Trying to conceive can take over your life. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Trying to get pregnant is hard enough without being told not to drink

New guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advising women who are trying to conceive not to drink any alcohol at all just load more stress on to an already fraught time.

Trying to conceive is grim. If this is something you have never tried, you may not understand why anyone would say this. You may think “well, it’s just having sex without contraception – doesn’t sound bad to me!” And yet it is. Whatever your best intentions, once you’ve made the decision to do it, attempting to get pregnant can take over your life. 

Naturally you will begin by thinking “oh, let’s see what happens”. You are not going to become some paranoid fertility-zilla, the kind of woman who checks her basal bodily temperature daily, spends a fortune on ovulation tests, constantly frets about her LH surge and is never quite sure whether or not today’s vaginal discharge looks enough like egg white to be of note. You do not want to be that woman because that woman is a) not cool and b) having rubbish sex. It is much better to be the kind of woman who happens to get pregnant within a month or so of (not really) trying. The kind of woman who might want a baby but is also having lots of hot, carefree shags throughout which she is far too turned on to give conception a second thought. To her, getting pregnant will be an added bonus. “Oh look, it must have been that night on the beach! Or maybe by the fire in the log cabin?” That, you tell yourself, is the kind of conceiver you’ll be.

And yet, a few months down the line, should you have failed to conceive by the hot-but-nonchalant shagging method, things will start to change. You no longer measure the passing of time in quite the same way. Each month splits into the two weeks following the start of your period (“fuck it, I’m not pregnant”) and the two weeks after (“I might be, I might be, I might be… How early can I test?”). Sex at what you know to be the “best” time (you don’t want to be the kind of woman who knows what the “best” time is, but you are) now starts to take on a grim significance. It’s still fun, yes, but not as much fun as it was before you started stressing about whether everything was “on target”.   

You may try to keep up the cool act with your partner, failing to let him know that thanks to this morning’s piss on a stick you are absolutely sure that the next forty-eight hours are crucial. After all, why stress him out too? You can just seduce him! But then there will be times when he’s tired or busy or simply not around. At this point you may consider sharing with him the sheer importance of the Shag Timetable (I recommend a PowerPoint presentation). Knowledge of the “right” time is an unfair burden for you to carry alone, particularly when it can feel like your body alone is being tested. You’ll be the one who gets the pass or fail at the end of the month. And after a while you may give up on bedroom etiquette completely. Much as you’d like to lie in a post-coital haze, you now stick your legs and arse in the air to make sure it “goes the right way” and doesn’t all dribble out. You make yourself feel like a leaky vessel, your partner, a squeezed-out tube of Frubes. It is not how you pictured it at all.

As if this was not bad enough, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have issued new guidelines advising women who are trying to conceive not to drink any alcohol at all. As ever, we are told that there is no proven safe amount of alcohol for pregnant women to consume (even though there is no evidence that small amounts do harm, either) and that abstaining completely is “the safest approach”. It’s the kind of woolly reasoning which makes most pregnant women think “sod it, I just won’t bother” (indeed, perhaps that is the intention). Nonetheless, it seems to me particularly cruel to aim this guidance at women who haven’t even got pregnant yet. It’s difficult enough not to spend all your time dwelling on what time of the month it is and whether or not your current status is “empty vessel” or “potential guardian of the holy zygote”. To have to modify your behaviour in line with this – to act in all social situations as though you are pregnant, even though you probably aren’t – risks causing a great deal more stress to no clear benefit. Moreover, women who are trying to conceive (as opposed to those who conceive accidentally) are far more likely than anyone else to be obsessing over their behaviour to begin with. Do they really need anyone else contributing to the panic and self-blame?

In Expecting Better, Emily Oster describes how many of her friends “respected the ‘two week wait’ period” while trying to conceive:

… they acted as they would if pregnant for those two weeks. No caffeine, no drinking, no deli meats. This isn’t such a loss if you’re trying for only a few months, but at least one friend tried literally for years before using IVF to conceive her son and she respected this two-week wait period the entire time […] One friend admitted to compensating by getting drunk the day her period arrived each month.

This does not sound particularly healthy to me, neither physically nor psychologically. Who wants to go through months, even years, of being the pregnant woman who isn’t, binge drinking at the sight of menstrual blood?

It is said that one cannot be “a bit pregnant” but there are reasons not to treat being possibly pregnant in the same way as we treat pregnancy itself. In much of the official advice there is a blurring together of behaviour that might lead to foetal alcohol syndrome and that which might simply lead to a reduced likelihood of conception for one particular month. As Oster points out, drinking during the two week wait may have a different effect to drinking at other stages during the first trimester:

For the period between fertilisation (around ovulation or a day or two later) and your missed period, your baby is a mass of identical cells. Any of these cells could develop into any part of the baby. If you do something that kills one of these cells (such as heavy drinking or some kind of really bad prescription drug use) another cell can replace it and do exactly the same thing. The resulting baby is unaffected. However, if you kill too many of these cells, the embryo will fail to develop and you will wind up not pregnant at all. It’s an all-or-nothing thing.

While such information hardly takes away the worry of the two week wait, it seems to me more helpful than blanket recommendations which fail to take into account the impact that trying to conceive may already be having on a woman’s life.  If each month brings with it at least the choice to accept oneself as non-pregnant, it lessens the psychological stranglehold.  There’s some space in which to be a person again. Trying to conceive is a huge emotional drain which all too often leads to false hope, disappointment and guilt. Instead of always thinking of “outcomes” – live births – we should remember the lives being lived right now.  

If a pregnancy is planned – and an estimated 45 per cent of pregnancies are not – it is highly unlikely that a woman will not know from a very early stage. She will have bought a pregnancy test as early as possible, perhaps too early. She will have imagined faint “pregnant” results long before any HCG could have been detected. The chances of her merrily boozing away, oblivious to what is happening inside her, are minimal. Women who are trying to conceive don’t think that way. Their problem isn’t ignorance; if anything, it’s the fact that nonchalance is rarely an option at all.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.