The first thing that I noticed when I was pregnant, wasn’t my mounting nausea or bloated stomach, but how almost strangers exerted control over my body. The local barista encouraged me to drink decaf. The cashier at my favorite lunch spot questioned my choice to eat California rolls. The woman in line at Target warned me against wearing high heels. By becoming pregnant, it seemed, that my body and my choices were no longer my own. And a lot of these comments seemed to have no basis in science.
We live in a world run by science and technology. We don’t just have men on the moon, we have rovers on Mars. And yet, the world of pregnancy is still dominated by rumor and myth. A new study done by researchers at the University of Cincinnati revealed that cultural hearsay has a huge impact on how women approach pregnancy. This may explain why in the United States moderate drinking during pregnancy is still a cultural taboo, despite evidence to the contrary.
In her book Expecting Better, Emily Oster, associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago, breaks down the data and tries to demystify the science of gestation. Through her research, Oster discovered that moderate drinking during pregnancy has no impact on a child’s IQ, brain development or behavior. She also discovered that the ban on coffee has no factual basis. In fact, the data showed that drinking caffeine can be beneficial during pregnancy. Sushi? It’s fine. Deli meat? Oster herself only cut out turkey when she was pregnant.
Ultimately, Oster’s book reveals that despite the evidence, our cultural conceptions about what pregnant women should or should not do are deeply ingrained into our social psyche. Just take a look at the brouhaha surrounding her book. Commenters call out Oster and others who would dare to follow her lead, selfish, morally bankrupt and undeserving of their children and all over a few nibbles of sushi.
Additionally, critics malign Oster for doling out advice despite not being a doctor. Yet, not having an MD is precisely why I think we should listen. Most women who get pregnant are not doctors. Most of us don’t have formal medical training and, quite frankly, even the ones that do don’t have all the answers. Two of my doctors during my pregnancy gave me conflicting information on alcohol and caffeine. With all of this conflicting advice, it’s no wonder women turn to social media and message boards. Yet, despite this glut of Google-enabled information, we are still lost, clinging to mythologies, paranoia and misconception.
With the stakes so high, no parent to-be wants to make the wrong move. And for doctors, with the stakes even higher, no one wants to get sued. Oster’s advice cuts through the emotion, myth, fear of malpractice litigation and looks at the numbers. A mother herself, Oster’s interest isn’t just curiosity, it’s the same thing that motivates every new mom as she flips through a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She wants answers for herself and her family.
And Oster’s ability to break down the data into informed analysis is a refreshing break from the hysterical hearsay that often dominates the conversation.
But whatever you decide, the book and the controversy surrounding it, underscore our societies reticence to let women own their bodies and their pregnancies and make their own decisions.
Perhaps pregnancy inspires this fleshy land grab because pregnancy doesn’t just involve the woman but the fetus inside of her. And yet, the complete lack of respect we have for women shows in our societal inability to let them look at the facts and make their own decisions for themselves and their child. Something Oster is dealing with right now, as critics question her ability to interpret the data, much less write a book about it.
Oster is a Harvard-trained economics professor, but even if she wasn’t, it isn’t our place to question her ability to look at the evidence and make decisions concerning herself, her body and her family. So, booze it up or don’t, do yoga, or get an epidural, or don’t. I don’t care. But do make your mind up for yourself. Each pregnancy is as unique as the child it produces. In the end, the right answer is the answer you choose. And it’s a preview of parenting, where, when it comes to your child, a doctor will not have the answers, that’s for you to learn, research and discover on your own. We each find our own best way.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Walt Disney Company.