Fear, Guilt and Governmental Recommendations

It is easy to make me feel guilty, always has been.  A plaintive look, a well-argued appeal to my sense of justice, or a suggestion that I’m not living up to expectations or responsibilities, and I fold, quickly.

I’ve always been this way, but it’s become more acute since I’ve become a parent.  No surprise, right?  In case you haven’t heard, motherhood is the province of guilt.  Moms dish it out.  But, we feel it too… urgently.   For we, mothers and fathers, are responsible for the bearing, nurturing, feeding, growing, and teaching of our children.

For moms though, it’s amplified in the abundant and aggressive messages we get about how we are supposed to bear and care for our kids.  Starting in the preconception stage, we hear about how we need to start taking prenatal vitamins and have genetic screenings.  During pregnancy, these messages and rules intensify.  Most make sense:  exercise and eat well, take daily prenatal vitamins, get enough sleep, get sufficient prenatal medical care, have the appropriate medical screenings.  In short, be healthy.  A tough ask but not a crazy one.  But, then there is the ever growing list of other things pregnant women should avoid, and this list can make a person feel crazy.  Don’t take any medications besides Tylenol (what to do if you need anti-depressants?  See this recent comment in the Motherlode blog http://nyti.ms/1m1HLZY), avoid nail polish, hair dye, pesticides, sunscreen, fish with mercury, cruise ships, runny cheese, farm fresh food, and on and on and on…  The more we start thinking about the potential risk the more we can come to feel like the only way to grow a healthy babe is by living in a bubble, a bubble without BPAs and that doesn’t off-gas, of course.

For the type of mom who plans and reads, who finds it slightly unreal that a human can grow in her body, and who likes to do things right, (in short, me) all these instructions and suggestions can create a fast track to crazy-land.  When I was pregnant with Big Girl, I started buying only organic produce and dairy, stopped using any cosmetics including chapsticks with petroleum, switched out our commercial cleaners for vinegar and baking soda, banned wearing shoes in the house (because of the pesticides and toxins we track in on our shoes) and followed dozens of the other rules as well.  Lots of these changes were healthy ones, and most of them have become permanent lifestyle changes.  But, far from making me feel confident in my impending parenthood, these changes made me more worried and sensitive to all the other things that could go wrong.  By the time Big Girl was born, I was a nervous wreck.

Modern pregnancy has become an indoctrination into a culture of fearful parenting (more on that in some future posts).

This is why the news is making me crazy this week.  First, while the news about the Zika virus going global should be concerning to everyone; Microcephaly is associated with cognitive delays and decreased brain functioning.  The news that El Salvador has advised women not to get pregnant until 2018, and Brazil has also advised women not to get pregnant is downright alarming!  Not only because it seems so unrealistic… half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, I don’t have the stats but I suspect that in these largely Catholic countries (57% Roman Catholic in El Salvador, 65% in Brazil), the rates are similar if not higher, but, also because of the way that this recommendation makes an international health concern the responsibility of individual women.  I can easily imagine how guilty I would feel if my child was born with Microcephaly because I was exposed to a virus… even though it clearly wouldn’t have been my fault that I was exposed.  And, for the many women around the world without access to reliable birth control, it wouldn’t even have been their fault that they got pregnant to begin with if their birth control failed.

The second piece of news this week that is making me crazy is that the CDC has announced that sexually active women of childbearing age should abstain from alcohol unless they are using reliable methods of birth control.  This new and more stringent recommendation can be read about in a press release issued yesterday (http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0202-alcohol-exposed-pregnancy.html).  Although it is clear that fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious and heartbreaking syndrome, this recommendation seems extreme and unrealistic as well.  The idea that drinking before getting pregnant is dangerous to the fetus is patently false and the idea that drinking very lightly and very occasionally later in pregnancy is dangerous has been repeatedly challenged.  The justification the CDC gives is that half of pregnancies are unplanned; how about reducing that number?  Again, how about making birth control accessible and affordable for all?  And, if women are really drinking at dangerous amounts and if Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is really widespread?   Then we need to do something societally about alcohol consumption overall, not just for women.

I am in no way saying that Microcephaly or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are not serious conditions nor am I suggesting that having a special needs child is not a tremendous life altering, and often tragic experience.  But, I am saying that being a woman, a prospective mother, or an actual mother, is more than being a womb.  Cultural problems, environmental toxins, and diseases are societal level problems; it can’t be just pregnant women who have to bear the responsibility.

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