Is Data-Driven Parenting Undermining Mothers?

How our obsession with statistics could be bolstering the patriarchy

When I became pregnant with my first child, I was terrified. Motherhood was the farthest thing from my mind. I had a successful career in journalism and was about to earn my master’s degree at Columbia University as part of a prestigious fellowship program. But after spending the summer in London with my British boyfriend, I returned to the U.S. with more than my checked luggage. The timing could not be worse. Despite the fear, the shock and even the shame, I had one single comforting thought for all of my motherhood angst: I’d had an incredible maternal example in my own mother, as well as among my family members and friends. 

In career development parlance, I had role models and mentors. And while these are considered essential in the professional sphere, they are becoming increasingly devalued in the parenting world. Now, instead of turning to mothers and grandmothers with generations of wisdom about child rearing or trusting our maternal cues, we are told data and science are meant to be our primary parenting guides.

Instead of turning to mothers and grandmothers … we are told data and science are meant to be our primary parenting guides.

A bumper crop of books, media articles and academics are frequently telling us that we need data to drive basic early parenting decisions, from breastfeeding to infant sleep, as if maternal intuition, generational knowledge and the mothering customs that women have accumulated over centuries are completely worthless and outdated. After years of feminist fighting to free ourselves from the control of men dictating our lives and undermining women’s decisions, many are simply handing over their autonomy as mothers to a new overseer: a scientific report. When it comes to modern day parenting, has data become the new protector of the patriarchy? 

After years of feminist fighting to free ourselves from the control of men dictating our lives and undermining women’s decisions, many are simply handing over their autonomy as mothers to a new overseer: a scientific report.

New York Times headlines such as  “The Data All Guilt-Ridden Parents Need” spark a social media frenzy while erroneously painting data as the panacea for parenting, which makes it easy to ignore the huge policy gaps and lack of social support that could actually help alleviate anxiety and guilt. A plethora of new books on sleep training and the meteoric rise of sleep coaches and sleep schools, have problematized normal infant sleep patterns. Sensational headlines by well-meaning but short-sighted journalists often use one singular study (no mention of sample size or who funded it) to attack breastfeeding and global hospital initiatives to improve infant health without adding the context of a full body of scientific evidence that’s been accumulated over years. This is data gone wrong. 

While I am incredibly grateful for the scientific advances in medicine, life-saving antibiotics and vaccines that improve our health and vitality every day, the continued trope that women need more science, data or things to guide basic parenting decisions, especially in the early days of motherhood, is a dangerous undermining of women that should concern us all. It is no coincidence that much of the scientific focus that diminishes and attacks maternal intuition and cultural norms is related to birth and breastfeeding — things that women’s bodies uniquely do.

The rise of science and data in women’s lives and motherhood journeys has been aided and abetted by social and cultural forces. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not have a federal paid leave policy, which increases pressure on mothers, who, in many cases, are returning to work as soon as two weeks after childbirth. The urgency to get parenting right immediately, when you barely have time to do it at all, leaves mothers desperate for answers, doubting themselves and turning against the generations of woman-centered knowledge that raised them. Furthermore, since mothering is not viewed as important work in our society, some researchers sought to legitimize parental decision-making by pushing it into the scientific realm. Often mothers themselves feel compelled to intellectualize and validate mothering by inserting statistics and analysis. None of this helps women. 

Throughout the years, the “better living through science” dream has been sold to society in general, and mothers in particular. Many times, science was promoted as the new instrument of female liberation. Data-driven parenting sounds very 2020 until you ask how exactly data science has advanced the lived experience of motherhood. About one in 10 women in the U.S. experience some negative feelings or postpartum depression after childbirth, according to the CDC. Maternal mortality rates are rising in the U.S. while declining in every other developed nation. In New York City, Black women die from complications of childbirth at 12 times the rate of white women. U.S. infant mortality rates (deaths under one year of age per 1,000 live births) are about 71 percent higher than a comparable country on average. And in a recent study of over 22 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranked last in reported levels of parental happiness

In a recent study of over 22 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranked last in reported levels of parental happiness. 

Meanwhile, various “evidence-based” models are being promulgated as the gold standard for maternity and infant care, but nobody has asked, evidence-based on whom? Evidence collected by whom? And evidence paid for by whom? Medical studies rarely include Black people or other people of color, and much sociological and economic research on women excludes women of color, and continues to cater to privileged, middle to upper class white females. More and more scientific research is industry funded, which studies show often skews outcomes to favor commercial interests.  In her latest book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, NYU professor emeritus Marion Nestle documented how of the 168 food studies sponsored by industry she followed in a single year, 156 had results that favored the sponsored interests. 

Meanwhile, the medical and science field itself is overwhelmingly and notoriously white male, giving rise to the phenomenon known as the “himposium” and “manference,” highlighting that scientific speakers and panelists are predominantly male.

Even when the data researchers are female, one can’t ignore the institutionalized patriarchal systems in academia that these women operate in, and therefore must and do conform to as a matter of career survival. Another danger is academic experts from outside a particular field acting as if “fresh eyes” on years of scientific evidence or human experience is now some revolutionary awareness. Buyer beware. 

Do we need data? Absolutely. We need to learn about the continuum of women’s reproductive lives and we need more scientific inquiry into the social determinants of health. We still don’t have hard national data on how many women are dying in childbirth, and some brilliant minds are really needed on the Black maternal mortality crisis. We need a better understanding of bias in health care, which has been proven to impact health diagnoses, treatments and outcomes. There is limitless potential to use data science to improve the lives of women. 

Advocacy platform Data 2X is working to improve access to gender data and use it to make a practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide. With support from the Tara Health Foundation and the Grove Foundation, I’m developing a new digital platform, Irth (as in birth, but we dropped the B for bias), that will collect and share Yelp-like ratings and reviews on doctors and hospitals, based on a person’s racial, social, economic or gender identity, to identify experiences of bias. That means a low-income Black woman or a Latina same-sex couple can find doctor reviews from peers, and use that information for more informed decision-making. On the back end, Irth creates a much needed community-centered data set of experiences of care among marginalized groups, that we can analyze to better understand the nuances of bias, create a patient-centered accountability mechanism for hospitals, and work with healthcare systems directly to address blind spots in care. 

Data could also be a powerful feminist tool. In the forthcoming book, Data Feminism (MIT Press), the authors, Catherine D’Ignazio, assistant professor of urban science at MIT and director of the Data + Feminism Lab, and Lauren Klein, associate professor of digital humanities at Emory University, argue that science and the women consuming the science need to ask new questions, including, “Data science with whose values? And the answer should not be elite white men,” D’Ignazio said in an email interview. “Also, is the science being wielded by powerful gatekeepers to devalue women’s cultures and communities? Is the data being used by corporations to prove the efficacy of some artificial substance used to undermine women’s confidence in their own bodies? If so, then it is corrupt,” she wrote. 

Data and science have tremendous potential to uplift the state of women’s lives. But with a singular focus on data, we lose nuance. What a scientific study says is only as good as the policy and social support to live out that data-informed decision. 

And the role of data and science should not include diminishing maternal intuition or continuing to undermine women’s capacity to birth and nourish their babies. Our reliance on science should be balanced with other knowledge, including our cultural wisdom, natural mechanisms and confidence in our maternal authority. To prevent that, women need to start questioning whose interests are being served, and who is holding the power in the scientific community, before relinquishing their parenting power to data. Otherwise, data will simply become another tool in our oppression. And we just don’t need any more of those. 

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and a maternal and infant health strategist and advocate. A former writer at Fortune and former senior editor at Essence, Kimberly writes frequently about motherhood and the intersection of race, class and policy. Her fifth book, The Big Letdown — How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @IamKSealsAllers.