One of the job hazards of science writing is that our work gives us plenty to fret about. Whether about climate change, the rise of antibiotic resistance or the mysterious die-off of moose, the news releases we read and the research we cover provide a steady stream of new evidence affirming that we should, indeed, be very worried.
This problem gets markedly worse, I think, when kids come into the picture. Pregnant science writers can weigh the latest on drinking during pregnancy or recall research suggesting that kids born in fall months have more food allergies. Then they can dig into the question of whether epidurals are great or awful and what the benefits of breastfeeding really are. All this before the baby is even born.
Not long before my twins arrived, I wrote a story about lead exposure in children. Researchers I spoke with told me that there were measurable effects on kids with blood lead levels as low as 2 micrograms per milliliter, far below the 10 micrograms per milliliter standard at which doctors would typically get concerned. So I had my old house tested, I vacuumed the rug near the entry neurotically, and I pretty much kept my kids from playing in the back yard before they could walk. I asked for an extra blood lead check when my kids were two, instead of just the standard test at the one-year checkup. I scoffed (possibly out loud) when a painting contractor told me kids needed to eat visible paint chips to have any problems with lead.
After the kids were born, I wrote about flame retardants, and new (at the time) evidence showing that a flame retardant that had been phased out of kids’ pajamas in the 1970s as a probable carcinogen was being used in foam in baby products. I was crushed to learn from my reporting that my breastfeeding pillow, on which my infant twins slept long and deeply, was packed with flame retardants, as were any number of other household and baby items. I called manufacturers of a few products, trying to figure out what was in what; I scrutinized pajama tags; and I pulled up the wall-to-wall carpet in the kids’ room, removing the offending foam carpet pad.
Thanks to my job, I now saw my backyard as a toxic waste site and my couch as a hunk of endocrine disruption. I’m not alone. Other science writers (and many other parents, too, of course) have taken up the banner of flame-retardant avoidance and purged plastics and canned food from their homes for fear of BPA. And then there are illnesses: “Sometimes when I’m researching stories, I find myself cringing, hoping, praying, knocking on wood that my child never comes down with X,Y or Z,” says Kendall Powell (bio), who often writes about health.
Others have brought their own scientific knowledge to bear in the parenting realm. “I did my dissertation on implicit stereotyping and prejudice, and the insidiousness of bias in our society has always been something we’ve wanted to try to counter in our parenting,” says Siri Carpenter, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology before becoming a science writer. “Of course, by now my kids are tired of hearing about it — if I make any reference to the stereotypical nature of how some fictional TV character is portrayed, they’re like, “We know, mom…more stereotyping…”
The flip side of the neurosis our work can cause is that worries can be a fantastic source of story ideas—stories that resonate with reader-parents who have the same questions. And it’s great to get paid to call top experts for thoughtful, evidence-based advice about things that keep you up at night . Kendall has several examples:
My screed about epidurals not interfering with breastfeeding turned into this.
Wondering about co-sleeping and the ever-changing-bumper-regulations led to “SIDS and bed-sharing” for the Washington Post.
Suffering from morning sickness twice and the super huge lack of any treatments beget “The science of nausea and vomiting.”
My editors’ discussion of why their kids won’t wear their winter coats became “Does your kid need a winter coat?“
Obsessing about the multiplying devices in my house at the very least produced “Enforcing screen time guidelines“
My endless puzzling over how I got pregnant not once but twice on the pill led to this.
My concerns over some possible attention issues with my son turned into this.
My angst over the landlord’s plans to have the lawns at our rental home treated with weedkiller resulted in this.
Frustration over friends who buy into anti-vaccine propaganda led to this piece.
Science writers’ easy access to evidence-based parenting advice is helpful and crazy-making. And it can only go so far. It’s impossible not to bend the guidelines sometimes. And, as Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote when she was pregnant, there’s a difference between knowing the risks of something as determined by research, and making a decision for your family with those risks in mind. Another science writer-mom (who wanted to be anonymous for this post) says, “I think that parenting and pregnancy made me acutely aware of the questions that science cannot answer. If there is data out there on whatever issue, I’m all for learning about it. But what if my kid is not in the majority on that particular issue? I find it is more useful for me to pay attention to my kids, and how my actions affect my kids, rather than reading a study about it and second guessing my own direct experience. In a sense, that’s like me doing a micro study: paying close attention to cause and effect with my own kids in their own setting (n=1 or 2, but those are the only n’s that matter with respect to my parenting), and adjusting my strategies based on what I learn from them.”
Did a parental obsession turn into a story for you or vice versa? Please share below. We parents would love to know what we should be worrying about.
Photo credit: Jessica Marshall