Pregnancy and the Culture of Fear

Early on in my pregnancy, I had some abnormal blood tests. I will preface this story by saying that luckily, by now, we have learned that nothing is seriously wrong with me. But at the beginning of pregnancy, we didn’t know that. And frankly, we were already feeling a bit nervous and overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming parents and taking care of this small child. We knew many stats and stories about miscarriage in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the fact that something could be wrong with me, and therefore wrong with the baby, too, was overwhelming. So, I spent the first few weeks of pregnancy receiving vague voicemails on the phone from doctors, sitting in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices (some of the worst places in the world when you are nervous), getting my blood drawn, waiting on lab results, worrying, trying not to worry so I didn’t hurt the baby, etc. At each of these appointments, doctors would warn me about a variety of possible outcomes, but would give me very little real information about what was happening.

Coupled with this, I began to read a lot online about pregnancy. BIG MISTAKE. One thing that I had not realized was just how exhausted and foreign your body can feel to you during the first few months of pregnancy. Popular culture likes to make references to morning sickness , women’s extra keen sense of smell and the fact that you may visit the “ladies’ room” more often than you used to. But what they do not tell you is that your body starts to change. My abs started to ache, I got a weird metallic taste in my mouth, the site and/or smell of chicken was enough to send me running, and I fell asleep every evening between 8:30 and 9 and could have slept straight through until 9 or 10 in the morning, if it hadn’t been for those pesky alarm clocks. The worst part of this was that, when I “googled” each new symptom (which I did), you could find some healthy information about normal pregnancy symptoms. But for each web page telling you that you were normal, there were 50 “messages from doctors”, pregnancy forums or hospital sites that told you that this symptom, as well as many other perfectly normal bodily changes, could be a sign of many terrible things.

And added to this was the food culture. To anyone who ate with me during the first months of pregnancy, I apologize. I was terrified of hurting our small baby by eating anything incorrect. I carried my smart phone with me everywhere and diligently “googled” everything I ate. And, just like you can with symptoms, you can find web pages to convince you that any and every food is off limits. At one point

Avoid unpasteurized cheese at all costs!

in time, I refused to drink herbal teas because an article I had read about the possibly damaging effects of too much chamomile and peppermint (seriously) and I even got nervous about eating peanut butter on celery because I wasn’t convinced the celery had been adequately washed.

Add to this the list of other things that you should avoid around the house: beauty products (Scented soaps! Dandruff shampoo! Hair dye! Nail polish!), household cleaners (although I didn’t mind making Justin the primary user of these), cat litter (again, not so sad here), and a myriad of other, random things to be feared. There was never a safe space or moment in the day! You had to be constantly vigilant in order to be pregnant!

Part of my obsession with following these rules obviously had to do with my own issues of hypochondria and nervousness over carrying a child for the first time. It felt like, and is, a big responsibility. I do want to be a “healthy vessel” for this little human.

But I also think the issues go beyond me personally. I think that our health care culture, and our culture in general, is really into scaring pregnant women. Increasingly, the list of foods you should avoid is growing, along with the activities you should be wary of and the symptoms that are “harbingers of doom.” In another article, journalist Marie Baca describes the world of “middle class pregnancy” as full of hysteria and paranoia. It’s a world where, “… having a baby can feel less like participating in an ancient biological process and more like taking on a high-stakes independent research project.”

We can see this by not only by looking at the laundry lists of things that you should fear and avoid like the plague during pregnancy, but also through the number of interventions that occur in pregnancies. The number of ultrasounds that each pregnant woman receives has grown astronomically over the past few years. In addition, the rate for C-sections has risen to almost 33 percent, and about 23 percent of women have their labor induced. Some women choose these options, because serious complications arise. But it also seems that doctors and hospitals alike are just much more likely to paint pregnancy as a high risk endeavor and to not trust childbirth to proceed in healthy and natural ways.

And here’s the thing. Miscarriages and birth complications do happen, and they are sad and devastating when they do. And we need to make sure that women have spaces to share those stories of loss and to grieve. But for hundreds of thousands of years, women have been having really normal, healthy pregnancies, too. And they probably ate soft cheeses and enjoyed seafood and didn’t have to visit the doctor every 4 weeks.

So for now, I’m still following many of “the rules” (better safe than sorry, right?), but I’ve stopped looking online for information, and I’m trying to trust the process.

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20 Comments

Filed under Motherhood

20 responses to “Pregnancy and the Culture of Fear

  1. Krista Dutt

    Thanks for this Hannah. I am over the “old” marker for pregnancy, and have high blood pressure on an average day, have had two back surgeries, so not only am I high risk – I have become a case study at my ob/gyn office. In some ways, I think the joy of being pregnant has been taken from me because I am constantly at the doctor with a new test they want to run. It is a fine line between using the science available to us as modern folks and just letting the process take place. Even writing that sentence is hard for me. Because of my previous health history, preventive medicine is a passion of mine – but being pregnant isn’t a sickness to be prevented. Its a great experience – but I think I missing out on a lot of it because of all the tests and the fear of all the doctors that I might sue in the end if they don’t find this or that and warn me and Jim.

    Have a great class tonight!

    (And really thanks for this post!)

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Krista – Thanks for sharing. It at least makes me feel more normal to know that I am not the only one who feels like she has been at the doctor all the time over the past few months. But I agree. It is hard to really enjoy everything that comes with pregnancy when you keep feeling like a lab rat or test case. I don’t know if your baby has begun moving in earnest yet, but a couple times in the recent days and weeks I’ve been able to actually watch my belly move, and that has been such a gift and a reminder of why it is that I’m really going through these steps and also a reminder that, despite whatever I or my body might be doing to mess it up, there’s a healthy little human growing inside of me. AND, our Bradley childbirth classes have been awesome. I would highly recommend them!

  2. Grace

    Have you watched the documentary “The Business of Being Born”? I think it may still be on Netflix instant. The culture of fear is the number one selling point doctors use to force women into unnecessary inductions and C-sections. Trust what your body is telling you!

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      This just got recommended to me the other day, Grace. Thanks for the reminder and letting me know it’s on Netflix. We will have to check it out.

  3. Julie Fridley

    Well said Hannah! I am saddened when women miss out on the joy of pregnancy and childbirth when they focus on the proposed dangers of it all. Pregnancy and birth can be the most empowering event in the life of a woman when she trusts her body and trusts the safety of birth.

  4. Alisa

    Hannah I think you should read this http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-most-scientific-birth-is-often-the-least-technological-birth/254420/?single_page=true and yes I know I am giving you more things on the internet to read but it is a fabulous article that might contribute to your thinking on this subject. Also never having had a child but having just finished (as of this morning) my OB nursing clinical I suggest looking into a doula.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Great article! Thanks for sharing. It was a really fascinating and, in my opinion, spot on read. As someone studying to be an OB nurse, how have you dealt with balancing all of these things as you think about your own practice and care for people in the future? And never fear, we have already hired a doula who I am very excited to work with. If we have to be at a hospital, we at least want to bring someone with us who can be an advocate for natural processes!

  5. Bev

    Hi Hannah,
    I’m enjoying your blog through your mom’s links on facebook and I really appreciate your writing. This particular subject brings to mind something I’ve been thinking about a lot. It seems in our culture we believe that we can control all the bad things that can happen to us by behaving correctly. It is very strong with pregnancy, because there is something so precious to lose, but it is everywhere in the culture. At my age the scary things we are avoiding include early memory loss, early loss of mobility, not enough money saved up for retirement (with the accompanying terror that any slip into bad health will eat up everything and leave us with nothing). Everywhere you turn there are new studies of what to eat, how to exercise, how much money is required. There aren’t enough hours in the day to adequately take care of our physical/mental/spiritual/financial health.

    Which brings me to the question…how do we live responsibly and also live as people of faith? I don’t want to be stupid about caring for myself or my future, but at the same time, I DO want to be able to abundantly live out of “Do not worry about what you shall eat or drink or wear. Seek first the kingdom of God and these things shall be added to you.” I’m seeking a balance that is elusive in this culture.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Bev – This is so very true. I think about this all the time. How much preventative care is good, and when do you know if enough is enough? I’m sure that each stage of life, from birth to death, comes with its own set of challenges for thinking about what it means to live faithfully and healthily. It seems like it’s worth it to remain within that struggle for balance. Thanks for sharing!

  6. lbl346

    Hannah, as a bit of a hypochondriac with an anxious personality I’ve had to teach myself not to look things up online (like prescription side effects, disease symptoms, that red mark that might be a spider bite, etc) because it just scares the pee out of me. I even had to stop googling cat diseases every time my cat did something abnormal. (I can’t imagine what I would be like as a mother to a human!)
    But with pregnancy I try to remind my friends that my sister-in-law didn’t even know she was pregnant for almost four months (There’s a long story there, I promise). And she gave birth to a healthy, vibrant baby girl who is now in first grade. So I think it’s important to remember that birth is a natural process that women have been doing without the assistance of internet for thousands of years. Best of luck in the rest of your pregnancy and in parenthood (although thing you should try to do with as little assistance from the internet as possible).

    • lbl346

      The last parenthesis should say “another” not “although.” Sigh.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Wow, sometime would not mind hearing the story of your sister-in-law: sounds like a crazy journey! And thanks for sharing about your own anxieties, too. It makes me feel more normal to know that there are others of you out there who also obsess a bit about strange bumps, bites, etc.

  7. Hey Hannah! Good for you. I’ve been married over six years and we haven’t had kids yet, the pregnancy itself just seemed such a huge undertaking, not a natural biological process. During massage school we were taught about so many potential conditions that could cause a patient to be hospitalized for the entire pregnancy, in horrible pain, etc. I’m sure this didn’t do me any good. 🙂 I’m just starting to realize I don’t want to be a part of the fear culture. Humans have given birth naturally and gone without doctor visits and operations since our beginning. 🙂

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      That is totally right! I’m really just starting to try to reclaim this for myself. Last night we went on our first hospital visit to check out the labor and delivery rooms, and I could already feel myself getting a little stressed as they talked about all the extra precautions they take, and strapping you in to monitors when you first arrive, etc. I’ll have to make sure that our doctor knows we’re hoping for a more laid back birth process!

      And as for pregnancy, yes, I would agree that it is crazy intimidating. We will have been married about five and a half years when Baby H arrives, and it still feels really soon. And you are right, pregnancy is a physical ordeal, but there has also been really awesome stuff, like getting to see the baby move (your belly physically moves when they kick!) and carrying a little human around with you throughout the day. There’s something really special about it all, too!

  8. Bryan

    Thanks for sharing Hannah.

  9. Kris

    HI Hannah- You’ve got a follower now living in Laos (though originally from Goshen, IN and still Mennonite). This is a great post, but I have to warn you that as a mother of a 11 year old, the worry and ‘fear culture’ doesn’t end with the birth…there’s a whole lifetime ahead. I find it reassuring to think back to when I was a child and remembering all now-horrifying things that we somehow ‘survived’. Living in another culture (with a Lao husband) has made me aware of the huge cultural differences and how so much we claim to be medical/scientific may actually be based on traditions. Some Lao women friends were amazed that after childbirth I didn’t have to lie over a hot fire for six weeks in order to heal. I look forward to reading your previous and future posts.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hi Kris – How cool that you are reading from Laos! I grew up around Goshen, Indiana, too, so we have that in common. I am sure you are right: already people have been offering us tons of hundred page books about childrearing, how to keep your baby happy, warning signs, etc. so I am sure that there will be a similar process of figuring out what to take seriously and what to let slide with our new baby. And it’s really interesting to hear about the Lao traditions for childbirth. Not too long ago I was talking with a mom of three kids who is Korean, who shared with me that they have very strict understandings of how soon you can shower after childbirth (not too soon) and keeping the home heated, even in the summer, so that you and the baby do not get too cold, etc. It’s funny how traditions like that stand out, but we really do never examine our own assumptions about childbirth and see where they are rooted. Thanks for these thoughts!

  10. Grace

    Hannah! I am so glad you have a doula. Are you planning to do a home birth?!

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Grace – Sadly no. Because I do have naturally low platelet counts, the midwife that we talked with recommended a hospital birth, at least for the first. But, I am definitely planning to try and labor at home as long as possible before heading into the hospital!

      • Grace

        That’s great! You have to know your body’s limitations. What kind of hospital setting will you be in? Do they have any natural/holistic birthing amenities (tubs, balls, etc.?)

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