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Living Begins in the Shell

Nux Gallica is now about 24 gestational weeks old as the third trimester begins.

She can hear, move her hands and mouth with intention, taste, smell, and even see light and dark. Her gray matter is all in place, and she can learn to respond to or ignore certain noises or other sensations. She can recognize individual people's voices, especially her parents', and her ears are being trained to differentiate between the sounds of her parents' native language and others, like Tia Esperanzita's Spanish.

These milestones have been known by doctors and scientists for some time, but it surprises me how shocking it still is for many people to hear reports that experiences within the womb have profound effects on a person's entire lifespan.

Why should it be surprising? Gardeners know that the way a vegetable seed is germinated helps determine how it will grow. How could this principle not hold true for the gestation of a highly complex mammal?

Culturally, many of us harbor a belief that the womb is either a void of nothingness or a sacred space in which no harm or influence can affect the growing fetus. Our midwives and obstetricians know different, but that doesn't stop reports like the cover story of the October 4 Time Magazine from making headlines.

My coffee table has been littered with prenatal and parenting magazines lately, free samples from doctor's visits and baby stores, and many of them are buzzing about the book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul.

This book describes some of the latest research on how every little thing we pregnant mothers ingest, experience, and feel affects our babies in ways that can affect our children not just immediately, in the womb, but through childhood, adulthood, and old age.

This is a scary concept for many women and one that pressures us to analyze and reconsider all of our habits and lifestyle choices. That kind of responsibility can be daunting and uncomfortable, which is why I suspect the cultural notion of a limbo-like, senseless womb persists against all logic and scientific knowledge.

But there is another way to think about it which has helped me get this far through my pregnancy with a sense of calm and optimism. (I think I lucked out with the personal hormone cocktail, too.) The pleasures and conveniences I feel obligated to give up while pregnant--double lattes, canned food, perfume, cycle commuting, wine, and lingering near someone smoking a clove cigarette, to name a few--are not things I have to give up forever. I can enjoy them again when I'm not pregnant. And practicing self-control and learning to live without certain things that have been part of my routine can be good for me (who really needs a can of soda with Sunday dinner anyway?) and empowering when I realize I haven't really missed them all that much.

And on the other side of the coin, I am constantly aware that my baby is benefiting from all the GOOD things that I DO during my pregnancy. She is nurtured by the fruits and vegetables I eat and the Vitamin D from sunshine warming my skin. She hears the music I listen to and feels soothing motions when I dance, and she gets a rush of pleasurable brain chemicals when I enjoy my music and dancing. She gets a mood lift when I eat a chocolate brownie, and she feels mental euphoria when I orgasm. She tastes the sweetness when I drink fresh apple cider, and her already-curious mind is stimulated when I nudge her back while she's kicking. She squirms when I climb onto the padded table, anticipating my prenatal massage, and she relaxes along with my body when my back is rubbed with warm oil. When Daddy G comes home from work and talks to his baby in funny voices, she abruptly stops moving for a few seconds as if she's listening intently. 

All these enjoyable experiences I give to my baby just by enjoying myself. There is only one time when we mothers can be so connected to our children, nurturing them inside our own bodies, right under our beating hearts, and sharing every emotion so intimately and directly. I like to think of pregnancy not as a time when I can't have fun like I used to, but as a truly magical time when I get to share this amazing experience with a new person and literally be, for nine months, that person's entire universe.

I think that if we accept the responsibility of taking care of OURSELVES as best we can during this time, nurturing our own bodies and souls during pregnancy, it is easier to feel optimistic, unafraid, and relaxed in the security that we are doing the best we can do for our babies without sacrificing our own needs. During pregnancy, what's good for the nut is generally good for the tree too.

After birth, our children quickly differentiate themselves as unique individuals who need share nothing with us except a portion of genetic code. Likewise, our bodies become our own again, to use and abuse as we wish. But before that dramatic separation, it is an awe-inspiring but obvious truth that living, not just biological life, begins in the womb.


  1. Sounds like you're enjoying your pregnancy! So when are you due? And just because I think it fascinating: a good friend of mine just had a baby (a little Victoria) and she has brown eyes already. I always thought they started out blue!

  2. What a lovely post!

    "Why should it be surprising?"

    Why indeed. It's convenient for a whole slew of reasons, from the moral to the political, to keep what goes on down there in the dark.

    That is a bleak view, brought about by years of infertility before we had our first baby. When you can't get pregnant, you become hyper-aware of the contradictory nature of modern opinions of pregnancy and childbirth. It was a huge eye-opener for me.

  3. Tessa: I am enjoying it, for the most part! I'm lucky enough to have had a pretty easy pregnancy so far. I'm due in January. Congrats to your friend. Victoria is a lovely name. :) I think sometimes babies are born with blue eyes and they change, but sometimes not. My mom is urging me to have a brown-eyed baby. She says if my baby's eyes come out and stay blue, we'll just have to "try again." Haha.

    Anthony: It's an emotionally and politically loaded subject, isn't it? Scientific knowledge challenges ALL political positions on reproductive health and sanctity of life issues. I think your view is correct, that it's convenient for many people and groups, for personal and political reasons (even commercial/economic reasons if you want to get really cynical), to shroud the workings of the womb in mystery. I believe it's always in everyone's best interest to be correctly informed about what really does and does not go on in there, and at what stages.

    Congrats on your personal success! I see the adorable result in your profile pic. :)

  4. Genie, you sound like you're truly enjoying your pregnancy as much as you can with morning sickness, etc. Don't want to list the negative to distract you from enjoying the positive.

    So you get those pesky emails from Turanistan, promising millions to the gullible?

  5. Genie:

    Continued congratulations on your soon-to-be-born baby girl. It's beautiful to see someone take such an interest in their child, even before that child is in their arms.

    It gives me pause. For the life of me, I don't understand how anyone could think it's okay or even a "right" to terminate the life of a growing baby. Your connection to your baby is very real and very precious!

  6. Roland: Yes, I am enjoying pregnancy. :) Luckily the feel-good hormones have not addled my brain enough to let me fall for those e-mail promises of foreign money. However, I do get misty when I read other sappy forwards. How strange.

    Hi, Molly! It's nice to have a pregnancy buddy around.

    Gleno: Thank you! Mr. G and I are very happy and excited about our new little family member.

    We feel so fortunate that our baby is healthy and developing well. It's easy to be happy in our situation, and for us to feel connected to our little one.

    But being pregnant also makes me feel especial empathy for those who have pregnancies or reproductive issues that are not as fortunate as mine. My baby is healthy and well developed and experiencing life already, but it is different early in pregnancy, before a person has formed to the point of having gray matter or senses or any other means of experiencing life. I think it might be comforting for the many women who have miscarriages to know that at the time most of them happen, the embryo or fetus cannot feel pain or experience loss, because there is no mental activity yet.

    And for women with unwanted pregnancies, most choices to terminate them occur during that early stage. I know, though, that the choice to keep or terminate a pregnancy doesn't just boil down to "will it hurt," and it's a complex and very personal choice, one I am thankful I have never been faced with making.

    In later stages, pregnancies are usually terminated because the child has a severe birth defect involving brain death or the inability to survive outside the womb. Again, this is an awful situation, one I am glad I haven't had to face. I am not categorically anti-euthanasia, for people or animals of any age, so I make no judgments toward women who decide not to carry such pregnancies to term.

    There are many very serious and important factors that go into the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy, and my stance is that I personally do not have the right, nor does any politician or judge or anyone else besides the pregnant woman, to make these hard decisions. Each situation is unique and must be respected as profoundly personal to the woman.

    Pregnancy, by its very nature, presents a huge responsibility to each pregnant woman, whatever the individual circumstances. I respect the right of pregnant women to make all choices regarding themselves and the lives inside their bodies, not because I think any and all choices made are "right," but because I do not believe I have the right to judge or decide about someone else's personal and unique situation.

    I believe that the best thing to do for all involved is to make sure people are well-informed, empowered to make their own healthy decisions, and supported in a loving community. That way, fewer tragic or risky pregnancies will begin, fewer wrenching decisions will have to be made, more mothers can feel good like I do about bringing children into the world, and babies have a better chance of living healthy and happy lives.

  7. Baby love! Yeah! What a fortunate little lady Ms. Nux G is! For having such awesome parents and for having such a knowledgeable mama!That said, I will be excited when I can douse you in a litre of perfume and get you all wasted with what? Two beers? ;) Love you, pregosaurus!

  8. Yeah, Tia Esperanzita! Once I can get a break from breastfeeding for a couple hours... I am gonna slam those two beers! Maybe this summer, we can leave Baby G with Daddy G for a night and go tear it up.


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