Monday, August 30, 2004

So Where Have I Been?

Originally, I wasn't sure that I would post about this, but Moe Lane says that I'd be a jerk not to. And besides, it's the first day of the Republican National Convention, and I'd like to post something life-affirming. So:

It turns out that there actually is something in this world that's more obsessively all-consuming than politics - gestation. Baby otter formation has been taking up most of the time that I used to spend reading blogs, writing posts, and generally fulminating about the Bush Administration. I don't expect it to be a permanent, or even nine-months-long, condition - eventually, I am told, I'll stop wanting to sleep 22 hours a day and being nauseated by scrolling text during the other two hours. But in the meantime, I'm a little preoccupied.

Because I can't turn my political mind off completely, I've been piecing together the ways in which the the pregnancy industry lays the groundwork for a lifetime of double-bind guilt for women. Pregnant women are assigned infinite responsibility for the protection of their fetuses - without, I can't help noticing, actually having much real control.

"The first trimester is the most important part of your pregnancy, because all your baby's major body parts and organs are formed during this time." So begins the endless list of all the things you aren't supposed to do during pregnancy, from taking a hot bath to eating a ham sandwich. (There's an equally extensive and detailed list of things you are required to do. Very few things are optional.) Your responsibilities seem clear. And yet, 20-30% of pregnancies miscarry during that "most important" first trimester - and 99% of those miscarriages have nothing to do with the list of required or forbidden activities. You can, quite literally, spend every waking moment chasing after an ideal of perfect pregnancy behavior, but it won't make a damned bit of difference to whether your baby dies before you've even heard a heartbeat. Responsibility without control.

"Every time you pick up your fork, ask yourself, 'is this the best bite I could possibly give my baby?' " directs the most popular American pregnancy guidebook. White sugar is sternly forbidden for the duration of pregnancy, with dire consequences threatened for the health of your baby. And yet the same book approaches prenatal exposure to environmental toxins from a reasoned perspective that considers dose and duration of exposure, timing, proximity, et cetera. You're left with the vague impression that a Krispy Kreme doughnut will do more damage to your baby than the paint factory up the road. Why? Probably because, from the perspective of the pregnancy industry, the only important risk factors are the ones that are the pregnant woman's sole responsibility.

Bypassing the traditional medical model for the crunchy-granola model of childbirth merely trades one set of rigid behavioral expectations for another, I find as I guiltily grab a packaged yogurt smoothie from the fridge instead of spending twenty minutes making a homemade organic one in my blender. Plus, in the crunchy-granola model you get assigned a new enemy: the obstetrician, who is out to Ruin Your Birth Experience unless you prevent him via constant hawklike vigilance. I've seen women wracked with ongoing guilt and anger because their baby was briefly removed for medical treatment in the moments after birth, an experience thought to be emotionally scarring. Once again, the crushing weight of responsibility without, in fact, very much control at all.

You'd almost think it was a plot to keep women scared and guilty and focused on their own imperfections, instead of angry and political. But of course it's more likely to be the same old story: fear sells.

Can I recognize the ridiculousness of all these expectations? Mostly. It's harder than you'd think to throw them off completely, with a constant onslaught of pregnancy hormones predisposing me to heightened emotionality. But yes, for the most part I am blissfully happy. It's just that falling back into otter mode gets the suspicious, analytical part of my mind working at top speed. (That's probably a good thing, at least in moderation.)