When Emily Oster writes in The Wall Street Journal that women should “take back” their pregnancies, I want to cheer her on. A closer, less hysterical read of the research that’s used to demand that women adhere to certain pregnancy rules or be subject to social scrutiny is a welcome one.

I want to cheer her on, but when I pick up an article like this one, I know what’s coming. She writes:

Pregnant women are also given a long list of off-limit foods: deli meats, soft cheeses, sushi. These are restricted because of the risk of various pathogens. The most serious by far is listeria bacteria, to which pregnant women are especially susceptible; it can cause late miscarriage and stillbirth.

I knew I didn’t want to snack directly on listeria bacteria, but I wondered how much I could limit my risk by avoiding certain foods. What share of listeria infections was due to soft cheeses, for instance? It turns out that queso fresco, a Mexican soft cheese, has been implicated in about 20 percent of listeria outbreaks since 1998, and deli turkey in 10 percent. The rest of the recent outbreaks seemed random. One involved cantaloupe, another one, celery.

I concluded that avoiding queso fresco and deli turkey was a good idea, but in the end I didn’t feel that it made sense even to exclude other deli meats. My best guess was that avoiding sliced ham would lower my risk of listeria from 1 in 8,333 to 1 in 8,255. I just didn’t think it was worth it. It would have made more sense to avoid cantaloupe. This is all true. It’s a very accurate assessment of the numbers and risks regarding listeria bacteria, and one that I take no issue with. I would suggest, though, that when the risk is one of miscarriage or stillbirth, there are reasons for avoiding certain foods that go beyond the numbers.

I lost a baby to listeria about a decade ago. I’m not a fear-monger, and I rarely talk about it. I actively avoid pregnant women standing near platters of soft cheese. Trust me, no pregnant woman wants to hear about your stillbirth, no matter how benevolent your intent (especially if she’s already had the cheese).

In terms of risk avoidance, I actually agree that the numbers don’t add up on skipping foods like deli meats and soft cheeses, so much so that when I was pregnant at the time, with what would have been my second child, I didn’t. I was a very relaxed pregnant person, right up until the moment when things went so dramatically wrong.

And now, 10 years later, I’m at peace with my choices. We were extremely unlucky, and that is really all there is to it. We never learned the cause of the infection. It could have been any number of things, including bagged salad or hummus.

But at the time, the sense that I had not been as careful as I could have been dominated my every waking thought. My sense of shame and guilt over what I saw as my failures left me unable to reach out for help. It made it hard for me to turn to my family and husband, who I was convinced blamed me for what had happened as much as I blamed myself.

I was wrong about that. And with the benefit of a lot of time spent learning to be as kind to myself as I would be to others in the same situation, I’ve realized that I was wrong to blame myself as well. But I was left with a strong sense that sometimes, being appropriately cautious isn’t about the numbers. It’s about feeling as if we’ve done all we can within the context of what works best for us. Truth be told, I don’t even much like deli meat.

If I’d avoided all the most likely listeria carriers during that pregnancy, I might still have lost that baby. I probably still would have felt guilty. I just might have been able to direct a little more of my anger at fate, and less at myself.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

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