The following is a modified version of a talk that I gave at the Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin in March, 2018. (And a bit of a disclaimer: in this piece, I discuss my atheism, and that, as well as everything else contained in this piece, is solely a reflection of me, not of the women featured in the Science Moms documentary.)
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” And I guess in my case, if you want to make a film about evidence-based parenting, and maybe help form a community of like-minded parents in the process, you must first take a crash course in skeptical thinking. And I’ll get to that soon, but I felt like there was no better way to start than with a Sagan quote (so apologies if it’s all downhill from here).
I sat in the coffee shop the other day, thinking about how I’d approach this talk. My boyfriend knew what I was working on, and he sent me a text that simply said “write from the heart.” So I think that’s what this is going to be - my personal equivalent of what I try to get from anyone I interview. I did 75 episodes of The Science Enthusiast Podcast, and always asked our guests for their origin story - their atheist origin story, their skeptic origin story… whatever it was that brought them from Point A to the recording of our podcast. So now it’s my turn - this is my freethinker/atheist/skeptic/humanist/whatever origin story, which brought me from sitting in Stuart Vyse’s “Irrational Behavior” (which I fondly think of as Skepticism 101) class at Connecticut College to deciding to make a film (having never made a film before) and seeing it through to completion.
I feel like part of me writing and delivering this talk is to show that anyone could do this - have an idea, have a desire to contribute a new narrative, or add to an existing conversation. Because this is a personal narrative, there’s a lot of “I” statements, but this is so much more about the people who have contributed to the story.
I recently did an interview for my friend Chris Johnson’s “A Better Life” podcast, and in this conversation, Chris asked me about my experience growing up - if I was brought up religious, if I enjoyed science from an early age; you know, the kind of questions that would piece together part of who I am today, doing work in the scicomm and secular spheres. Looking back, I realize that my Italian-American Catholic-ish parents were raising me as a critical thinking humanist, probably without any of us realizing it. I mean, if I went to my parents right now and said “thanks for making me a humanist,” they might look at me like “um, ok” like they have so many times before… and then google “humanism” (like that time my mom adorably googled “skepticism” when I was headed to the QED conference in England a couple years ago). My mom is this no-nonsense, pro-vaccine nurse, and my dad is the kind of guy who brought my sister and I to volunteer at soup kitchens just because.
I’ve heard so many deconversion stories - stories that left people without their families, as outsiders in their communities, sometimes fearing for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. When I’m asked to tell my story, there’s not much to it: went Catholic school and Catholic church, received a bunch of sacraments, and then one day just stopped it all. Catholicism felt like part of our Italian-American culture - a tradition, like a significantly less fun version of our epic Christmas Eve meals (fact: homemade pasta > than transubstantiated Jesus). I never felt like my parents were indoctrinating me, and, looking back, I feel like they brought us to church because it was the “right” thing to do. And maybe they believed in it, and wanted us to believe. What matters to me is that it didn’t matter to them when I ultimately realized that I didn’t believe.
My mom and dad didn’t make me a Catholic. They gave me the space to realize that I’m an atheist. And, likely without trying, they made me a humanist. And in allowing me to question and explore the idea of belief, my parents contributed to my identity as a skeptic.
“Skeptic” and “skepticism” were words that entered my vernacular in the spring of 2004, when I took the final course for my psychology major. Full disclosure - I don’t know that I was particularly interested in the topic of “irrational behavior,” but I knew that I wanted to take yet another course with my best friend, Ross, taught by our favorite Andy Warhol look alike professor, Stuart Vyse. We’re clearly the accumulation of all of our life experiences, with people and moments constantly shaping us and our worldviews. You don’t always realize it when it’s happening, that *this* moment is one of the big moments. But taking that particular course was one of my moments. It’s where the seeds of critical thinking really began to take root and grow. (I’m sorry for the tree metaphors. I worked at a school called Lone Oak Montessori for years, and tree metaphors were kind of our jam.)
In my opinion, college is just the beginning, as far as learning is concerned. Even the class that shaped so much of who I am - I don’t think I realized the value until years after the fact. I’d been a high school overachiever, so when I got to college, I undoubtedly learned a ton, but also savored every moment doing my college radio show, seeing bands at the small club 5 minutes from the school, and binge-watching horror movies and everything by John Waters. After grad school, I finally had more time to read for pleasure, and to explore interests beyond that which directly contributed to me getting a job and working. I read Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, God Is Not Great by Hitchens, and Flim Flam by (the amazing) James Randi.
And then there was Carl Sagan. I was a self-identified atheist since very early in college (though I wouldn’t say that I was ever a “true believer”), but it was Carl Sagan and the beauty of his words - you know, that mix of science and awe - that crystallized for me the fact that the world is amazing as it is, without the need for fairy tales to explain the wonder of nature or to govern our lives. “The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” So, this one life, this brief time on this pale blue dot, is all we have, so we better do all we can to make it count.
While I was falling in love with Sagan, I was also working in what ended up being a decade-long career in the field of Montessori education. I love Montessori as a model of education for the way that it effortlessly encourages the inquisitive nature of children. Go into a Montessori classroom, and you’ll see these young children experiencing the wonder associated with discovering something new every day. As a teacher, I spent a solid amount of my time directly teaching the students, but perhaps even more time helping them find answers to their questions about, well, everything. The Montessori philosophy often refers to teachers as “guides,” because that’s really what we’re doing - guiding children as they ask, answer, discover (and repeat). There’s a fearlessness in children, a sort of courage to be who they are, to ask questions, to explore the world around them.
I’d see this energy, positivity, fearlessness in my young students. And then I’d see the fear in their parents. On a recent Parenthetical Science Podcast recording, my co-host Chad said that right now feels like the safest time to be a child and the scariest time to be a parent. Dan Gardner covered this whole idea extensively in his book Risk: The Science of Fear - “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.” And yet, one day I found myself sitting across from a mom who told me, in all seriousness, that she hoped we didn’t serve Goldfish crackers at the school because “we have a Goldfish free household.” (I personally don’t even have a Goldfish-free car floor, but that’s just me.) It’s funny, in a way, because it felt (and feels) absurd to hear someone say something like “Goldfish-free household.” At this point, I was a mom myself, and I wondered, hearing not just this moment of concern over a fish-shaped cracker but hearing the other bits and pieces of worry that we directed towards me or around me, if maybe there was something I was missing. Was I not worrying enough? Was I not momming hard enough?
I couldn’t really empathize with that mom, but I could sympathize, because she was scared. Of something. (And was I maybe scared of not being scared enough?) Anyways, fear is out there. Fear sells. And companies and organizations know how to wrap up the fear in adorable packages and use buzzwords to capture parents’ hearts (and capitalize on parents’ innate desire to do all we can to ensure the health and well-being of our children). Natural, organic, chemical-free, holistic, non-GMO… Being a science-minded parent sometimes involves feeling like you’re adrift in a sea of woo.
I said earlier that I feel lucky to have the parents that I have. I always knew it, but realized it even more once my little dudes entered the world. I attended childbirth and breastfeeding classes before Milo was born, and remember thinking “I need to have a natural childbirth, and I need to exclusively breastfeed.” Because reasons. And I remember my mom reminding me that I was born via c-section, and that I was formula-fed, and that I turned out pretty alright (right?)… and that the most important part of all of this is that Milo and I ended up healthy and thriving. There are so many expectations placed upon women when they become mothers, as if there’s a “right” way to do things. I’ll spare you my ramblings on all these subjects, because I don’t think we’d have time to dissect the issues surrounding motherhood, guilt, and shame, but I’ll say once again that I was lucky to have the support of people who reminded me that “fed is best,” that my well-being mattered, and that parenting sometimes just kinda sucks.
Parenting in the early days involves the basic yet extremely complex act of keeping a tiny human alive. Eating, sleeping - it’s their world, and we just kind of have to work within what their needs are. You find ways to pass the time (and keep yourself awake) during those 2am feedings. (Thank you, iPhone.) By the time Zeke was born, I’d bailed on Facebook (because, full disclosure, I found myself irritated by a newsfeed almost exclusively full of humblebrags and baby photos posted by people with whom I had no real life connection anymore), but I used Twitter to follow some blogs, interesting people… (it was my news source, and in those days it was Trump-free).
I was never a fan of mommy blogs, but there was one parenting site that resonated with me from the first time I stumbled upon it. Grounded Parents. The name got me right away (ok, and the fact that it was part of the Skepchick network, and I was already an observer, if not active participant, of the skeptic community). I started reading this blog during mine and Zeke’s nighttime feeding sessions, and I felt that “hey, there are other people, other parents, who think like me” feeling. Which is a feeling sometimes you just need.
I was still working at the school during this time, and once parents knew that I had two little ones of my own, they’d never shy away from giving me advice. There was the time when one of the dudes was really young, and crying (as babies do), and a mom told me that I should take him to a chiropractor. For real. And being the school director, I couldn’t say some version of “wtf.” I also couldn’t “wtf” the mom who told me to consider delaying vaccines or not vaccinating. Because autism. This was real life, but at least I knew that science-minded parents existed somewhere… on the internet, at least.
When I sat in that Skepticism 101 class back in college, I didn’t know that it would bring me down the skeptical rabbit hole that changed my life. But when I sat with Zeke at one of our 2am feedings, and I came across the “Moms 4 GMOs” letter on Grounded Parents, I think that was an almost literal “Eureka!” moment for me. For me, it was a moment of feeling like I found some people who got it - who articulated the way I felt when I saw Gwyneth Paltrow speak in DC about GMOs. (Or the way I felt when I heard parents talking about whatever pseudoscience they were buying into at the moment.) These “Moms 4 GMOs” wrote a powerful letter, coming at the issue of biotechnology as moms, of course, but also as scientists and science communicators.
Reading this letter made me pause. Why wasn’t this a bigger, more visible, part of the available parenting narrative? And was there a way that I could help make it so? Was there a way to marry the facts with the feelings - convey the ideas through the stories from these articulate, amazing women? Because I’m not a scientist - I wanted to share this message, but I wanted the message to come from reputable sources. I’m not Gwyneth - I don’t want to get up there and just appeal to my own mom-ness… and then go tell people to shove rocks in their vaginas. Instead, I wanted to make an anti-”Vaxxed”, highlighting critical thinking, and using science and evidence to alleviate the fear that comes with raising tiny humans.
So I made a movie. It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I had an idea, and I was fortunate enough to have people in my life who knew what they were doing, and could advise me along the way. (Huge shoutout to Milo and Zeke’s dad, Brian, who expertly edited the film, and really brought this idea to life in post-production.) The journey from inception to completion of the film was a life-changing one, and I say that without even an ounce of hyperbole. Science Moms changed my life.
Like I’ve already said, when I started writing, I didn’t know what this talk was going to be about. My boyfriend asked me if I was going to talk about the actual filmmaking process. (Contrary to what some adorable trolls on Twitter think, I wasn’t funded by Monsanto, and the process of Science Moms probably couldn’t be much more “grassroots” than it was.) But I don’t know that the filmmaking process is what matters here. What matters, and what I want to convey, is how worth it it is to take a leap, to trust in your own ideas, and to surround yourself with people who believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.
For me, it was this desire to contribute to the parenting narrative, to platform women whose voices, I felt then and feel now more than ever, need to be heard. Beyond that, it was a desire to see if perhaps there was a community that could be formed from all this - perhaps there were people outside our friends and families who’d find something in what we were trying to say. I was taken aback at how willing Alison, Kavin, Anastasia, Layla, and Jenny were to trust in this vision that I, some random person from the internet, had (though, I did, in my initial pitch, let them know that the film would be professionally shot by legit directors of photography and edited by someone who’s employed by National Geographic).
Something that the process of making Science Moms showed me is that the world is really filled with incredible humans. Seriously, the world is so far from what it sometimes looks like in Facebook comments sections (and I know, maybe I sound overly optimistic for someone who runs several nihilist meme pages). The love and support the Science Moms and I have received from various communities - skeptics, ag folks, scicommers, atheists, humanists - shows that ideas can bridge tribes of people, that there’s hope for us if we can connect through our commonalities.
My hope for this film, and for the new skeptical parenting podcast I’m doing, is that we can help make parents worry less, feel less alone, feel like there are people out there who get them… and hey, in the process, maybe we sow the seeds of critical thinking. Whether it’s Science Moms, secular activism, science communication, I don’t necessarily think it’s about changing minds right in the moment - it’s about starting conversations, starting someone down a path of maybe having the courage to challenge their own deeply held beliefs.
My hope for anyone reading this is that if you have a passion, an idea, a goal that you want to achieve, whether it’s in the space of secular activism or anywhere else, is that you make it happen. But always remember that you’re not in it alone, whatever “it” is. I had a moment when I almost bailed on my nerdy passions - the podcast, the film. But I didn’t. Because somehow I’ve managed to surround myself with people who were basically like, “get it together, Newell” in the most loving way possible. And I’ll say it again - I’ve been so fortunate to have amazing, supportive people in my orbit. (And if you find yourself with an idea, and without someone to cheer you on in the process, send me an email. Seriously.)
I’ve rambled long enough, so I’ll bring things to a close with a quote from Tom Robbins, the author I love so much that I decided to have part of the cover of one of his books tattooed on my arm. Because this is one of those quotes that I read from time to time, to serve as a reminder of how much we’re capable of, and how rad the world is and can be:
“Our lives are not as limited as we think they are; the world is a wonderfully weird place; consensual reality is significantly flawed; no institution can be trusted, but love does work; all things are possible, and we could all be happy and fulfilled if only we had the guts to be truly free and the wisdom to shrink our egos and quit taking ourselves so damn seriously.”
Oh, and John Waters also said, “Go out into the world, and fuck it up beautifully,” so that works, too.