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When You’re Pregnant, Everyone Is Suddenly an ‘Expert’ on Your Health

4 minute read
Siobhan O'Connor is editorial director, health, at TIME Magazine and Time.com, and is co-author of the No More Dirty Looks, a book about the cosmetics industry and natural beauty. She lives in Brooklyn.

For 30-odd weeks, my barista and I have had roughly the same routine. I order my morning coffee and he pretends he hasn’t heard me, filling in the blank with a joke. “Mocha double-shot no-fat soy latte?” I laugh every time. I like the line. I like that we can agree that that’s a terrible coffee order. And I like these small moments that can make life in a big city feel a little more intimate. Only this time, he leaves me hanging.

“You’re allowed to have espresso?”

He’s looking at my belly, which, at 7½ months pregnant, is well outside of the “Is she or isn’t she?” arena that tends to make people nervous. Allowed?

I start babbling. “Oh, that’s not really true anymore, the thing about coffee. When you’re this far along, and even earlier too, the studies say it’s …” I trail off, grab my drink, smile apologetically and then kick myself for smiling apologetically.

When you’re pregnant in public, you learn quickly that everyone’s an expert. They’re an expert about what you put in your body–coffee, cabernet, smoked turkey, stinky cheese. They’re an expert about how much weight you ought to gain, and how if you’re not careful, you’ll give yourself diabetes and have to get a C-section. They even have strong feelings about your footwear. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how well-informed: at 38, I’m of what doctors like to call “advanced maternal age,” and because of my vocation as a health editor and my pastime as a science nerd, I read scientific studies for sport.

But none of that matters. People, well-meaning though they may be, are going to tell you what they think is best, not for you so much, but for your fetus. And even when you know they’re wrong–and trust me, they’re almost always wrong–it won’t matter: you’re going to feel bad about it.

I appreciate that, as a society, we can mostly agree that harming a child is among the worst things you can do. I suspect that that’s part of what undergirds the casual judgment of pregnant women, the same way it undergirds the casual judgment of moms. But that doesn’t make it any less paternalistic, and it doesn’t mean the judgments are based on facts.

Take coffee, which should be anything but controversial in 2017. For decades, the received wisdom was that drinking coffee during pregnancy could contribute to miscarriage risk. Today, according the best, most up-to-date studies–not to be confused with the studies you are most likely to hear about–it’s perfectly safe to have a couple of strong cups per day. But it doesn’t matter that I know that and that my doctor backs me up. As long as my belly pokes out like it does, I’m going to be offered decaf over espresso and seltzer over wine, and I’m going to get funny looks from strangers when I opt for the latter.

I read somewhere that the rules of pregnancy are meant to prepare women for life as a mother–a life where every choice is one of sacrifice, where putting another’s well-being before your own is paramount. That last part I understand, even if it offers a rather retrograde, dim view of motherhood. But it’s still based on a false appraisal of risk.

No one wants to fail at being a mother before her first kid even arrives. That’s felt especially true for me. Before this pregnancy, I endured multiple miscarriages, followed by months of torturous self-blame. My doctor warned me that the pain wouldn’t double with every loss, that it would be logarithmic–the curve getting ever steeper. He also told me that even though there was nothing I could have done to prevent the miscarriages, the guilt may feel unbearable.

He was right. Determined to figure out what I’d done wrong, because surely this must be my fault, I canvassed experts, read studies, scrutinized my diet and had more blood tests than I can count.

Ultimately, I was faced with the evidence–and my best lesson about motherhood so far: that things can go terribly wrong, and there isn’t always a why. That those losses, that heartbreak, was, like most heartbreak, completely out of my control. And that this healthy pregnancy, glorious gift that it has been, is too.

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