Does One REALLY Have to Give Up Wine, Coffee, Sushi, and Dyeing One’s Hair…

…just to have a healthy baby?

I really wanted to like University of Chicago economist Emily Oster’s new book, Expecting Better. I’m well aware that many of the things that are standard procedure in American pregnancy and birth are not supported by good research (for example, continuous fetal monitoring during labor and the gestational diabetes test don’t seem actually to help either mothers or babies). But I was supremely disappointed by this book, not only because it has an annoying, “economists-know-best” tone, but because it seems fairly obsessed with what I’d consider trivial things and–like many American pregnancy books, actually–has no sense of where these things fit within the larger scheme of things. I do realize the danger of judging a book by what it doesn’t talk about, but the broader trend of things that were once matters for public reform and collective action becoming all about individual choices and personal ’empowerment’ is troubling.

And it’s troubling when things like giving up wine or dyeing your hair for 40 weeks–even if the risks to the baby are minimal is construed as an unreasonable limitation on a woman’s freedom.

Or maybe I’m just a cranky-pants.

Anyway, here’s a bit from my review of the book at Her.meneutics. And no, I am not pregnant.

I’ll admit that I’m a little bit of a health nerd. I sometimes read through studies on websites such as PubMed and Cochrane Reviews to discuss medical decisions more intelligently with my doctor. (These sites post reputable medical information and analyses, with much less speculation and snake oil than many health websites.)

During my first pregnancy, I occasionally checked my doctor’s advice against the most current recommendations of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. When she told me to monitor my heart rate during exercise to ensure it did not go over 140 beats per minute, I nodded my head but continued to follow the more current ACOG recommendation, which didn’t list a specific heart rate but instead indicated that I could exercise moderately. On the whole, however, I trusted and followed my doctor’s recommendations—even a few that turned out not to be supported by the newest and best research. Oh, well.

Emily Oster, an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago whose work was featured in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s second book SuperFreakonomics, has written a new book, Expecting Better, that urges women to wrest control over their pregnancies from the partially incompetent hands of their doctors and other conventional sources of pregnancy advice, from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology to the omnipresent and imperious What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

The subtitle of Oster’s book—Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—And What You Really Need to Know—might lead you to expect something along the lines of Ricki Lake’s Business of Being Born, but Oster does not wage war on the medical establishment to the point of suggesting that you eschew doctors entirely.

Instead, she contends that the typical American pregnancy is “a world of arbitrary rules.” She uses her training as a health economist to sift through the medical literature, attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff of pregnancy advice; to help women “take control and to expect better.”

{Continue Reading…}

‘Pregorexia’ and Postpartum Priorities

What does it say about a culture if when a baby’s born, the mom’s tummy size gets as much attention as the baby?

The British magazine OK! came under fire earlier this summer for running a feature story on Kate Middleton’s “post-baby weight loss regime.” Even as moms around the world tweeted and blogged their appreciation of Kate’s post-baby appearance, in which she seemed not to make any attempt to disguise her postpartum tummy, OK! magazine, like any good tabloid, tried to appeal to readers’ venality by promising details of her “diet and shape-up plan” and a (supposed) interview with Kate’s trainer, quoted on the cover, saying, “She’s super-fit—her stomach will shrink straight back.”

Another British tabloid, The Daily Star, recently reported the story of a London woman, Holly Griffiths, who gave birth to a healthy baby after a frighteningly thin pregnancy; Griffiths, who was diagnosed with anorexia at age 13, posted pictures of herself online weighing just 114 pounds at 8 months pregnant. Several years ago, an American woman, Maggie Baumann, restricted her weight gain so severely that her baby suffered intrauterine growth restriction and, after birth, seizures and attention deficit problems, which her doctor suggested “may have been linked with poor fetal nutrition.”


It’s impossible for me to reflect on the cultural phenomenon of ‘skinny pregnant’ without reflecting on the place I currently live: Malawi, Africa. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a maternity clinic not far from my home. As I toured the small but well-equipped facility, I noticed, as I always do, how the women looked. Nearly always, they look too thin, and even the ones who gave birth just that morning have barely a belly to show for it. I stepped in close to peek at one woman’s freshly-born baby; we caught eyes and she grinned. I was stunned at the whiteness of her gums: a sign of severe anemia. Because a woman’s need for iron doubles during pregnancy—and because getting enough iron in the diet is a constant problem for most women in Malawi—she was depleted. Health experts have identified anemia as a major risk factor for maternal mortality, so it’s really no wonder that here it’s a compliment to tell a pregnant woman that she’s looking good and fat.

I’m not sharing this as a guilt trip; the grown-up pregnancy version of “Clean your plate because kids are starving around the world.” (“Gain lots of weight because pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa can’t!”) I tell this because here, the reality that life is short and often difficult is rarely varnished over with distractions.

Several months ago I sat with a group of women on the floor with a mother who had buried her newborn baby that morning; it was a ritual they were all too familiar with. At home, my own children ran around the yard, playing and laughing, and I realized with a start how quickly the time had passed since they were babies. Any time I spent worrying about what having them would do to my body was wasted time, I realized.

Life—the baby’s life, the mother’s life—is too good a gift to be frittered away fretting over the shape of the body that so miraculously brings it forth. Care for the body, but celebrate that life.

{Read the post in full where it first appeared at Christianity Today}

“There’s Something For Everyone Here.”

The lovely Aubry Smith recently posted a review of my new book, which you may read in its entirety here.

But here are some of my favorite parts, with my comments italicized and in brackets:

“I’m also nine months pregnant, which brings its own set of complications to the table: I indulge in some cravings, but I have a bit of anxiety from reading too many baby books that warn us that “every bite counts,” and that promise if I just put all the right ingredients in my mouth, out comes a perfect, healthy baby (although, somehow all of my kids have survived the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper cravings). There is also the fear of gaining too much weight.”

{Yes!!! YES! I am fond of pointing out that during one pregnancy I lived on Canada Dry ginger ale and Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, and that during the other, I was all quinoa-kale-organic eggs-etc. One of my kids gets every virus that goes around. The other has hardly been sick a day in his life. Guess who was gestated on which diet? But that’s a post for another day…}

“Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is that Stone is a realist who pushes us toward the ideal. Using William Webb’s hermeneutic of redemptive movement, Stone insists that we start where we are, and make slow movements toward embracing the vast goodness of food. Don’t eat in community yet? Schedule 2 or 3 meals and build from there. Can’t afford organic, local, free-trade, cage-free, or otherwise ethical food yet? Try making one meal per week that fits the bill and work up as you can. Never cook from scratch? Pick a simple meal or two to practice with, and when you’ve perfected them, pick another. There is something for everyone here.”

“I also appreciate Stone’s non-snobbish approach to food. So your friend serves you non-organic vegetables or meat raised unsustainably? Accept the gracious gift with love, just as it was offered to you. While encouraging us to care for creation, Stone also pushes us to love our neighbor. She doesn’t attempt to solve all the complicated ethical questions, but she does help us think through them and perhaps live with a little tension as we wait for God’s justice to fully come to our broken planet.”

“I’ve been craving cinnamon rolls for weeks – the gooey, homemade kind that usually brings me a lot of shame after eating it. You know what I did last week while in the middle of this book? I made some. I kneaded that dough for 15 minutes and longingly waited all afternoon for them to rise. I didn’t skimp on the ingredients to save calories. And when I pulled them out of the oven after dinner and served them to my family, I ate one. I soaked up the excitement and pleasure of my little boys who weren’t expecting dessert. I praised the God who put all these ingredients on earth just for our enjoyment. And I just really enjoyed my cinnamon roll.”

{Yay! YAY! I wrote this book hoping that it might help people enjoy God’s gift of food a bit more in a culture that has endless food anxiety, and to raise questions of justice and ecology and health WITHOUT adding to that food anxiety.}

Thanks, Aubry!

Advent and Pregnancy

I have a new post up at Christianity Today’s women’s blog, her.meneutics. Here is a sampling:

“…we rarely remember that Advent is essentially the last month of Mary’s pregnancy—that time wherein excitement and anticipation is so great that it is separated from grief, even despair (will this baby ever come?) by a mere thread. Unlike me, unlike Kate Middleton, and, chances are, unlike you, Mary didn’t have Preggie Pops or Sea-Bands for her first trimester nausea, prenatal vitamins to stave off tooth and bone loss and the urge to chew on newspapers, or pregnancy yoga and massage to ease her aches and pains. Nor did she have the knowledge that expert care stood at the ready should anything go amiss. In giving life to Jesus, she encountered the very real specter of her own death.

For most women in history, the anticipation of a child was a mixture of joy and fear; and for a good many women in the world today, this is still the case. Mary’s faith is all the more remarkable when we consider all that she didn’t have to comfort and assure her of her safety. When we remember this, the final weeks of pregnancy—Advent—are as sober as they are expectant and joyful.”

Read the rest of the post here.

via Wikimedia and used under CC license
via Wikimedia and used under CC license; search “Maria Gravida” for images of pregnant Mary in artwork–very interesting!

Why We Need Birthing Videos

I have a new post up at Christianity Today’s women’s blog, her.meneutics, on birthing videos and whether or not they are ‘modest.’ My answer? Of course they’re not modest, but they may serve an important purpose. Here’s a taste:

Candice, a regular Her.meneutics reader, wrote to me recently in response to this post, asking what I thought about women sharing their photos and videos of giving birth. Another Christian website had called this practice “immodest”; Candice, who is pregnant and planning a natural childbirth, told me that she has found these videos “inspiring and educational, since I’ve never seen an actual birth of any kind.” She also wondered whether categorizing birth videos as “immodest” might be related to the ongoing discomfort in North America with public breastfeeding. Does Christian “modesty” really mean not viewing or posting pictures depicting these intimate events?

Birth videos show women accomplishing some of the hardest work women ever do. They show great pain resolving into great joy. They show us an event that many of us never see in “real life,” an event that Hollywood can depict only in clichés. In movies, labor begins suddenly, with a frantic cry of “it’s time!” or an embarrassing gush of amniotic fluid. In reality, for many if not most women, labor is so gradual that it is only later that they can look back and say, “Oh, that’s when it started.” Usually there is no need for rushing around panicking; it’s more a slow leak than a blowout. Also, doctors don’t deliver babies from under a sheet anymore, not every woman screams, “you did this to me!” at her husband, and women don’t need to be shouted at to “push.” But crises make for better drama and, not infrequently, comedy.

Because birth is for most Americans an event that takes place in the hospital—and, increasingly, in the operating room—there are simply fewer opportunities for women to see other women give birth. By contrast, in early America, as in virtually all traditional cultures, to attend another woman’s birth was expected and routine, more or less like attending a baby shower today. You would help your friend during her “lying in,” knowing she would help you at yours, a phenomenon that historians and anthropologists have called “social childbirth.” It’s worth noting that that while, officially, only women who had already had a baby were included in social childbirth, homes and society were structured in such a way that it’s unlikely a woman would go into labor without a strong understanding of the process of labor (if not the, ahem, crowning moment).

{Read more here.}