Healthy Living

Pregnancy And Birth Expectations In An Age Of Science: Women Remain Influenced By Culture And Mythology

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Women across cultures receive pregnancy information from social circles and the media, for better or worse. creative commons

In an age of reason, the human runs along two paths, heedful of recent knowledge gleaned from science but also mindful of mythologies evolving from long ago. Birth, a near sacred experience that is one of the few constants of human life, is rife with beliefs from both paths.

As a mythological archetype, pregnancy for women brings a set of expectations distinct to some cultures but also universal to the human species, perpetuated by a sisterhood of midwives, mothers, and women about to give birth.

In modern Western culture, women may rely on doctors of medicine to oversee the logistics of their pregnancies, but remain greatly influenced by stories and hearsay from social circles and the media, researchers reported Saturday at an annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. In research conducted on 64 pregnant women in the New York City metropolitan area, Daniella Bessett of the University of Cincinnati, described the phenomenon of “pregnancy mythologies.”

Such mythologies are often fragmentary and frequently contradictory bits of knowledge, passed along successive generations of women and men.

"In contrast to survey research that asks women to identify information sources that help them make specific decisions, in-depth interviews such as mine reveal a more complex web of taken-for-granted assumptions that women bring to pregnancy — a condition commonly represented in both fictional and reality television, films, commercials, and other entertainment media," Bessett said. "My research shows that we may underestimate the extent to which all of us hold understandings of pregnancy built incrementally through a succession of ephemeral encounters over our lifetimes and the extent to which those understandings affect us.”

By recognizing this phenomenon, science may gain new perspective on how external influences affect communication between a pregnant woman and her doctor, Bessett said.

Pregnancy: A Complex Web Of Myths And Assumptions

A decade ago, Bessett began a three-year project studying women during their pregnancies, conducting in-depth interviews to investigate a “more complex web” of assumptions women bring to pregnancy, an archetypical condition represented throughout fictional and reality television, films, commercials, and other entertainment media.

"My research shows that we may underestimate the extent to which all of us hold understandings of pregnancy built incrementally through a succession of ephemeral encounters over our lifetimes and the extent to which those understandings affect us,” Bessett said.

In the study, some women drew from a personal history of experience with pregnancy, either their own or others, while some women were greatly influenced by ethnic and religious traditions.

"Depending on these varied biographical and structural locations, women affirmed, grieved, critiqued, and contested key aspects of pregnancy mythology," Bessett said.

However, most women tended to minimize the influence of mythology on their perceptions when asked about information sources they trusted most. Only when pressed by researchers to identify their sources of information did they acknowledge influence from entertainment media such as television shows.

Interestingly, most of the women in the study reported no explanation for many of the assumptions they held about pregnancy and were sometimes distressed when expectations failed to meet reality. In the absence of symptoms related to “morning sickness,” for example, women feared a medical abnormality with the fetus.

"Whether pleasurable, inconvenient or debilitating, pregnancy symptoms are not simply treated as pregnancy side-effects in our culture, but rather as a significant connection to the fetus and fetal subjectivity," Bessett said.

Pregnancy Symptoms: Science, Baby Communication, Or Impolite To Talk About?

A bout of intense vomiting, for example, was seen by some women as a tangible manifestation of the unborn baby’s desires or personal characteristics, particularly with regard to neonatal diet and nutrition, as opposed to a symptom of pregnancy. A woman in the study, for example, attributed a craving for fried chicken to her baby’s preference for the food.

But just as often, women tended to miss information about pregnancy not popularized by the entertainment media, such as ailments including gas and swollen ankles. "Whether it's because they are somewhat rare, like pregnancy-related nosebleeds, or because they concern parts of the body that are not 'polite' to talk about [such as hemorrhoids], some symptoms are not typically portrayed in entertainment media narratives on pregnancy, nor were they symptoms that friends and family frequently shared with women in advance of their first pregnancy," Bessett said.

The study comprised women from a diverse array of racial-ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with most participating in two to three interviews between 2003-2006.

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