In the introduction to her 2013 book Expecting Better, Emily Oster likens the experience of being pregnant to being a child.
“Pregnancy medical care seemed to be one long list of rules,” Oster writes, recalling her experiences of near constant judgment from friends, family and doctors over everything from what she drank or ate to how much weight she gained. “There was always someone telling you what to do.”
Almost a decade later, Oster, now a mother of two, recalls how a then-colleague at the University of Chicago once chastised her for ordering a Diet Coke with ice. “I was like, give me a break. I don’t need this right now,” she says with a laugh. “And I built a whole career on that.”
I am having lunch with the latest in a long line of chart-topping parenting experts, from paediatrician Benjamin Spock — whose 1946 manual The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was among the bestselling books of the 20th century — to more contemporary figures such as Heidi Murkoff, author of the What to Expect When You’re Expecting series, and “tiger mother” Amy Chua.
Oster is an “unapologetically data-driven” economist who says her goal is to use number-crunching to “create a world of more relaxed pregnant women and parents”. She argues that microeconomics can provide parents with a guide to make decisions on questions ranging from whether it is safe for a pregnant woman to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, to how much time children should spend in front of screens. Her conclusions are often more laissez-faire than doctrinaire, rejecting conventional wisdom and, in some cases, official medical advice.
As a soon-to-be parent, I am brimming with questions. But with my due date for my first child only a month off, Oster and I are short on time.
We are sitting at the Salted Slate, a bright, casual restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, a stone’s throw from Brown University, where Oster is an economics professor. Oster hardly glances at the menu before selecting the Caesar salad — shredded romaine, radicchio, creamy dressing, focaccia crisps and parmesan — with salmon, “light on the dressing”. I follow her lead, selecting a chopped salad with tomatoes, hearts of palm, garbanzo beans, feta, avocado and hard-boiled egg. She declines a drink; I order an iced tea with lemon.
In addition to writing bestselling books and fulfilling her academic responsibilities, Oster has a biweekly newsletter on Substack with more than 100,000 subscribers. She speaks at an extraordinary clip. When I ask her to describe what she does for a living, she says that until recently she would have called herself an economics professor.
“If I was introducing myself at the faculty meeting, I would not be like, by the way, I also have this great newsletter on Substack,” she says. “But you know, in many other settings, that turns out to be the thing people care about.”
She launched her online newsletter, ParentData, in February 2020, as an offshoot of her books. The first post focused on reassuring pregnant women about the extremely low risk of contracting the Zika virus, an illness that could lead to birth defects in unborn children and was epidemic in the Americas in 2015 and 2016 but is now virtually unheard of in the west. But the newsletter’s thrust shifted with the onset of Covid-19, following a barrage of questions from readers about the dangers of everything from sending children to nurseries to allowing them to see their older grandparents.
We are meeting at a time when the White House is insisting that Covid “no longer needs to control our lives” — but before a recent decision by US regulators to approve Covid vaccines for children under the age of five. Oster broadly agrees that America is at an inflection point, but acknowledges that for many of her loyal readers, moving forward may be easier said than done.
“Almost every week, there is a question that is: how risky is it to fly with my five-month-old? And people want an answer like ‘one in 3,427’,” she says, referring to a weekly question-and-answer session that she hosts for her more than 140,000 Instagram followers.
“People are looking for: is it over? . . . When is it going to be done?” she adds. “It is not going to be over in the way that you mean, in the sense that you can eliminate this risk . . . But I think that is what people are looking for.”
The Salted Slate
186 Wayland Ave, Providence, RI 02906
Caesar salad $9
with salmon $7
Chopped salad $12
Iced tea $3
French press coffee $4
Total (inc tax) $41.04
For her part, Oster says she has a “regular life” in Providence, where she and her husband, Harvard economist and MacArthur Fellow Jesse Shapiro, live with their two children. Academia is a world she has been immersed in since birth. The daughter of two Yale University economists, she grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. Her mother, Sharon Oster, was the first female dean of the Yale School of Management, while her father, Ray Fair, became famous in the 1970s for the accuracy of his model for forecasting presidential elections.
She first appeared in an academic publication as a toddler — not as an author, but as the main subject of the case study Narratives from the Crib, a series of psychology essays analysing the then two-year-old Emily’s bedtime conversations with her parents and babbling to herself. As an adult, Oster wrote a foreword to an updated edition of the volume.
She recalls enrolling at Harvard with ambitions of being a biological researcher, but changed course after a part-time job in a fruit fly lab where she developed a repetitive strain injury from dissecting larval brains. She found a second research role with a public policy professor. “By the end of the summer, I was like, economics is for me,” she says.
“I have not been very intentional about field choice,” she says, adding that she would not advise younger colleagues to chart a similar course. “By the time I came up for tenure at my first job, half of my work was in development economics and half of my work was in health economics. That is a hard CV,” she says. I ask if she thinks that was why she was denied tenure at the University of Chicago. “I think that was a part of it,” she says. “I think there were a lot of other things.”
When pressed, it becomes clear Oster believes the publication of Expecting Better — which has been described as a cross between Freakonomics and What To Expect When You’re Expecting — derailed her academic ambitions. The book has gained a cult following among highly educated women, mostly in their thirties and forties, as they navigate the road to motherhood.
Oster admits that when she first pitched the book to publishers, she described her “core audience” as “mums with a college degree who live in [Brooklyn’s affluent] Park Slope” — and while her readership has broadened over time, the demographics of her most loyal readers have largely remained the same.
But as so often happens in academia when a lecturer writes a bestseller, Oster says her colleagues were not so enthusiastic. “When you are a junior faculty member in an academic department, your job is to write papers that are published in journals about economics. Writing a book about your pregnancy journey, even one and maybe especially one that . . . uses my expertise in my job in service of my pregnancy, that is really weird,” she says.
I ask if she thinks sexism was at play in the scepticism. Oster raises an eyebrow. “I think it would be difficult to describe our industry as female-dominated,” she says, adding: “If I had written [the book], but it was about sports, would that be different? Maybe.”
Does she regret writing the book in the first place? She pauses. “No. But I think until about two years ago I would have said yes,” she says. “Just thinking about the impact that the book has had on people who like it, and the impact that [her second book] Cribsheet had . . . I think of those things as really valuable, and I think relative to the contribution I would have made to the world in writing papers, this is bigger.”
Expecting Better has for nearly a decade successively sold more copies each year than the year prior. Oster notes about seven times as many copies were sold last year as in the book’s first year in circulation. “I didn’t sell that many in the first year . . . but it’s definitely a big delta,” she says with a laugh. “I believe in comparative advantage. I think this is my comparative advantage.”
A smiling waiter clears our near-empty plates, and asks if we would like anything else. Oster orders a coffee with milk; I get a cup of peppermint tea. Our conversation turns to what it is like to move from the hallways of the ivory tower to the rough and tumble of the public square.
Oster may have legions of devoted fans, but she also has her detractors. They take issue with everything from her views on pregnancy and child-rearing to her positions on the pandemic, which have attracted the ire of teachers’ unions, epidemiologists and even some fellow economists.
During the pandemic, Oster emerged as one of America’s most vocal advocates for school reopenings and looser restrictions for children, particularly as many US classrooms remained closed even as restaurants and bars reopened, and children in the UK and Europe resumed in-person learning.
She penned several articles in national publications under splashy headlines like “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever” and “Schools Aren’t Super Spreaders”, which divided opinion as Americans grew increasingly polarised over Covid. She later launched the Covid-19 School Data Hub, a database of information about school reopenings, Covid cases and mask-wearing in classrooms across the country.
On social media, the attacks have often turned personal, with critics saying she is ill-suited to weigh in on state-schooling when her children attend private school. Others say her data set is incomplete, or question whether she has conflicts of interest because her schools project has accepted funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan and the Mercatus Center, a think-tank backed by the Koch brothers.
Not long before our lunch, Oster stopped using Twitter, which she describes as “very, very toxic”, adding: “It became very hard actually, for me, even as somebody with a fairly thick skin, whose skin has gotten quite a lot thicker in the last couple of years.”
When I ask how it feels to be admired and reviled in equal measure, Oster describes it as an “unusual feeling that one is unprepared for by being an academic, where the best you can do is: people really like your paper, or they don’t like your paper . . . It is just weird to have people think either of those things about you, to really like you or to really not like you.”
Oster had several brushes with controversy earlier in her career, including a public backlash to her conclusion that a glass of wine a day during pregnancy would have little impact on a child’s development — something she now attributes to what she describes as Americans’ “complicated” relationship with alcohol — as well as her suggestions that breastfeeding does not carry as many health benefits as common wisdom and official guidance would suggest. The US Centers for Disease Control says “no amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe during pregnancy,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding” for the first six months of a baby’s life.
But she says she was nevertheless unprepared for the level of vitriol directed her way during the pandemic. “I had not put together just how resistant people were going to be,” she says, adding: “Still for me, the most unpleasant are the kind of ‘you’re an economist’ critiques, which is a set of critiques that I have experienced . . . my whole career.
“There was no engagement with the data,” she says. “Just: you’re an economist and people died of Covid . . . That credentialism drives me crazy.”
I pose the question she has no doubt answered dozens of times in the past decade: why should an economist weigh in on such issues at all?
“Because these questions are about data . . . I am an expert in data, that is what my training is in, and a lot of these things are about what is in the data,” she says. “We can discuss facts without sort of having a particular set of letters after our degree . . . that would be better.”
As Oster sips her coffee, our conversation drifts towards the future. The economist is clearly ready to leave the pandemic behind, but is she ready to move beyond parenting? Her own children are getting older: doesn’t she tire of answering dozens of Instagram questions about babies’ routines?
“Oddly, no, I don’t actually,” she says. “The thing I like about writing about parenting is the challenge of figuring out what’s true and how we best communicate that.”
I suggest her next chapter could be a book on parenting teenagers through the woolly world of college admissions — another divisive issue for American parents.
She shoots down the idea — but admits that she is not done dealing with controversial topics just yet. For example, she notes that as her preteen daughter gets closer to adolescence, she is more interested in questions around regulating teenagers’ mobile phones and social-media accounts: should parents read their children’s text messages? Oster says she is not sure what the correct answer is, but for now her daughter is not permitted to have a smartphone and instead carries an old-fashioned flip phone for emergencies.
“Maybe I am headed towards less polarising,” she says. “But when you write about parenting, there is no not polarising. Everything is very polarising.”
Lauren Fedor is the FT’s US political correspondent and deputy Washington bureau chief
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