Pregnancy + stress = public health’s perfect storm

From January 2015 to December 2016, I was a student in the master’s degree program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. My time in grad school was instrumentally influential to me. I minored in women’s studies back in college at U of O, but when I realized that my real aspiration was to become a feminist writer, I decided that I needed a much stronger foundation in feminism as an area of study. And that turned out to be true in ways I hadn’t even anticipated: I became aware that my prior feminist education, for all its merits, had failed to incorporate discussions of women of color. But that was about to change.

Lifelong stress → premature birth

One of my primary research interests while at OSU was women’s health. As it turned out, one of the professors, Mehra Shirazi, specialized in that, and I was fortunate to take not one, but two courses from her: Global Perspectives on Women’s Health, in winter of my first year, and Race, Gender, and Health Justice, a year later. Of all the lessons I learned in her classes, one, in the form of a newsreel, has always stuck with me.

Stress during pregnancy → ADHD

WOC aren’t the only ones for whom stress can result in adverse birth outcomes for their childrenIn my last post, I mentioned that women with ADHD who experience stress during pregnancy are more likely to have children with it. Well, I was wrong. The abstract of an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2011 states that “maternal stressful events during pregnancy significantly predicted ADHD behaviors in offspring,” i.e., stressful events for any pregnant woman, not just one with ADHD

Furthermore, said Dr. Ian Colman, who led a similar study earlier this year, “Generally speaking… the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms.”

In other words, more children are susceptible to maternal-stress-induced ADHD. And their symptoms vary in severity depending on the level of maternal stress. 

In the announcement of their study on stress in pregnant women and ADHD, University of Ottawa researchers included an infographic of so-called stress management tips and tricks, including:

Portrait of sad and frustrated pregnant woman.
Women with ADHD who experience stress during pregnancy are more likely to have children born with ADHD. (Photo source: Adobe Stock)
  1. Identify what’s behind your stress and address it right away
  2. Talk to your loved ones to help them help you
  3. Simplify your life by shortening your to-do list and learning to say no
  4. Quiet your mind through yoga and mindfulness
  5. Find time to do something you enjoy, such as hobbies or physical activity.

That’s all well and good, but it predicates on the dual notions that (a) stress is situational, and relatedly, that (b) women have the power, i.e., time and agency, to quote-unquote simplify their lives, quiet their minds, and do things they enjoy. 

First of all, it would be ideal  — I’m not saying it would be great, but it would be the best-case scenario — if all stress were indeed situational. But in fact, it’s systemic; there are sociological reasons that women find themselves in stressful situations.

For example, I think we can all agree that in general, men are more amenable to “going the extra mile” for their wives when they are serving as human incubators for their progeny. But this is temporary. Gender roles are so entrenched in our consciousness, exist so much in our understanding of the fabric of society that they’re liable to supersede sudden inclinations toward chivalry. They may wash the dishes occasionally; even assume all responsibility for helping the kids they already have with their homework, etc. — at least after coming home from the office.

But will they assume sole responsibility for cleaning all toilets in the house for the next nine months — and do so without even being asked? Let me put it this way: My dad is a proud feminist, but according to my mom, not even he went that far when I was a bun in his wife’s oven.

The salient point here is that unless a husband* assumes all extant household responsibilities, a wife has no means of wholly and entirely de-stressing. Moreover, in the most extreme versions of our regular social paradigm, women don’t even have time to find out what they enjoy, let alone actually do it. 

Women of color

work-stress-title-image_tcm7-212368
Stress resulting from everyday racism in women of color over a lifetime can result in adverse health outcomes for their children at birth. (Photo source: American Psychological Association)

In addition to this paradigm shift between husbands and wives, in order to avoid the adverse birth outcomes of which their children are at risk, WOC would need to retroactively un-experience the systemic (there’s that word again) ‘everyday racism’ they have experienced all their lives. Erasing the sexism that they were forced to endure, well, that wouldn’t hurt matters, either. Unfortunately, none of this is possible. Technically, we can’t do anything for the WOC already of childbearing age, except confer upon them the utmost respect and provide them with any prenatal care that may reduce the likelihood of pre-term delivery.

I have a vision for future generations, though, of my friends’ children growing up without the media suppressing reportage of violence against WOC in favor of the police-violence-against-the-Black-man narrative. In this vision, violence against POC — regardless of gender — isn’t even a thing. 

All in all, I agree with Dr. Michael Lu:

If we’re serious about improving birth outcomes and reducing disparities, we’ve got to start taking care of woman before pregnancy and not just talking about that one visit three months pre-conceptionally; I’m talking about when she’s a baby inside her mother’s womb, an infant, and then a child, an adolescent and really taking care of women and families across their life course.

And I agree, as well, with my former classmate in WGSS and dear friend Amber Moody:

I think it’s brilliant to frame systemic racism/sexism as a public health issue. … [T]hese systems of discrimination still exist; and the effects, which really can be traced back to colonialism and white supremacy, have been genetically embedded into our lives. And until we actually address the source of the problem, these … issues are going to continue to be passed down for generations.


*I say ‘husband’ because I was raised in and hypothetically will enter into a heterosexual family dynamic consisting of a cismale husband and a cisfemale wife. There are, of course, numerous other familial configurations; albeit I doubt very much that the same degree of gender-role pigeonholing would be present in a female-female marriage.