What You'll Learn
- Why We Struggle with Making Parenting Decisions
- The Medical Establishment and Parenting Decisions
- How to Weigh Out “Rules” vs. Discretion
- Breaking Out of All-or-Nothing Thinking with Parenting Decisions
- How to Confidently Make Parenting Decisions
- The Importance of Flexibility and Reevaluation
- Sharing the Decision-Making Labor
Surveys show that we make 1750 parenting decisions in our child’s first year of life alone. Each choice comes with a lot of pressure to do the “best” thing. And since many of us weren’t equipped with decision-making skills, this can be very tough.
Today, I’m joined by NYT bestselling author Emily Oster to discuss trusting yourself, taking in evidence objectively, and making parenting decisions that are right for your family.
Entering Motherhood Left Me Feeling So Unsure of Myself
I remember holding my baby for the first time and suddenly feeling like I knew nothing. I had assumed that parenting would come naturally to me. But once my son arrived, it felt like I had SO many decisions to make, with no guidance.
The pressure to make all the right choices was overwhelming. So I did what most millennial moms do—turn to Google for help.
Somehow, that made everything worse. Instead of providing the answers I was looking for, the internet led me down a rabbit hole of questions, forums, and contradicting opinions.
I found myself overanalyzing every decision, looking up endless options for each piece of baby gear I needed, and often unable to make a confident choice.
It wasn’t until years later, after my third, when I was diagnosed with PPD and PPA, that I could look back and realize what was really happening. I was experiencing a rough mix of anxiety and the culmination of never being taught critical decision-making skills.
It’s something I hear from my mom clients a lot—we all want to make the right choices for our babies, but we don’t know how to trust ourselves. Then, when doctors or organizations tell us that there is only one “right” method, which often doesn’t work out for us, we feel like we’re failing.
But there is a different way to approach parenting decisions—one based on a mix of evidence and our individual values.
I’m so grateful for the work that Emily has done in not only sharing quality evidence with parents but also in empowering them to take that evidence as only part of their decision-making process, ultimately trusting themselves.
Emily previously appeared on the podcast to break down what the data really says when it comes to pregnancy. I was excited to welcome her back to the show to discuss how we can trust ourselves to make parenting decisions with confidence.
Why We Struggle with Making Parenting Decisions
Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern with my mom clients—they don’t trust themselves to make confident decisions. From a young age, women are often socialized to be people-pleasers, to be obedient, and to comply—none of which empower us to make our own decisions. Whether we were taught these things through religion or family dynamics, we’re often lacking these skills.
So when we enter motherhood and have so many decisions to make, it’s incredibly overwhelming.
Emily said that in her work as an economics professor, one of her jobs is to teach people basic structures for decision-making—to provide a way for them to combine data with personal preference and weigh out costs and benefits.
But she said that identifying costs and benefits, or pros and cons, is only a small part of the process. The difficulty comes with teaching people how to actually take that and turn it into a decision. With any choice, there will be some pros and some cons.
Decision making inherently has conflict, and requires sacrificing one option for another
Emily said that’s the core of why decision-making is hard—there are no perfect choices. Decision making inherently has conflict, and requires sacrificing one option for another. And sometimes, we’re going to make the wrong choice—there’s no protection from that. When decisions feel very important (as they often do in parenting), that can be very hard to accept.
We often feel paralyzed by the options and find ourselves unable to make a proactive decision. Eventually, our choices are often made for us because we failed to do any active decision-making.
When we think about decision-making in parenting, it can be helpful to break away from the search for the one “right” or “best” option. So many decisions have a wide range of possibilities—instead of trying to find the perfect choice, we can focus on determining what feels right to us.
The Medical Establishment and Parenting Decisions
One of the areas parents sometimes feel out of control is with medical authority. The medical establishment often takes a stance, presenting the idea that parents “should” do XYZ.
Emily pointed out that there are multiple layers to these types of recommendations. The first is that on a large scale, we need to take a step back and understand that those decisions might not be the right thing for everyone.
But there is another element at play. Many doctors have expressed to Emily that their patients want them to tell them what to do. They want to know the best approach to birthing or feeding or sleeping. These decisions are hard—it makes sense that we might turn to authority figures to make them for us.
Often, those doctors might actually prefer for parents to engage in active decision-making, but they feel obligated to give a specific recommendation.
This isn’t always the case, of course. There is certainly a history of medical gaslighting (especially of moms) and some recommendations being pushed on patients regardless of individual preference.
But when we empower ourselves with confidence in our decision-making skills, we can advocate for ourselves and make active choices.
Emily pointed out that it’s important to find providers who we trust and who we connect with in terms of approaching decisions.
When we empower ourselves with confidence in our decisions, we can advocate for ourselves.
It’s also important to approach conversations with medical providers with pre-prepared questions. This gives us the best chance at receiving the answers we need. Emily pointed out that we should do a bit of homework—understanding the decisions we are going to need to make and what information we need from providers to make them.
How to Weigh Out “Rules” vs. Discretion
New parents often hear many hard-and-fast rules or strong recommendations. But this leaves little room for our discretion.
Emily pointed out that this comes with a lot of pressure. For most parents, raising our kids is the ultimate most important job we do—and we want to make sure we’re doing a good job.
But when we hear blanket rules that contradict what we’re actually able to do, it leaves us feeling like failures.
When we hear blanket rules that contradict what we’re actually able to do, it leaves us feeling like failures.
For example, if we’re told that breast is best and we struggle to breastfeed, we might feel that there is something wrong with us. Or if we’re told that the only safe way for a baby to sleep is alone on their back in a crib, and our baby isn’t able to sleep that way, we feel hopeless. (We’re also told that it’s important to stay “well-rested,” layering impossible expectations on top of each other.)
Emily said that when this happens, it leaves people feeling defeated, and it provides a very poor foundation for making alternative decisions that are right for them. We might struggle to find information about other options, like which formula to try, or how to co-sleep as safely as possible.
It often feels like abstinence-only education. When only teach one way or one approach, we leave everyone else without the knowledge they need to make safe, healthy decisions.
Emily would like to see the medical establishment take more of a broad approach—perhaps telling us what the evidence-based “best” practice is, but providing a range of other options that might work for your family.
Breaking Out of All-or-Nothing Thinking with Parenting Decisions
Another issue with the hard-and-fast rule approach is that it offers very little nuance for the wide spectrum of families. It lends to black-and-white thinking, which contributes to a difficulty making decisions.
For example, we often talk about breastfeeding as all-or-nothing. Even the recommendations from organization like the WHO or AAP state that we should “exclusively breastfeed” for two years.
But the reality is that most families do some form of combination feeding, whether that means supplementing with some formula or pumping and offering bottles. We’re often pressured into feeling that we have to make one choice or another when there’s usually room for something in between.
Emily said that we haven’t given people the empowering message that we can make these choices in a way that works for us. This leads to an over-reliance on experts and an inability to trust ourselves.
We haven’t given people the empowering message that we can make these choices in a way that works for us.
That lack of trust is often rooted in fear that somebody else won’t think we’re doing a good job. Emily pointed out that it’s important to be able to stand confidently in our decisions. Then, when we hear other people judge or question us, we can stick by our choices without wavering out of fear or shame.
That’s why Emily believes in data, but also in individual discretion, rather than being prescriptive about best approaches.
How to Confidently Make Parenting Decisions
It can be hard to stand confidently in our parenting decisions—especially if we identify with certain groups or philosophies. We might take on other people’s ideas without analyzing whether they truly align with what matters to us.
One of the ways we can gain more confidence in our decisions is by tuning into our personal values. Discovering our values and using them as our guiding light can help make parenting decisions easier and tune out some of the noise of other people’s opinions and judgments.
For example, if we see other families online signed up for all the sports and activities, we might start to question ourselves, wondering if we’re depriving our child of experiences by choosing a slower approach. But if we know where our values lie and use them to make our choices, we are less likely to question ourselves.
In this example, if we value flexibility and exploration, we might opt for less structured or rigorous activities. But if we know that and can stand strong in it, then we don’t have to take someone else’s opinion into consideration.
Often, when people try to hand over choices to us as facts (like urging us to sign our children up for more activities), what they are really doing is trying to prescribe our values to us. It’s important to understand what really matters to us and our family.
Emily said that it’s helpful to lean on the data and then ask ourselves questions like:
How would this work in my life?
How does this align with my values?
Does this feel right to me?
What are all the options that could work for me?
Understanding our own values can also keep us from trying to convince other people of the “rightness” of our parenting decisions. What is right for us might not be right for them—and that’s okay. When we’re comfortable with that, we don’t need to convince anyone else to do things our way.
The Importance of Flexibility and Reevaluation
Once we make parenting decisions, it’s important to revisit them as our lives change, as our values change, and even just to ensure that they are actually working for us.
It can be tempting to cling to original decisions we made, without any flexibility. But the truth is that parenting is full of nuance—and what works for you at one time might not work for you forever.
Maybe your baby slept fine in a crib until a sleep regression, or maybe breastfeeding worked out for you at first but then your circumstances changed. Maybe you had a family member caring for your baby while you worked, but it turned out that family member’s values are too different from yours.
It’s always okay to take a step back and evaluate our parenting decisions along the way. This doesn’t mean we made the “wrong decision.” It just means that we can stay flexible in our choices.
Emily said that it’s helpful to think of our decisions as experiments rather that firm choices to never be revisited again. Many of our choices might change, especially as our children get older.
It’s helpful to think of our decisions as experiments rather that firm choices to never be revisited again.
This doesn’t mean we should constantly be questioning ourselves—we want to be confident in our choices. But it does mean that periodic revisiting, especially when things feel like they’re no longer working, is valuable.
Sharing the Decision-Making Labor
It’s also important to evaluate the role that gender norms and expectations play in decision-making. Research has shown that moms carry almost all of the mental labor—noticing what needs to be done, researching options, and monitoring how the choices we make play out.
But decision-making is the one facet of the mental load that statistically falls to dads in different-sex relationships.
Emily pointed out that part of this is likely because of the importance of specific decisions—moms probably are responsible for a good deal of smaller decisions that aren’t necessarily showing up. But there’s also an aspect of socialization that sets men up to be decision-makers. She said that collaboratively approaching decisions can help ease the mental load.
We can also pass off research to our partner and take a step back for some decisions. It’s important for both partners to remember that when making parenting decisions, there are no right or wrong answers. Setting a timer on research can help keep us from spiraling and becoming overwhelmed.
If it feels hard to let go or to make quicker choices, start with smaller-stakes parenting decisions, like what we’re serving for snack this week.
Decision-making is a muscle—and over time we can learn to make parenting decisions with confidence.
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