Mini-Review of Origins by Annie Murphy Paul

A month or so ago I finished reading Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, by Annie Murphy Paul (Free Press, 2010). It was, overall, a worthwhile read, but I think I had higher expectations than I should have for it.

A few things I’d read, before picking up the book, mentioned that it brought an objective science journalist’s eye to the crazy media hype that tells pregnant women–in our particular culture, at this particular moment in time–to avoid foods X, Y, and Z, and to be careful of habits A, B, and C, etc. The author even states her position on this issue: After citing a number of inflammatory headlines, she writes, “Once again we’re told that pregnant women are a danger to their fetuses, each bite they take a time bomb on a fork. But there’s another way to think about eating during pregnancy: as an act of sharing, even of teaching” (21).

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t bear out this initial promise entirely, and I do feel the tension between calmness and caution, a zen approach and a Type A control-freak approach, to the various pregnancy dos and don’ts that Paul reviews. Perhaps also because the book is written with each chapter supposedly accompanying each month of the author’s second pregnancy, I found the overall organizing principle hard to discern, and that–combined with her sudden refusal to address the literature on planned c-sections, which she quickly mentions she “had” to have–made me look with skepticism on this as a whole. There were some interesting parts, of course, and most of the literature she reviews is clearly and coherently presented, but overall I’m not quite certain of the intended audience, or effect, of this book: it’s obviously not meant for a lowest-common-denominator What to Expect readership, yet I would assume that much of what it says is in fact already known to a more select group of readers.

In any case, this wasn’t a terrible read, and I’m glad I made it through to the end, but it wasn’t the best book on pregnancy that I’ve read.


15 October 2011 at 1:13 pm Leave a comment

Pregnancy and Publicity

I’ve been thinking about how funny it is that pregnancy is written on our bodies, and that such a private, intimate state–between me and my husband and me and my child–becomes public knowledge just by my moving around the city. It’s strange, really–long ago, I completely rejected the idea of an engagement ring for exactly this reason: I didn’t want a private state broadcast in public by a sign on my body. The way an engagement ring makes something abstract and emotional become physical–and the way this physicality and publicity, in our society, is limited only to women (that is, men do not wear engagement rings)–really bothered me. With pregnancy, though, I have no choice–my husband walks around the city and no one knows that he’s expecting a child, but that’s not my experience. Things are public, again, because of the signs written on my body for anyone to read: I stand in the CVS buying a pen and a cranberry juice in between my classes and the clerk says, jovially enough, “Wow, you going have that baby any day now!”

Uh, no, I still have two months left, I think, but that’s not the point–the point is really the odd state of having the private made public, without my explicit consent. As much as I love this baby and am overjoyed to have him/her growing in me, it’s unsettling, frankly.


10 October 2011 at 1:19 pm Leave a comment

“A Woman’s Right to Choose”

Recently on a forum I participate in, someone mentioned women who get pressured by their OBs into c-sections, and someone else spoke up in (what I interpreted as) a combination of defensiveness and genuine curiosity to ask why pro-midwifery folks always “get all preachy about” this issue, and why we couldn’t just see it as a woman exerting her right to choose a c-section.

I stopped to think about that. Personally, for me, I don’t mean to come across as “preachy” in the common, negative sense of the word, but I do often want to “preach” (as in publically teach, share, and proclaim) something I see as a little-recognized truth.

Here’s what I posted in response:

First of all, I’d just like to point out that research (the very very well-respected Listening to Mothers and Listening to Mothers II academic studies–huge, wide-ranging, very important, well done) has shown that women are not really “choosing c-sections.” It’s a myth. Women tend to be pushed by their care providers into it, but true “maternal choice cesarean” is very, very, very rare–basically non-existent. I can’t link to the academic articles, but here’s an abstract of a general-press version written by two public health experts in women’s and reproductive health on the subject.

So I can’t speak for anyone else, but the reason that I personally “get all preachy about” things like this is that I don’t really believe women are choosing, in free and fully-informed ways, to have major surgery that has significant risks for them, their babies, and their future births–I think a society that hides misinformation and non-evidence-based medical care behind the veneer of “a woman’s right to choose” is really doing women a disservice.

It was an interesting line of thought for me, because of course I do feel that as an argument it’s potentially worrisome in its longer-range implications. Like many women (and men, of course), I am firmly pro-choice in the sense of a woman’s right to freely and easily choose to have an abortion if that’s what’s right for her in a particular pregnancy at a particular point in her life. I do see how this “right to choose” argument can be turned on its head and used to advocate for “maternal-choice” c-sections, but I think that the balance of power–and the free flow of information–in these situations is so impossibly skewed that there really is no ability for a woman receiving standard, medically-minded prenatal care to “choose” a c-section.


2 October 2011 at 7:25 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on surviving with a newborn

Oh yeah, it’s all about survival.

Babies cry when they’re separated from us–from our warmth and our heartbeats especially–because of survival, because our species wouldn’t have made it this far if we could set a baby down on the ground in the jungle: quiet babies, in those circumstances, would have been quietly nibbled up by tigers, after all. A baby who cried if you tried to put her down would get picked back up, where he would be quiet and happy again and we adult humans could go back to our hunting and gathering.

So now here we are, no tigers in sight, and it’s still all about survival–the babies’, and our own.

I have a good friend who now lives far away and who just had her first child. My friend is struggling, struggling with doctors’ orders (“Did you really do what the doctor said, and nurse 8-10 minutes every two hours?” my friend asked over email; over email, I laughed, not unsympathetically, and tried to explain that at certain points in those early weeks I might have spent 8-10 minutes in a two-hour span not nursing), struggling with how to care for a baby and herself (“[My partner] is back at work,” my friend wrote, “so I’m sleeping with the baby in the nursery and doing all the night-time things”), and basically just struggling to get through these early weeks.

My advice to her was that, in my opinion, it’s not helpful to think of one parent as “going to work” in the morning because usually¬†both parents–especially the nursing mom who stays home with the newborn during the day–are working. Beyond that, though, my advice was to find a survival strategy that works, right now in real time, for her and her family, and not to think beyond this–not to let thoughts race ahead to “Is this baby going to still be attached to the boob all the time when I go back to work in January?” or “Am I never going to get more than a four-hour stretch of sleep again for the rest of my life?” The answers to those are “Possibly, but you’ll deal,” and “Probably not, but who knows,” but honestly, those questions and answers are far, far away.

For now, do what you have to do to survive!


29 September 2011 at 5:08 am Leave a comment

I’ve figured it out!

I think I’ve figured out the difference between my first pregnancy and this one–don’t laugh! The difference is–um, I have a child now.


Short of some basic randomness involved in the biology of the thing–baby might be positioned differently, so the kicks might feel different, etc.–I think for me the big difference is really the presence of my son.

Here’s what I mean by that. . . .

The first time around, I definitely had a little bit of morning sickness in the first trimester, but it was very manageable and very mild. This time, I am sure that my sensations are the same–that is, the morning sickness didn’t feel stronger, etc.–but the contexts that prompted them are different. Hustling out the door in the morning, getting me to work and a toddler to preschool, I had less time to eat a protein-laden breakfast, this time around, that could help manage the symptoms of morning sickness for me.

Now, sitting in the back seat of the car next to my son’s carseat (he is and always has been a terrible car passenger and will scream–earlier, just wordless cries, now, things like, “THE BUCKLE IS HURTING ME! I WANT TO GET OUT! I WANT TO GET OUT OF THE CAR! THIS IS TOO TIGHT!”–unless constantly soothed), the feelings of carsickness and vague dizziness that pregnancy induces in some women come to the fore for me, whereas the first time around, sitting blithely in the front passenger seat with no one screaming and no back-seat bumpiness, I barely noticed them at all.

This time, the third-trimester aches and general large, awkward movements that pregnancy brings are intensified when I put my son to bed at night, lying down beside him on his very low-to-the-ground mattress. . . and then rolling strangely and stiffly off it when he’s asleep and I get up to go on with my evening. The first time around, I got to just sit in the living room with my feet up every evening, though such a concept now seems laughable to me.

Anyway, I write this all with humor, but also with a bit of reality behind it–I don’t think this pregnancy is harder, or anything like that, on its own, but I do think that the situations we are in shape the way we perceive our experiences, and that idea is certainly proving true for me now, at least.


22 September 2011 at 4:57 am Leave a comment

Cheers for vaginal birth!

An online friend just had a vaginal breech birth, in a hospital, here in Massachusetts. That shouldn’t be such a rarity, such a cause for celebration, but things being what they are in this country, it unfortunately is. When I mentioned this to my midwife, she knew immediately which OB and which hospital she must have used, because, again, it’s such a rarity to find an OB who is willing to attend a vaginal breech birth. I guess this is a good news/bad news post, then–good news, and many cheers and congratulations, for my friend, and bad news for the vast majority of women who are simply given no other option but major surgery when they have a breech baby close to term.


18 September 2011 at 8:22 am 1 comment

Expectations: thoughts on a second pregnancy, birth, and child

When I was pregnant with my son (now three years old), the most difficult thing for me about the experience was that I’d never done this before–it was all completely new to me. In retrospect, I think that newness also made some things easier to accept. Now, though, at 28 weeks along with whoever this new baby will turn out to be, the most difficult thing for me is that I have “done this” before: it’s very strange, the constant comparison and remembering and weighing that goes on in my mind with this pregnancy.

Some things are obviously, tangibly different this time: I had a large, dark linea nigra on my belly with Marcus, but I barely have a visible one at all with this baby. I had an anterior placenta with Marcus, which muffled many of the big movements for me, but my placenta now must be in a different place as I feel so much more movement, and so many more constant large kicks and turns and wiggles, than the first time around.

I have to wonder how long this almost unconscious comparison process is going to go on, though. Through labor and birth? Through the newborn period? Forever? Parents always say they love their children equally, and I don’t doubt that, but this constant mental game of same/different is a new one to me, and I’m wondering if it ever fades into the background.


12 September 2011 at 8:21 am Leave a comment

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