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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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