September 13, 2012

On exceptionalism and test anxieties

Especially for first time moms-to-be, a wanted pregnancy can still be fraught with worry and anxiety. Many of the wise "been there, done that" moms in my life have tried their best to comfort me with the reminder that statistics are usually in one's favor and to trust in the pregnant body. But in so many ways the experience of being pregnant has been one lesson in surrender after another. Lacking agency in determining so many of the outcomes can leave a person feeling disempowered and fearful. And often, prenatal tests can stimulate as much concern as they do relief.

The wealth of information available online can become another venue through which to stir anxieties. Dr. Google may have some helpful answers, (and of course I am grateful to live in this age of information) but not all information is created equal. And the ability to work oneself into a nervous mess is almost too easy now.

One of the subjects I teach about in a few of my courses concerns American ideology. And one powerful, shaping notion that permeates American culture is "exceptionalism." Exceptionalism is a (conscious or unconscious) belief in one's uniqueness and individuality... that you will be the exception to the rule.* For example, the belief that statistically you will beat the odds and ascend in socio-economic status through a combination of hard work and good luck is both a familiar narrative found in the stories we tell and retell, and for many Americans, a powerful motivating force in life.

There's a fantastic book titled, A Nation of Outsiders that unpacks this notion... the idea that we prop up rebel "outsiders" and/or believe ourselves to be "outside" of the crowd or even perhaps above the statistics. This might seem like a tangent, but I'm bringing it up because exceptionalism isn't always positive or motivating. It can also encourage irrational feelings that venture toward "worst case scenario" territories. And because pregnancy is at once entirely normal and yet completely miraculous, it can be easy to believe that "despite all odds" things might go very wrong. That statistics will not be in your favor. That in fact, yours will be the cautionary tale... Dr. Google corroborates this irrationality, as there are infinite spaces through which to read cautionary tale after cautionary tale, giving an impression that such tales aren't so exceptional after all.

But this isn't all bad either... when faced with adversity during pregnancy, finding commiseration and empathetic comfort is that much easier thanks to the wealth of crowd sourced information and virtual community support. This would be impossible without Dr. Google.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I know my worries are normal. My fears might become amplified because of all the available information. I might fear that I will be the exception to the rule. But the odds are in my favor (as they are in the overwhelming majority of individual circumstances) and that is what I strive to make my takeaway.

My partner and I decided to have a number of prenatal tests done throughout my pregnancy. We wanted all the information available to us at every turn. While all signs have pointed to a healthy, normal pregnancy with appropriate embryonic and fetal development, that doesn't mean that there is never any worry. I trust science. I trust my healthcare providers. And I am learning with every day and every kick that I feel to trust my body. I trust it to continue to do what it needs to do. After all, it has so far.

So far, so good.

*Actually, it's a bit more complex than that but for the purposes of this post my above definition is sufficient.

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