Drinking While Pregnant
by Claire Zulkey
Part of a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.
I found out that I was pregnant on Christmas Day, 2011. I am due on September 4. I had my first drink (not counting a sip of champagne on New Year’s) on March 25, 2012. It was a Michelob Ultra I received after finishing the Shamrock Shuffle 8K. I figured that I earned the beer after running the race, without stopping, in under an hour, plus, a Michelob Ultra hardly counts as a drink. It was delicious and felt a little bit naughty, which was a sensation I realized I missed from drinking. Then again, drinking when you’re 19 is a different kind of naughty than drinking when you’re pregnant.
Even before I got pregnant, I knew I would probably be a woman who drank alcohol during her pregnancy. I knew it because of the wonderfully convenient anecdotal evidence of my pregnant friends who drank the occasional glass or wine or two and who then produced healthy babies (not to mention the millions of us on the planet who made it into adulthood, successfully, despite tippling moms). I knew it because of a few studies that conveniently backed up my suspicions that a little bit of drinking was fine, including the one released this week. (While a “safe amount” of alcohol has yet to be determined, many researchers seem to think it’s a bit extreme to say that “no” alcohol is the only safe amount. Many other researchers disagree.) Also, I knew I would drink because when it comes to certain non-dire activities that pregnant women are often publicly shamed out of doing — typically, convenient or enjoyable activities like drinking limited quantities of caffeine or alcohol or formula-feeding — I want to do that thing.
This is a stupid side of me, a side that doesn’t always want to do as I’m told. I blame my mother for this; she is unapologetic about having smoked while she was pregnant with me, formula-feeding from day one, putting me to sleep face-down and for letting me “cry it out.” (I should mention that I think my mother is terrific, and I’ve had a very blessed, lucky life, despite these so-called travails.)
Since that first Michelob Ultra, I’ve had several more drinks. Mostly at a special occasion — a birthday celebration, wedding, or vacation. Mostly one at a time. Usually no more than a couple of times in a week.
And now, as I type this, it’s all starting to sound like an awful lot.
It’s not like I drank my drinks to spite anyone. I drank them because I really enjoyed them, because they felt like treats. With each drink I felt normal, like an adult and not a person on probation. And I know I’m not a doctor, but the amount I drank didn’t feel like it could hurt anyone, not me or the person inside me. “Everything in moderation,” I’ve been told, and I like that mentality (“everything” of course basically means caffeine and alcohol and exercise and junk food. I haven’t smoked cigarettes or taken any illegal drugs or punched myself hard in the belly, not even once, since becoming pregnant.)
I am extremely good at rationalizing it all here and with people who agree with me. But the thing with drinking while pregnant — while making the decision not to adhere the letter of the law when it comes to the stuff you should and shouldn’t do — is that rationalizing it to anyone else starts feeling… what is the word I’m looking for? Oogy.
After an island vacation, where I enjoyed two frozen drinks a day (I traveled with a neurosurgeon, an oncologist and a dermatologist who all gave me the enthusiastic go-ahead, though I realize they’re not obstetricians), I sent my food and drink logs to my therapist, who, over the years, has helped me with weight-and-mental-health issues. “Did you count how many drinks you had over your vacation?” she asked me, and the answer was no, I didn’t. I wrote down how many drinks a day I had but I knew if I added them all up, the number would not look great, late-second-trimester or not. I felt indefensible. I felt like an idiot. I felt like a lush. It was possible I had broken my baby and all I could say was that I had a pretty good time doing it.
The tsk-tskers that I hypothetically had had such a good time giving the middle finger to came screaming in my ear. “I’m sorry, but is it really so hard to avoid drinking alcohol for nine whole months?” is a common refrain on message boards that deal with pregnancy and alcohol. The message is, of course, that not only are you a bad person for drinking while pregnant, you probably have substance abuse problems as well, and shame on you for both.
For what it’s worth, I saw my therapist last week and she clarified, “I’m not worried that you hurt the baby. I was worried about how the drinking affected you.” She was concerned I’d feel guilty, which, you know, made me feel guilty. But maybe I needed to confront my latent guilt (and then let it go, because while drinking during the pregnancy could be questionable, drinking-and-then-feeling-consistently-awful-about-it can’t be better).
Obviously, I know what I’m doing is not recommended by most doctors, because the one person I have not talked about all this with is my obstetrician. I have a few reasons for this. One: she’s never asked. Two: she doesn’t really know me; I’ve seen her about three times in addition to rotating through a cast of other OB’s. Unlike my other health professionals, she doesn’t know that I know my limits and am not a compulsive liar who says “two drinks” when I really had six drinks, and so why even go there? Three: I know she would disapprove. I tell myself that as long as I’m letting other people know I’m drinking, that it’s not a secret, then it’s not as shameful as I think it is, but still: a little shame, yes.
I regret and don’t regret my drinks so far. Some of them were so unbelievably good — that one thing that really hit the spot. But at the same time, I don’t really know what’s right, even if, deep down, I think things will probably be okay. If light to moderate drinking from the second trimester on is fine, I will be fine, but what if I had one drink more than moderate? What if I screwed up and I hurt someone who is not me and the damage is permanent?
(I do sometimes entertain the idea that by having a few drinks while pregnant, I preemptively screwed up, so that I will enter motherhood knowing that I am inherently flawed as a parent as opposed to thinking I created a perfect child and then suffering a clear moment of agonizing guilt where it all goes awry after I bonk the kid on the head or let him/her scream longer than seems right. I’ve already screwed up, so the next screw-up won’t feel that painful. I’m pre-guilting.)
Moderation has served me well in life up to this point and I’d like to think that I have good instincts. What are instincts in a pregnancy, though? We’re told to listen to the voice inside of us that says when it’s time to relax and take it easy, when it’s time to call the doctor. But my instincts also led me to think I know my body well enough to know how to treat it when I’m pregnant which includes drinking. Which is or isn’t wrong. So should I not have listened to myself? Or listen at some times and not others? I can’t wait for this all to raise its head come labor time, when women are also advised to listen to their instincts — but only to a point.
I only know what I know and don’t know what I don’t know, while my husband knows less and doesn’t-know even more, which is why he wasn’t so sure about those first few drinks either. As he told me: “You see those signs every time you’re in a restaurant or a bar about not drinking while pregnant, and I even had a class in college where the professor did this hypothetical scenario about what if you were a waiter and a pregnant woman ordered a margarita, how you would deal with the legalities and moralities of that. So while I trust you, there are all those years of exposure to the withhold-everything side of the country that are hard to get out of your brain.” I didn’t want to make him worry or be disappointed in me, but not enough not to do what I wanted. (Once our doctor-friends told him that it was safe for me to drink moderately in my second trimester on, though, he was much more at-ease with the whole situation. “I want you to have a drink,” he said one night when I’d cooked a four-course dinner for the family. And I did.)
If I had to do it all again from the start, knowing what I know now, I’m not sure that my skin is quite thick enough, my confidence in my own decisions quite that strong to drink again. But that feels disingenuous, as being in the process of writing this piece didn’t stop me from having a shandy at an outdoor party last week. Maybe I blame all the noise out there that has me second-guessing my every other move (I thought I was so lucky that I had friends who passed down a crib and a carseat to me — turns out that I’m actually just a cheapskate who would rather save a buck than keep my baby from dying of SIDS or a fiery car wreck). Maybe (or maybe not even maybe, maybe “definitely”) I’m just selfish. And maybe navigating through all of this is just the tiniest taste of all that’s to come. So, bottoms up.
Claire Zulkey lives in Chicago. You can learn so much more about her here.