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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.