It was once thought that a pregnant woman should avoid looking at the full moon, or her baby could grow up afflicted by sleepwalking or madness. Similarly, if a baby was born covered in hair, it meant that mum had spent too much time hanging out with the cat. These ideas were not just superstition, but part of the widely accepted theory of "maternal impressions", which held that congenital deformities could be traced to what the mother had seen and experienced during pregnancy.
It's easy to laugh at this stuff, but before we get too smug, consider some of the warnings that pregnant women contend with today. We've recently been told that getting stressed while you're pregnant could cause your child to be a slow learner, to suffer from asthma, diabetes or autism. It's just as bad if you get angry. Losing your temper (a way of life for most pregnant women I've known) could curse your child with a weakened heart.
The difference between these warnings and the old-fashioned cat-and-moon variety is that contemporary scares typically claim to be supported by a scientific study. But just because a newspaper article begins with the words "a study has shown" does not mean that what you are reading should be taken seriously. Not all science is sound and credible. Even "good" scientific studies can be extremely difficult to interpret, and harder still to translate into a few short columns of newspaper space, or a TV sound bite.
Perhaps it's true that a group of pregnant lab rats who were tortured twice a day ended up delivering more compromised offspring than their untortured sister rats. This does not mean that your child will develop asthma, just because you had a stressful house.
Of course, it's not just the mainstream media that's at fault here. We now have the internet, which does a better job of exaggerating and distorting information than newspapers and TV ever did.
Google the words "pregnancy" and "health threat" and start wading through the thousands of hits. From the perils of dyeing your hair to eating non-organic food; from failing to exercise to exercising too much; from drinking a glass of wine to breathing filthy air, there's a catastrophe to suit everyone. My favourite is the warning that pregnant women should sleep on their left side, as the foetus might otherwise suffer compromised blood flow. Sleep well, mum.
Listeria is probably the ultimate pregnancy beat-up. Pregnant women have long been told to be mindful of their diets, but as awareness of this food-borne bacteria has grown, the warning level has gone from alert to alarm. Try offering an expectant mother a green salad from your local cafe, and just watch her recoil.
It's easy to see why listeria fear turns sane women into neurotics. If you are told that there is a bacteria that could kill your fetus, and are then given a long list of foods that might harbour it, it's difficult to know where to draw the line. Yet while listeria can cause serious complications for your pregnancy, its incidence in Australia is statistically very low. You are probably more likely to be injured by an over enthusiastic yoga instructor while you're eagerly om-ing to reduce stress.
Some might argue that these warnings simply serve to inform women, allowing them to make better choices. Yet there is something insidious about all this alarm. A pregnant friend of mine was recently reprimanded by a male colleague when she ordered a salad in a restaurant, on the grounds of the listeria risk. His decision to publicly scold a grown woman was partly licensed by the fact that she is pregnant (and we all have the right to tell pregnant women what to do, don't we?) but also by the power of the listeria scare.
In Australia, we have access to nutritious food, uncontaminated water and universal healthcare. The prospect of birthing healthy babies has never been better. Yet human beings are notoriously bad at rationally assessing risks. We all know that we're more likely to be hit by a car than killed in a plane crash, yet planes falling from the sky remain scarier. The more spectacular the threat, the larger it looms in our minds.
Pregnancy is particularly prone to this effect. We all desperately want what's best for our offspring, and the thought that we might harm our babies, even inadvertently, is horrifying.
Pregnancy and motherhood are difficult at the best of times. Women carry the weight of huge expectations, and risk harsh collective judgment if they fail to live up to them. They don't need more reasons to feel guilty and judged.
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