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In New York, pregnancy is a form of tyranny

Alexandra Starr discovers that in Manhattan expecting a baby is all about you and your performance, rather than the child: doctors and websites give the mother-to-be no quarter

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

Even Sylvia Plath (though usually pretty downbeat about life) viewed pregnancy as an exalted state. In her diary she characterised gestation as ‘the Great Experience a [woman’s] body is formed to partake of, to nourish’, while in her poem ‘Morning Song’ she celebrated feeling ‘cow heavy and floral’. Bringing children into the world clearly fulfilled a profound need for Plath. But I suspect that even she would have felt differently about the joys of maternity had she experienced it not in London in the early 1960s, but in Manhattan circa 2009.

Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. My husband and I spent most of last year in London, all the while ignoring our parents’ insinuations that we should attempt to produce British-born children. There were benefits to remaining a two-person household. We had evenings at the theatre followed by long dinners and trips to places as far flung as India and Egypt. Now that I’m stateside, a few months removed from first-time motherhood, however, I wonder if succumbing to familial pressure might not have been such a bad idea. It would have allowed me to escape the tyranny of a New York pregnancy.

In a city obsessed with self-improvement and status, becoming big with child is not a mellow experience. New Yorkers may appear to be concerned about your baby, but in fact it’s all about you, not your child. How you eat during pregnancy is seen as a reflection of your character and social standing.

Pregnancy in Manhattan combines crunchy-granola wholesomeness — go organic, absolutely no drinking (to say nothing of lighting up a cigarette), cut out the caffeine — with an urban prejudice against growing anything bigger than the ‘Perfect Bump’ (as the title of a New York magazine article describing the city’s epidemic of skinny pregnancies put it). Before conceiving, I had known that you were supposed to stay away from sushi and decline all but the occasional glass of wine. But I was surprised, if not stunned, by the list of ‘prohibited items’ that fill US pregnancy websites. Here’s a partial list: deli meats, raw sprouts, smoked salmon, soft cheeses, alcohol, coffee, even camomile tea.

In effect, it meant swaths of the New York eating scene were suddenly off-limits. Goodbye to the large cappuccinos I used to grab on my way to the subway — and hello instead to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that plagued me for weeks. I couldn’t have my favourite lunchtime sandwiches — smoked turkey or smoked chicken salad on seven-grain bread — because deli meats held the infinitesimal risk of harbouring salmonella. And as for the fig hazelnut scones or the buttercream-frosted muffins I occasionally picked up, well, fuggedaboutit.

I felt less licence to indulge, not more, after getting knocked up. Consider this iconic passage from What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the US’s pregnancy bible: ‘Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, “Is this the best bite I can give my baby?” If it will benefit your baby, chew away. If it’ll only benefit your sweet tooth or appease your appetite, put your fork down.’ The admonishment led to me shelving the book — but I found the ‘every bite counts’ mantra hard to get out of my head after it had been introduced.

My doctor wasn’t as sanctimonious as What to Expect. But she did caution that I would be weighed at every visit and that, with few exceptions, she didn’t believe people should put on more than 25 lbs in total. ‘I would ask you,’ she said at our initial meeting, ‘whether the baby needs that slice of cake. For that matter, I would ask if you do.’

The New York resident who hopes to find a more indulgent attitude on electronic message boards is — to put it mildly — out of luck. UrbanBaby, the ur-website on pregnancy and children in Manhattan, is full of posts obsessed with packing on the pounds. As one poster put it, ‘I am 5’5’’, 120 lbs, and need the NYC number for weight gain during pregnancy, not the Middle America one.’ While no one has patented the New York City number, anything that smacks of tipping the scales seems to produce pronounced self-loathing (‘13 weeks, 12 lbs! I feel like a hippo’). The women who receive praise are those who effectively manage to never show their state at all. ‘I ran throughout my pregnancy,’ one recent UrbanBaby visitor boasted, ‘including three miles on the day of delivery. Other runners made fun of me, but I gained 20 pounds, and had a nine-pound baby.’ The response? ‘Amazing, there are few like you. May I follow in your footsteps.’

As a woman who harbours no desire to run three miles on the verge of giving birth, I became increasingly irritated that I had landed in a city with such a strict gestation ethos. I carped about this with vigour one Sunday morning as my husband wolfed down a breakfast I could no longer share with him: a frothy coffee accompanied by a fat brown bagel topped with smoked salmon.

Seeing my distress, my husband jumped up from the table and declared I would have a UK pregnancy right here in Manhattan. He fired up his laptop and found the Food Standards Agency website, highlighting its more lax strictures. As the Agency puts it, though ‘some countries advise not to eat cold meats and smoked fish’ (ahem), those products are basically fine, because the risk of listeria is very low.

‘There,’ my husband said, plunking the computer and a slice of bagel adorned with glistening fish down in front of me. ‘Bookmark this page, and for God’s sake stay off UrbanBaby.’ As I scanned the do’s and don’ts, I could see the alternative reality before me. I could have coffee in the morning, and the occasional glass of wine (the NHS advises against drinking, but does allow this escape hatch — if you do choose to drink, limit consumption to one or two units per week, it says). And in England, I learned, they do not weigh pregnant women at all.

Since then, I’ve become lenient. I occasionally skip the prenatal yoga class to which my doctor sent me, savour a one-shot latte at breakfast a few times a week, and at an office party consumed the slice of vanilla cake which neither I nor the baby needed. Still, I occasionally tease my husband about our decision to move back to New York, and hint that relocation could preserve my long-term sanity. For according to other parents, the prenatal stage is just the beginning.

When I confided to a friend that I’d found pregnancy in New York to be stressful, he laughed for a long while. ‘Oh Alex,’ he said. ‘Just wait until you’re trying to get them into preschool.’

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