Original photo by Rob Wiss, used by CC license
Original photo by Rob Wiss, used by CC license
My fiance and I are at least a year from starting our family, but I have spent the last 2 years or so “preparing the house for a tenant,” so to speak. I am taking my prenatal vitamins and fish oil religiously. I’ve started using BPA-free, reusable water bottles and avoiding canned tomatoes and fragrances as much as possible. But it seems like every time I turn around there is another warning about BPA, VOCs or phthalates in products.

Just how terrified should I be? Not that I’m not up for a sacrifice, but I’m kind of bummed about giving up my hair dye and make-up for 9 months to prevent my kids from being born with extra digits and whatnot. There is so much information out there, I don’t know where to draw my own conclusions. I was hoping someone could steer me in the right direction?

“There is so much information out there, I don’t know where to draw my own conclusions.” Welcome to parenting in a society that looooves to fear-monger and make recommendations about all the ways in which you’re endangering your child.

First thing’s first: this is great practice for parenthood. Repeat after me: there is no perfect. There is no perfect way to eat or live to reach some sort of perfect health for your pregnancy. There is no perfect way to be pregnant. There is no perfect way to feed your child or raise them. It’s all a big mystery, and we’re all just stumbling around trying to figure it out. Release the idea that there’s a “right direction.” You ask 100 people, and you will get 100 answers. You ask those same 100 people the same question in 10 years, and you’ll get 100 different answers.

But you asked this one person, and here’s my answer for right now: Of course you want to be healthy for your pregnancy, but you will drive yourself BAT SHIT INSANE if you try to follow every recommendation — also, the recommendations change weekly it seems, and half of them are ridiculous.

Every mother has to make her own calls about what she feels comfortable with, but my theory is this: The best thing you can do when trying to conceive (or being pregnant, or raising a child) is to relax. You ask, “just how terrified should I be?” And my answer is “avoid terror at all costs.” Crushing terror is way worse for you and trying to conceive than trace amounts of BPA in a can of tomatoes. So, stay informed, but weigh your risks and then release your fear.

Do the best you can, and then release control. Gather some information, make the decisions that feel right for you, and then let it go. Stop Googling. Stop reading about it. Know that you’re doing your best, and that’s good enough.

The pursuit of perfect health (in trying to conceive, being pregnant, or feeding your child) can be a never-ending anxiety game — don’t play it! Statistically speaking, if you want to talk about changing behavior to protect yourself, your unborn child, or your baby — you know what the biggest thing to avoid is? GETTING IN A FUCKING CAR. But you don’t hear research groups screeching “AVOID YOUR CAR AT ALL COSTS.” Instead they freak out about soft cheeses, deli meats, sushi, plastic water bottles, canned foods.

And have you thought about the historical contexts of recommendations for mothers? There was a time when women were warned not to sleep in a room with paintings of animals, because it would cause their baby to be hairy. We know this is ridiculous now — and I guarantee you that some of the recommendations being made today will sound equally ridiculous.

Look, I don’t want to be laissez faire here and deny that there are very real health risks associated with modern living and toxic chemicals, or that there are very real ways get healthier in preparation for pregnancy. I’m just saying that for me, the best lesson I learned to do was take it all with a grain of salt (OMG SODIUM! NOOOOZE!!!), and get over my Type-A “I can be the perfect student — I’m going to get an A+ in trying to conceive/being pregnant/childbirth/parenting!!!” tendencies. Ultimately, I learned to focus on whole-being wellness — staying relaxed and low-stress. I did my best to eat well and avoid chemically toxic environments and encounters, but I spent more energy on breathing exercises to stay calm than I did on obsessing over all the recommendations over what to avoid.

Women are getting pregnant and having healthy children in environments that are so toxic we can hardly imagine them. So yes, minimize your exposure to BPAs and mercury. By all means, be aware of environmental chemicals. Yes, organic veggies are probably better for you. But don’t get terrified. And don’t give up everything in the pursuit of perfect health.

Because perfect health doesn’t exist, and you can make yourself a different kind of sick by obsessing over it.

Comments on The terrorism of health recommendations for mothers

  1. THANK YOU ARIEL! Ever since I became pregnant I feel like society/well meaning friends/the internet has been purposefully trying to scare the ever livin’ sh*t out of me. I was on a major health/fitness kick just before I got pregnant, and then when I found out I was knocked up… well, I got paranoid and started obsessively trying to figure out pregnancy the way I did my own personal health. The bat sh*t insanity hit me only two weeks in… I was just overloaded with info<, and lots of it was contradicting. In the end I decided to just ask my OB/GYN anything I couldn't reason out on my own and just leave it at that. I've decided being Zen is more important then finding the "right" answers. I have 15 weeks to go, and everything has been smooth so far. I can't wait to meet my baby and just be a parent… as imperfect as I might be =)

  2. awesome awesome advice ariel!

    the best thing you can do it follow your instincts. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy everytime you new little one sneezes or gets a little red mark on her/him or gets a little temp. Stop. Breath. Take a step back. i’ve never known a bad decision when the momma followed her gut. screw everyone and their ‘warnings’! (well…pay attention to them and do your own research into, adapt to the ones YOU feel are necessary)

  3. Very good post!

    There is something that I read (maybe here?? Ha!) which has stuck with me, which goes something like:

    This whole “mommy wars” thing (i.e. YOU’RE A BAD PARENT IF YOU DON’T DO XYZ INSTEAD OF WXY OR VICE VERSA), all it is doing is turning parents against each other, while masking that there is a LACK OF INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT for mothers/parents.

    That is….”you stay at home/have your child in daycare, or vice versa?? Bad mother!!” When really….wait, why is there so little support for parents with pre-school kids?? More funding for safe daycares? Help for those who need to stay home with adopted children?, ETC.!

    Something to think about! A house divided against itself cannot stand, and all that.

    • JB – I agree… but would like to add that with “health scares” specifically, it seems Americans LOVE to be obsessed with one thing rather than overall, holistic health – pregnant or not. Friends who drink heavily are obsessed with buying BPA-free. A friend known to eat kielbasa every night (no joke) refused to use his cell phone AT ALL until he got a headset. My obese father-in-law is the first to forward us the latest “health scare” emails – spinach, microwaving plastic, using plastic wrap, etc… We are a culture of people obsessed with “if I avoid this one thing I’m ok” rather than the big picture!!!!

  4. Word! I had two turkey sandwiches last week, and that little voice in the back of my head was yammering, but I was at a good quality, high volume deli, and by god I wanted a turkey sandwich. In comparison to the whole lot of nothing I’ve been able to eat leading up to wanting a turkey sandwich… I’ll take the small risk.

        • Thanks! I got that when I was living in Tanzania about a decade ago. But, I was living in RURAL Tanzania. Now, reading through that list of items that are potentially harmful, nearly all of them are in our fridge right now — and I am 10 weeks preggo. So, thanks even more for the reassurement. 🙂

          I will continue to enjoy my bagel with smoked salmon, my turkey subs, and my smoked mackerel. I mean, there are lots of Omegas in there. 🙂

        • When I first heard about the no deli meats, I was crushed because I love me a sammich. It looks like statistically, it’s really unlikely to get lysteria (fewer than 1% of Americans). Not that I suggest eating pounds upon pounds of processed meats, but I think a sandwich every now again should be okay.

          • During my pregnancy the military nurses really tried to hammer the lysteria scare thing into me, I think the quoted fact was half of all lysteria cases are pregnant women, they were not happy when I pointed out that just how many people a year out of the whole country actually get sick, and that the city I was living in probably had more pregnant women that what that adds up to. Eat what you enjoy, every culture has its own recommendations and many contradict each other . . . the gift of being able to read pregnancy advice in three languages is that you get to learn to just follow your gut and forget everyone else.

    • While I know the risk is small, I just found it hard to eat deli meats but I started eating them sometimes once I figured out I could just cook it in the microwave. Eating out deli isn’t something I can do anyway, so it was easy enough to nuke it to hell, and I discovered it was pretty tasty and I’d get yummy melty cheese. It gave me peace of mind.

  5. Thank you so much for this post, it is so true!!! Before I got pregnant I was going to be miss clean eater perfect pregnant girl who worked out daily… Then I got pregnant and I realized that there is so much give and take even in pregnancy, who knew my biggest craving would be a Big Mac Meal? Its all about moderation, even during pregnancy otherwise you really will go nuts.

  6. A few days ago when I saw the latest and greatest recommendation that pregnant women should have limited-to-zero contact with their cats because they might track toxoplasmosis out of the litterbox, I decided it was time to back away from the internets. Who knows anyone whose kid got toxoplasmosis as a fetus? Where’s the toxoplasmosis pandemic that should be sweeping the world right about now, based on what the fearmongers say? I’m not making light of what I’m sure is a terrible diease, but really. My kitties calm me down, and I’m probably better off with them around and just cleaning the house on a sensible and regular basis.

    • Exactly! I mean, who is going to clean out the littler box? Should we let it fill up with waste, just because pregnant women shouldn’t be anywhere near it? Geez. That was just as bad as the “don’t dig in the dirt” thing that I heard when I was pregnant.

        • Hah! I used to be the litter box cleaner, because it is after all my cat that I had before my husband and I married and moved in together. But once I got pregnant, he cleaned the box because of the whole toxoplasmosis thing. And now, he still is the only who cleans it and the kid is nearly 3 and a half.

        • My husband always cleans the litter anyway, and I clean most everything else in the house (because he works, I don’t) – we both feel like we’re getting a good deal. I hate, hate, hate cleaning the litter box!

          • I agree! Avoiding the litter box duty has been the biggest pregnancy perk so far! I’ve had to do it once or twice when hubby was away, but for the most part, it’s nice to pass off that chore! That being said, I do love me some goat cheese and feta cheese every now and then – if I really want it, I go for it. I figure it’s better for me to have a nice, big Greek salad with feta cheese than to go back to Taco Bell for a gordita like I usually want!

      • There is a danger toxoplasmosis with litter boxes, but generally that is only a risk if your cat is an indoor/outdoor variety. If it’s indoor, take kitty for his yearly checkup and tell them you’re preggers and want them to test for toxoplasmosis. If kitty doesn’t have it, you’re fine doing the litter box. If it does have it, honestly, you’re probably fine there as well because you probably already have it and therefore the baby is immune. Indoor/outdoor is harder because you don’t have anyway of knowing when they contracted it and if you had it before baby was conceived.

        The easy fix, use gloves when scooping, wash hands well afterwards and maybe have someone else do the weekly/bi-monthly full pan change – as much for the weight strain as for omg preggo changing cat litter.

        I’ll be honest though, we had the cats checked and all was clear and I still had my husband do it cause the super-sniffer made it the most miserable job in the world and don’t get me started on trying to bend over to scoop cat poop at 8 months, I was not going to do it. 😛

    • I’m the one who asked the question for this post and, ironically, I got toxoplasmosis in utero. It did some damage to my eyes (when they do a scan of my eye it looks like little holes in the back of my retina… kinda cool, actually, because it comes out electric green!). But we think that came from my mom handling raw meat with her bare hands because she was never around any cats when she was pregnant.

      Maybe this explains why I’m so paranoid??

  7. Things I learned are apparently bad during pregnancy – papaya and agave. All because they may cause uterine contractions. You know what else causes uterine contractions? Orgasms. If I have to do 31 more weeks without those, I’m out.

  8. I couldnt agree more. If you avoided everything you heard was bad for pregnancy you would never leave the house or eat again. I ate sushi, brie, lunchmeat, etc. But I didnt dye my hair or use nail polish because thats what my choice was. You pick your battles.

  9. ohhh my god, this is what i’ve been going through, too. i thought i was above the fray, being sensible and not psycho, but sometimes all that TMI gets to me. i don’t mean Too Much Information as in, someone just told me all about her mucus plug, i mean TMI as in too much allegedly medical info, and too much of it contradicts itself!

    one thing to consider: our current fetish for everything natural and organic and perfect is similar to the psychology behind my mothers’ generation wanting everything to be CLEAN for their babies. listerine, bleach, and antibacterial hand gel for all! now we know that isn’t safe either. plus it’s good for kids to have contact with dirt and even with bacteria, etc., so that their systems adapt and can fend off germs later in life.

    well, what if in our very-not-ideal world, little ones have to grow accustomed to horrible chemicals? even if you are the most uptight hippie in America, you can’t possibly shield your child from all pesticides, plastic residues, etc. forever.

    i’m trying to go for balance. i can’t find a safety approved car seat that isn’t going to get a bunch of evil flame-retardant stuff all over my baby, but the alternative is not driving, or adapting the car seat in a way that might compromise its utility. so, OK, baby will get flamer retardant chemicals in the car. at home, there will be a flame retardant mattress BUT it’s covered in an organic cotton pad, over which goes a cotton sheet. (No, i can’t afford one of those $280 all natural mattresses.)

    i think it’s about compromise. let’s all make a pact not to drive ourselves *and our kids* batshit crazy with all this perfect-mother nuttiness.

  10. Oh Ariel, where were you two years ago! I just had to fumble around and come up with something approximating this on my own.

    Also, I had to buy the special organic blankets, the “chemical-free” cloth diapers, the bpa free bottles, and exorcise the demons of household cleaners. All ostensibly good things, but I laugh at myself now. Sometimes my son eats dirt or comes in all colored-up with markers (technically “non-toxic”, but if it has to be marketed…) and I think about the cuteness of it all rather than the potential scariness. Maybe the little things get less scary when they get bigger and real-er and look more like a stable person in the world. Or maybe I just gave in for my mental health.

    And to a certain degree the freaking out is healthy. I think of the over-consumption of parenting info of my younger and inexperienced self as a from of nesting, a meditation in preparation of the child to be, if you will.

    You are going to be a great mom…which is way better than perfect, if you ask me! {Which you didn’t, but whatev 🙂 }

  11. I think this post is brilliant. I am currently 9.5 weeks pregnant, after having a ‘missed miscarriage’ at 10 weeks in March this year. In other words, we saw the heart beat at 6 weeks, but when we went in at 10 weeks, it had stopped. The first go around I was much more laid back. Really, the things that other commenters have mentioned I took in the stride, I also had sips of wine or beer, I continued to exercise to make myself happy, and I lived my life. I will admit that this go around I have been more hesitant and cautious. I started going to a Chinese medicine doctor after the miscarriage and I consume this horrific tasting herbs every morning and night. Well, at least I did — religiously — until a week or so ago. Then, the combo of the morning sickness and the herb sickness, and …well, let’s just say I get in one dose every two days. Same with my fish oil. And I eat my red meat medium rare. And soft cheeses are my best friend. And yes, I am worried that when I go in for my 10 week ultrasound tomorrow I will miss seeing that heartbeat again that we saw at 7 weeks this time, but I need to live my life. The one thing I did give up this time is exercise. My doctor told me to treat my body like an 85 year old woman for the first 10 weeks. Seemed like archaic advice, but 6 weeks was doable (since of course you don’t know your are preggo for the first four weeks). Anyways, all this to say that “YES!” we need to be gentle with ourselves. We do provide the home for a new little being. But we also provide the home for ourselves. And if I neglect myself, I fear what kind of a parent I will be.

      • i hope yr joking? fish oil’s great but not a necessity, esp since if you take certain *kinds* of fish oil, they *might* increase the heavy metals getting to your baby… etc etc etc. if you need more omega 3’s, start adding flax seeds to your salads, smoothies, and cereal, and all will be well. and if not, i suspect all will be well anyway.

        • Yah, I really wouldn’t worry about it. I am mainly taking it this first trimester b/c I miscarried last time and it is supposed to help with that. I doubt I will continue through the pregnancy. I hate all things flax. 🙂

    • that’s the first time i’ve heard this “treat my body like an 85 year old woman for the first 10 weeks” and it made me feel much better.

      i’m just past 10 weeks and have been totally incapacitated due to nausea. i’ve had no choice but to treat my body like an 85 year old (though some days it feels like a bedridden 98 year old).

      my midwife reassured me that listening to my body esp in the first trimester is very important and that as long as i was keeping down food i’d have lots of time to get all the vitamins etc. baby and myself would need.

      looking forward to the 12 week mark…

    • I had the same thing happen to me (early miscarriage) and conceived again 2 mos later. I don’t know if this will help you with some of the craziness but my midwife pointed out that a fetus that miscarries that early likely was not going to develop normally regardless of anything anyone did or didn’t do. This was in great contrast to a military OB who wanted to categorize my second pregnancy as high risk . . . .I went with the midwife, exercised, had sips of wine/cider, ate what I wanted and now have a lovely healthy son.

  12. The problem with these “don’t do that it’s bad for the baby” is that most of those things haven’t been proven *good* for the baby. I don’t think I’ve actually heard of a single instance in which a baby was born with a birth defect due to a woman bleaching her hair or getting the occasional mani/pedi. Sadly I realized this too late.

    The worst mistake I made during my pregnancy was going out and dying my hair a darker more “natural” color so I wouldn’t have to have it done during my pregnancy. You know what happened? Yeah, the darker color was a disaster, I ended up having to do a treatment probably 5x worse than a bleach touch-up to make it look somewhat passable for me to job-hunt. Luckily pregnancy hair is super resilient but it’s also super resistant. It did not want to stay a decent color and I ended up being really bummed all through my pregnancy because of it.

    I’m now back to my happy bleached white blond self, but when I think about what sad condition my hair is in now because of it and how much I spent to go dark then back again and how many chemical treatments I had to sit through… in the end, if I had pushed the bleaching longer (say once every 3 months) that would have been only 3 treatments during my pregnancy. I had that anyway and one treatment was the equivalent of 5, so in the end what good did I do? Yeah, I’m not planning on having another run at this, but man if I could Marty McFly my life, that’s one thing I’d change.

    Then again, my daughter is super happy, healthy and off the charts on development so maybe the chemicals weren’t such a bad thing afterall 😉

    Oh, and don’t get me started on the nail polish thing. Go to a place with good ventilation and get pampered once in a while. Maybe not weekly, but every month or two, you deserve it, especially your poor prego feet.

  13. Ha! This is a great article and great comments. Funny thing for me though is that I’m still a little over a year out from trying to conceive (but obviously thinking about it enough to be poking regularly around OBM!) so this site is always the first place I get to hear about all the OMG DON’T DO THIS WHEN YOU’RE PREGNANT info. It’s nice when the first time you hear about all the crap you’re supposed to be scared of, it’s in the context of how to make your own choices about it. Ya’ll are giving me a good head-start!

  14. Keep this mentality for when your baby is actually born too! People love to prey on the fears of new parents and terrify them about all kinds of harmless or even helpful things (like vaccines, arrgh). Remember, if your child never comes in contact with germs, they’ll never develop resistances to them!

  15. So, I lived on hotdogs for the last month and a half of my pregnancy. We were waiting for my maternity leave money to come in, and my husband had just graduated, and hadn’t found a job. Hotdogs were buy one get two, so thats what we ate. Our baby, by the way is healthy, smart, and incredibly strong, despite me eating just about the worst food imaginable on a daily basis while pregnant.
    I also dyed my hair right up until that point, because my natural hair color is grey and mousy brown, and I look good with black hair! And I ate cheetos for breakfast every morning my first trimester because they cured the heartburn when tums did nothing.
    So, basically I just want to say, don’t beat yourself up trying to be the perfect vessel. If you want to dye your hair, or wear some eyeshadow to feel like yourself, that’s a good thing. It means you have an identity outside of Mother (or “potential future mother”), which is part of what this website is about.

  16. I appreciate Ariel’s reply to my question and the support of her readers. I feel so much better knowing that I’m 1) not the only person worried about these things and 2) it’s okay to be cautious, but not frantic. Frankly, I feel better about myself using BPA-free plastics (when I have to use plastic) and all of that, but it was getting to the point where I wouldn’t buy anything without researching the crap out of it first and that’s just exhausting. Buy BPA-free when possible and be cautious but not frantic. I think that’s my new motto!

    Part of my fear comes from the fact that it took my parents 10 years to have me and I’m worried that I’ll experience the same problems so I’m trying to be as healthy as feasibly possible.

  17. Take each decision one at a time and know that none of these things is going to spell doom.
    I’ve always kept my hair red; people are surprised my boys aren’t red-headed.

  18. i really tried to eat and drink right when i was pregnant, but god how i wanted a Dr. Pepper. My brother in law’s girlfriend is a midwife and lives in an area where a lot of women abuse drugs, and while it’s incredibly tough, she sees a lot of babies make it. I hate to say, but I thought about that and when I finally caved and had my Dr Pepper, I didn’t feel all that guilty.

    • When I got pregnant, I pretty much lived on coffee and Pepsi. I talked to my doctor about my concerns over my body stressing because of epic caffeine withdrawals, and she said that if I switched one of them (preferably the one I consumed more of, but they were pretty even) to decaf I’d be fine.

  19. I did a LOT of research when I found out I was pregnant. I must have read 10 entire pregnancy books in a week and googled a million things. I was surprised at how much I couldnt have, and since then I have been told many more things (hadnt heard about the nail polish one until i read this post!)

    I’m now 10 weeks and I’m already overcome by it. Every time I go out with friends its “oh thanks but I cant have that” or “shouldn’t have that”. Its exhausting! I feel like I’m not allowed anything that I like.

    I dont want to say that I’m giving up, but I think its time to relax my position on whats “allowed”. The hardest part will be the judging looks I will recieve from people if I have soft cheese or deli meat or whatever.

  20. Awww.

    I’m going to put my two cents in: when I was pregnant, I ate deli meats. Unheated. I had a few sips of alcohol–one sip of crown & coke, a sip of a magarita, and a sip of a beer. I ate whatever I felt like, forgot my vitamins most days, ate my weight in ice cream I think… I had hot dogs, feta cheese, diet cokes and mocha frappuchinos. I didn’t stress about it.

    And you know what? My kid’s healthy as a horse. Smart, geeky, artsy, and generally perfect. And your child will be too.

    I work in a NICU. I see all kinds of awful things that happen to kids. And it didn’t happen because mommy drank bottled water and ate a ham sandwich. Or coffee or anything like that.

    Relax. =)

  21. I am pregnant with my first little monster… I couldn’t help thinking when I read the food recommendations, “No soft cheese? What do pregnant women in Greece/France/the Balkans eat? No sausages? German or Polish women must go vegetarian, because I’ve been to Central Europe several times and kielbasa or wurst are served with nearly every meal. No spicy food? Do Mexican/Thai/Indian women eat different meals than their families?”

    I just exercise, physically and with common sense. I’ve made so many sacrifices already (socially, physically, financially, culinarily) that I’ll be damned if I give up Brie, the occasional espresso, or my once-in-a-blue-moon pint o’ the black stuff 🙂

    “I’m Pregnant, Not Stupid”

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