Bad Moms and Bad Science: Judgment, Shame, and Uncertainty in the Era of Fear-Based Parenting

It was with some trepidation that I went to see Bad Moms, an R-rated comedy from the (male) writers behind the Hangover movies, starring Mila Kunis as an exhausted working mom of Bad Momstweens and, oddly, Kristen Bell as the frumpy one. Amy (Kunis) is besieged by the demands of upper middle-class suburban parenting, from three-hour emergency PTA meetings to absurd bake sale restrictions (no butter, no sugar, no salt, no wheat, no milk, no eggs, etc.). After a particularly trying day, Amy reaches her breaking point and exclaims, “it’s impossible to be a good mom in this day and age. Screw it…let’s be bad moms!” She then leads a cohort of other moms in rebelling against the self-appointed arbiters of ‘good’ motherhood. The overall effect was more Mean Girls at 40 than The Hangover, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. On a Wednesday evening, the theater in my suburb was filled to near capacity with large groups of women (presumably mothers), erupting in laughter and applause whenever one of the ‘bad mom’ heroines scored a victory against the mean moms or an unappreciative husband. Despite its lack of complexity, I think it’s safe to say this film hit a nerve with its target audience.

The same day Bad Moms premiered in theaters (July 29), the less-publicized film Tallulah debuted on Netflix, offering a somewhat different perspective on the theme of guilt and judgment in the realm of motherhood. Whereas the ‘bad moms’ in Bad Moms are, at their core, good moms who just need to blow off some steam, Tallulah paints a much bleaker picture. The film focuses on Lu (Ellen Page), a drifter who was abandoned by her own mother at an early age. When she encounters Carolyn, a wealthy, depressed, and possibly alcoholic mother whom she perceives as neglectful and undeserving, Lu kidnaps Carolyn’s toddler and attempts to pass the child off as her own. Writer-director Sian Heder has admitted the film was inspired by her own experience as a mom-shamer; in her initial conceptualization, Lu was the clear heroine and Carolyn the obvious villain. However, after becoming a mother herself, Heder discovered that in parenting, the line between good and bad, right and wrong, having it all and barely holding it together, is not always well-defined.

Good Moms, Bad Moms, Natural Moms, Science Moms

Both Bad Moms and Tallulah illustrate the ways in which internalized expectations of perfection—perpetuated by unrealistic media images of parenthood and highly curated social media profiles—can cause women to demonize themselves and others. Moreover, these films tackle the thorny question of how we (as individuals and as a collective) enforce the boundaries of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ motherhood. This question is one I’ve long been fascinated by, and have taken an academic interest in since college at least. My senior year, I wrote a capstone paper about how the lack of affordable, high-quality childcare prevents low-income women from breaking out of poverty. In grad school, I conducted research on how perceptions of mothers and fathers vary depending on how closely they adhere to gender stereotypes, and coordinated a symposium on the intersection of work and family. But the issue has resonated with me on a more personal level since becoming a mother two years ago.

In the fog of hormones, sleep deprivation, and existential uncertainty that comes with pregnancy and early parenthood, I made some decisions of which I am now embarrassed. On the recommendation of an over-zealous yoga instructor, I signed up for a questionable childbirth class where I’m fairly sure we watched this exact video. I fell prey to some pseudoscientific propaganda, even going as far as writing a birth plan that included things like declining the standard vitamin K shot (though I ultimately backed down). After just a few weeks of parenthood, however, I realized I was not the natural, crunchy, earth-goddess mother I thought I would be. My approach to parenting, as it turns out, is much more ‘whatever works and gets us through the day alive, intact, and not completely emotionally drained.’ It hasn’t always been easy, however, to live out this pragmatic approach or find other like-minded moms. While the mommy wars are largely a fiction propagated by those who stand to benefit from manufactured conflict, I’ve found the judgment and guilt around parenting styles and choices to be all too real.

Only recently, I stumbled upon what might be described as the science-based or skeptical childbirth and parenting community, a loose consortium of blogs, websites, and social media pages promoting an evidence-based approach to parenting issues. These include Science Moms, Grounded Parents, Mommy PhD, The Skeptical OB, and many others. It was through this community that I became more acutely aware of what is often referred to as woo, and what I call fear-based parenting, characterized by fervent adherence to over-hyped pseudoscientific claims, typically regarding ‘natural’ or ‘alternative’ practices. Some may find the term ‘fear-based’ to be hyperbolic, but I use it because this movement (wittingly or unwittingly) preys upon the anxieties, guilt, and uncertainty of parents in search of definitive answers. Answers, which, I’ve come to learn, often do not exist—at least not as definitively as we would like. Combine this uncertainty with widespread distrust in scientific authority, fueled by news media that frequently misinterpret and sensationalize research findings, and it’s no wonder we are occasionally persuaded by those who appear to have all the answers.

No One Right Way

I know this is a sensitive topic, one that raises hackles all around. As a health communication researcher, I place my confidence in modern medicine and the scientific process. As a parent, however, I am simply trying to navigate all of the conflicting messages and figure out—often through trial and error—what works best for my child and my family. To paraphrase Amy in Bad Moms, you don’t really know if you’re doing the parenting thing right until your kids are grown. I recognize that there is a large diversity of opinion around child-rearing, and in most cases I respect parents’ ability to evaluate the tradeoffs of different choices and determine what is best for themselves and their children, even if it’s not backed up by scientific evidence. After all, what’s best for my child is not necessarily ideal for another family.

Many of the practices I go on to describe under the moniker of fear-based parenting overlap with those espoused by the ‘natural’ or ‘attachment’ parenting communities, but I am not inclined to label all natural parents as operating from a position of fear. To the extent that these practices are not hurting anyone (which applies to most but not all), I am not making any judgments about their validity.  If you choose to have an un-medicated birth, use cloth diapers, and make your own baby food from produce grown in your organic garden, that’s great! However, the choice to request an epidural as soon as possible, sleep train, or feed your baby conventionally-grown pureed pears from a jar is equally valid.

When I refer to fear-based parenting, I am referring primarily to those who choose not to vaccinate their kids, exposing others to dangerous (and sometimes fatal) diseases, forego needed medical treatment for their child in favor of unregulated homeopathic remedies, or preach broad distrust in the medical establishment. In addition, I am referring to those who do not buy in to these extreme variants, but nonetheless guilt and shame parents who make different choices (whether by actual choice or by necessity) with judgment-laced statements like ‘I could never send my baby to daycare’ or breast is best.

In this continuing series, I will delve more deeply into the fear-based parenting movement, the factors that contribute to its appeal (from uncertainty and information overload to media representations of parenthood to science reporting), and how science communicators can most effectively counter its messages.


Note: The opinions and interpretations discussed in this blog series are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Norman Lear Center, its programs, or its funders.



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