Mom Versus the Experts

“She’s got some rolls starting!” exclaimed the pediatrician, pointing at my baby’s thighs, as we sat in a too-hot exam room on a New York City July day. I could maybe, just barely, see them. The doctor was mostly trying to make me feel better–trying to soothe any mom guilt I might be feeling about my long, skinny babe who spit up half her meal after each feeding. But this was an extremely important gesture. I wouldn’t fully appreciate just how important until I started venturing out more and meeting other moms in the coming months. Unlike many parents I later met, I came out of the fourth trimester—baby’s first three months living outside of the womb—with both my milk supply and my confidence intact. Our pediatrician’s light touch and gentle encouragement throughout those early days were pivotal to helping me feel capable as a mom. 

In most cases, however, parenting a baby in New York City today is a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Between online parent groups, the stay-at-home-mom cliques at the playgrounds, friends and family hoping to get a two-for-one deal visiting New York and the new baby at the same time, pediatricians eager to evangelize behaviorist approaches to infant sleep, and the world’s top pediatric specialists available through any ordinary health insurance plan at the city’s big employers, a modern New York parent has access to a nearly infinite number of expert opinions about what’s best for baby. All of that is compounded for poor New Yorkers by the watchful eyes of social services agencies.  Their oversight can be initiated as early as pregnancy for women using Medicaid, as Khiara Bridges describes in Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization. Poor New Yorkers of color additionally face racist doctors, social workers, nursing staff, and government workers whose advice concerning a baby’s safety might undermine what mothers learn about infant care from their own mothers and grandmothers. 

On any topic related to infant care, there’s usually conflicting advice, and your in-laws almost always contradict your pediatrician, your mom group contradicts your lactation consultant, and your partner contradicts Instagram sleep trainers. Despite all of this expert oversight, maternal and infant mortality in the United States has risen in recent years to levels higher than most of the European countries we would like to think of as our equals in public health. 

It’s in these moments of being torn in two (or more) directions that one’s confidence as a mom is slowly eroded and the guilt starts to settle in. Mom guilt drives you to seek out more experts and more opinions. The opinions contradict, so you seek out more advice, and more, and more. Soon you’re awake at 3am reading sleep training Instagram pages like Taking Cara Babies or Hey Sleepy Baby. The downward spiral only ends, like most things baby, when your baby grows out of whatever it was that had been triggering your worry in the first place. By then there’s some new worry to replace it, something new the experts don’t agree on, something new to research with Google and an endless library of parenting how-to books. This cycle is so common, so ordinary, that it seems like an intrinsic and inescapable part of modern motherhood. Mom takes care of the baby; a panoply of experts, both intimate and distant, educate mom on all the ways she is failing and could be doing her job better. 

I would like to posit that this struggle with and against experts is the existential state of being a modern mom. “Momming,” for my purposes, is less about femininity and more about being feminized. It is a relation based on inequities of power and work rather than a fixed identity or an activity tied to womanhood or an individual’s biological traits. Men, trans, and queer people inhabit the position of mom when an expert discounts their expertise about their own child, talks over them, and questions their ability to truthfully recount their child’s needs and behaviors. 

Socialist feminists in the 1970s articulated the position of the housewife as emblematic of women’s subjugation to both men and capital. The New York Wages for Housework Committee, for example, argued for the recognition of housework as work deserving of compensation in the 1970s.  As Sylvia Federici puts it in her introduction to a 2017 collection of the committee’s pamphlets, Wages for Housework feminist argued that “housework was the root of our oppression as women.”[1] At the same time, “housework has been a fundamental element of capitalist accumulation, being the production of ‘labor-power’ and, as such, the condition for every form of work.”[2] This contradiction between the apparent necessity of housework and its unwaged status infuriated the Wages for Housework activists. Well-off housewives and welfare recipients alike could benefit from payment for housework.

Nancy Hartsock built on the socialist feminist critique of unremunerated housework to forward the framework that would come to be called feminist standpoint theory in the 1983 essay, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” She argues that the momming work that many women do by default should serve as a basis for a Marxist feminist standpoint. This feminist standpoint is the view that one has when looking out upon the world from one’s knees while cleaning around the toilet. Mom works all the time, but momming work is defined as being outside of the relations of capital. There is no capitalist extracting the profits generated by the spread between the wages paid to workers and the sales price of finished goods on the market. Therefore momming work is not recognized as economically useful labor in a capitalist society. In other words, precisely because moms are their own bosses in charge of running the household, they are not paid. The relational context of momming does not fit into the capitalist imaginary of work that is fit for wages.

While “parenting” is often adopted as the gender neutral term for raising a child, momming indexes something slightly different. Parenting tries to elevate the status of women, raising momming work to be on par with the work of (white) men. Parenting is not inimical to capitalism, sexism, (trans)misogyny, racism, or ableism; it is elevated outside of these concerns. Parenting is the girlboss way to refer to taking care of a family. 

Momming, by contrast, carries with it a social critique. Momming reminds the listener that grown ass women are infantalizingly addressed as “mama” the second their friends and family find out they are pregnant. Momming evokes the kind of swirling, colorful blouses and dresses which until very recently were the only things pregnant people could find to fit over their growing bellies. Momming has a subtractive, rather than additive, vibe: the person who existed before becoming mom is gone forever, replaced by someone more harried, someone covered in the kids’ breakfast, someone with no time for a haircut or exercise or a manicure. Importantly, momming implies that the mom has a primary job in the home, and that any other relations to capital, education, or other social institutions are secondary, a distraction from the mom’s real work of social reproduction. All of these critiques remain true—and are perhaps, in some instances, sharpened— when momming is used to describe the parenting work done by parents who are not women.

Who counts as a baby care “expert,” likewise, is best defined relationally, in part because the credentialing landscape in much of babyland is lightly regulated wilderness. Some baby experts have widely recognizable credentials, but many assume the mantle of expert with limited training and certification aside from raising their own children. For example, few would deny that pediatricians are knowledgeable about how to treat the wide array of coughs and rashes that babies tend to catch in their first months of daycare. Years of theoretical training in human biology and practical training in diagnosing real children and prescribing them remedies are rewarded with degrees, and licensure is policed via repeated rounds of high-stakes testing. On the other end, however, are sleep consultants and feeding advice apps. While credentialing bodies are starting to pop up for sleep consultants, the main qualification touted by much of this Instagram-friendly profession is being a mom with kids, sometimes just barely out of infancy. Much of the evidence cited by sleep trainers seems to be little more than white people’s infant care lore or first-wave behaviorist training straight out of 1950s animal ethology labs. 

Yet even credentialed experts, like pediatricians, regularly push the limits of their expertise. For example, pediatricians famously have advice around the timing and duration of breastfeeding for new lactating parents and opinions about how fast breastfed babies ought to grow. Yet pediatric training does not typically include very much information on the biology of breastfeeding for the lactating person. As any breastfeeder—successful or unsuccessful—can tell you from experience, feeding a baby is a finely tuned dance. Many things beyond infant biology can disrupt the relationship, such as the medical treatments a birthing person received during labor and delivery and their approach to managing sleep deprivation and body image in the weeks after labor. Some people can space feedings two to three hours apart as pediatricians typically recommend and develop a robust milk supply; others must feed the baby much more frequently. Some babies consent to set mealtimes, and others most certainly do not. As baby grows older, parents might encounter infant feeding experts trained in occupational therapy (the field which treats swallowing and other feeding problems in babies and children) who lend credibility to popular solid food feeding apps and guides, even when their advice on topics like baby-led weaning has only the thinnest of evidence bases behind it.

Experts demonstrate their expertise in many ways: via licensure or certification via a governing board, in the case of pediatricians and some types of lactation consultants, through educational credentials in early childhood development, as is typical of daycare and preschool teachers, or through recounting relatable lived experiences. But what truly defines a parenting expert is their relation to parents, and especially moms. While credentials might mark someone as a teacher or pediatrician, in practice a parenting expert is someone with advice to give to new parents. A parenting expert is someone who demands that parents listen through appeals to fear that without your services, they are sure to screw up their kid. Shout about speculative future harms enough times via a slickly designed Instagram page and you, too, can be in the running to be recognized as a parenting expert. Appeals to fears and anxieties are especially effective when parents encounter them on social media during the long, sleepless nights of early babyhood.

The detente between moms and experts is nothing new. The parenting advice industry has been more or less booming since the dawn of the twentieth century. The digital infrastructure of Facebook and Instagram helps to spread experts’ messages, but it has not fundamentally altered the relationship between moms and experts. In their popular baby advice books, attachment parenting gurus Bob and Martha Sears warn new parents to “beware of baby trainers.” Whatever you may think of the rest of their parenting philosophy, or baby advice books in general, this piece of advice is certainly one to live by. 

Implicit in a great deal of advice for new parents is the idea that babyhood needs to be regularized and rationalized. The rationalization process typically starts before baby’s first days on earth, during labor or pregnancy. As Richard W. and Dorothy C. Wertz argue in Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America, moving childbirth into the hospital meant transforming childbirth from a normal part of the life course into a medical procedure. The hospital provided a centralized location in which laboring bodies could much more easily be brought into compliance with standardized instrumentation and timekeeping. As medical practitioners standardized the interventions on offer, patients’ bodies were expected to follow suit. Hospital-style standardization was appealing to many middle-class and well off women from the start of the twentieth century because it promised increased safety, even though the promise of safety was not consistently achieved until the 1940s and 1950s. 

When baby arrives, the same standardizing machinations of hospital infrastructures quickly get to work on them. Today, within the first few minutes of life, a new infant will be taken away from the birthing person to be weighed, measured, and have their limbs, fingers, and toes checked. They will receive a pinprick on the heel to test for a panel of congenital diseases, receive antibacterial eye drops, and receive their first vaccination for hepatitis B. These interventions proceed as hospital protocol. Most hospitals require parents to sign a waiver if they wish to refuse eye drops or the vaccination.

The move to hospital births is not the only reason why baby care routines are subject to intensive standardization. The arrival of scientific motherhood in the early twentieth century prescribed technological and behavioral fixes for typical infant behaviors. New standards for parenting were developed starting in the late nineteenth century as birth rates fell among the middle and upper classes in the United States and Europe and each child became a family’s most precious treasure. As Ann Hulbert recounts in Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children, baby advice book authors in the early twentieth century— mostly men— were there to soothe parents worried that they might damage their limited offspring. Advice on scheduled feedings in particular complemented the regimentation of time in industrial workplaces outside the home, perhaps helping routinized care make a kind of cultural sense in a time of otherwise great technological and social dislocations. Other advice complemented Anglo-American political ideologies of independence, like counseling parents to allow babies to cry themselves to sleep in their own crib or room. 

The expansion of the baby expert industry via social media has not fundamentally changed this relationship, but it has heightened the amount of contact that moms can have with advice givers. Furthermore, on Instagram or TikTok, a pediatrician’s advice looks no different than a self-proclaimed or dubiously certified baby sleep or feeding or car seat expert. Some of the advice remains shockingly consistent with the opinions of men from the 1920s. For example, building independence early via sleep training, experts still assert, sets up a baby to sleep on their own. It is strongly suggested that such early independence will produce higher-achieving students and adults down the line.

The first problem with much baby advice, however, is that it often doesn’t work. Sleep training, for example, only earns parents a few more minutes of sleep per night and probably doesn’t change how babies sleep at all. While the advice is one-size-fits-all, babies are people with desires and intentions of their own. Even the advice writers know this. The same contemporary advice manuals that stress the importance of standardized expectation for your child’s behavior and milestones, like the ever-popular What to Expect series, also emphasize that each baby has its own temperament and may not fully submit to a parent’s techniques. The second problem is that much of the advice is presented as all or nothing. If you go all in, it will work. If it doesn’t work, it’s proof you haven’t tried hard enough

The combination of contradictory advice around whether it is even possible to standardize a baby and the all-or-nothing attitude of the majority of baby training materials sets up parents for battles that are unwinnable. Is my baby an individual or a conglomeration of averages? Can my baby be both at once? If something unexpected happens, is it me or my baby that’s gone astray? If it’s me, am I fit to be a parent? If it’s my baby, is there another book or medical cure that can fix her? Or does my baby have a permanent temperamental flaw that will doom her to a life of unhappiness and unproductivity? The combination of rampant contradictions and imploring tone seem perfectly designed to undermine the confidence of new parents in themselves and their babies.

Is it any wonder, then, that moms (in the relational definition, of course) sometimes prioritize their own experience over the knowledge of medical experts? If experts don’t agree, and if their advice bears only a passing resemblance to a mom’s everyday reality, why must moms be the ones to fall in line? In my research on food allergy advocacy, I encountered many moms who had learned to pick and choose which pieces of medical advice to strictly follow, and which to set aside. For example, a nurse who I interviewed knew full well that she ought to administer an epinephrine auto-injector when her child displayed signs of an allergic reaction. Instead, she delayed and managed her baby’s symptoms by herself because she was confident in her professional skills as a nurse.

Biomedical theories about the etiology of food allergies were also selectively believed and revised based on the experience of the mom. One mom, Heather Fraser, wrote a book, The Peanut Allergy Epidemic, asserting that increased numbers of childhood vaccinations might contribute to the rise in food allergies after detecting a correlation between food allergy prevalence and rising numbers of vaccines in a typical childhood vaccination schedule. Another mom, Robyn O’Brien, wrote The Unhealthy Truth about the dangers posed by the modern food supply. Her professional expertise as a consultant for the food industry had introduced her to the complexity of modern food supply chains. When her child developed food allergies, she reasoned that the increasing complexity of the food supply and length of supply chains were contributing factors to the rise in childhood food allergy diagnoses. 

It is easy for non-moms to dismiss what moms think and do as a sideshow to the cultural and political mainstream. Like mom’s work, mom’s worries appear to exist outside the profitable capitalist relations that would mark them as important. It is especially tempting to do so when their opinions fly in the face of medical guidance. But we must take moms seriously. The contentious relationship between moms and experts is leading to a mainstream crisis in the current pandemic moment. Parents aren’t getting their children vaccinated at rates high enough to protect their communities from COVID-19, presumably due to concerns about vaccine safety and the effects of vaccines on children. Yet most kids are now back in school without masks swapping germs all day long, placing themselves and their loved ones at high risk of both acute and chronic COVID-19.

Mistrust and suspicion about COVID-19 vaccines for children has federal agencies on high alert. As of this writing, the FDA is slow walking the review and approval process for vaccines for children under 5. In their own words, this is in order to ensure a “thorough and transparent process” and to “move quickly” toward an approval decision once the independent expert panel’s analysis is complete. To my ear, trained in cultural analysis of risk and having had some professional interactions with health regulatory agencies over the years, this sounds like they are worried about deepening mistrust by appearing to rush the review process. After all, this was a central claim of the COVID-19 vaccine hesitant crowd when adult vaccinations stalled: The vaccine was approved too fast, how was it to be trusted? 

The preferred term for parents who do not vaccinate their kids per medical recommendations is “vaccine hesitant.” My research and recent experience becoming a mom, however, suggest another interpretation: expert fatigue. I think this is the chickens coming home to roost after more than a century of contradictory and overbearing advice about how best to care for your baby. If you’ve followed the expert advice of an Instagram sleep guru in the hope that your newborn baby will sleep a solid eight hours—a biologically preposterous expectation for most—why would you trust the next expert you see who tells you about the coming wonders of the infant COVID-19 vaccine?

While it might sound like a leap, my research demonstrated that receiving confusing advice from one set of experts undermines trust in medical expertise overall. And I’ve felt expert fatigue myself as a mom, though perhaps, luckily, less than many given our very reasonable pediatricians and my partner’s justified pushback against several of my dubious online advice finds. While I love vaccinations (I even got a completely unnecessary yellow fever vaccination series in 2016 when I attended a conference in Buenos Aires when offered, just in case), becoming a mom has helped me understand why many moms aren’t getting their children vaccinated for COVID-19. It’s just one more piece of advice offered by people who aren’t there all day and all night and don’t really get the work you put into keeping your children alive day after day.

Momming is hard work. The loud chorus of experts makes it even harder. Doctors who casually offer tips and mandates every one or three months during your baby’s well visits aren’t there when you’re soothing a feverish toddler at four in the morning. The Instagram sleep guru whose feed is available 24/7 certainly feels like she is—but if your baby fails to stick to her program, it’s entirely your own fault. And when the courses of action suggested by lived experience and expert advice don’t gel, either mom guilt or mom instinct takes over. No longer a sideshow to politics, the mom-expert relationship is a central political problem for our time. Reproductive politics is real politics. Any mom could tell you that. Maybe it’s time for all of us to stop and listen to mom.



[1] Silvia Federici, “Introduction: Wages for Housework in Historical Perspective” in Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972-1977: History, Theory, and Documents (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2017), 17.

[2] Silvia Federici, “Introduction: Wages for Housework in Historical Perspective,” 18.