blaming mothers

Since I’ve been pregnant, I’ve heard or read about a number of studies that assert that the things I do today will impact our child’s health for her/his whole life. Talking on the cell phone more than four times a day has been correlated to infant hyperactivity. Eating broccoli three times a week during the first trimester can prevent babies from ever developing cancer (thus not eating it is to put our child at risk). Using aerosol hairspray causes genital problems in male children, as does eating too much soy. Regularly eating peanuts/peanut butter might increase your baby’s chances of developing a peanut allergy. One such study is Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives (Free Press, 2010). I have not read this book; I’ve been warned not to by our friend Alison, who sums it up this way here:

“If you are pregnant, do not pick this book up.  I’m very glad I didn’t read this book while I was pregnant.  I’m not pregnant, and yet reading it made me a bit antsy, because the whole book is about fetal origins.  It’s about the ways in which the nine months in utero shape a person–and not only that person, but future generations of persons.  If you’re exposed to certain sorts of toxins, or have certain sorts of bad experiences/feelings/thoughts, or ingest certain sorts of wrong things, your child could be affected–and then your grandchild, and great-grandchild, and so on.  For real.  You could fuck up whole generations of your family if you do the wrong thing as a pregnant woman.”

This, in my opinion (and Alison’s, it seems), is a dangerous continuation of an already dangerous habit of blaming mothers for everything that goes “wrong” with their children. (I’d like to speak to the values we prioritize/how we define “wrong” in a later post. And to question the causative conclusions drawn from studies that actually only prove correlation. Later.) As a pregnant woman, I’m thankful every day for my access to education, good health care, nutrition, and rest. I have a very small, fixed income, but I know how critical it is that clean food be a priority, and so it is. Despite nausea, I think through each meal (almost all of which I prepare myself from single ingredients) to be sure I’m getting enough protein (a bit of a struggle for vegetarians), calcium, iron, and other vitamins and minerals. Because I know the harm that pesticides can cause, most of the large amount of produce I consume each week is organic. I’m fortunate to never be around cigarette smoke. I was on prenatal vitamins (and off of all prescription medicine) a full year before we conceived, which studies show increases chances for a full term pregnancy. Because we went into each cycle deliberately, I’ve never had a glass of wine or a cup of caffeinated coffee when I could have been pregnant. I have a free gym to walk at in these cold winter months. I have a partner who insists (despite my resistance) on doing all of the shoveling (she’s scared I might fall). My work environment (university classrooms and offices) is clean and (probably mostly) free of toxins. I only work one job, and it, by nature, offers lots of time off my feet. I say all of this not to congratulate myself (though I’m proud of my healthy choices; I didn’t always make them), but to point out two things: 1. I am SO fortunate to be in the position to prioritize these things. 2. These facts make it especially interesting (sad?) to note that I am constantly afraid that I will do/have done something wrong. If the work our scientists are doing right now results in women in my privileged position feeling constantly inadequate, what must the ramifications be for women who are not so blessed by circumstance?

Because, of course, there are mothers in this country – lots and lots of mothers – who are not similarly privileged. They don’t have access to these advantages. Because of various systemic inequities, many women have not received necessary health care, which results (among other things) in a statistical likelihood of delivering pre-term. I’m sure that smart people are working on ways of fighting against racism and classism and other factors that take rights away from whole demographics of American women, but I haven’t read about any such work since I’ve been pregnant. It seems to me that, instead of focusing our energy on finding new ways of proving that: 1. women screw up and 2. middle-class white women are able, even early in their pregnancies, to give their babies more advantages, we should be talking about the cultural structures that keep a fetus from thriving, and how we can combat or undermine those structures.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ll try to eat more broccoli. But I don’t think my broccoli intake is what we as a society should be concerned about. If we know that the choices a mother makes when her baby is inside of her will impact the scope of that baby’s entire life, aren’t we obligated to extent to pregnant women of all socio-economic statuses access to the same education and health care we always already grant to the privileged?


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