Journalist Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, answers five questions from Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, author of In In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commi..., about humanizing science, the anxiety pregnant women feel, and how being pregnant while writing affected what she wrote.
Rachel Lehmann-Haupt: What made you want to write Origins?
Annie Murphy Paul: I’m a science writer, and part of my job is to go through the academic journals, looking for something new and interesting to write about. Starting a few years ago, I began coming across some fascinating findings concerning the prenatal period. These discoveries challenged a lot of the beliefs and assumptions we’ve all held for a long time about when, and how, human qualities emerge—things like our health, our intelligence, our temperaments. This research, I learned, is part of an emerging field called “fetal origins.”
The theory of fetal origins proposes that our personal qualities stem not only from the genes we inherited at conception, not only from our experiences in childhood, and not only from the lifestyle choices we make as adults—but, additionally, from the nine months that we spent in the womb.
Not long after I began learning about this research, it took on a much more personal resonance for me when I learned that I was myself pregnant. I decided to explore this field as both a science reporter and as a pregnant woman, and to build my book around the nine months of my own pregnancy.
Rachel: How did being a mother influence your point of view while researching it?
Annie: Because I was pregnant while I was reporting and writing Origins, I think I was much more sensitive to the way messages are composed and presented to pregnant women. So often research findings are made to sound like a scolding or a guilt trip, and I wanted to be very careful not to add to the anxiety pregnant women already feel. I found that the information I was learning from the doctors and scientists I interviewed was actually very encouraging and empowering, and I tried to communicate that feeling of optimism to readers.
My pregnancy changed the way scientists related to me, too. During interviews, they would gesture at my belly to make a point, or they would use the word “you” instead of “the pregnant woman.” When they caught sight of me at professional meetings, they often looked kind of stunned—I compare it to a whale showing up at a conference of marine biologists! At those same meetings, usually held in bland, florescent-lit hotel conference rooms, my eyes would get teary when I saw ultrasound images of fetuses, or heard recorded wails of newborns during the presentation of research findings. What was professional became personal for me, as well as the other way around.
Rachel: How did what you learn influence the way you are raising your children?
Annie: Since writing Origins, I have a new awareness that that the way my children become who they are is a very complex process—that their constellation of traits is attributable to the genes they inherited at conception, AND to the world they encountered after birth, AND to the nine months in between. I’ve broadened my definition of the “environment” that has shaped them to include the environment of the womb. And I’ve become aware that our genetic inheritance is not set in stone but is always being tuned and tweaked by environmental inputs. My research for Origins introduced me to the fascinating world of epigenetic research, an exciting new field that examines how the behavior of genes is altered by the environment. These modifications are made without changing DNA, and they occur with special frequency in the prenatal period. So I understand now in a way I didn’t before that nurture/nature is not an either/or proposition, that all these things work in concert to make our children the way they are.
Rachel: Is there any rule that you now believe a pregnant woman should definitely abide by?
Annie: I don’t want to make any more rules for pregnant women than they already have! But my gentle suggestion would be to consider adopting a new perspective on pregnancy—to see it not as a nine-month slog leading up to the big event of birth, but as a vital, dynamic, important time unto itself. I think it would be great if pregnant women could come to see themselves not as passive incubators or as the source of always-imminent harm to their fetuses, but as a powerful and often positive influence on their children even before they’re born. And I would consider it a job well done if I could get everyone—not just pregnant women—thinking about how pregnancy presents unique opportunity to promote the health and well-being of the next generation.
Rachel: The challenge in writing my first book, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood, was humanizing very technical aspects of advanced reproductive science. How did you approach this challenge with Origins?
Annie: You did that so well in your book, Rachel. In my own book, I tried to handle the same challenge in two ways. The first was to filter much of the science through my own viewpoint and sensibility—to say to the reader, “Come with me and let’s explore this brave new world of fetal origins research together.” I was open about my own doubts and anxieties, in the hope that other women would be able to identify.
And secondly, I focused on the researchers themselves, and some of the very human situations they encountered as they did their work. For example: One scientist I interviewed, Suzanne King at McGill University, lived through Canada’s terrible ice storm of 1998 and found herself wondering about how it was affecting pregnant women—that was the start of her research effort, known as Project Ice Storm. Another scientist, Curt Sandman of the University of California, Irvine, experienced the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and thought to examine its impact on a group of pregnant women he was already following. The people doing this work are so interesting, and their work is so endlessly fascinating, that I found the human heart of this research easy to locate.
Annie Murphy Paul is a magazine journalist who contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and Slate, among other publications, and the author of two books: Origins and The Cult of Personality. Read more at www.originsthebook.com.
Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is an author, freelance editor, and media events producer based in San Francisco, CA. Read more at www.lehmannhaupt.com.
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