Why ‘Ditch the Deli Meat’ and Other Prohibitions Miss the Point of Pregnancy

Childbearing is too often defined by restrictions against vice instead of invitations to virtue.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I looked for books to tell me what it all meant. I wanted to know how I should understand the strange situation of having a whole other mysterious person folded up inside my middle. Surely I had entered into a special spiritual category. When I made choices about what to do, I was taking another person’s safety into account. And when I prayed, two of us were already gathered, so Jesus must have been present with us.

In addition to asking big questions, I was also following guidelines, as American women have grown accustomed to doing in pregnancy. I was watching my diet, avoiding medicines and household chemicals, walking carefully, taking vitamins, and drinking tankards of water. The implication of prenatal instructions was that following them to the letter would ensure a healthy baby.

Of course, prenatal good behavior doesn’t guarantee a healthy baby. But if not, what is the point of doing all this stuff? Pregnant mom rules are focused almost entirely on vice and the avoidance of it. Women who are “with child” are warned away from drugs and strong drink, deli meats and soft cheese, acne lotions and champagne toasts. Even resting has rules. We’re told which side of the body is best to sleep on.

These prohibitions matter, of course, but they also blind us to the bigger picture. We call out the vices of childbearing without having any notion of what the virtues might be. Applying the framework of virtue to pregnancy isn’t necessary for persuading a woman to do good on behalf of a child—she’s already doing that—but rather for naming this good.

To be sure, talking about virtues alongside pregnancy requires caution. Pregnancy itself is …

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