New parents often rely on recent child development and medical research to guide them in taking the best measures for their children. Joan Wolf, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, argues these studies are framed as “concrete and based on decades of research,” yet their assumptions are rarely examined. Wolf discovered that research typically starts with the same premise: maternal care is both “normal” and “optimal” for infants. Her scholarship investigates these poorly supported claims.
In her 2016 article published in Signs, Wolf examines studies conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) addressing maternal vs. non-maternal care. Wolf notes that these studies premise the “normalcy of maternal care before the research is even conducted.” For example, given the realities of contemporary families, she asks why we are concerned with the child’s attachment to mothers and not fathers or other caretakers. Assumptions about gender are interpreted as fact and then structure future research: “the primacy of maternal care is never actually demonstrated because it is built into the architecture of the research.” Wolf argues that studies that assume mothers have a responsibility as primary caretaker are no longer useful. Rather, research on child development should be measuring a child’s attachment more generally without assumptions regarding a specific role for mothers.
Wolf’s research trajectory is rooted in questioning dominant ideas about motherhood in medical and child development research. In her 2011 book, Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood, Wolf is interested in the claim that breastfeeding is best, an “assertion based on the weakest of possible evidence.” When beginning to write the book, Wolf admits, “I assumed breast was best, too. I had no idea.” She thought a day or two looking at medical research would help her understand breastfeeding’s health benefits for babies and children, but she discovered something more interesting: the medical and popular claim that breast is best “is a house of cards.”
Wolf’s current book project examines the “privilege of not caring.” She interrogates questions such as, who does the work of caring in society? Who benefits? Who pays? Care, as Wolf argues, is a “privilege” that is played out in the everyday, including at work and in homes and communities. She states, “we think about White privilege and male privilege, but we often don’t think about care as a privilege.” Some people “are entitled to, and reap all the benefits of, the care labor of others but don’t have to do any care work themselves.”
Wolf’s research is also published in Journal of Women, Politics & Policy and Journal of Health Politics, Policy & Law.