When You’re Pregnant, Nothing Seems in Your Control

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis

When you’re pregnant, people act like the most important thing about you is your pregnancy. Your body feels like it is no longer yours: You are poked and prodded at, your weight announced and charted weekly, and for the first time, even if you are quite healthy, your spouse accompanies you into the exam room.

This can be positive: You feel bonded to your partner if you have one, you feel illuminated by a sort of pale and affectionate light. People really are nicer to you, especially in huge cities like New York. “As soon as I was visibly and clearly pregnant,” writes the critic and poet Adrienne Rich, “I felt, for the first time in my adolescent and adult life, not-guilty. The atmosphere of approval in which I was bathed — even by strangers on the street, it seemed — was like an aura I carried with me.” I sympathize, but my experience, because I’m a person who generally doesn’t like attention, was different. I didn’t feel approval, I felt judgment. I felt unsure of how to respond to offers of assistance or seats on buses. Should I be offended? Smile affably? I don’t like sitting on the subway, I prefer to stand: And yet, often I found myself accepting seats simply to make other people feel more at ease.

The communal interest in your womb makes sense on some level: You, the woman who is having a child, obviously spend a lot of your time trying to create the healthiest environment for that child, so wouldn’t you appreciate a hand from those around you? But when the safety concerns move from the personal to the communal — when “I should” or “I shouldn’t” becomes “Women should” or “Women shouldn’t” — things can get uncomfortable. Especially when the advice you’re getting isn’t based on any kind of rigorous science or agreement in the medical community. What’s happened lately, it seems, is worst-case-scenario thinking on a grand scale when it comes to pregnancy, and by extension, to women and their bodies during pregnancy.

Any decent obstetrician will tell you not to worry too much. Mine, in fact, told me that worrying was worse than eating the occasional deli salad, having the occasional glass of wine, or drinking some coffee. But women routinely abstain from all of these things — deli salads, wine, coffee — for their entire pregnancies, although the risks are neither simple nor clear.

We know, for instance, that drinking alcohol during pregnancy carries a lot of risks, but doctors differ wildly on where the line for those risks actually falls, and many quietly tell pregnant women that having a drink every now and then in the third trimester is perfectly fine. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that women who are not using a form of birth control abstain from drinking alcohol completely, in order, it said, to avoid exposing possible fetuses to the harmful effects of alcohol. Unsurprisingly, this recommendation was met with sneers from a lot of really pissed-off women. Who does the CDC think it is, after all? Wouldn’t it be better to simply recommend that women who are trying to get pregnant watch their intake, or, better yet, to suggest that sexually active women take measures to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies?

But when you’re talking about fetal health, nuance tends to get lost because the consequences of a misstep can be so devastating — and because all of us, medical officials and pregnant women both, tend to latch on to the parts we can control to make up for the vast swath of things we cannot. Every so often something terrifying arises like the Zika virus, which results in only minor symptoms (if any) in non-pregnant people but is now suspected of causing incredibly serious birth defects in newborns in South and Central America. In El Salvador, where sex ed is limited and abortion is illegal, health officials have advised women not to get pregnant, reacting to a disease they can’t control by doubling down on trying to control women’s bodies instead. For pregnant women in the U.S., it’s hard to know what to do, or whether to freak out. The women in a New York Post article called “Zika Ruined My Babymoon” don’t come off as especially sympathetic, but when faced with a mosquito-borne illness, what else can they do but cancel their tropical vacations? And then panic, perhaps, about eating deli meat.

Deep into my own pregnancy, I was at a small grocery-store deli counter ordering a half a pound of tuna salad for my husband. I don’t eat any meat or fish, so many of the normal pregnancy worries — undercooked fish, deli meats — didn’t apply to me at all, and my doctor told me, generally, “not to worry” because pretty much everything was out of my control. One thing that was certainly out of my control was a very-concerned-on-my-behalf young Brooklyn mother with two kids of her own by her side. She craned her neck to view my lil’ tub of tuna salad and said, “You’re not going to eat that, are you? It’s very dangerous!”

The old lady beside me, horrified on my behalf as I stood silenced, croaked, “She will eat whatever she wants.”

In an ideal world, interested parties — other parents who’ve been there, doctors who are educated in such matters, and governmental institutions — would band together to support pregnant women and help decrease, not increase, those everyday anxieties. After all, panicking helps no one, right? So why are we where we are? I’m tempted to suggest, based on my own experiences, that it’s because society doesn’t really accept that women can be and are responsible for their own bodies. This starts with birth control and abortion rights but extends even more vastly into pregnancy, when we have decided to have a child and are baking it inside our bodies. Then we are apt to feel that we officially belong to someone else — the child, society, our spouses — but surely not to ourselves.

Clearly this is a dangerous way to think about women. It’s also a fucking terrible way to live in pregnancy, enjoying almost nothing, worrying about everything, and assuming that the default likely scenario is that “something bad” is going to happen. Should we not fly when pregnant in case the plane crashes? Should we all simply lie down for the next year? I’m freaking out enough on my own; I don’t need all of society lining up to deliver new warnings every five seconds, too.

The truth is there is almost certainly a middle ground, where we take the smartest, most necessary precautions and also don’t lose our minds trying to control every second of what is a pretty long journey — because you can’t control it, even if you want to. Don’t worry if, like me, you accidentally ate a whole wheel of unpasteurized Brie at the end of your first trimester, before you knew about listeria. It’ll probably be fine.

When Pregnant, Nothing Seems in Your Control