Saturday, November 12, 2011

'I'm pregnant, now what can I eat ...?'

Once my initial doctor had managed to get past the automotive metaphors, and started to engage a little more with me as a pregnant woman rather than a sprained ankle attached to a sportsperson, he started giving me the hard word on what I should and shouldn’t eat. His nurse, who was only marginally warmer than he was - at least she congratulated us - handed me an envelope full of guidelines and advertisements dressed up as information to wade through on the subject of good nutrition in pregnancy. There was specific information on the risks associated with certain foods.

With a heavy heart, I had already forsworn sushi. Not being a meat-eater and rarely having the opportunity to eat shellfish (which was also banished), I had thought I was pretty much OK with everything else. So it was with an even heavier heart, that I read through the list. Soft cheeses were out, even if pasturised, as were eggs with runny yolks (bye bye eggs benedict, it was nice knowing you). Any deli food, including salads, which had been standing rather than freshly cooked was off the menu. My work lunch options were starting to narrow alarmingly. As I read further, I was surprised to note that hummus - made from cooked chickpeas, pounded sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil - was out too. I realise it is about risk rather than intrinsic harmfulness, but is it really possible to catch listeria from the humble chickpea? Then I thought it must be the anaemic kind that you buy at the supermarket, and momentarily cheered myself with the thought that this was the moment to start making it myself. Not so, according to the food police, even the home-made variety was suspect.

At this point, I started to panic. What on earth was I going to eat? I couldn’t just live on biscuits (which, being thoroughly cooked, were surprisingly OK), rock-hard scrambled eggs and rice for nine months. Not to worry, however. The morning sickness soon kicked in with a vengeance and I was lucky if I could keep down some plain pasta and peas.

Little did I realise that this was the first in a slew of attempts to police my body and appetites in the guise of being ‘for the good of the baby.’ Given that most pregnant women are concerned for the health of their unborn child, what is particularly insidious about this long list of dos and don’ts is that it guilt-trips women into policing themselves and each other. How shocking is it, for example, to see a pregnant woman having a sip of wine, and God forbid, having a tasty slice of brie with it? You can practically hear the CYFS hotline number being punched into a hundred mobile phones.

But it doesn’t end there. Far from it. I have an acquaintance who is determined to breastfeed for as long as possible till her child is possibly even three or four, not, apparently, because she wants to (though I presume she does), but because the ‘World Health Organisation recommends it’. The WHO actually states:

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond (my emphasis).

So it’s hardly an edict. It seems a little over the top to continue breastfeeding because some suits in Geneva recommend it (and that’s not exactly what they say, in any case). I note that it is the World Health Organisation too: they offer best practice advice to mothers all over the world, not just those in wealthy nations. So it’s probably preferable to continue breastfeeding in places where the alternatives are to drink formula or powdered milk made with unsafe water (hang your head in shame, NestlĂ©) resulting in disease and death.

In New Zealand, we have the luxury of not having to make that ‘choice’. Given that it’s not such a life or death situation, I can’t help but feel that the food police and the breastfeeding zealots are part and parcel of the same thing: the control of women’s bodies and appetites. Of course, some expectant mothers do eat soft cheese, hummus and have the odd cheeky glass of wine, probably with the added frisson of doing something they shouldn’t. A bit like having a piece of cake when you’re meant to be on a diet: a transgression against the regime of disciplining the body into society’s expectations of it. Only, pregnant women aren’t meant to diet. So it seems that food dos and don’ts offer a replacement regime to which women should either rigidly stick or from which they guiltily fall off the wagon. It seems that there’s no escape from the beauty myth.

Of course, it is also tied up with perfect mother syndrome. Falling into line with the prevailing wisdom on appropriate nutrition for you while pregnant, or for the baby once it is born, is a way of ensuring that you are doing the right thing, even while others may not. That it’s also submitting to someone else’s idea of how you should run your life might not even enter the frame.

I have to confess that I was one of the more scrupulous pregnant women: I sadly passed the sushi counter sniffing the air like a melancholic puppy, passed on the blue cheese and camembert at work functions, and didn’t even think about wine, let alone hummus, that horror of horrors. I even consulted a book called I’m Pregnant, Now What Do I Eat?

In retrospect, I am a little surprised at my docility. At the time, however, I felt apprehensive. I was worried that something I might do, whether inadvertent or intentional would harm the baby. Of course, there are some risks, but, as I am increasingly finding, babies are more resilient than we are led to believe. Mothers I know who did eat hummus and soft cheese while pregnant delivered healthy babies, with no sign yet of their having suffered through exposure to chickpeas and processed milk in utero. So is it the baby we are protecting by being so vigilant or dominant cultural values that primarily define women according to their bodies?