“The Books Make You Feel Bad”: Expert Advice and Maternal Anxiety in the Early 21st Century

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Sociological Forum


With ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews of parenting classes serving middle- and upper-middle-class mothers, this paper explores how mothers engage and experience expert advice. Contemporary models of motherhood expect more than nurture and sacrifice; modern mothers must also be highly skilled and well informed. A wealth of information is available to help mothers navigate a high-pressure environment in which their actions are believed to have deep, long-lasting impact on children’s future health, happiness, and success. How do mothers engage with expert advice, what demands does it place on them, and what rewards might that generate? Our data include approximately 50 hours of observation, 10 formal, in-depth interviews, and multiple informal interviews with mostly white, highly educated, relatively affluent mothers. Interview narratives and fieldnotes were coded and analyzed with Dedoose. We show that mothers in our study experience a paradox of expertise, in which more knowledge often fails to produce more certainty. Parenting advice is complex, contingent, and sometimes contradictory, and the stakes in which mothers work to synthesize this information feel astoundingly high. The labor of gathering, synthesizing, and activating expertise is a unique and underexamined form of emotional and intellectual labor.


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