Mothering in the era of big data

“(S)He who sweats more in training bleeds less in battle.” – George S. Patton Jr.

Motherhood, often depicted as a time of boundless joy and fulfillment, comes with its share of unseen challenges and sacrifices. From the very start, expectant mothers have to navigate a sea of uncertainties around ‘what to expect when you’re expecting’. The emotional investment required to sustain daily routines, coupled with the need for a robust support system to ensure the safety and well-being of both mother and baby, adds layers of complexity to this journey. These challenges are not isolated to motherhood alone; women everywhere encounter obstacles that can feel overwhelming without the right tools and knowledge. Whether it’s understanding fertility options, managing health, or balancing career and family, the ability to interpret and analyze data can be a game changer in empowering women to feel good about the choices they make about their lives and for their families. I believe that empowering women with data skills equips them to make informed decisions, reduce costly mistakes and advocate for their own needs with confidence.

One way data is helping provide mother’s new insights  on their and their baby’s health is with wearable devices, and using the data provided to provide predictable patterns of understanding and anticipating changes in baby sleep, feed, growth and more that can help reduce the anxiety of mothering. Ultimately, this has resulted in  reduced uncertainty that helps to optimize outcomes, transforming their journey into one of informed decision-making and empowerment. This knowledge not only helps mothers navigate the immediate challenges of motherhood but also lays a foundation for long term well being and success in their lives.

How data eased my journey into motherhood

When my eldest daughter was born in April 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, I was immediately overwhelmed by information on what to do as a first time mom. Most difficult was not only the quantity of information available, but also that much of it was conflicting.  Should a baby bathe in the first 48 hours after birth or not? Should I bottle feed or breastfeed? Should I start sleep training immediately or go with the flow? Should I use baby wipes or cotton? Is my baby growing normally within the right percentile group  or are all babies different? The information economy meeting the old wives tales was such an unexpected challenge, even for myself, a data professional! 

But as a data enthusiast, I decided to dive head first into using data to guide my journey and decisions and documented my eldest daughter’s first year, and I discovered the transformative impact of data on my approach to motherhood. Following her birth, I recorded every step of her journey as well as the physical, and mental transformations I underwent. Inspired by the books ‘The Human Face of Big Data’ and ‘Expecting Better’, I began tracking her activities using a baby tracking app. This data and digital tool enabled me to meticulously track her feeding, sleeping routines, diaper changes, and developmental milestones. My dedication stemmed from a thirst for knowledge and a deep curiosity about the nuances and intricacies of data and early childhood growth and development.

Photo credit: First 9 months: The Breakdown by Vin Agan via Tableau Public. An example of what tracking looks like. 

As her first year progressed, the data displayed and provided by the platform became an invaluable resource, guiding me through the challenges of early and first-time parenthood at the height of COVID-19. By identifying patterns in her sleep schedule and tracking her developmental milestones, I felt empowered to make informed decisions. Data has eased some of the uncertainties that often accompany motherhood and nurturing a newborn. Experiencing this made me realize that this empowerment extends beyond my journey — it lays the foundation for a more informed and confident approach to motherhood for future generations.

The data of becoming a mother 

Amidst my data-driven journey in motherhood, I cannot overlook the broader societal trends shaping our collective future. Globally, falling birthrates present a significant challenge with far-reaching consequences for the future workforce and societal progression. According to the Lancet, “The global Total Fertility Rate has more than halved over the past 70 years, from around five children for each female in 1950 to 2.2 children in 2021—with over half of all countries and territories (110 of 204) below the population replacement level of 2.1 births per female as of 2021.” Looking at some countries with an inverted population pyramid, it is clear that the future of work will be significantly affected by the declining numbers in the workforce.

In Kenya where I live, where traditional gender roles often dictate caregiving responsibilities, the burden falls disproportionately on mothers. Data may provide one explanation as to why birth rates are falling. According to recent statistics, Kenyan mothers spend more time on unpaid household care work, underscoring the need for greater support and recognition of their contributions. Another reason why women may not want to participate in childbearing include the obscurity and loneliness that come with navigating motherhood, one reason for this is a lack of precise data about the process and outcomes. “I would not know what to do,” a friend told me, “no one’s written a guide about the step-by-step way of doing it!” Of course many books and guides exist on how to do ‘mothering’, and in fact there is an overload making it hard to know which book or which example to follow. In addition there is a significant gap in the presentation of data in a way that is personalized and relevant to the vastly different circumstances and environments that individual mothers find themselves in. For example, how might a woman’s height impact her ability to hold her child or what if she lives in an area that does not have close access to prenatal support or healthcare? Each woman is different and the value of data truly shines when it is useful and relevant to its consumers. 

Even before becoming pregnant, navigating fertility choices and challenges is an incredibly complex topic. Becoming a mother is deeply personal, and every individual has the right to choose whether or not to embark on this journey. However, for those who aspire to become mothers, it’s essential to consider the timing carefully. Many women today are facing fertility challenges, and the landscape of decisions required in the journey to pregnancy can be daunting. 

As women delay childbearing for various reasons—career advancement, financial stability, or simply not finding the right partner—the journey to motherhood becomes increasingly complex. One solution that has gained prominence is in vitro fertilization (IVF). While IVF has offered hope to countless couples struggling with infertility, it’s essential to acknowledge the significant costs, both financial and emotional, associated with this procedure. The reality is that IVF is not a guaranteed path to motherhood, and the process can take a toll on individuals and their relationships..

In Kenya and beyond, access to affordable and effective fertility care remains a pressing issue. Many women are left grappling with the emotional and financial burden of fertility treatments. But data skills can help navigate these difficult decisions. Empowering women with the ability to interpret and analyze data enables them to make informed choices about their fertility and overall health. Data literacy allows women to understand success rates, evaluate financial implications, and anticipate emotional impacts, ultimately leading to more strategic and empowered decisions about family planning. Fostering data skills can help women navigate the complexities of fertility and motherhood with greater confidence and control.

Building data confidence to support motherhood 

Amidst these challenges, the democratization of data skills emerges as a critical solution. As the Data Values manifesto outlines, empowering all people, but especially women, with the skills to interrogate data is not just a solution to our economy’s demand for skilled workers, but a pathway to greater equality and empowerment of society overall. I saw this in my journey with the baby tracking app and using data to understand and make decisions that addressed my needs and priorities. 

With enhanced data skills within the community, women are now able to confidently advocate more effectively for themselves when it comes to their health and well being, make better decisions as well as strengthen resilience knowing that they have tools and information that can help them manage challenges and reduce uncertainties.

As a result, equipping mothers and those wondering about motherhood with the tools to navigate the complexities of data enables them to make more informed decisions, ultimately reducing costly mistakes and fostering a more equitable future for all.

This morning, as I finished working on this piece, I watched my daughters, 4 and 2 go through an online class, both looking very optimistic about life, and I thinking, ‘what a ride you’ve got ahead of you, little stars!’ 

Hope everyone had a great Mother’s Day this year! 

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