Expecting Better, a new pregnancy book recently released by economist Emily Oster, opens with some self-disclosure that could be written by any one of thousands of modern educated women embarking on their first pregnancy. (The full title of the book is Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know.) She writes of researching everything she should do before conception, researching pregnancy safety, and researching birth. When she confirms her first pregnancy during the early morning in a hotel room, her automatic next action of the day is to go downstairs for a cup of coffee – except that in a moment’s flash she realizes that she doesn’t know if she can have a cup of coffee! To the internet she goes – seeking information that will tell her the risks related to caffeine so she will know what to do. If you are a pregnant woman today, I’m sure you can relate!
Decision making in pregnancy is an increasingly complex conundrum. Navigating information has become a hallmark of the pregnancy journey. When I picked up Oster’s book, I could instantly appreciate why it is quickly becoming a bestseller. She is talking about some very relevant, modern, and important themes, and by doing so is meeting a felt need among pregnant women today. It is hard to navigate the decisions of pregnancy – from what to drink to where to birth. Expecting Better aims to help by cutting through hype and guilt and coming back to numbers. For my review of it’s success in that regard you can read my book review.
The Modern Pregnant Woman
The purpose of this post, in my mind, is to reflect more on this book’s portrait of the modern pregnant woman. She is anxious. She is constantly worried about the safety of every-day life actions such as eating, cleaning, and visiting the gym. She spends weeks evaluating the pros and cons of her various options for prenatal testing and labor pain control. She feels the double bind of being a bad mother for choices that are not best or safest for her baby, or being a bad enlightened woman by depriving herself in favor of avoiding minimal risks not significant enough to warrant her self-sacrifice. In her search for relief from these feelings of worry, guilt, and overwhelm, she turns to her strengths of reason and intelligence to find her way through. Navigating pregnancy becomes an exercise in education and research. A flesh and bone journey of love and growth becomes ruled by the realm of the intellect.
Much of the particular anxiety of which I am speaking is related to information. While worry has probably always been an aspect of pregnancy, the particular type of worry we have now is fitted to our era. The more we know about the potential for harm, the more we fear. There is no need to contrast this to the past, trying to claim that it is a more or less fortunate worry than the worries of our foremothers. It just is what it is. The many privileges and conveniences of our modern technology and culture do come with a set of complexities of their own. Learning how to insulate yourself and your baby from the down-side of chemicals and pharmaceuticals is a necessary caveat given our opportunity to reap their benefits.
Is knowledge our only power?
I believe that information is a blessing. I am not advocating that women have less access to information nor that they enjoy the bliss of ignorance over awareness. Knowledge is power. Yes, indeed it is. But it is one of many forms of power, and I fear it is the only power we still know.
This is what I see in the portrait of the anxious pregnant woman whose pregnancy is dominated by combing the internet for reliable numbers; I see a woman who only knows her power of knowledge.
What about her power to love? What about her vision, her feeling, her beauty, and her resolve? What about her body knowledge that knows how to grow, open, and move for creation and birthing? I believe that what women are craving when they pour themselves into better research on behalf of their babies, is a feeling of competence as providers and protectors. Women are competent to mother their babies. They are competent to protect, and also to birth, love and offer parental guidance. We are amazing people! Birthing and raising young are natural, timeless acts we have not forgotten. Anxiety and worry are a piece of the pregnancy life, but they should be one small aspect of an over-all powerful experience of stepping into one’s next stage of maturation.
Each of women’s maturation stages have this similarity. Moving from girl to adolescent could be a time of power, as girls add sexuality, increased attunement to the cycles of nature, and greater intuition to their cast of abilities and attributes. Adolescent to carrier-of-life is another initiation, as is moving from pregnancy through birth to lactation. Entering the season of transformation during menopause and into elder wisdom are further stages of womanhood. Each is a season of change, and carries the possibility of new health risks and concerns, new worries, but also profoundly new power. There is reason for anxiety and worry, but only in the dark crevices. The far more prevalent truth in each of these transitions is new power, new abilities, and growth! Why is it that the worry is more readily experienced?
I think it is, in part, because there is so little to help a woman understand her other, non-knowledge based, sources of power. Because we are so immersed in a time in history when knowledge is so fully in its own power, we are blinded to all of the others – others which are uniquely responsible for our ability to grow, birth, and raise offspring. Others, dare I say, that are more feminine than our masculine attribute of knowledge.
Expecting Better’s Strengths and Weaknesses
This is where my emotional conflict over Expecting Better arises. I want to say, “No pregnant women, this is not it! This is not the grail you’re seeking! It’s a band-aid!” Oster’s book is a busy analytical exercise in thinking better, not expecting better. She does a great job of highlighting that lifestyle talk in pregnancy is patronizing and unfair. She does a great job rebutting the judgement and guilt attached to sensationalized exaggerations of risk. She is an advocate of evidence-based practice. But what she does not do is change the game. She’s fighting fire with fire. In a world where women’s power is overlooked because the only power we accept is the logical intellect, she is perpetuating the supremacy of formulas, facts, and figures.
Women can compete in the masculine world of numbers. Wonderful economists like Oster prove that. I also believe that men can compete in the feminine world of love and servant leadership. This is not about male and female, though it is about feminine and masculine. As long as pregnancy is dominated only by masculine reason, the gap between present reality and empowered pregnancy will remain as gaping as it currently is, and unfortunately has been for several generations.
The Powers of Pregnancy
I do believe there was a time when pregnancy, while it had its fears, was an experience of sisterhood, strength, and bravery. We felt equipped for mystery. I believe that birthing is still, and always has been, both a biological process and an act of love. There was a shift in history when our birth companions became doctors whom we perceived to be smarter, better informed, and better equipped than ourselves. Before that time, our birth companions were women we believed were there to serve us, care for us, encourage us, and teach us to be brave. They committed to never leave us during our birthing, which gave us strength. They taught us to trust the way we felt to move our bodies, which freed us to follow our instincts. They were helpers indeed, but we looked to ourselves to birth. Simply put, we knew it was up to us. When our birth companions became authorities, and rescuers, we lost awareness of our power.
The answer is not a return to a limited ability to intervene in complications. I celebrate the technological and informational advances which we have access to today. The answer is a return to our power.
Expectant women, please know you are the source of your birthing. You will give birth. You are growing this baby. You are enough! You are brave enough, informed enough, and smart enough to keep yourself and your baby safe. By your birthing, and by your smart thinking and the rallying of accomplished and skillful birth attendants, you are creating the circumstance for your baby’s safe passage. You should worry about what is safe for you and your baby (and Oster’s book is a nice piece of information as you do so). But let this worry occupy a small space in your emotional landscape in comparison with heartfelt knowledge that you are timeless and strong and capable.
If this is not your experience, if you feel anxious instead, I urge you – do not pacify your need to feel powerful and confident with more and more information. Seek the information you need, but reserve time to fill your soul. Think about birthing, and pregnancy, as an act of love. Where does your knowledge and strength for that loving come from? Who loves you? Who do you love? Who believes in you? From where do you draw strength? Your dreams and hopes, your walks in nature, your sexuality; these are teachers that help you know what to do, and how to do it. Answers and authority lie both within and without. Your sense of readiness and confidence will grow as you educate yourself with information, and will mature when you pay equal attention to the powers of your body and soul.
I know that holistic decision-making is not the subject of Expecting Better, and the point of this reflection on the book is not to belittle her insights. Oster contributes meaningfully to a conversation about navigating pregnancy and birth choices today. But it is important, I think, to recognize that Oster, as her book sales climb, is becoming a guide to women who feel lost or anxious in the sea of new rules and priorities that come with pregnancy. I’m not so sure that, as a guide, she is going to help many women find a way out of the trap of the information age. A balance between reliance on external authority and confidence in self is sorely needed. The heart needs to contribute to discussions on sacrifice. Our many powers, not only our intellect, are necessary to find wholeness, calm, and confidence as mothers. The wound of insecurity is deep. Healing is possible – and a band-aid is only one small contribution. The larger process happens from within.