Reading Assignment — Pregnancy in China

This week there were two interesting articles about pregnancy and childbirth customs/attitudes in contemporary China. Writing for Bloomberg, Shanghai-based journalist Adam Minter writes about the anti-radiation maternity clothes worn by expantant mothers:

Two years ago, as I waited for an appointment in Beijing, I watched a secretary place an apron over her enlarged belly. I asked if she was cold and she replied, “No, I’m pregnant.” She then explained that the apron concealed a metal mesh that protected her unborn child from the electromagnetic radiation coming from her computer.

That sounded bonkers to me. But when I mentioned this curious encounter to Chinese friends, I learned that an entire industry of “protective” maternity clothing has thrived in China for almost 20 years. Anti-electromagnetic radiation jumpers are just as necessary for a modern Chinese pregnancy as folic acid supplements. This is despite any scientific evidence proving that electromagnetic radiation harms fetuses — some Chinese families simply believe that it does.

He goes on to write about a recent program on China Central Television that revealed that common anti-radiation smocks were only blocking out 90% of radiation instead of the 99% that was claimed, and the subsequent outcry.  He then concludes:

In the end, it may not be science that destroys China’s anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity-wear industry, but rather the public’s realization that expectant mothers in the West don’t wear the stuff. China often measures itself against the West to judge its own progress, which is why the Dec. 28 Beijing Evening News segment titled, “Foreign Women Have Never Heard of Anti-Radiation Clothing,” had a strong impact on other leading newspapers and websites.

Featured in the segment was a Chinese mother who lives in Switzerland — a country idealized in China as a place of precision, good sense and cleanliness. She told reporters that when she asked her Swiss gynecologist where she could purchase an anti-radiation suit in Switzerland, “…the doctor was at a loss to answer because he had never heard of such a thing.” He told her, “The amount of radiation thrown off by a computer is less than what is thrown off by the sun’s rays.” It’s a simple and true point that a television news magazine, or a government agency, shouldn’t have to make.

I’ve seen them…The first indication that a young woman in an office is pregnant is that she is suddenly wearing a heavy, usually pink, lead-lined smock over her work clothes.

I once asked a colleague about the smock and if she really believed that not wearing it would harm her unborn child.  She confided in me that she didn’t, but that if she didn’t wear it and her child was born with some problems, then she would be blamed by her husband and family members.  So to her, it just wasn’t worth the risk. The power of peer pressure.

Meanwhile, over at Slate, there’s an article titled “Cesarean Nation,” which looks at how China became the world’s leader in C-sections.

In September 2010, the Chinese Web portal Netease posted a page titled “Why Are Chinese Women Afraid of Natural Childbirth?” The headline might have sounded hyperbolic, but it was anything but. The World Health Organization had just released the results of a survey examining delivery methods in Asia. In Chinese hospitals studied in 2007 and 2008, 46 percent of babies were born though cesarean section—the highest documented rate in the world. Interspersed with photos of pretty pregnant women, in a lavender font, Netease listed its six top reasons why women in China might opt for cesarean section. Some of them weren’t so different from the explanations you might see on an American Web site (No. 4 on the list: “I’d like to have a natural birth, but I’m afraid it will influence my sex life.”), while others were more exotic. (To wit: “My mother-in-law is superstitious about dates and wants to pick the time of birth.”) The No. 1 reason on the list? “Everybody else is having surgery.”….

Masoud Afnan, chair of theObstetrics and Gynecology Department at Beijing United Family Hospital, said that “with the one-child policy, people don’t want to take any risks.” And many in China mistakenly believe cesareans to be safer for both mother and child. “As much as I try to tell patients what the evidence shows,” Afnan continued, “it’s not really so easy to convince them.”

As disposable income grew, the C-section came to be seen as the logical endpoint of the micromanaged pregnancy. Today this 21st-century brand of control mixes with ancient numerology and fortune-telling. Ding Lidan, a 26-year-old Hangzhou resident who is eight months pregnant, told me, “If a woman here gets a cesarean, she will typically hire a fortune teller to predict a good date and time of day for the operation.” Those who can’t afford to hire out turn to free fortune-telling websites or rely on their own intuition. (The sixth and eighth days of the lunar month are popular. Conversely, no one wants to give birth on Tomb Sweeping Day.) In some cities, obstetrics ward administrators consult the lunar calendar in scheduling doctors’ shifts.

Again, many expectant mothers I’ve known in China have told me months in advance what day their babies were scheduled to be born.

(photo source: babywise)