Week 5: If you search for it, you will find it

 One of many reasons to be happy you weren't giving birth in 1848. |  United States National Library of Medicine

One of many reasons to be happy you weren't giving birth in 1848. | United States National Library of Medicine

If you’re reading this because you or someone important to you is pregnant, let me whisper a secret “congratulations!” Whether it was the egg you broke when you moved into your new home, the pomegranate you buried under the porch, that trip to Japan for the Festival of the Steeled Phallus, the bucket of water on you threw on a young woman, or just that bird’s nest you ate, you or someone you love is pregnant. 

That's preposterous, of course, because you've already visited Babyland General and understand that babies come from cabbages. 

Anyway, if you know about a pregnancy this early, you were probably expecting to get pregnant, and are eager to start all the next steps. But because you're not telling anyone you know about your pregnancy, and because no doctor will see you for another six weeks or so, you've decided to start googling all the things that can go wrong with a pregnancy. And like we talked about in Weeks 1-4, googling your early pregnancy questions is going to lead to a lot of feeding instead of dining. 

That’s why this week’s lesson is to stop googling.

Just kidding. We both know you’re not going to do that. And you’re in good company, because, according to Google, parents conduct roughly double the number of searches as people who are not parents. It’s amazing to consider how much Google has changed what people know about their reproductive health. It’s worth remembering that contraception wasn’t available to all women in the United States until 1972, and that even seeking information about reproductive health was in some cases illegal.

So, hooray for the democratization of information. I’m not going to tell you to stop googling. Instead, I'm going to show you how your usual search strategy will fail you when you search for answers to your pregnancy and parenting questions.

Let’s start with something totally outside the realm of pregnancy: zombie raccoons. I called for an all-raccoon remake of Thriller--as well as sanity in the face of news-based-panic--after these raccoons were spotted in nearby Youngstown, Ohio.

The very next week, look who showed up on my back porch:

I guess those #zombieraccoons didn’t like what I wrote about them...

A post shared by snackdinner (@trysnackdinner) on

I’d just written about how zombie raccoon panic was overblown, how even a distempered or rabid raccoon posed very little threat to humans. And yet, seeing as how I’d somehow Secret-ed this raccoon into being, I was a little spooked. Did it look distempered? Should I keep my son inside? Should I call animal control, knowing that the call would lead to raccoon euthanasia based on a slim chance of infection?

That’s one of the ways our google searches can fail us. Reading about weird dangers and worst-case scenarios makes those issues loom larger in real life. Look for zombie raccoons and you’ll find them, even if zombie raccoons aren’t something to worry about.

Now you’re probably thinking it’s ridiculous to worry about zombie raccoons. But what if you typed “does bleeding mean miscarriage?”

When you ask for zombie raccoons, Google gives you scary stories about zombie raccoons. When you ask for bleeding and miscarriage, Google gives you scary stories highlighting your fears. That’s because sometimes, searching a symptom pathologizes it. When you search for something that you’re worried is “wrong,” you’ll return searches that only discuss the thing as wrong. If the question would be best answered by you or your loved one's obstetrician, you'd be wise to stay off Google. Or, at the very least, consider Google Scholar, which would help you find this paper summing up the risks of bleeding in the first trimester.

If you think you're tempted to Google your symptoms now, just wait until there's a tiny wailing human in the room with you. So start practicing these two safe googling strategies now:

Don't ask a yes/no question.

Should I have a home birth? Should I stop drinking wine while pregnant? Should I stop drinking wine while my partner is pregnant? You already know what you want the answer to be, which will color your impression of the results. So avoid asking yes/no questions in a Google search. Stick with open-ended questions that can help you find multiple perspectives on complicated issues. 

Don't expect *the* answer. 

The other reason to avoid yes/no questions is that so few pregnancy and parenting questions have such straightforward answers. The forceps delivery depicted at the top of this post should remind you what's considered the "right" approach to pregnancy is rarely settled. What's true for pregnancy now may very well be wrong in the future. 

That's not to say anything negative about the doctors and other health professionals you'll encounter throughout a pregnancy. George Spratt's Obstetrics Tables (the book from which that forceps delivery pop-up came from), was an impressive accomplishment for its time, both in terms of medical knowledge and printmaking. (How many accomplished printmaker-surgeons do you know today?) Spratt's work, which predated ultrasound technology by a century, allowed a glimpse inside pregnant women, which helped train physicians and surgeons to make deliveries safer. If you're curious about obstetric practice in the 1850s, you can flip through an entire copy of Spratt's book here.

It helps to see the results of your Googling as partial answers, not the final word on any question. It's difficult to live with uncertainty, but that's great practice for parenting. 

Ready for more advanced search strategies? Check out my tips for evaluating the parenting resources you find and for using Google Scholar.