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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.