We subscribe to the Sunday New York Times, and we love it. After reading it I feel all worldly and informed and stuff. The Ethicist, in particular, floats my boat. But last week, I read an article from Nicholas D. Kristof that irked me. Called “At Risk From the Womb”, it explored how factors such as exposure to stress, disease and toxins may affect fetal development. For example, it cites a study that found children who were in utero during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia as adults. And here is a quote about the perils of eating junk food:
British scientists … fed pregnant rats junk food: doughnuts, marshmallows, potato chips and chocolate chip muffins. The offspring of those rats turned out to have a sweet tooth as well: they were more likely to choose junk food when it was offered and ended up 25 percent fatter than rats whose mothers were fed regular rodent chow.
Kristof raises some good points in the article. I nodded my head when he suggested that studies like these should cause us to examine the chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives. Certainly, if there are factors that we can control that will help ensure that our babies are healthy, we should try to control them. But many of these factors – like being pregnant during a time of war or famine – are outside of our control. And other factors – like what pregnant women eat – veer towards policing the actions of other adults in a way that I find inappropriate.
I have been pregnant twice. Both times I planned my pregnancies, and very much wanted my babies. I felt that there were some responsibilities that came with being pregnant. For instance, I chose to abstain from alcohol while I was pregnant, and I made my husband change the kitty litter. I realized that anything that I exposed myself to, I was also exposing my babies to, and I did my best to avoid potential risks where I could.
But there is a critical line to be drawn here. When I chose to pass up my beloved tuna sushi, that was my call. When someone else gave me the stink eye for drinking a can of Coke, that was another thing altogether. I was seriously nauseous throughout both of my pregnancies. I realized early on that I could either eat what I was craving, or I could puke. The very idea of leafy green vegetables? Highly unappetizing. I couldn’t even bring myself to go to the farmer’s market, knowing that there would be piles of veggies there. So instead of eating my spinach like a good pregnant lady, I ate a lot of white bread and french fries. And I didn’t even feel all that bad about it.
Pregnant women are still people. They deserve the same basic autonomy and the freedom to make choices for themselves that everyone else does. Whether they get the flu shot or not, whether they should be eating those Doritos or not, whether they exercise are not – these things are nobody else’s business.
As I became highly indignant reading about how my consumption of french fries probably doomed my children, I started to think about the way that many mothers react to studies about the dangers of formula feeding. I see definite parallels. In both cases, women are doing the best they can for themselves and their babies. In both cases, there are a lot of complicating factors that muddy the decision-making process. As I puked out of my car door yet again, I decided to give up on my prenatal vitamin. Should I have persisted in taking it anyway? Maybe. Do I think that I made the best choice I could under the circumstances? Yes. Do I appreciate someone else weighing in on my shortcomings? No way.
I can see a lot of value in studying how our actions affect our babies. These studies arm us with information and help us make the best choices we can. But sometimes, even with that information, we fall short. And when we do, and someone tells us yet again how we failed our child, it’s hard not to take that a little personally. Even though it’s not really about us at all.
I think that sometimes we need to give people space to feel indignant and affronted when their parenting choices are called into question. And we need to try to have the grace to let go when we read scientific studies that highlight our failures. After all, there area a whole lot of factors that go into raising a child. It’s unlikely that any one action is going to doom your child forever. As long as we are generally well-meaning and thoughtful parents, that has to be enough. In any case, it’s all that we can really do.
In the meantime, you can pry my french fries from my cold, dead hands.
How do you react when a study suggests that you have in some way harmed your child? Do you think that such studies are helpful or harmful? And how can we share information with people, without casting blame for actions that are long over? I’d love to hear your thoughts.