Cover of book OriginsOn my other blog, I recently posted a review of the book Origins:  How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives (Annie Murphy Paul, 2010). I wasn’t particularly fond of the book.  It offers an overview of research being done in the last few decades to determine fetal origins, or the ways in which people are affected—perhaps for generations—by what happens during the time that they are gestating.  Despite the author’s good intentions, I found it to be a troubling book.  As I recounted in my review, even as a woman who isn’t pregnant, I felt uncomfortable reading, like I was being indicted for not being careful enough while I was pregnant, back in the day.  While Paul acknowledges the danger of this research being used to bolster already culturally prevalent “mother blame,” she frames her work in the hope that it can provoke broader cultural change and positive evaluation of mothering, from the point of conception onward.  I said I didn’t think it worked, and that I did, in fact, feel blamed.

What I wanted to talk about here is not my review but the comments it received.  I’ve had a number of responses, and the thing that’s interesting is that many have been lengthy.  Folks haven’t just been weighing in—”I disagree!”—but offering counterarguments or lengthy explanations of how fetal origins research is or isn’t valid.  Some have been arguments based in personal experience, others have been based in professional expertise (medical anthropology, for instance, or anesthesiology).

So my question is, why did this matter enough to readers that, in responding, they essentially wrote blog posts of their own?

I think the answer is that parenthood is a high stakes endeavor, particularly for the middle-class (overwrought?) parents cohort I belong to.  More specifically, motherhood is a high stakes endeavor—and I say this with all respect to my partner, who is an outstanding father to our daughter, but who doesn’t face the pressure that mothers routinely face.

All of us who are in the realm of motherhood—either as parents or as scholars of motherhood—know this.  The internet is full of jokes about “mompetitors” that friends regularly send me.  This piece from Salon maps out the topics you simply can’t discuss, and it’s not wrong:  breastfeeding, attachment parenting, the family bed, and crying babies are topics I’ve found to be so highly-charged that I’m incredibly careful about talking about them, even with very close friends.

The reason I read Origins is that I’m currently doing research into prenatal testing, and that’s another subject that’s so high stakes that many of us simply don’t talk about it at all.  When some of my friends have been pregnant, they haven’t shared the news until after they’ve had the amniocentesis that determined that this is a pregnancy they’re actually going to continue.  I’d hoped that Paul would discuss this aspect of our cultural assessment of the fetus, but she didn’t.  She did, however, share that many of the studies base their assessment of prenatal health on postnatal IQ scores, a fact that I found very troubling.

We’re raising kids in a culture that’s perfectionistic and that seems to believe, by and large, that we—as mothers—are always wrong.  If something “bad” happens involving our child (such as short attention spans, low IQ scores, or asthma), it’s our fault.  Since we’re already pummeled with this viewpoint, scientific research that says, “And it’s true while the baby’s in utero, too!” isn’t necessarily helping matters.  This isn’t to say that the scientific research is or isn’t valid.  I’m not a scientist, and my skepticism about some of the studies Paul reports on isn’t definitive.  What I’m saying is that this science is emerging from and feeding into a culture that has some very troubling, individualizing, and sexist views.  I think my readers are attuned to that culture, as well, and it makes all of us a bit defensive.