Pregnant women are pregnant, not stupid, and by and large they’re tougher than we all seem to think
I have no doubt that, when you want a baby, the pains of pregnancy are worth it.
But peering into my own future – one that is cloudy with a chance of pregnancy (I can’t say what per cent chance) – it’s hard not to feel some trepidation about the process. Although I’ve never thought pregnancy sounded like a party, in recent times I’ve had the opportunity to observe just how un-partyish it is. That is: as more of my friends become pregnant and then (amazingly capable) mothers, I’ve looked on with horrified fascination.
I find the swelling bellies of the girls I was going on the lash with only a year ago oddly riveting. How could I not, when I recall their anguished debates about whether bringing children into the world is philosophically right, or the outpourings of others who wondered if they’d ever find a man to date, let alone to father their child. Like a baby myself, I prod their bumps with curiosity, ask them in grotesque detail about their physical trials and – once they’re mothers – make them rehearse in detail their births.
Now, a leap from fascination to consternation, if I may.
The leap concerns a certain aura that surrounds pregnant women. It’s not that pregnant women (PWs from now on) don’t deserve an aura – one that excites commiseration and support. PWs go through all manner of hell that goes uncompensated at work or anywhere else – excessive tiredness, throwing up, often in the most embarrassing and unexpected ways, hormonal fluctuations. It is yet another unpaid form of work that women launch into (admittedly willingly – usually).
What I object to, though, is the way this aura becomes a way of fetishizing the pregnancy (never mind the initial stages of motherhood) to the detriment of the woman. That is: it is often done in a way that makes life less efficient and comfortable for her and insults her intelligence at the same time . The ”mum to be” is conceived of – though not necessarily treated like (as the oafs on the Tube who fail to get up for PWs show) – as a delicate vase.
This perceived delicacy manifests itself in several irritating ways. First, the woman is assumed to be stupid – particularly by the medical profession. Everything must be explained as though to a child, sometimes even in a baby voice. Thus, shows of independent thought and critical questioning by a PW are greeted with great discomfort. A friend of mine who had a problematic pregnancy reported that she was treated in a distinctly hostile manner by nurses for having tried to look up and make sense of some of the science. “It was as though they couldn’t believe I’d actually gone and Googled some of my own issues, and more shockingly still, demonstrated some basic scientific knowledge about them”. A different friend, a lawyer with a phD from Oxford, felt sickened by patronising, simplifying tone of the leafletry handed out to her before her first scan.
But you don’t need a phD to have common sense: “They talk to you like you’re some little ignorant lady-child from the 19th century,” said another friend (who, umm, doesn’t have a phD but makes fabulous bunting and bags from home).
It’s not just doctors, nurses and official pamphlets that patronise – the worst of it, often, comes from other women, who seem to think they have (at least) part ownership of the bodies of their pregnant brethren, asking even those they barely know the most deeply personal questions about their bodies. Or, just as bad, drawing untimely conclusions – eg “oh! Not eating cheese I see, or glugging red. You must be EXPECTINNNNGGGG!!!!” Some friends have reported virtual strangers telling them the name they have chosen for their child is “awful”, often because they “once knew a Colin who picked his nose” or similar.
So on one hand, “mums” and would-be mums (including mothers and grandmothers) go utterly ga-ga. Screaming with joy is a normal reaction, and cooing for the remaining 6 months the natural sequel. At the same time, they become a kind of police force, briefed to make sure their fellow breeder isn’t slipping up or harming the unborn child.
Which brings me to the real crux of the issue and its most intrusive manifestation in every day life: what PWs can and can’t put in their gobs. These detailed rules seem to me to be an overzealous application of medical science. After all, babies want to survive. Mothers offer strong, relatively imperturbable environments for their doing so inasmuch as they offer bodies, and bodies are fairly hardy, surviving despite all the crap and harm we do to them. If we can binge drink for 15 years of our lives (from 15 to 30, say) several times a week and still keep going (and many people throw drugs into that mix, not to mention all sorts of bad foods) then it shows that our flesh lives on in spite of what we do to it, not because of it.
So are PWs really such delicate vessels for life? I’m not saying that pregnant women should head out and buy a pack of fags and a bottle of vodka – it’s not ethical to ignore known danger factors to unborn foetuses. So we’re stuck because the info is out there.
But the degree to which food and drink are sorted into “dos” and “don’ts” for PWs seems to be more about neurosis and making sure women have even less enjoyable lives than need be when pregnant, than about realistic risk. For example, cases of listeriosis, which can arise from eating mould-ripened cheese, is more problematic in pregnant women than in other cases. How frequent is it, then? According to the NHS, in 2010 there were an estimated 156 cases of listeriosis in England and Wales, 17 of which were in pregnant women. Our foremothers drank like Betty Draper and smoked like her too – a bit of sushi or mouldy cheese is hardly likely to wreak disaster. Nor a hot bath, also off the list, as a newly pregnant friend found when reading patronising advice to “enjoy lukewarm soaks”.
The official amount of alcohol pregnant women are told to drink is zero, even though the medically accepted amount is 2 units a week (or similar). Why not change the official figure, then? Because, I learned last week from an NHS insider, it might be confusing for women. Who – it can only be assumed – would hear the news and rush to the nearest offie for a celebratory bottle for one. The intelligence of pregnant women hardly seems held in high regard. Until 2007, expectant mothers were advised to drink in moderation. Before that, the official guidance was 8 units a week and, according to drinkaware, “midwives even urged their charges to drink stout because it’s high in iron”. The advice was changed, though, after research found that almost one in 10 expectant mothers drink more than the recommended limit. There is nothing said here about the harm that was doing. And one in 10 is a very small percentage.
Almost certainly I’d do the same. Bar the booze. I’d definitely take them up on the two units a week thing, and maybe push it to three.