pregnant and reading

The first thing my mother did when she found out I was pregnant was send me a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” When my baby had trouble sleeping, I turned to a library shelf full of authors eager to give me advice. And when it was time to start solids, I again maxed out my library card consulting the experts.

But a new study from the University of Warwick finds that manuals for motherhood written in the past 50 years have set the standards unattainably high, setting generations of new moms up to think that they are failures.

Dr. Angela Davis, author of the study surveyed women about a range of experts from the past half century, and while she found that the advice had changed, the tone of the delivery hadn’t. She found that many new moms felt that the authors were authoritative, couching their advice as orders, and that the books made it sound as though the consequences for not acting exactly according to the book’s plan were dire. 

Dr. Davis says, ”Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare ‘bibles’ over the years, it is interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice. Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of childrearing that they advocated.”

Interestingly, she also discovered that the advice seemed to be cyclical. Fifty years ago, experts were recommending strict schedules for babies and the importance of adhering to routines. Then, the trend swung toward a gentler, less authoritarian approach. Now, however, the idea of strict schedules and routines is making a comeback.

Regardless of the details, Dr. Davis says, “Levels of behaviour these childcare manuals set for mothers and babies are often unattainably high, meaning women could be left feeling like failures when these targets were not achieved.”

And don’t think there’s just one book that’s right, either. According to Dr. Davis, when she spoke to women who could compare the way they raised their own children with the way their grandchildren were being raised, they couldn’t say which approach was the best.

The takeaway message from Dr. Davis’ report is not to take any of the extremes in mom manuals too seriously. Try to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect mother—or perfect advice. If you cannot follow the advice in your favorite book exactly every minute of every day, that doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you completely normal!

image: Laura Dye