Jennifer Margulis is a good friend of mine.
We first became acquainted about ten years ago, as part of an email list for writer moms started by Katie Granju. We’ve roomed together at conferences, email frequently and talk on the phone (more frequently when neither of us is under some crazy deadline) and meet up when she visits family in Chicago. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting her mother (a renowned scientist) and strolling her baby Leone around Manhattan while Jennifer accepted an award at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference.
My general rule – for obvious reasons – is that I don’t attempt to write critical reviews of my friends’ books. If I love the book and I love the author, I will gladly feature the book to help spread the word, but that’s not the same as reviewing it. Jennifer and I have a long history, so that rule was definitely top of mind when Jennifer’s publisher sent me a copy of her new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line.
But when I read the book I knew I couldn’t simply give it a cheery “thumbs up!” here. The Business of Baby – and its subject matter – deserved and required a weightier, more critical analysis than that.
I wasn’t sure how to handle the conflict at first, and I fumbled a little along the way, initially trying to pass off the job to a neutral third party, our book reviewer Devon. (You can read her take on The Business of Baby on her blog, The Paperhouse.)
In the end, though, I decided that I had to break my self-imposed rule this one time. You all deserve to know how I feel about the book, and what’s more, I think the possibilities for conversation surrounding it are really valuable.
So what did I think of The Business of Baby?
First of all, you should know right off the bat that this is not a feel-good book. It’s not likely you’ll read it and come away reassured about your parenting choices, nor the system in which those choices are made.
Jennifer Margulis is one of the most earnest and honest writers – and people – I know. She’s a mother of four who has strong beliefs about the environment, child health, and parenting, and her actions line up with those beliefs. Scene: the two of us bunked up in a tiny Manhattan hotel room, me with a suitcase stuffed with five pair of “just in case” shoes and full-sized beauty products; her with three days’ worth of clothes and her baby’s cloth diapers in a single backpack.
We have a lot in common as moms, but being with Jennifer I have always felt like I just sort of fell into my mothering practices by accident, while everything she does seems carefully contemplated and chosen.
So while her earnestness and strong beliefs might rub readers the wrong way, they come from a place of utter sincerity. And The Business of Baby is not afraid to wade into messy, controversial topics. It takes on everything from routine circumcision to diapers, from formula to vaccines, poking, prodding, and asking tough questions.
Many times I agreed with Jennifer Margulis’ take on these issues. Just as many, I didn’t.
I think that’s the difficulty with a book that takes on such big topics. For example, as somebody who has done a lot of reading about childbirth and have chosen midwives and alternative birth plans for all of my children, I found myself nodding in agreement along with her section on maternal health care.
But as a relaxed potty-trainer who never had the least desire to use elimination communication and has seen first-hand just how difficult and stressful it can be to toilet-train a child who isn’t ready (especially in a society where pants are considered necessary, even for toddlers, and peeing on the ground in public is likely to get you in trouble), I was less convinced by the assertions in the chapter on the diaper and “big kid” diaper industry. (Full disclosure: I used a mix of disposable and cloth diapers, and have enthusiastically worked with the Huggies-owned GoodNites brand for years.)
Those are just two examples. The rest of the book was similar, with my head ping-ponging all over the place – at times nodding along, at other times shaking slowly in outrage, and, yes, many times, cocked to one side in disagreement or disbelief.
But I don’t think the point of The Business of Baby is that we are supposed to sign on to every idea and ideal espoused in the book. Rather, it’s to get us thinking about the “way things are done,” to shine a light on how those practices become accepted, and to show us that there are other options.
When I asked Jennifer what her hopes were for people who read the book, she said she wanted to empower parents by presenting the usually-untold side of the story of pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy and the industries that benefit from parents and babies.
And she’ll be the first to say that she didn’t write the book to make parents feel guilty. She understands that we’re all parenting within a system that isn’t always friendly to us or our babies, and we deserve better.
Still, I can imagine it would be hard for many of us not to feel a twinge of guilt when we read about, say, the toxic ingredients in the hospital soap used for our newborn’s first bath.
And I suppose that’s the challenge to us, and our responsibility as readers. How do we read something that might call into question what we believe to be true, or have simply always done without question, without becoming paralyzed by defensiveness or guilt?
It’s easier said than done, and that’s why I’m holding back from telling you to run out and buy the book RIGHT NOW.
Don’t get me wrong, I think parents should read it. But I think they need to go in understanding what they’re going to encounter – and prepared to deal with it.
There’s a lot of science in The Business of Baby. The bibliography takes up a good 1/3 of the text, and the book is full of statistics, studies and research. And that’s part of the reason I had a difficult time with the book. I don’t feel qualified to look at the evidence raised, compare it against the evidence currently held up as common wisdom, and decide which is more correct. It’s not my background or my skill set. It’s not how I want to spend my time.
And sometimes, knowing so much just makes me feel helpless.
I don’t want us to feel like we have to be scientists in order to be good parents. There are so many statistics and studies, so many potential toxins and carcinogens and other pitfalls to worry about.
I don’t want moms and dads to walk around feeling we need to weigh and judge and analyze every decision, every product, every mouthful of food our children take with the knowledge and experience of a PhD scientist. I know that for myself, I tend to parent from my heart first, and my head second, and I also believe that’s OK.
I also believe that research and trying to do “the best” thing, taken to an extreme, can lead to an obsessive and stress-filled parenting style that is just as toxic, in its own happiness-killing way, as any preservative or pesticide could be.
But I also know that somebody needs to be doing the hard work of picking apart the information that’s out there and making sense of it. We need people to rattle the cages, ring those warning bells and ask tough questions. Their findings might not convince me to change my stance or parenting style, but the skeptics and the questioners make the world more honest and, ultimately, safer.
I think the key is to go into the book with the knowledge and understanding that there is no way to do everything right, or even, sometimes, to know what is right. Sometimes, in the face of conflicting information, you just have to cover your eyes, stab that tail on the donkey, and then get on with the business of living. You will put your faith and trust in people who know, or seem to know, better than you, because your child is sick or you need help or because you are just too tired or overwhelmed to question right now. And all of that, I think, is okay.
But it’s also okay, when you’re in a stronger place, to challenge what you think you know.
You may not like The Business of Baby.
But I don’t think it’s a book that wants to be “liked”. It’s a book that wants to be read and considered. And it definitely deserves that.
So if you’re up for a challenge, read it. Go in with your mind open and your heart guarded. Feel free to toss it aside for a while if it becomes too much. Promise yourself you won’t allow the information to cause you feelings of guilt or inadequacy. By all means, disagree with Jennifer Margulis if you want to! She’s used to it, and she handles it with grace.
Just have the open-mindedness, confidence and resolve to separate what speaks to you from what you disagree with or just don’t feel convicted enough about to get worked up over…and then move forward, maybe a little wiser and perhaps more discerning, but ultimately, knowing that all you can do as a parent is make the best decisions you can with the information, understanding, and resources you have available.
Knowing Jennifer Margulis, I think she would agree.
For a sneak peek at some of the surprising – and shocking! – discoveries Jennifer Margulis made while researching The Business of Baby, check out my Babble.com story!