Fertile Ground How to Be a (Sober) Pregnant Woman in America
“Having been alive as a woman for several decades in the United States, I was not shocked by the control being exerted on women’s bodies.”
While I can’t be certain that my child was conceived on a particular evening, I have a pretty good guess. One evening I was out at a Manhattan bar, being treated to double shot after double shot of tequila from a new friend. I remember the night well—though I was swerving down the sidewalk the entire way home from the subway, I never once blacked out. I got home, went upstairs to vomit in the toilet, then demanded that my husband fuck me on the bathroom floor.
I was thirty-seven years old at the time, and we had just started trying to have a kid. I’d heard the talk of conception being harder for “older” women, so I figured it would take a while before the magic sperm and egg combo found each other. It was slightly shocking to be thrown into the world of impending parenthood so quickly.
I found myself scanning pregnancy books, listening to pregnancy podcasts, seeking wisdom from friends who were parents, and pushing for my first prenatal appointment with my obstetrician as soon as possible.
There are a lot of commonly recommended no-nos for pregnant women: no deli meats, no soft cheeses, no raw fish, not too much caffeine, no alcohol. Everywhere I turned as a newly pregnant woman, there was some voice of authority telling me not to eat bacon or drink hibiscus tea. Every day it was something else, or that’s how it felt. It started to make going out to a café and ordering a sandwich into a nerve-wracking ordeal of googling for hidden dietary dangers on my phone. It was all seeming like a bit much, especially since women had been having children for many, many years without so many rules, and somehow we’d still managed to survive as a species.
Having been alive as a woman for several decades in the United States, I was not shocked by the idea of a certain level of control being exerted on women’s bodies. Reproductive issues, it turns out, bring out the very highest levels of regulation and restriction. Women who want reliable birth control need to take the matter into their own hands (when will we get a chemical birth control option for men, like the pill?), but if a woman finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, there are parts of this country where she is put through hoops should she wish to terminate that pregnancy. In the United States, it often seems, a fertile female body belongs to the state. The parochial teetotal CDC recommendations that were announced several months ago add to this impression.
I had continued to drink alcohol not-so-lightly during the first two weeks of pregnancy, the period before I had missed a period or peed on the telltale stick, but I quickly cut that alcohol consumption down to zero drinks per week once I knew that my body was developing the nervous system of another human. That abrupt change to my drinking habits and social life was not easy. I was finding all of this new outside control being placed on my body hard to stomach, and the fetus inside of me had begun controlling my body in its own ways, too.
The mom-to-be books and podcasts don’t mention, until they address the third trimester, a lot of the more altering symptoms that will occur to a woman’s body during and after pregnancy: the stretch marks that appear in the later months; the looser skin and floppier breasts we need to contend with post-pregnancy and during breastfeeding; the (often permanent) growth of up to one full shoe size as the ligaments in our feet relax and stretch in preparation for the goddamn miracle of childbirth. And let’s not forget about the itching, heartburn, and hemorrhoids.
The thing I was most unprepared for was the wild mood swings. Every woman experiences pregnancy differently, but these sudden dips in mood were particularly dramatic for me, especially in the early months, when exhaustion plagued me constantly, and a lengthy crying jag could strike at the drop of a hat. Life’s stresses were compounding at the same time that everyone was telling me that I couldn’t turn to my reliable antidote to stress: drinking.
One might ask what the big deal is. Why the frustration at these limits on drinking behavior? The abstinence or reduced consumption only has to last for forty weeks, after all, and the end result is (hopefully) a healthy child for the rest of one’s life. And so I asked myself: Why is this so hard? Do I have a problem with alcohol, if alcohol is such a difficult thing for me to give up? Does that problem lie in my past?
I suppose my relationship with alcohol has always been about control.
I remember tasting beer for the first time as a child: a sip from the glass that always seemed to accompany my father. The beer tasted bitter to me, fuzzy, and reminiscent of the smell of my father’s beard. It did not immediately inspire my turn to drinking. How could it, when my strongest association with alcohol in my earliest years was the frequent accessory of wine clutched in my father’s fist as he delivered his angry nightly sermons to my siblings and me—his attempts to control who his children became?
As I grew into an adult, I became convinced that my father drank so much as a way to self-medicate his undiagnosed manic depression. Being no stranger to depression myself, I didn’t want to fall down the same path he had, but that conviction didn’t prevent me from making some bad alcohol-related choices once I was old enough to control how I spent my own days.
For a while—almost six years—my job was to sling booze. I became a bartender at a popular neighborhood pub, where I’d serve drinks from 8 pm to 4 am three to four nights a week.
I loved my bartending job. I worked alone behind the bar, and I had dozens of regulars who relied on me to keep them lubricated with their poison of choice. I was in my twenties, and I could throw back shots of Jameson all night long while pouring beers and fetching buckets of ice, and never miss a beat. I felt like I was in a position of power. That job was the opposite of being pregnant.
Near the end of my tenure as a bartender, when I was twenty-seven, I entered a serious, and abusive, relationship with a man twelve years my senior. We lived together for about two years. The things that most defined my partner were his life as a jazz musician, his anger, and his heavy alcohol intake. Isn’t the common wisdom that girls look to partner with men who remind them of their daddies (for better or worse)?
The lowest point of that relationship was a night that involved a jug of Carlo Rossi wine, the violent pinning of my body to the bed, and the throwing of my belongings into the hallway as the words “slut” and “whore” were hurled into my ears. I left my partner that night, but, in a classic pattern of abuse, I returned a month later and tried to make things work for another year and a half. He never stopped drinking or being angry, and fortunately I was able to pull myself away eventually.
I’m glad I got through the relationship with the jazz musician, and into succeeding relationships with caring and non-alcoholic men, after some much needed time on my own. But I never shook the sensitivity I have about my own continuing desire to drink, and the fear of partaking of alcohol too much. Like a true New Yorker, I’ve fought for years in therapy to shed any destructive behavior I may have inherited from my parents, claiming my responsibility in my own actions and thoughts as an adult, but I also know that addiction is a tricky business.
In recent years, I have often come home after a hard day and fixed myself a martini, enjoyed a couple of beers at a bar with friends, or partaken in a second glass of wine with my dinner. Notably, in the weeks before I became pregnant, my alcohol consumption was ramping up even more, and I was drinking rather heavily. I found myself craving, more than usual, the reward of a nightcap, a little something to take the edge off. Was this an unconscious last hurrah before motherhood?
It’s been tough being the pregnant lady on the sidelines these last few months with my juice and seltzer as I watch my husband get excited over some new delicious gin concoction he’s made with our home bar—some beautiful drink that, in past months, I’d have in my own hand, too, as we toasted one another and caught up on each other’s day.
One can’t live in a home that celebrates cocktails so much and completely abstain for forty weeks, or so I told myself when my first trimester was over. As my pregnant months progressed, and I eased into the second and third trimesters, I let myself enjoy an occasional glass of wine or beer, and even the rare slowly sipped solo cocktail. I have read enough studies and talked to enough friends with kids to feel pretty confident that I am not endangering my child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I know enough mothers in France who drink daily wine while pregnant, and mothers in Ireland who have regular pints of Guinness (iron for the baby’s health!), that the occasional drink doesn’t seem, to me, like irresponsible behavior on my part. But it’s exhausting constantly keeping myself in check, limiting my enjoyment of alcohol lest I get carried away.
I am two weeks shy of my due date now, and I am still a bartender of sorts, minus the multiple shots of Jameson. I live in a house of constant cocktail-making, and my husband is a serious amateur mixologist. We have a separate refrigerator in our kitchen just for spirits that need to remain chilled, and we go through so many bottles of Chartreuse when making drinks for ourselves and for frequent guests that the local liquor store keeps extra stock on hand just for us. (Yes, we have a frequent buyer discount.)
Despite my sensitivity to drinking too much (and my aversion to smelling too much booze on my husband’s breath at times), I find myself missing the feeling of occasional drunkenness. I can best attribute this to the general resistance I am having to the changes in my body as I grow bigger with this child. I’m tired way more than I used to be; I get tingling in my arms and hands; I can’t walk fast without feeling the urge to urinate with every step. I’ve lost the illusion of control over my body that I’d maintained throughout my adult life, an illusion that was first claimed when I shaved my head as a teenager, declaring my body my own and not the property of my alcoholic father.
Where I once felt controlled by a parent, or a partner, I now feel like someone inside my own body has all the power. Often what I want to do more than anything is cut this huge bump out of my belly and put it off to the side. I want to regain the freedom to run and to breathe freely, to eat something and lie down without experiencing acid reflux, to get myself off the bed without having to roll over first. I actually want all of these things more than I want a drink.
I’m learning to let go—not by drinking myself into oblivion, as I might have nine months ago, but by accepting that life is a ride, and I am a passenger . As an adult, I am responsible for the decisions I make. I demanded that my husband fuck me in a drunken state, and I accept and embrace the consequential parenthood that follows that decision. But ultimately, I realize, I have very little say on where this trip is taking me. Labor will bring the beginning of more uncertainties—uncertainties that may last a lifetime, as I get to know this individual who currently resides inside of me, as I watch him become his own adult and make his own choices about what he puts in his body. I’m sure that, sometimes, I’ll be watching with a cocktail in my hand.