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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.