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

I don’t understand why I hadn’t heard of this book until this year, or why I had to stumble randomly across it. But in any case, Having Faith has joined my shortlist of must-read books for those of us who are interested in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding–and for those of us who are concerned about the wellbeing of mothers, babies, and the adults those babies will become.

This book is many things; most valuably to me, it is incredibly, explosively thought-provoking. As in, I couldn’t stop talking about it while I was reading it, and I can’t stop thinking about it now that I’m done. Having Faith intertwines the story of Steingraber’s first pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding experiences with a compelling account of how fetal development, breastfeeding, and environmental toxins work. It is a love story. And it is a call to arms in the cause of protecting our children from industrial pollutants.

I appreciate the specificity and care of Steingraber’s prose. The book’s style carries a sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of human lives, bodies, brains, and breasts, and a deeply loving sense of our fragility. But it does not indulge those more poetic impulses at the expense of mentioning specific studies’ methodological limitations and nuanced findings. Its treatment of the accumulation of toxins in breast milk is particularly thoughtful, challenging us to reject either ‘shut up and switch to formula if you’re so worried’ or ‘shut up: breast is best (anyway)’ as acceptable endpoints in this conversation. For Steingraber, it’s more complicated than that, but it’s also simpler: “The question is not whether we should feed our babies chemically contaminated, yet clearly superior, breast milk or chemically uncontaminated, yet clearly inferior, formula. The question is, what do we need to do to get chemical contaminants out of clearly superior breastmilk?” (276).

One of the book’s main threads is that pregnant and breastfeeding women are constantly but disingenuously urged to take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach (and guilt-tripped to high heaven if we drink or smoke or eat too much fish or fail to eat enough fish or look funny at soft cheeses or whatever). Although Steingraber supports these sorts of caution, they shift all the responsibility onto individuals who actually have no control over the purity and safety of our own placentas and milk. The toxins that harm our fetuses and babies can be reduced by political action and corporate responsibility, not by anything I can do in my home. They’re in the steam I inhale in the shower, the air I breathe outside, the earth where my food is grown. And lots of them last an awfully long time.

I imagine that some readers (especially pregnant, breastfeeding, and/or parenting readers) might be depressed or terrified by the book’s emphasis on problems we cannot control by ourselves. Its descriptions of severely toxin-damaged children are heartbreaking. But I found the book’s emphasis on system-level problems refreshing and encouraging. Steingraber constantly challenges the conventional everything-rests-on-the-individual-mother’s-shoulders guilt trip.

Reading her descriptions of everything that can go wrong in fetal development, I was also stuck with awe and delight at how anything so intricate can ever possibly go right–at how we all managed to become our human selves. When I was pregnant with my son, I would have loved reading the early chapters’ descriptions of what was happening at the cellular level in my body and in the body it was creating.

This review makes Having Faith sound like a downer. It has its bleak points, I admit. But it also soars. Steingraber’s love for her child lights up descriptions of birth and breastfeeding. Her love for biology and the natural world lights up descriptions of those things, too. And she’s sometimes hilarious.

I’ll end with a passage that made me laugh, because it just struck me as so true:

I never thought I’d be nursing a toddler, but I never thought I wouldn’t be, either. In the early, chaotic days of learning how to breastfeed, I had no firm idea one way or the other about how long I’d continue. I do remember sitting next to the mother of a nursing two-year-old once when Faith was still a flannel-wrapped bundle. “Other side!” the boy commanded his mother at one point, his furious face popping out from under her blouse. I wouldn’t say I was horrified, but I did make a mental note to myself along the lines of “As soon as they can talk about it, it’s time to stop.”

But then, 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. As though your child would ever become one of them.

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  1. Posted 26 November 2010 at 8:26 PM | Permalink

    I agree–it’s a fantastic book.

  2. Posted 24 January 2012 at 3:26 PM | Permalink

    I look forward to reading it!

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