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. 1 listeria is actually more likely to be on fresh veggies and such.
    2. People are worried about hair dye and nail polish???! For real? I used to be a chemist. And worked in basically a chemical factory and they told us it was fine to be pregent there with lots of solvents(think nail polish remover in buckets) and experimently chemicals. The biggest thing I did was get out of that place so I wouldn’t get run over by a forklift while pregent.

    • Bagged greens have SUCH a high risk for foodborne illness! Where the hell are the restrictions on that? Not that I want them, mind you. But it seems it’s just the good stuff they want to keep us from, because we are not allowed to have joy as mothers.

  2. Just seen this – I have a rule that if some ‘new danger’ comes out that I’ve never heard of before – it can f*ck off. We’ve evidently managed without knowing it until now, we’ll manage not bothering about it now.

  3. Great article! As I read this I was reminded of something a dear friend told me when I was stressing over the same things. “If a crack addict can have a healthy kid so can you.”

  4. I was really nervous up until week 6 of this pregnancy, in part because my first pregnancy last summer ended in missed miscarriage and D&C. Like, couldn’t sleep at night nervous. I wasn’t so much worried about all these restrictions, but more about STRESS… ironically, the advice I found most stressful was “relax, because stress can hurt your baby”! (OMG I’m STRESSED!! NOOO!!! AAAH!! How can I be less STRESSED?? I’m HURTING MY BABY!!)

    Then at 6w4d I was diagnosed with another miscarriage. I was devastated but decided to wait for natural miscarriage, mostly for peace of mind and also for the health benefits of avoiding a D&C. I went back to my normal routine– I had a few beers (small and spaced apart), plenty of coffee, salami, soft-yolked eggs, you name it. I also very much did NOT exercise like an 85-year-old woman– I picked up my running pace and even started running fast intervals, determined to get my body into amazing shape even if it wasn’t cooperating with me right now.

    Also, the moment the miscarriage was diagnosed, I relaxed… there was no longer anything to worry about, and I just felt peace that whatever would happen would happen, and I liked the thought that I still had my baby with me (while waiting for bleeding to start) even if it wasn’t alive.

    Then I went back at 10 weeks to see why nothing had happened… and what should we find on the ultrasound but a perfect, kicking, heart-beating little 10 week fetus.

    Now I’ve cut back on running intervals and coffee and I follow most of the eating guidelines for pregnant women, but I’m still way more relaxed. This little guy seems very strong, and I think he enjoys my lifestyle. (I ran a 5.7K– placing third!– a few days after finding my baby on the ultrasound, and he grew by an extra day when we went back for another peek at him a few days later.) Now I’m almost to 12 weeks and going strong. 🙂

    Our babies are SO much hardier than we give them credit for being, and I think they enjoy being along for the ride of our lives. 🙂 Oh, and I’m definitely training my baby in utero to enjoy spicy food.

  5. Thank you for this post. I am 6 weeks in and doing the mad dash of reading and researching. I sway between three places right now… utter joy and happiness and “what is supposed to happen will no matter what”, absolute terror that I am going to do everything “wrong”, and anger at the cultural and medical “disease-ification” of pregnancy.

    You would think something was wrong with us based on all of the worry everyone else has out there!

    I’ve basically come to the conclusion that I had a healthy lifestyle pre-conception I’m not going to worry about all the things I should and shouldn’t do unless my midwife or husband says something.

    And my husband told me the crack addict thing to, boy did it make me laugh and get over my current fears:-)

  6. Thank you to all who have posted on this topic. I grew up with a well-meaning but fanatical mom when it came to organic whole foods. I agree that whole foods are healthiest and before becoming pregnant, I had the image of myself only eating the most wholesome foods, breathing only pure mountain air (I live in the city), and living stress-free through daily calming mediatations and yoga. I’m 34 weeks along and the reality has been that I was so plagued with fatigue and nausea in my first trimester, that I literally ate saltines and cheese cubes. Even my plain organic ricecakes felt too heavy. I switched from my stainless steel water bottle b/c I couldn’t stand the metalic taste to glass which leaked to finally a bpa-free plastic bottle. Just last night, I thought, “Sure, it’s bpa-free, but what else is in it??” I’ve been eating a more well-rounded diet since about 14 weeks, but it’s no-where near perfect. I try to focus on eating a good amount (whatever that means) of whole grains and vegetables, but I am much more relaxed about what I’m consuming than I could have imagined myself to be. I’ve given in to brie cravings (which occurs for me in a non-pregnant state, too) and had tiny sips of beer. I also drink lots of water and remember to take my prenatal vitamins and flax seed oil (on most days). I get anxious (about most anything) so easily that the more I can relax (about nearly everything), the better I feel…as a human, a partner, a friend, and I imagine as a mother.

  7. So so nice to read this post, I absolutely agree with and understand every single one of these comments! I’m a young, first-time mom with no nieces or nephews or baby relatives of any kind… So when I got pregnant unexpectedly, I had literally NO examples to compare with, and all these things I was reading were terrifying! Now that I’m 28 weeks in and have done my fair share of research, I’ve learned to trust my body and instincts to know what feels right and what doesn’t. I’ve had a glass of wine or a dark beer every now and again, I dyed my hair twice in the second trimester, and while I desperately tried to give up Pepsi when I found out, it turned out to be the only thing that allowed me to keep food down for the first four months! I had a couple of days here and there where I wouldn’t feel a whole lot of movement and I would immediately get frantic, thinking back to what I had ingested in the past week or what kind of activities I might be doing that would cause something terrible to happen… Of course when I would talk to my doctor or nurses about it, they literally chuckled at me [in a friendly way] and told me to just relax. It’s taken five or six months to figure it out, but ever since deciding to just go with the flow and try to listen to my body, I have felt SO MUCH BETTER. Physically and otherwise. I’m looking forward to the last weeks of my pregnancy and I’m actually really excited for my [fingers crossed] drug-free delivery. 🙂 Everything will be alright, your body was made to do this, it knows more than you think.

  8. The most important thing people don’t know is to wash wash your hands to stay healthy and avoid catching a virus. Everyone in your house(ie the people you kiss or share a kitchen with) can help by doing it to

  9. I know this is about two years late, but I’m grateful to see this. I’m nearly done with my first trimester in my first pregnancy… It was unplanned and unexpected, and I found out a week after my dad passed away. I feel like I’ve got enough stress on my plate without adding on panic about eating a spicy Italian sandwich from Subway, or fleeing the room if my mother lights up a cigarette.

    Instead I try to keep everything in moderation, and maintain a healthy lifestyle as a whole. Basically, the same thing I’ve always done.

  10. Neno, thank you for commenting so I could be reminded of this post again! I commented just over a year ago, while pregnant, and my nearly 11 month old daughter is napping on my arm in bed. I’m struck by how supportive the response and comments are to one another. I need to visit here more often, especially when friends and my mom can’t help themselves and just have to share the latest/oldest scares. I think my husband and I have done pretty well with having a balanced take on food, toys, etc, with our daughter. But I still need reminders to not freak out every now and then.

  11. Just do the best you can. My husband and I went on a brewery tour vacation the week prior to me finding out I was pregnant. It goes without saying, I had a load of beer. My baby is perfect, a snoring little monster, but perfect. I also ate what I dubbed ‘Listeria cheese’ (soft cheeses, mostly goat) throughout my pregnancy. Not saying you shouldn’t take excellent care, but no need to freak out over every little thing. Of course I am not condoning drinking and delicious cheeses while pregnant but these little guys are resilient. Be the best you can, but mom needs to be happy and chill.

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