Author Q&A: Alice Callahan, PhD
What was your inspiration for writing The Science of Mom?
There were really two stages of inspiration. The first stage was starting the blog, and the second was writing the book.
I started my blog, also called Science of Mom, when my first child was around 9 months old. I had devoted the last decade of my life to scientific research, but after my daughter was born, I decided not to go back to the lab, at least for the time being. I wanted to spend more time with her, and I’d always thought about trying to be some kind of writer.
The thing was, I couldn’t stop thinking about science. As a new mom, I had lots and lots of questions about how to best care for my baby, and as a scientist, I knew that science could help me answer them. I started digging into the research literature while my daughter napped. I started the blog in part as a place to put the neat things I was learning, but also because I was feeling isolated in new motherhood, having just left the workplace and moved to a new town.
Once I started blogging, I was thrilled to find a community of parents who were equally as curious as I was. They read my posts and commented to share their experiences and ask more questions. They made me realize that there were other parents who did not simply want to be told how to care for a baby without also understanding why. They weren’t interested in promoting one or the other philosophy or the parenting debates that invariably put someone else down. They – like me – were interested in how science could help us to better understand our babies and how to care for them. I knew that I could put my scientific training to good use by tackling some of these questions in book format, and I was excited to have to opportunity to grow my craft of writing through this project.
What was the most surprising aspect of your research?
I was surprised at how difficult it was to find neat and tidy answers to some of my questions, even after reading hundreds of studies. Is it safe to bedshare with my baby? When should I start offering her solid foods? What can I do to prevent food allergies? What are the benefits of breastfeeding, and how big are they? Questions like these are actually controversial among researchers, and the science is still evolving. The science is fascinating, and we can learn a lot from it, but it also has limitations. And really, it shouldn’t surprise us that there may not be one right or best way to care for a baby, given how different babies and parents can be.
There were other questions where the evidence is much stronger and more certain. For example, vaccinating your baby, getting the vitamin K shot, and laying her on her back for sleep – these are all clearly evidence-based choices. Seeing where the science is strong and where it is still uncertain can help parents be confident in some choices and feel comfortable following their gut for others.
How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?
While I was writing the book, my daughter was two and three years old, and parenting brought new challenges on a daily basis. This reminded me that we’re all learning as we go, and we’re bound to make some mistakes or do whatever we need to in order to get by sometimes. We’re almost always too hard on ourselves, and sometimes others, when we talk about parenting. That’s why I think compassion and empathy are essential ingredients to writing about it, and I wanted my book to show that, even while it was focused on science.
What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?
I hope that readers understand the big picture of how science works and how to find answers to their own questions as their children grow. Science can’t give us a tidy instruction manual for how to raise kids, but it can help us sort facts from fiction in parenting advice, especially when we’re looking for information online. It can help us to stay curious and open-minded, seeking knowledge and asking more questions, which is exactly the same attitude about life that I hope to pass on to my kids.
What was the toughest part of the writing process?
During the 18 months that I was writing this book, I had three miscarriages. The first was just a month after I signed the book contract, and the grief brought me to my knees. The next two grew my despair and made me want another baby even more. It was one of the toughest periods of motherhood for me. It was a struggle to show up at my desk every day to work on a book about babies when I wasn’t sure I would ever have another one. On the other hand, I was glad to throw myself into the work, and it was good that I had a major project to focus on. I know this experience also made me a more careful and compassionate narrator in the book. The fourth pregnancy stuck, and the book was due right at the end of the first trimester. I had to work through a little nausea and fatigue to finish the book, but the nice thing about a looming deadline is that it makes time go faster!
What books have had the greatest influence on you?
In the year or so before I started writing my book, I read several that showed me that science writing could be accessible and could help us be better parents. Among these were NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, and Coming to Term by Jon Cohen. Equally important for understanding parenting, I think, are books that make us question our assumptions and shine a light on the importance of cultural influences and individual experience. Books that did this for me were Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small, Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, and Bottled Up by Suzanne Barston.
How do you balance motherhood and writing?
Oh, this is a constant struggle for me. Writing this book was more work and took longer than I thought it would. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to meet my deadline if I just wrote in little increments of naptimes, and if I tried to work late at night, I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep. Making real time to write meant compromising time with my daughter more than I intended. But in a way, I think it was good for me to commit to writing the book and prioritize writing. It meant that my husband and daughter grew closer, and my daughter saw me working hard at something that was important to me.
Finding enough time to write has gotten harder since the birth of my son, now 8 months old, but I think I’m getting better at making space for it. The beauty is that, as an introvert, writing is also my best way to reenergize and restore myself. I don’t crave pedicures or shopping. My favorite “me time” is a couple of hours at a coffee shop to write. When I can find that balance, writing and motherhood are a perfect pair for me.
Read an excerpt form The Science of Mom.