Bringing Up Baby: Stay Away From That Tuna! (Or I'll Take Your Baby)

Julia from Parenthood talks to Zoe at a coffee cart

During last week’s episode of Parenthood, Julia panicked because Zoe—the young woman carrying the baby Julia plans to adopt—is caught eating sushi. With tuna.

After googling the relative safety of pregnant people eating raw lobster versus cooked lobster, Julia confronts Zoe about her fish/crustacean consumption. “You googled my eating habits?” Zoe asks, horrified. “And you talked to your husband about what I’m eating?” To which Julia replies, “We don’t blame you at all for not knowing” … (flustered) … “Blame is the wrong word here.” Later, when Julia broached the topic again, Zoe says angrily, “I got the message loud and clear. I’m not gonna feed your baby raw fish. You got it, boss.”

Part of me is happy that Parenthood dealt with this topic. Tension and judgment concerning prenatal dieting choices is pervasive, and the show’s nod to this issue evidences the female writers and producers behind the scenes. Yet, the “blame game” framing is too obvious, and its execution was forced. Later in the episode, we learn that Zoe is grateful to have Julia looking after her—so why was she so upset?

Well, because women always get mad at each other over this stuff, or so the media likes to remind us.

When it comes to prenatal health in pop culture, intra-female cattiness is a typical storyline. Foregrounding the fights between women draws attention away from the societal forces that are, ultimately, largely responsible. For example, as I discussed in my post about breastfeeding, health recommendations don’t take into account barriers to breastfeeding, especially for women who work. Similarly, media coverage of the “scientific findings” concerning health during pregnancy rarely mentions the practical difficulties of following science’s clear-cut recommendations. Unjust work policies, medicaid restrictions, and access to healthcare are chronically overlooked—leaving women themselves to bear the brunt of the blame.

In the grand scheme of things, the sushi dilemma is class-specific and not our biggest problem. But what about stress and diabetes? These are two of the most important health factors for pregnant women, and yet millions lack access to prenatal care, healthy foods, and healthy working environments. The media fails to connect these dots, instead blaming women. This New York Times piece on the negative health outcomes of stress during pregnancy talks about cortisol, but most certainly doesn’t mention the role of socioeconomic factors. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign emphasizes the importance of healthy foods and exercise, but has only this to say about factors that are outside a mom’s control: “The new law and regulations make sure that more mothers have access to services they need to ensure a healthy pregnancy.” This is a reference to The Affordable Care Act, which in fact does not ensure that women have access to prenatal care. Given the media’s emphasis on cortisol rather than access to care, it’s no surprise that clinical trials are now underway to test the effectiveness of giving Metformin, a common diabetes drug, to pregnant women in an effort to prevent obesity in her offspring. This solution is profitable to the pharmaceutical industry, yet does nothing to address the underlying causes—many of them poverty-related—of obesity and diabetes.

All this and much, more more is why I wish Parenthood had drawn attention to the failures of our healthcare system instead of Zoe’s defensiveness. “But … didn’t your doctor tell you about mercury and tuna?” Julia could have said. “Well, no … my insurance only allows three appointments during my pregnancy, and they never told me anything about diet restrictions,” Zoe could have replied. (If you don’t think that makes for an interesting story line, imagine Julia storming into Zoe’s doctor’s office, all full of righteous indignation.)

The blame game is not only misleading, it’s also dangerous. Child and Family Services can take children away based on what their guardian feeds them. Custody battles over children include scrutiny of what mom and dad are feeding the kids. I wish we would talk about the food deserts in low-income neighborhoods instead of taking children away from their parents, who often have limited options when it comes to nutrition. (Read this recent investigation that uncovered corrupt federal support of infant formula-making and “food additive” companies.)

When this stripe of policing extends into the pre-birth period, I really get scared. Yesterday, Mississippians voted on Initiative 26, the “Personhood Amendment” that would have defined life as beginning the moment an egg is fertilized. This (defeated!) amendment would have made abortion, intrauterine birth control devices, and the morning after pill illegal. Depending on its interpretation, it could have rendered all birth control illegal. But the implications don’t stop there. All pregnant women would be potential murderers. A woman who suffers a miscarriage could be arrested (this has happened), and her eating and drinking habits during pregnancy could be scrutinized. She ate tuna? Sounds like criminal negligence.

In related news, has anyone else noticed how Zoe fits the “Powerless Surrogate” trope? Her character isn’t fleshed out, but she seems kinda pathetic and kinda bohemian. She wears black nail polish—is this a clue about something?

Previously, On Bringing Up Baby: The Desperate Housewives’ Guide To TV’s Childbearing Tropes, 1987’s Baby Boom VS. 2010’s Life As We Know It 

by Katherine Don
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post. I don't watch

Great post. I don't watch the show, but thanks for bringing this up. The privilege of doing "everything right" while you're pregnant is, well... a privilege.

Yes, so true. Not sure why

Yes, so true. Not sure why the focus was on what she was eating---you can eat sushi and even drink coffee during pregnancy as long as it is beyond your first trimester and you consume small/reasonable quantities. This show has a large cast and thus I understand that they can't flesh out every story line and its every political implication. However, I think that the ongoing other female story line, i.e. Kristina's ongoing postpartum issues--and even her actual pregnancy and the implications for her family while already facing a stressful struggle with an 10 year old son with Asperger's along with this adoption storyline have been problematic. I know these issues are dynamic and the show is depicting many character's interactions around them, but the focus is centered on how these other characters' are feeling/dealing with these women as opposed to how these women could be better served by having more support--like having a husband more involved with childcare as opposed to starting a risky business and checking out a new assistant, or helping with prenatal care and economic circumstances instead of micromanaging sushi intake... Glad you brought this up--it needed to be pointed out.

another possibility

I too was disappointed with the direction the writers took on this subject. That it became a demonstration of care or love and not something just a little bit darker. But I don't read the North American food prohibitions of pregnancy as being about prenatal health. I read them as patriarchal distrust of the female body (and mind) generally and fear of birth particularly. It's yet another way that a pregnant woman's body becomes almost public property – she stops being a person with her own tastes and desires and is first a foremost a vessel.

Alcohol IS a prenatal health issue – it's known to cause birth defects and the amount that causes birth defects is unknown. (Mercury in some fish is too.) But foods like sushi, soft unripened cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, and deli meats are more complicated. They do not cause birth defects directly. They carry a slightly higher risk of illnesses that in turn carry slightly higher risks of miscarriage or other damage to the fetus. In other words, if you eat them, you might get infected. If you get infected when pregnant, your baby could be harmed.

When I was pregnant, I called Motherisk about deli meats because turkey sandwiches were the only thing I wanted to eat for months. Motherisk is THE Canadian authority for counselling on risks in pregnancy and on research into the safety of drugs during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They told me that I probably shouldn't eat too many deli meats anyways because they're so high in salt and nitrates, and that I should probably only buy deli meats from a source that I trust. But they also said that the risk of getting sick with listeriosis from deli meats or the illness causing harm to my baby was lower than the risk of Fifths disease, a common childhood illness that can harm fetuses if a pregnant woman gets it. She pointed out that they don't advise pregnant teachers to avoid their classrooms in the event of a Fifths disease outbreak. So the risk of getting infected is minimal to begin and the risk of the baby being hurt by the illness smaller still.

That said, deli meats are probably not the best example since they're highly processed. But I'm pretty sure that Greek women have been eating feta during pregnancy for centuries, and French women have been eating Brie and Camembert for centuries and Japanese women have been eating sushi for centuries. But here, now, in North America, pregnant women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink during pregnancy. They must be told.

How I Met Your Mother recently covered the topic of food prohibitions during pregnancy too, in my opinion much more successfully. Lily, the pregnant woman, was eating things typically prohibited from pregnant women. Her husband and his best friend freaked out a bit about the dangers she was posing to the baby, but her doctor kept saying (in a European accent of some kind – I can't remember now exactly which one, but I think it's significant that it wasn't an American doctor) that “just a leetle bit” of pretty much anything is fine. The two men try to keep her from eating the danger foods and to convince her how dangerous it is, but in the end they realize that it's Lily's body (and taste buds and stomach), and it's really her choice what she chooses to eat.

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