What to Ignore When You’re Expecting: The Perils of Prenatal Determinism

“Nature invented hunger. We invented bullshit.” I was awakened by those words last Tuesday, as I slept on the floor

“Nature invented hunger. We invented bullshit.” I was awakened by those words last Tuesday, as I slept on the floor in my underwear on a foam mattress below the hospital bed of my wife, who had just given birth to a baby girl. It was our ob-gyn who had spoken them, a brilliant Manhattan doctor named Adam Romoff, who had shepherded my wife with kindness and understanding and delivered the baby with ease. He was addressing the issue of “nipple confusion.”

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Now, although we have another young child, I had never heard of nipple confusion, but as Dr. Romoff continued to talk and I continued to pretend to be sleeping (restrained from conversing by lack of clothing), I became enlightened about the subject. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, nipple confusion is not grounds for divorce in New York State. It is not a new Japanese board game. No, nipple confusion is the calamity that some “experts” believe befalls an infant when he or she is given both a bottle and a breast to nurse from. Bottle, breast, bottle, breast, bottle, breast–voilà! Nipple confusion. It is the sort of issue a strong stance on which could get a local politician elected in Park Slope.

According to the experts, nipple confusion can lead to a diminishment in the mother’s milk supply, a dramatic loss of weight for the baby, and general frustration for mother and child. People actually worry about this. Our doctor’s point was simple yet profound. The sheer fact of physical need meant that a hungry infant wouldn’t care whether she was getting nourishment from a plastic nipple, a real nipple or a 3,000-mile long, federally funded tube. More profoundly, he was implying that in the old antagonism of nature vs. nurture, nurture–in the form of a maniacal overthinking–was fighting nature to a standstill.

Consider a new book that has just hit the marketplace: Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, by Annie Murphy Paul. In this latest contribution to the stratospherically lucrative vein of inflaming the anxiety of child-rearing parents, Ms. Paul marshals one scientific study after another to, on the one hand, arrive at the most banal conclusions–“smoking, it turns out, is very bad indeed”–and on the other, the most medieval–“women who ate cereal every morning had a higher chance of delivering boys.” Ms. Paul associates low birth weight with the most dire consequences later in life, but she never once defines what low birth weight is, or makes a clear, consistent distinction between the weight of premature infants and the low weight of otherwise healthy babies. Nor does she address the fact that although girls are almost always born lighter than boys, females have a longer life expectancy than males. Ms. Paul arrives at the conclusion that birth weight is an irreversible influence on the quality of life, at the same time that she makes certain to distance herself from the crude determinism of such a position.

What is especially gross about Ms. Paul’s book is that after going on and on about the dreadful consequences of low birth weight, she ends by triumphantly informing us that she herself delivered an invincible 10-pounder. This, after earlier telling us that “poor pregnant women” have the highest number of low-birth-weight babies and that “black infants are two and a half times more likely to have low birth weight as white infants.” She then quotes an expert wringing his white hands over the possibility that “a future of racial inequality is being programmed.”

But no such future is possible if you simply deny Ms. Paul’s cracked determinism and allow for the fact that what you do with a child after she is born matters every bit as much, if not more, than what you do when she is in the womb. (What was President Obama’s birth weight, I wonder?) Ms. Paul’s book seems calculated to appeal to that broad stratum of Manhattan residents–mostly journalists and academics–who, for all their culture and accomplishment and superior intelligence, feel constantly outclassed by the bankers and real estate developers. Just as insecure white sharecroppers in the South had the myth of inherent racial inequality to shore up their weak egos, so these supposedly liberal professionals lean on the myth of prenatal determinism (always so scientifically and solicitously expressed) to shore up their own. The bankers might have all the money, but at least our kids were born big, unlike really poor babies, and black ones.

Ah, here I go, doing my critic’s thing. I am the “last critic,” after all, which means that I take off after whatever target rouses my ire, however big and mighty. But this morning I was reading Yeats’ great poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and these lines, which I have read many times, struck me with novel force: “If there’s no hatred in a mind/ Assault and battery of the wind/ Can never tear the linnet from the leaf./ An intellectual hatred is the worst.” At the moment, I feel that care for another is the fundamental principle of the universe. Go, Ms. Paul, fly in freedom, like the linnet.

I can say that I’ve never hated the author of a book I didn’t like, though I’ve panned books–and excoriated various writers–with exuberant relentlessness. Hate someone? For writing a book? Recently, an old colleague of mine, a very bright man, wrote an eloquent defense of negative book reviewing that was, in the end, strangely underdeveloped. He seemed to associate the panning of a book with a defense of human dignity and civilized values; that is to say, he seemed to identify his own life and, to put it crudely, his own job with a type of heroism. Then he cited William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Pleasure of Hating” and seemed to imply that “hating” was a good thing in intellectual matters. This might account for the occasional thuggish streak in his otherwise very fine mind.

My old colleague has apparently forgotten that even the defense of high principle can be motivated, at the same time, by envy, ambition, pride and feelings of powerlessness. Better, then, to avoid an intellectual hatred, and the brittle certitude that accompanies it, altogether. At the very least, if you are going to hate, try to suppress the caress of self-love in your theatrical presentation of yourself as the wearily ironic, Olympian defender of spirit and soul.

But I wish for my old friend also to fly like the linnet, and to keep happily to his leaf. And for my daughter, and for my son, I make my own prayer. It is from an old song: “The greatest thing/ You’ll ever learn/ Is just to love/ And be loved/ In return.” May they also come to know, softly, that all the rest–from “scientific” overthinkers to intellectual overhaters–is deluding, and self-deluding, bullshit.


What to Ignore When You’re Expecting: The Perils of Prenatal Determinism