Small children and wolverines might have limited similarities, but both have been a subject of study for Rachel Wigglesworth.
A lifelong love of research and science has bridged her disparate careers in wildlife biology and childhood development.
Originally from Massachusetts, Wigglesworth came to Jackson in the late ’90s to study coyotes with Teton Science Schools. After completing her masters in wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming, she returned to join a multiyear study on wolverines.
Wolverines had been driven out of the continental U.S. in the 1950s and were just beginning to return. The goal of the study spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society was to capture and tag wolverines in the Tetons and track their movements to look at their habitat, reproduction and social organization.
While part of the study she skied to the base of the mountains daily to bait the traps with roadkill.
“Capturing animals is a physically demanding job,” Wigglesworth said.
After two years working on the study, she left to try her hand at environmental consulting and worked seasonally for the National Park Service and National Elk Refuge.
Everything changed, of course, when she had kids.
“I had an amazing birth experience,” Wigglesworth said. “I wanted to be part of that more.”
Inspired, she trained to be a doula. Doulas support women and their families before, during and after childbirth. In her 10 years working part time as a doula, Wigglesworth estimated that she has attended 80 births.
“I loved the work,” she said. “It’s the being on call 24/7 which is hard.”
Nowadays she works as a doula only occasionally.
The child-rearing process only begins with birth, however, and Wigglesworth’s interest followed her own children’s growth.
“In the process of having kids, I became fascinated by all the myriad experiences that mix and jumble together to create the adult that a child will become,” she said. “I became really fascinated by child development.”
While raising her own family, she took online classes from the University of Minnesota and completed her masters degree in family education with a teaching certificate in parenting education.
Armed with the science of child psychology and adult education, she started Growing Great Families, a company that provides individual consultations and parenting classes like “Incredible Infants” and “Toddlers and Tantrums.”
“Very few of us have any kind of background in child development or child psychology, and suddenly we are entrusted with caring for these amazing young people, and shaping and molding them,” Wigglesworth said.
This kind of background can inform parenting decisions. Filling parents in on the stage of their child’s brain development, for example, can help them understand why children react emotionally to things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults. It can also help them coax a child into a more rational state of mind.
“I try to meld the research with the family’s wants, needs and values,” she said. “There is science to say if we parent our kids in a firm and kind way, giving the kids the support they need to meet the expectations that we or they themselves have, that kids fare better.”
Although science doesn’t have all the answers, and there is no one solution, Wigglesworth said, many new parents are reassured by guidance from an authority.
Her approach isn’t to judge, to tell parents what’s right or wrong, or what they should or shouldn’t do. Instead she shares her experience and knowledge as just one recipe for success and works with clients to find a strategy that works for them.
“I know when my kids were young, I wished there was some kind of support,” she said. “I would have loved to talk to someone and say, ‘This is the situation. I’m challenged, and I don’t know what to do.’ Therapy is great, but I couldn’t find someone specifically that I could talk to about parenting. The process is a dialogue.
“I think it’s really hard for us to talk about in public our challenging parenting moments, because it somehow means that we’re a bad parent. I want to normalize that just about every parent struggles at some point with raising kids.”
At the end of the day, Wigglesworth is a parent like any other, capable of making mistakes when running high on stress or low on sleep. Parenting, like science, is a constant work in progress.
What’s harder, wrestling with a wolverine or with a toddler in the throes of a temper tantrum?
“I’ve done a lot of physically and intellectually challenging jobs,” Wigglesworth said. “This is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done because it’s so emotionally demanding.”