When I was a new mother, the parenting books I read encouraged me to treat child-rearing like a science project. I was told to pay particular attention to my baby's developing brain, which was malleable and awe-inspiring, but also fragile. I thought I was supposed to provide an optimal environment for my children's brain growth, because didn't they deserve the very best? And the earlier I started the better, because the stakes were high. If I failed, my children could develop any number of mental disorders.
At least, that was my impression after having read nearly every parenting book on the market.
I also expected to spontaneously and intuitively know how to care for my babies. But I didn't have a clue, and articles like these made me feel like a failure. Was it so unnatural for a mother to want time to herself, or to not want to become one with her baby? It seemed that way, but Jan Macvarish, author of the recent book, "Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life," disagrees.
Macvarish is deeply concerned about this ultra-scientific approach to parenting, in part because it reduces everything to the mother-child relationship.
"To talk about parenting in this way is untruthful because this isn't the way that any child is raised," she says. "There are always other people involved."
And she's right. I felt that I was solely responsible for my children's well-being, and that pressure started to get to me. What kind of mother was I if I couldn't take care of my babies' developing brains properly?
As it turns out, I'm not a bad mother. I just got seduced by neuroparenting.
This approach advocates training for parents, especially concerning babies' brain development. There are all kinds of books written by experts, as well as parenting classes, on neurological development in infants. But it's a problematic way to view raising children, because it increases demands on the parents.
"There's nothing in it that's reassuring, because what it's about is that you should be doing more and you should have started earlier," says Macvarish. Books, and the scientific claims they touted, made me think that what I did for my children could never be enough. Moreover, these claims are consistent with the expectations of intensive mothering, and seem to confirm the stereotypical image of the mother: attuned, intuitive, ever-patient. But mothers who bought into this philosophy became more depressed, statistics show.
Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, says in an email that "at this time, neuroscience has little to tell parents about how to raise or educate their children."
There are books, advocates and entrepreneurs selling themselves as parenting experts who often mention brain development. But this focus can overwhelm parents and make them feel like a failure.
"What we talk about here is loving and caring for a baby, but it's become medicalized, pathologized, scientified," Macvarish says. It's not the knowledge itself she criticizes, but rather the assumption that the only way parents can care for their children is through science, particularly neuroscience.
"When specific knowledge about the brain comes out of laboratories, that's really good. But it's not telling us how to care for babies. We already know how to care for babies," she adds.
The messages parents get about the best way to raise children are conflicted. On one hand, there is the tendency to believe that science should overrule everything, including experience, observations or instinct. But, as Macvarish says, "this can't capture the complexity of human relationships, because they're not generalizable to all humans as a species."
At the same time, experts encourage mothers to follow their instincts, but only if those instincts justify stereotypically maternal behavior. For example, a mother who wants to stay at home with her baby would be encouraged to "listen to her instincts," while a woman who wants to go back to work would be made to question her choices. I found this confusing.
It's easy to see why modern parents fall into the scientific parenting trap. We lack the guidance our own parents had, as we live farther apart from one another, and besides, our parents are often working themselves. So we turn to books for help. Moreover, the early days of parenting are actually pretty mundane. After all, we're tending to very basic needs: changing diapers or feeding. But when we dress that up in science and brain development, we make those initial days and weeks seem even more critical to the child's long-term well-being, Macvarish says.
Turns out, neuroscience is not helping me. It doesn't offer me any practical tips for raising my children, and it makes me doubt my parenting skills.
The pressure toward "scientific mothering" is immense and that line of thinking assumes that all the responsibility for raising children should fall on the parents, particularly the mother. But parenting "has to be something that we take on as society, rather than just continuously putting the finger back at the parent. We have to ask, how can we make it easier," says Macvarish.
I agree. Research shows that in countries where mothers had generous support packages, such as maternity leave or child care allowance, the happiness gap between parents and non-parents all but disappeared.
As the daughter of two university professors, I have the utmost respect for science and the improvements it has brought to individuals, societies and families. But I think we've gone too far. Parenting isn't rocket science, and you don't need a manual to guide you through those early days. As Macvarish told me, "there is no one-size-fits-all in parenting. It's specific to each individual, but also to each place at each time."
Maybe, when it comes to our children, we should continue doing what we've always done: follow our own hearts instead of our babies' brains.