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Big Mother Is Watching, Yet She's Blinded by False Hope

Photograph by Getty Images

My parents want me to put a camera in my kids’ room. “You can see everything!” My mom tells me. This is her selling point, but I’m not buying.

My kids are little, 3 and 18 months old. They're young enough and ornery enough to justify the surveillance, yet I too remember being little. I also remember the fun of unstructured alone time when I hid under my bed and stuck stickers to the bed frame. And I worry, are children today too watched? Are their lives too structured? When do they get time to make mud pies and tell poop jokes?

This is the tension of modern parenting: Should you track your baby or let them be?

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There is a growing market of gadgets that help you monitor your baby—Owlet, Mimo, I even know parents who use Skype to spy on their sleeping babies. Owlet CEO Chris Bruce told TIME that he created his device because of his own fears as a parent. “I’d get nervous,” he said. “I tried to listen at the door and I didn’t want to wake her up…So I sneak in, I try and listen if she’s breathing, and I end up putting my hand on her and waking her up.” But is all this data really alleviating our fears or feeding them?

When it came to buying a baby monitor, my husband and I opted for the cheapest version. No video, no SIDs monitor, no light that flashes when the baby wakes. At first, I wanted one, but the reality is that SIDs monitors are a false promise. There is no published data that proves the baby monitors actually work and there doesn’t need to be. Because the monitors are sold as consumer devices and not medical devices, the companies can make their claims without backing them up with hard data. It’s all meaningless data that feeds worry rather than alleviates it.

All of this data, all of this tracking gives parents false hope that we can stave off the terrible. But in reality it’s just more noise.

In the end, we opted for the cheaper model. But even then, I’d hover over the monitor listening for disruptions in my daughter’s sleep. Until my wise neighbor and mother of five told me to turn it off. “You aren’t making your life better with your worry; you are making it worse.” She was right. My room is five feet from the nursery and our house is 90 years old with thin plaster walls. I could hear anything without a monitor. So, I turned it off. That one small act help alleviate a lot of my early parenting fears.

Recently, I watched my brother and his wife hover over their video monitor. My sister-in-law insisted the baby was awake and they should get her. My brother said that the baby was still sleeping but restless. They argued over the interpretations of the lights. The science of sleep. Eventually, the baby, who had been tossing and turning (as babies do when they nap) fell back asleep. I stayed out of it but wanted to tell them to burn their monitor to the ground.

In an article on tracking devices for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen, writes that tracking devices are alluring because they offer knowledge, and at the end of that knowledge is supposed to be peace of mind. “That presumes, however, that happiness is rooted in transparency. That knowledge is a source of peace; that being able to see and send every heartbeat is the ultimate in intimacy. That a life made of data—a life that is readable and, as such, changeable—is life at its most optimized.”

Which is assuming a lot. Actually. All of this data, all of this tracking gives parents false hope that we can stave off the terrible. But in reality it’s just more noise.

You do everything you can as a parent ... but in the end, the thing that happens isn’t the thing you prepared or protected for.

My mom likes to sigh and tell me that she would have been a better parent with Google. But I tell her it’s not true. Google makes me a worse parent. I even had to ban myself from Internet forums during my first pregnancy because my paranoia was getting the better of me. I had developed a pyrogenic granuloma, caused by pregnancy hormones, relatively harmless but definitely gross and bloody. My Internet searches convinced me I was dying. I cried in the doctor’s office when she told me I was “OK.”

I’m not completely averse to tracking devices that Petersen terms “big mother.” I like the idea of being able to peek into my kids’ ears to make sure they don’t have an ear infection or peeing on a strip to check for a UTI. But without a specific goal, monitoring your children is just adding fuel to the fire or parental worry.

Data doesn’t make us better parents. Data doesn’t ease our worry. Data doesn’t prevent tragedy. Life is more than just plot points on a chart. Part of the lie of parenting is that we have control and tracking devices feed into this lie—that if we just know enough, we can prevent the worst possible outcome. But sometimes, we can’t. Sometimes information isn’t knowing. Sometimes it’s just worry.

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My friend recently lost her 11-month-old son for no reason. His babysitter put him down for a nap and he didn’t wake up. She shared something with me once that left me deeply shaken. “You do everything you can as a parent,” she said. “But in the end, the thing that happens isn't the thing you prepared or protected for. It never is.”

So maybe the answer isn’t more data. Maybe the answer is turning off the monitor and getting a good night's sleep.

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