Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood
by Sandra Steingraber

[2001, New York: Perseus Publishing; 352 pages, paperback.]

[Review first published in Midwifery Today Issue 81, Spring 2007, © 2007, Midwifery Today, Inc. Review by Ramona Denk.]

What do you get when you cross a poet, a scientist and a mother? You get the author of this outstanding book!

I have to be honest. If you told me that there was a book about how the environment affects pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, I wouldn’t necessarily run out and get it. But I happened across this one on the library shelf and opened it in the middle. I discovered a fascinating narrative of Sandra Steingraber’s experience of becoming a mother, entwined with her personal exploration of the impact of the modern world on our babies.

The title Having Faith is a double reference to the author’s daughter named Faith and to the step of faith that we take by bringing babies into a far-from-perfect world.

The book flows like a “true confessions” autobiography rather than a scientific treatise. The opening line reads: “In a faculty bathroom on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University, I am trying to pee on a stick.” After three poignant minutes, the pregnancy test shows that this 38-year-old professor has indeed conceived.

As she tells her tale, Steingraber enchantingly describes aspects of reproductive biology and environmental science. For instance, her description of the menstrual cycle begins thus:

“At the end of a period, the lining of the uterus is thin and bare—like a layer of silt left behind after flood waters have receded. The ovaries, too, are smooth and quiet. Then, high in the brain, the pituitary gland begins to drizzle into the bloodstream a substance called follicle stimulating hormone. True to its name, the hormone awakens in one or the other ovary a whole choir of follicles. Like bubbles, they rise to the surface in unison.”

About how the egg travels into the uterus, she writes:

“It’s easy to think of the egg as a little gondola floating serenely down the Venetian canal of the fallopian tube, but this is not quite right …. Under the influence of estrogen, fallopian tubes move. They stretch, and they bend, and their mouths are actively attracted to ovulating eggs, a drawing power that apparently extends even across the continent of the pelvis.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this book is how the author manages to delve into negative topics, from mercury-laden fish to dioxin levels in breast milk, and face them squarely without being alarmist or despairing of our ever being able to produce healthy children. I emerged from reading it with a broader knowledge of how creatures and chemicals in our world interact and about the history and politics of pollutants, but without feeling like there is nothing we can do. (At the back of the book Steingraber lists resources [organizations] that she found helpful for research and activism.)

The author is baffled by how often the people who are aware of environmental threats do not strive to educate expectant mothers about them. While she is pregnant, she tells her artist husband, “Not a single one of these pregnancy magazines [that I’ve been reading] encourages mothers to find out what the Toxic Release Inventory shows for their own communities.” After some thought, he theorizes that it is because “pregnancy and motherhood are private. We still act like pregnant women are not part of the public world …. You are not supposed to upset them.” She also explores the habit of communities putting the burden on the consumer to avoid pollutants (for example, don’t eat fish) rather than taking relatively simple steps to reduce the spread of contaminants in the first place. And she wrestles with the issue of avoiding potentially harmful substances versus trusting that something is all right until the scientific studies force the companies involved to admit that it isn’t.

Charming and hilarious stories decorate the book, like the unfolding of the author’s sex education as a child (when she thought the sperm and egg swim across the mattress to meet and unite); her first intimate encounter with her now-husband, during which she inadvertently set the curtains on fire; her breastfeeding adventure at a fancy fundraising dinner; and her toddler’s discovery that her own mammary glands related her to other mammals, like the cows at the 4H fair that had “big nums!”

The chapter on breastfeeding starts:

“The nicest mammary glands I ever saw belonged to an American Alpine goat at a county fair in upstate New York. Talk about your velvet orbs! Your snowy white hemispheres, gently trembling!”

You’ll have to pick up the book to read the rest of this playful ode to mammae.

Steingraber, who has received awards for science writing and was named a “Woman of the Year” by Ms. magazine, also shares some of the more challenging parts of her adventures in motherhood. These range from anxiously awaiting amniocentesis results to enduring a fear-inducing hospital-based childbirth class to the drama of trying to have a natural childbirth. After her daughter was born, breastfeeding didn’t immediately come easily: “Every few hours, day and night, the neonatal nurses have instructed me in the art of breastfeeding …. They have been wonderful teachers all, but Faith is losing weight and I don’t have any milk. And I don’t have any breasts. And there is no God. Failing. I am failing.” Later she says, “Early motherhood is an extreme sport.”

Here’s another great quote: “ …everything that toddlers do seems alarming and grotesque to first-time parents of infants. Compared to one’s own sweet babe, who coos and waves her hands so delicately in the air, toddlers are a tribe of dangerous giants.”

Are you a parent? A midwife or other reproductive health professional? A student of the amazing human body? Interested in politics, the environment or our future life on earth? If you are any of these, this passionate, eloquent, well-researched work of art will enlighten and enrich your life.

Reviewer Ramona Denk is a midwife from Michigan who has left pieces of her heart all over the planet. Her next destination is North Africa. She can be reached at midwife4u@your-mail.com.

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