Tahlequah” by Isa Down, “When He Died” by Robin Rogers, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” by Kelly Sundberg, “All Manner of Obscene Things” by Kim Addonizio, and “Deconstructing Kanji” by Mika Yamamoto each left me unable to pull out one or two glistening lines, the whole lot skillfully crafted and heartbreakingly relatable.

“Grey Street” by Angela Ricketts falls in this category too, but the imagery of “[o]ne ugly green Croc lying by the door” as she heads to the hospital with a bare foot and a myocardial infarction bears repeating. So too does the following: “My left shoulder pangs and I grip the wall without a sound. Just my palm on the ugly wall. For years the army painted the inside of our homes chalky white; then they decided to get all snazzy with the neutral tones.” The same thing goes for “Size Queen” by Evie Peck, hands down the funniest part of We Got This (sorry, Amy Poehler). “I went through the stages of rejection: anger, denial, disgust, hunger, Botox brochures,” Peck writes, later confessing, “It was weird sexting at my son’s game, but I was snack mom today, so I’d redeem myself later.” Several other zingers can’t be appreciated out of context.

And I can’t not mention the excerpt from Anne Lamott’s bestseller Operating Instructions and Ylonda Gault’s wildly popular New York Times essay “Why I Don’t Grieve for My Daughter at College” (“Privilege takes many forms. I can only assume that the legions of parents who spent this fall up in their feelings over their babies’ departures have led lives very different from my own.”). 

Again, not all the material landed for me. Nor will it for you. But We Got This offers the promise that some combination of its many words will deeply insinuate itself, making you think and feel about what it means to be a solo parent, regardless of whether you are one yourself.

Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works

In Children of the Dream, economist Rucker C. Johnson, with an able journalistic assist from Alexander Nazaryan, summarizes academic research that “points incontrovertibly to three powerful cures to unequal educational opportunity: (1) integration, (2) equitable school funding, and (3) high-quality preschool investments.”

Children of the Dream

“In most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly and inconsistently” and that variation across districts, they explain, “is exactly what offers us a rare testing ground.” Comparing outcomes in kids who did and didn’t have these initiatives rolled out during their school years allowed Johnson and his team of researchers to tease out the independent value offered by all three. That includes desegregation, which turns out to have been “such a powerful force that its beneficial impacts persist to influence the outcomes of the next generation.”

But the most impressive data Johnson offers up shows “significant positive synergistic effects” between these policies. For example, “[f]or poor children, the combined benefits of growing up in districts with both greater Head Start spending and greater K-12 per-pupil spending were significantly greater than the sum of the independent effects of the two investments in isolation.”

Why then is integration viewed as a noble but failed experiment? Why is the conventional wisdom that Head Start provides little to no benefit, just the opportunity for fraud? What explains the lack of popularity of funding formulas that offer more assistance to schools that need it more?

Part of the problem, they say, is spin. In the segregation context, for example, “even outside the Deep South recalcitrant whites manipulated and marshaled public will in a way that allowed opponents of integration to appear not to be racists. They resorted to powerful code words—like neighborhood schools, local control, and forced busing, to summon profound, if rarely spoken, racial fears.… This strategy worked, and it contains a devilish dilemma: even as researchers … have shown that integration works, much of the public has been erroneously convinced of the very opposite.” 

Part of it is “our collective impatience, an unwillingness to see measures through, a willingness to abandon anything and everything that does not show immediate results.” Here, Johnson points a finger at both policymakers and other researchers:

Education reform often proceeds by a kind of punctuated equilibrium. We implement some new whiz-bang reform, let it run its course for a little while, but then become impatient because things haven’t improved as much as we wanted them too: test scores haven’t jumped, for example. Studies are published to confirm that, yes, indeed, X reform failed to achieve Y effect…. New fixes are tried, reversed, and then new fixes are tried again…. Too often, we take the pan out of the oven far too early, only to find the result woefully undercooked…. Other [academics take] snapshots of school funding reform efforts [that may provide] some clarity, but only about a strictly limited period of time. Our study sought to take something closer to a time-lapsed video, looking at the effect of school funding reform over decades. 

With a long view, Johnson’s work (the intricacies of which can be found in the endnotes) proves that Head Start and school funding reform have worked. What’s more, “[c]ontrary to popular wisdom, integration has benefited—and continues to benefit—African Americans, whether that benefit is translated into educational attainment, earnings, social stability, or incarceration rates. Whites, meanwhile, lose nothing from opening their classrooms to others.” 

Throughout, the authors’ writing is clear and as close to conversational as academic discourse can be. They even produce some truly stunning prose, for example, “segregation is not only about separation of people, but it is segregations—hoarding, in fact—of opportunity” and “[l]ike many poor people, both then and now, she understood the value of education but didn’t have the tools to extract that value for her own children.”

Children of the Dream ends with a forceful call to action that is as optimistic as it is stark: “How much longer will we bemoan the state of affairs while lamenting that nothing can be done? Much can be done…. We have tools that are, in some cases, decades old, but that nevertheless have the capacity to drastically correct some of the gravest inequalities in American society … that have flummoxed policymakers for decades…. [Realizing this potential] will require an extraordinary coordination of resources and effort, but every solution proffered in these pages is fully within the realm of possibility.”

Johnson and Nazaryan conclude, “We believe that the American project is not so much imperfect as it is not yet fully realized.” Their book, however, is—and I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about education or inequality.

Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Jennifer Traig does things a little differently than historians like Ann Hulbert. For starters, her scope is insanely broad, covering all of history and the globe. Then there’s her tone. Traig’s writing is truly accessible, bringing ease and pleasure to two traditionally taxing topics: historical study and parenting. “Children from all social classes just did not spend that much time with their parents,” she writes in a characteristic passage: “Unlike us, they probably did not feel much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job.” 

Act Natural take two

She doesn’t just make the material readable though; Traig makes it funny, like LOL funny: “Medieval childcare books are generally very stern and preachy. They are still fun for the modern reader, however, because early printers used a long s that, to the modern eye, looks just like an f. Since the books tend to dwell at length on breastfeeding, you read a lot about getting the fuckling infant to fuckle. Mostly, however, you read about faving the infant’s foul from fin.” Her personal and whimsical asides occasionally annoy, but the vast bulk of them land, helping break up some seriously legit research into manageable chunks.

Did you know, for example, that “a shocking amount of [parenting advice was] written by people who either had no children or were estranged from them” including monks? That, thanks to Freud, “botched toilet training was blamed for everything from homosexuality to World War II”? That Puritan books had “sunny, child-friendly titles like ‘Deaths of Pious Children’ and ‘The Exhortation that a Father Gave to His Children Which he Wrot a Few Dayes Before His Burning’”? That John Newbery, “the father of children’s literature” was a ruthless capitalist who maximized product placement in children’s books, including for an abortifacient? 

She goes on and on, even touching on modern times: 

In the United States, a child who’s been out of the womb 366 days is one, but in countries that use East Asian age reckoning, which counts from conception, he’s two. Some cultures add a year on your birthday, and some on the calendar new year. Even the length of the year can vary, with the lunar calendar clocking in eleven days shorter than the Gregorian. Were I to fly to Shanghai, I would find myself twelve hours ahead and two full years older….


Beng babies are considered living humans when their umbilical stump falls off. Aboriginal Anbarra babies remain classified as fetuses until they smile the first time. For Balinese Hindus, babies don’t become fully human until the 105th day after birth; before that, they belong to the spirit world, and are considered so holy their feet aren’t permitted to touch the ground. The Namibian Himba people believe a baby is alive before it’s even conceived, backdating its existence to the time it first came to its mother as a thought. 

Traig offers up a good deal of comfort too. “The history of parenting,” she writes, “is, in large part, a history of trying to get out of it.” That is to say, in some respects, our problems are not new. In 1671, Jane Sharp lambasted overparenting (“Their children by overcockering, growing so stubborn and unnatural, that they have proved a great grief to their parents”), and during the 1940s, many asserted that “overinvolved mothers were creating a generation of psychological cripples.” Modern parents probably do have it worse in some ways though. Take sibling squabbles. For much of history, parents escaped most of it since they “were less likely to be around their children, and their children were less likely to be around each other, given that they were either working or dead.”

Along similar lines, Traig concludes that “a lot of parenting’s thorniest issues—sleep resistance, picky eating—began when we started trying to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken.” A final note of solace reads as follows: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that barring the really awful stuff, things mostly turn out fine, and the ones that don’t were beyond our control anyway.”

For the most part, the book soars. It’s interesting. It’s amusing. And most of the writing is tight with flawless transitions. But some of those get sloppy, and there’s an uncomfortable amount of unacknowledged repetition, of factoids and even a punchline or two. Another round of edits would have gone a long way.

There’s also the small issue of the facts receiving gloss. There’s just no way to make definitive statements about parenting across the centuries without smoothing over a few things. And I’d be remiss not to note that this “cultural history” focuses on white culture.

Still, I highly recommend Act Natural as a fun way to get perspective on modern parenting.


In Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About ChildrenAnn Hulbert chronicles how twentieth-century parenting experts in the United States have offered dramatically varied “dogmas and data,” reflecting “American confusions about children’s natures and futures, and about mothers’ missions.”

raising america

The new plague of anxiety about child-rearing, it turns out, is actually as old as the plague itself: “pick any post-medieval century as it turns,” Hulbert writes, “and you can find historians proclaiming a notable shift in, and rising concern about, parent-child relations.” That’s comforting. So too is her conclusion that the experts “have fared no better or worse than the rest of us in the quest for calm consistency in child-rearing technique and theory.”

And Raising America contains a good deal of interesting information and reflection. Yet Hulbert’s is a copiously researched historian’s history of the central dilemma (“is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home?”) and as such, one I recommend only for those hoping to feel like a college student again.