“Pregnancy seemed to be a world of arbitrary rules”

This was my experience to a T. That’s why it was so refreshing to read this article posted by a friend on Facebook last week. Economist Emily Oster approached her pregnancy like, well, a scientist. She wanted to know the why behind the long list of seemingly arbitrary rules that a pregnant woman is given by her doctor and she had the tools of her trade at her disposal. She did a lot of research about the research- the actual peer-reviewed studies these rules are (supposedly) based on and, thankfully, wrote a book about what she found (which is now at the top of my reading list).

One of the most controversial issues surrounding pregnancy is alcohol consumption of any kind and Oster tackles this issue specifically here. Remember when the universe exploded because pregnant Gwenyth Paltrow drank a Guinness? And check out this comment on Oster’s Huffington Post article from NOFAS, the National Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:


As Oster points out in this article, most women don’t need to be convinced that they shouldn’t go on a 24 hour booze bender or do cocaine off a toilet seat while pregnant. Most women are wondering about the safety of an occasional glass of wine or beer- a part of their lives they enjoyed before pregnancy, like a weekend road trip (which Oster points out is also “risky” behavior but somehow not controversial). NOFAS comment suggests that even questioning the “zero drinks is the only safe amount” policy during pregnancy is selfish and reckless.

Such criticism frames this issue as black and white, like the only options are selfishly drinking and likely harming your child or selflessly never touching a drop. They also reinforce this impossible ideal our society has placed on motherhood: 100% unquestioning sacrifice for our children to the point that we stress over Goldfish vs organic Bunny crackers.  Oster is simply challenging us to seek more information- where do these hard and fast rules come from and what does the science really say? And if provided with more information, don’t we have the capacity to weigh the pros and cons for ourselves to decide what’s best?

Oster’s work, in my opinion, goes beyond the debate over whether or not you can have sushi or a glass of champagne while you’re pregnant.  It is a good reminder for me of how important it is for women to take charge of their health- pregnant or not, it’s still YOUR body. She says: “pregnancy and childbirth (and child rearing) are among the most important and meaningful experiences most of us will ever have; probably the most important. Yet we are often not given the opportunity to think critically about the decisions we make. Instead, we are expected to follow a largely arbitrary script without question. It’s time to take control.”

I believe most doctors are well-trained experts who have their patient’s best interest in mind and I usually feel comfortable following their recommendations. But empowering yourself with knowledge about your health (whether pregnant or not, really) and your child’s health and feeling comfortable speaking your mind are important for multiple reasons, one of which being that sometimes health professionals have different recommendations. After little V was born, we had a bit of a rough road with nursing and he barely nursed at all for the first 36 hours of life. Our nurse thought this was a huge issue and wanted little V taking formula out of a bottle right away, but the hospital’s lactation consultant was less concerned and suggested we wait it out until we were at home and more relaxed. A few hours before we were set to go home, the nurse came over and started shoving a formula bottle nipple into little V’s mouth after I’d already expressed my apprehension about this (I was worried this might interfere with breast feeding down the road). In that moment, the mama bear came out and I tearfully demanded that she stop. I shakily reminded her that we’d decided to wait based on the recommendation of the lactation consultant. Fortunately, Little V started nursing shortly after we got home.

I don’t think she was a bad nurse; if anything, she was probably just having a bad day. What I find most disturbing is that I almost didn’t say anything because I was feeling emotionally fragile and intimidated (of course, I’d just given birth!!). But we’d talked about this very situation in my childbirthing class and had learned these tools: it’s ALWAYS ok to ask “why”. And if you know why, but still don’t feel comfortable, it’s always ok to ask “can we wait X amount of time and talk about it again then?” I think having this prompt in my head empowered me to speak up.

As Oster argues, we are continually weighing the pros and cons in our lives when deciding what house to buy or job offer to take. If only provided with more information, we might be better able to do the same in other important areas, like how we’d like to navigate our pregnancies and the birth of our child. Oster’s book looks like a great place to start.



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