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Your Pregnancy or Theirs? How advice can heighten pregnancy stress

I was actually pregnant and drinking coffee when I read this in the PostSecret Twitter feed: “I work at Starbucks. I judge pregnant mothers and decaffeinate their drinks, even though they ask for caffeinated.”

I wasn’t shocked.

At six months pregnant, I had already been judged for eating a ham sandwich, ordering tuna and scarfing down California rolls. Ask any pregnant woman and she’ll tell you similar stories about friends, relatives and strangers chastising her for everything from eating Caesar salad (that dressing may have raw eggs!) to doing yoga (does the baby like being bent?). It’s a phenomenon that is as old as pregnancy itself.

Alice Carpenter, editor of LandofBabies.com, says she sees it all the time and believes the problem is growing worse with the rise of mom blogs and pregnancy websites. “It’s hard to ignore the voice of criticism when it seems to be everywhere and made more vicious by the Internet. Women who would otherwise be surrounded by supportive communities of friends and families are now bombarded by voices telling them what not to do every time they open their browsers.”

And these critical voices can make a pregnant woman – who’s already anxious about all the ways in which her body is changing – even more on edge. Dr. Ronald Jaekle, a maternal-fetal medicine expert at the University Hospital in Cincinnati Ohio, says that this anxiety is felt by all the pregnant women who come to see him. “So many pregnant women feel that their body is not their own and struggle with that. They may not say it outright, but I hear it in their concerns.”

New mom Leanne Goolsby said that her bodily anxiety came to a head when she was in her third trimester. “It’s like people forget that there is a woman attached to the belly. All anyone can focus on is the baby. Being pregnant apparently gives people a free pass to comment on your weight and size, touch you, stare at you, laugh at you, and ask totally inappropriate questions.”

But Nat Polzin, mom of three, has no problem judging other pregnant women. In fact, she sees it as her right, in a way. “Pregnant women can be so self-centered. They don’t realize that their actions affect another human being,” she said. “If their child is born with a low birth weight or has problems because of the mother’s decisions, society pays for that. So why is it such a big deal if society has something to say to the pregnant woman chugging coffee at Starbucks?”

Polzin’s sentiments aren’t new, but the supposed effects of certain acts can be comical. A 14th century encyclopedia of medicine says that, “Some have attributed monsters to be being procreated from the corruption of foul and filthy foods that women eat, or want to eat, or that they abhor looking upon just after they have conceived; or [they say] that someone may have tossed something between their teats, such as a cherry, plum, frog, mouse, or other thing that can render infants monstrous.” (Which isn’t so crazy-sounding if you’ve ever been pregnant and Googled phrases like “why does my pee smell different?”)

As if the criticism of others wasn’t enough, expecting mothers typically blame themselves for any hiccup in their pregnancies, regardless if whether it’s in their control. Dr. Jaekle regularly sees women who are in high-risk pregnancies or have children with birth defects, and with very few exceptions they all blame themselves. “They all think it’s their punishment for sin or because they took the wrong type of medicine before they knew they were pregnant.”

And while prenatal care has come a long way, there are still a lot of unknowns about what women are truly able to prevent and what’s genetic. Fetal care experts still argue about the effects of alcohol on an infant, for example. These conflicts, about what’s safe and what’s not make it even more difficult for pregnant women to feel confident in their lifestyle choices.

When Lisa Romeo was pregnant with her second child, she experienced dramatic body temperature shifts that doctors couldn’t explain. She believes that “Pregnancy and all it can possibly do to a woman’s body is still less understood than we’d like to think. No doctor ever came up with a plausible reason why all these things happened to me, when I’d had a completely problem-free pregnancy just three years before.”

To avoid living in a perpetual state of anxiety, Romeo coped with the unknowns by relying on her family’s support and tuning out what other people had to say. During pregnancy, women literally cede their bodies to their children, and in the process of doing so, cede parts of themselves both physically and emotionally. “Once you are a mother,” added Goolsby, “people feel they have the right to judge you and your children in ways they never would have judged you if you were just single.”

So where does this societal need to scrutinize mothers come from? It could be traced back to Western anxiety toward the female body. We both sexualize it and demand that it be covered. We celebrate its forms (“beautiful belly art!”) yet chastise women in low-cut tops (“do these celeb moms dress too young for their age?”). Pregnancy seems to be just an intensified version of what already rumbles through our society, and the chorus of voices who criticize keep a woman from understanding where her autonomy ends and the baby’s begins.

Dr. Jaekle sees this censorship in a less sinister light, however. “It’s a rite of passage. Women experience something transformative, and they view it as their job to usher other women through that same process.” Yet, as I told Dr. Jaekle, if this censure is a rite of passage, it’s a nine-month rush for the worst sorority ever. And my friends who are mothers told me that the chorus only grows louder once the baby is born. Now that my daughter is three months old, I have to agree.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed from information overload, women might consider talking to talk to their doctors in lieu of Googling every question. Alice Carpenter advises that you “Be informed and get someone to advocate on your behalf.” She hired a doula to help her through her pregnancy and delivery and said the experience was invaluable. “Everyone has an opinion about what you should do with your body and your child, but in the end, the most important opinion is your own. It’s important not to lose sight of that.”

Now that I’m on the other side of the journey with a baby of my own, I keep my advice to myself when I hear pregnant women complain. I know they aren’t looking for my opinion – if they wanted it, they’d ask. The best I can offer is solidarity, encouragement and no judgment when they want to drink a bucketful of coffee.

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