When I mentioned recently to a group of other parents that I am reading a book on how conditions in the womb affect us for the rest of our lives, I noticed visible wincing. One mother cursed.
Parents know all too well how the actions of a pregnant women can affect her growing fetus. The first several dozen pages of most pregnancy books are devoted to all the things pregnant women cannot do, eat, drink or inhale and initial appointments with obstetricians or midwives are as much about soft cheese and house paint as anything else. New research is always rolling in, usually via alarming, attention-grabbing headlines. What do we have to avoid now? We’ve already eliminated tuna, deli meats, certain plastics, cleaning agents, phthalates, parabens, bisphenol a, un-pasteurized cheese and (unfiltered) water. I recall, at nine weeks pregnant, holding my breath as I passed the tail pipe of an idling truck. Risk-aversion may be the defining feature of modern pregnancy.
At its most benign, this paradigm may seem like a necessary irritation in the interest of our children’s future, but there is another side to all this precaution, and that’s how easily it transforms into suspicion and distrust. Mother and fetus are pitted against one another, and you can guess who’s the innocent one.
Against this gloomy background-or perhaps because of it-journalist Annie Murphy Paul embarked on an investigation of the emerging scientific field “fetal origins.” The result, Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest Of Our Lives, is riveting and, oddly enough given the seeming impossibility of being so, incredibly reassuring.
Don’t get me wrong. The book is full of grim news. Paul, who was pregnant while writing the book, did not find, after dozens of interviews with cutting edge fetal origins scientists, that there’s nothing to worry about. Nor does she tell us that the placenta can, in fact, filter out toxins like lint in a dryer.
On the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence showing that obesity, malnutrition, severe stress and depression can alter the way a fetus develops. Mostly the bad news involves seriously catastrophic events along the lines of wartime famine, natural disasters and terrorist attacks. “To be clear: these are not everyday hassles we’re talking about, the wear and tear of everyday life,” Paul writes.
But between the data on phthalates and thalidomide, and around the edges of tragic stories about Holocaust survivors and flu pandemics, a strangely positive story emerges, a story about mothers and fetuses engaged in a highly synchronized and extremely responsive physiological rapport. Gestation, it turns out, is not the mother “hosting the perfect parasite,” as once was believed. Instead, it’s a time when vital information is passed from mother to fetus, what Paul calls “biological postcards from the world outside.” These stories “make up a mix of influences as individual and idiosyncratic as the mother herself.”
For example, if a mother has hardly any food to eat in pregnancy, the fetus seems to adapt its metabolism for a world of scarcity. If a pregnant woman is exposed to constant heart-racing danger, the baby will develop an ability to be highly reactive to potential threats, while normal amounts of stress during pregnancy help prepare the baby for normal amounts of stress in the world. Mothers can pass on a preference for the taste of certain foods (both of my children gnawed on Thai curry puffs as infants, my favorite food while pregnant). Mostly this is a pretty good system.
According to scientists, problems come in, however, when the mother is “an unreliable narrator,” i.e. when circumstances during pregnancy do not mirror circumstances after birth. Paul looks at a study of pregnant Dutch women who were temporarily cut off from food supplies during WWII. These pregnant women who survived went on to have babies in a world of plenty, but the babies were already programmed to cling to every calorie. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes were much more common in those who had been conceived or born during the months of famine than in those conceived and born to the same population but at other times.
But even in these harsh instances, Paul brings us back from the brink: Yes, “there is a necessary acknowledgment that things can go wrong during gestation-but also a dawning sense that intrauterine conditions make a lot of things go right, that the prenatal period is where many of the springs of health and strength and well-being are found.”
When she looks into the fascinating science of epigenetics-the way genes can be switched on or off based on conditions of the womb-there are sad stories about the passing along of anxiety and obesity in families, but there’s also heaps of potential: what if we could end cycles of obesity or alcoholism in families by helping women adjust their behavior in pregnancy?
Origins sways back and forth from the scary to the life-affirming. Partly it’s the nature of the subject, but it’s also because this book is only half scientific inquiry. Paul’s own grappling with the research validates all mothers’ fears about the immensity of our new responsibility. But ultimately her goal seems to move away from the risk-aversion paradigm and to bring mother and fetus back into synch with one another. This connectedness is something that seems to have gone missing from our pregnancy culture. To this end, Paul revives serious discussion about the much-maligned subject of “maternal instincts.”
One fascinating Johns Hopkins study showed that women who had dreams or a very strong “feeling” about the sex of their fetuses were almost always right. Paul also learns that women tend to be more xenophobic in the first trimester – perhaps this is an instinct left over from the times when strange people meant strange infections?
It will be interesting to see how the new science into fetal origins will play out. As Paul observes it could become “the basis for a whole new species of mother-blame, finding fault with mothers even before their children are born.”
But there is a more optimistic scenario, in which “investments in the well-being of pregnant women and fetuses could result in a great upward leap in the population’s health, akin to jumps seen in earlier eras following widespread improvements in nutrition and sanitation.”
Paul, like every pregnant woman I’ve ever met, cares deeply about how her life affects her fetus. Most of all, she understands that the mother does not just have a life, she is a life, in deep nurturing communication with the life inside her.
Origins is available now at Amazon.com