For example, in pregnancy, people are hyper about what one should be eating. Because I’m in Hong Kong, I got a lot of Chinese wisdom on the subject – omg don’t eat shrimp, omg don’t drink cold things, omg no coffee, omg don’t go out when it’s raining! I know all of this came from a good place and I was touched that my colleagues cared enough about me and my baby to even warn me of the dangers awaiting me in every morsel I ingested but my the second trimester I was relieved that I ate lunch mostly on my own.
Then, I started getting flak from the medical community on my weight gain. Except they had nothing constructive to say about what I should cut out when I told them what I was eating or how I should deal with the extreme hunger pangs. Yes, I do understand the concerns over gestational diabetes but I didn’t have high sugar and yes, I could have had a very large baby – but guess what, despite my enormous size my baby was smaller than the average Chinese baby! Luckily, halfway through V just told me to forget it and eat whatever I wanted and that’s what I did and everything was fine. In fact, because the vitamin supplements used to make me sick, I never took them except for folate which I was advised to take right through since I am a thalassaemia minor.
In terms of nutrition, my own doctor told me only three things to lessen (not even cut out altogether): alcohol, caffeine, and large fish like tuna that tend to have high mercury content. He recommended the vitamin supplement but as I said, it made me sick. Also, on reading up on it, I found that in many countries – like Italy – women do not take it and are fine. My cousins in India only took calcium and folate supplements and again were fine. I tried to get as balanced a diet as possible and ate more healthy than I ever have in my life, including tons of fruit and veggies. The sky did not fall on my head.
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Then there’s birth. I have found there are two extreme positions on this one too. There are those that are hyper of getting the best medical technology on their side, opting for as many interventions as possible. This is common among the Chinese population in Hong Kong where there is high rate of c-sections thanks to doctors pushing them and women gratefully accepting, partly to avoid the pain of labour.
The other extreme I see among Western women. They want birth to be a holistic, beautiful, spiritual experience. Well, I’m sorry. Coat it any way you wish – squeezing 3 kg or so of another human being out of yourself is hardly going to be pleasant. Maybe it helps some people to beguile themselves into thinking it’s all very beautiful. Me, I’d rather call a spade a spade. It’s the most gory and violent thing one would ever volunteer for, especially without pain relief. And I appreciate the honesty of the Chinese women who frankly say they are scared of the pain.
Nevertheless, we go through it because we want to biologically bear children and science has told us that doing it the natural way is best for mother and child. There are, however, limits to how ‘natural’ it can be. Many of these women want to give birth at home. Well, masses of women in rural India do so, and India has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. I’m not even going into how many babies die – it’s another thing that these women are made to get pregnant over and over, thus contributing to over legendary population size.
Ironically, the ‘natural’ brigade tends to also be obsessively preparing for the impending birth, reading up, going for classes, doing prenatal pilates, etc. If it was all so natural, why prepare at all? Just let your body work its miracle, na?
I’m not saying one shouldn’t do all this. Probably preparing does help to some extent and it’s a good idea to be informed about what is going to happen to you. But I honestly feel the difference in minimal. My sis did quite a few classes before she gave birth. I did none though I read up online. Both of us have natural labour with about the same amount of tearing. My sister is much less cynical than me, but both of us thought it was very painful. We survived.
My boss told me about a friend who had scheduled a c-section. Unfortunately, she went into labour earlier. At the hospital, she kept telling the nurse: “But I can’t give birth, I haven’t done any classes yet!” The nurse laughed and told her women had been giving birth since the beginning of time without classes.
I see women obsessing about whether they will be on their back during labour, their baby will room in or room out in hospital, whether their baby is placed on their chest right after birth, how they were cheated of the opportunity to ‘bond’ with their baby because they had a c-section. Well, let me just say, I was on my back during labour – I tried other positions and didn’t find them very helpful, and finally I was just too tired (yes, agreed women should have more freedom to move about but it’s only in really active labour that you’re on your back, and that’s because they hook you to a monitor so they can check the baby’s heartbeat).
My baby was placed on my chest right after birth and neither he nor I seemed very concerned or enthusiastic. Both of us were a little dazed. Moreover, for the first two days my baby was in a nursery for most of the time though was brought to me for breastfeeding and frankly that was a great relief. In fact, he was such a painful feeder and so hard to put down to sleep, I think I might have died from exhaustion if there wasn’t a nursery. Maybe the hospital rules were a bit too strict about scheduling the baby’s feeds but none of these did lasting harm to either me, the baby or our collective fragile psyches or health.
I feel like all this frantic preparing – by both the c-section opters and the ‘natural’ brigade’ – is simply an attempt to control a process which to a large extent defies control. I realised when I was pregnant how many ‘I don’t knows’ there are scientifically about the whole process. They can only say ‘women tend to’ but with no certainty.
My position is somewhere in the middle – read up and try to prepare but also trust your doctor and don’t agonise over every little detail. Do the best you can and do what feels right. Whatever happens, don’t obsess. Let go.
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The information overload doesn’t stop once you give birth. Then the breastfeeding brigade kicks into action. In Hong Kong, one is spared that because most women give up on breastfeeding pretty quickly. In the US, my sense is that among women of a certain economic bracket and educational level, the pressure to breastfeed is enormous. The benefits of breastfeeding have been so drilled into these women that they feel they are not breastfeeding they are bad mothers and risking their babies health by not making enough effort.
This view influenced me too and even when my morale and mental health was at an absolute low I found myself unable to stop breastfeeding. I pushed and pushed myself to the point where I was quite frankly a crazy person. Although we hear that breastfeeding is hard, the exact quality of the hardship is never discussed – it is hard not just because you have to wake up every two hours at night and only you can do it, but because of an infinite number of things that can make this process run not-so-smoothly.
You could have insufficient milk supply or oversupply, you could have sore nipples or worse mastisis or an yeast infection, your baby could have allergies or be lactose intolerant (yes, this does happen though its rare), your baby could have reflux and something in your breastmilk could be making it worse (this was a concern in my case).
So while it is true that breastmilk is great for babies, you are not poisoning your baby or cheating your baby by giving him formula as some breastfeeding sites almost seem to suggest. After all, a whole generation of children grew up mostly formula fed and are fine. That said, the brainwashing was so powerful, I could not give up breastfeeding, even to just pump instead of direct breastfeeding because again there were concerns about reduced milk supply yada yada. All true but sometimes peace of mind is more important, and is probably better for the child.
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And finally, there’s the advice on what to feed your baby, when to start solids, and how to make your baby smarter. It is all very exhausting listening to so much counsel, especially in the matter of smartening up a baby. Here they are obsessed with Japanese milk powder because apparently it makes babies smarter. How or why and whether Japanese people are any smarter than any other people is not explained.
Then there’s the often-heard ‘play Mozart to your baby in the womb’ and Baby Einstein series. Well, as V pointed out to his colleague who was insisting on the virtues of this, Einstein never had Baby Einstein and he managed quite well for himself.
My son has exactly two toys (which were gifts) and I’m bothering to get more because he doesn’t seem interested in them for more than two minutes. He likes us to chat with him and he chats back.
I will shock some people by saying that I actually let him watch TV. Because sometimes that’s the only thing that makes him stay still and not need constant entertainment. I tried to find the studies that explain why TV is harmful and all I could find was that TV will not stimulate your child. Well that’s ok. I spend plenty of other time ‘stimulating’ him. As long as TV is not killing his brain cells, I’ll take the 10 minutes of peace.
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Overall, I feel like there is too much information and instructions and advice and studies. I think women should take all these as just suggestions, and follow only the basic stuff.