Pregnant Pause?

Striking numbers of expectant mothers—professional, educated, and informed—are deciding that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink of alcohol. New studies suggest that they may be right, but the medical establishment is hardly convinced. So are these moms-to-be valiantly pushing back against political correctness gone awry, or are they simply part of a new generation of entitled narcissists, unwilling to sacrifice even for the health of their babies?

drink alcohol while pregnant

Photo by Jana Leon

Women’s bodies—and not just the pregnant ones—are still somehow seen as public property. This summer, all 49 Massachusetts birth facilities banned free baby-formula gift bags in order to encourage new moms to breastfeed. We’re the second state to do so (Rhode Island was the first). Okay, so we want to encourage breastfeeding, right? Then what to make of the uproar over the recent Time magazine cover featuring the breastfeeding mom who, in the court of public opinion, had “gone too far”? No matter what she does, there will always be someone telling a mother she’s doing it wrong.

“We reason that it’s because the state has a vested interested in producing healthy babies, but it’s really about the sexist idea that women don’t know what’s best for them,” says Jessica Valenti, the founder of the blog Feministing, author of Why Have Kids?, and a Jamaica Plain mom. “Motherhood is a lifetime of judgment, unless you’re willing to do anything by someone else’s standards. And there’s always going to be someone else.”

Confident that what the data actually show is that there’s nothing wrong with a drink from time to time, this new generation of mothers is determined to make its own choices about drinking while pregnant. “I had a sip of my partner’s scotch here and there because I really like it,” says Jess Meyer, 35, a yoga instructor with two kids younger than three who drank a glass or two of wine four times a week while pregnant. “My doctor was a mother of three herself and she was like, ‘Honestly, a little wine here or there is not bad.’ Especially with the second one, when you’re dealing with a crazy toddler, too. The way I see it, if you’re sitting there with a bottle of vodka sucking it down: That’s a problem. But a few glasses of wine—there’s nothing wrong with that.” She mentions the International Journal of Epidemiology study that found that prenatal drinking actually led to better-behaved kids, saying, “People are always complimenting me on my relaxed, chill children.”

Maybe so, but they weren’t exactly kind about her drinking. Five or six months into her first pregnancy, Meyer was in Beacon Hill buying liquor for a party she was throwing when the clerk questioned whether he was legally allowed to sell to her. “I told him it’s illegal not to,” she says, but she still felt compelled to explain that she was shopping for a party, not herself. He needed to call his manager anyway. At various times throughout her two pregnancies, Meyer was also refused wine at restaurants. At least one waiter wouldn’t even show her the wine list.

For every smart and informed woman who’s chosen to have the occasional drink while carrying a baby, however, there are others who’ve made the opposite decision. One female friend of mine who regularly, and loudly, shares her point of view with pregnant women in restaurants around Boston, calls drinking while pregnant the “most selfish act imaginable. I think those women should be put in jail!” And Baskin, whose drinking never progressed beyond that O’Doul’s, says, “I’d think of my baby swimming in a pool of chardonnay and being like, ‘Mommy.’”

Eliana Stern, a mother of two who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, believes that “part of being a good mother is loving your child more than you love yourself, and that means not drinking while you’re pregnant. Drinking can cause irreparable damage to the baby. Mothers who cause fetal alcohol syndrome in their babies have to live with that fact their entire lives. By not drinking during pregnancy, I gave my children the best chance to reach their full potential in life.”

Charlestown Yoga Studio owner Kristin Quinn, 33, used to feel that way, too. She recalls the time she was having a drink at the Liberty Hotel a few years back when she saw a very pregnant woman sipping a glass of red wine. “And I just couldn’t stop staring—‘Oh my God, that is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,’” Quinn says. A year and a half later she was pregnant with her first child and very sorry she’d been so judgmental. “I literally remember my first sip of wine,” says Quinn, who now writes a blog called Misadventures in Mommyhood. “It was so delicious.” From then on, she enjoyed what she calls a ceremonial half glass every Friday. “It was just something to look forward to and nothing dangerous,” she says. “Sometimes, I didn’t even finish it. It’s actually better than to be stressed out.” But she wouldn’t drink in public. “I knew people were out there judging,” she says, because, of course, she had been one of them. “You just feel like you have a big target on your face.”

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  • Luke B.

    I work at Luckys Lounge and we don’t serve O’Douls and haven’t in the 3 years I’ve worked here…just sayin’.

  • Kris

    Hmmm. I think a sniff of cocaine would relax me once in a while when I’m pregnant. It would remind me of my fun, carefree days. I’m sure just one snort a couple of times during my pregnancy would be perfectly safe.

    Try inserting “cocaine” instead of alcohol and lets see if we feel the same way. Alcohol is more dangerous to the development of the baby than cocaine.

  • Jane

    Honestly, I don’t care how educated these women are. Drinking while pregnant is wrong. Would you put alcohol in a baby’s bottle? Of course not! So why the heck would you drink while pregnant?! If you can’t refrain from a little booze for 9 months to reduce the risk of birth defects in your unborn child, you are truly selfish and don’t deserve to be a mother. You’re not even supposed to eat cold cuts or drink caffeine while pregnant for goodness’ sake, so why would it be OK to drink alcohol? Just goes to show how selfish this society has gotten. It’s all about ‘me, me, me’ these days. Notice how many women in this article who drank during their pregnancy are justifying it by saying that they do it to relieve stress brought on by pregnancy? Are you kidding me? Isn’t that what alcoholics do when they’re stressed out instead of dealing with it? They drink! How do you think other women have dealt with the stress of pregnancy over the years and haven’t drank? Give me a break. Why even risk the chance that it could harm your unborn child? It amazes me that in this society women get more crap for not breastfeeding their baby than drinking while pregnant. It’s despicable.

    • Jess

      Actually, it’s perfectly acceptable to have 200 mg or less of caffeine a day.

  • Heather

    This article is about more than just drinking during pregnancy. It’s about how society constantly and incessantly judges mothers. And how that really needs to stop.

  • Karen

    Well, Heather should we also not judge women who use heroin while pregnant? Don’t be ridiculous. You SHOULD be judged for putting your unborn child’s health at risk. It’s wrong, plain and simple, not to mention selfish.

  • Virginia Bourget

    I am very sad to read this article and I am sure the writer did not mean harm. I have to point out, however, that alcohol is a known teratogen. That means that it damages developing fetuses, just like Thalidomide. It is more harmful that cocaine to developing babies and this is true accross all species that have been studied. A few studies have suggested otherwise, as compared to 100s or more that have clearly demonstrated that alcohol affected newborns suffer neurological and other health consequences that are lifelong. How could someone decide to take a chance on that? More importantly, why would they? Alcohol is not a required part of the diet.

  • Patrick

    This article is incredibly irresponsible. The writer mentions that “lately we’ve seen study after study” suggest drinking up to 5 drinks might not hurt your infant? No citation, no reference, no facts. The editorial staff and writer should stick to reflecting on their mother in a fluff piece rather that putting infants at risk.

  • http://twitter.com/billyboylston Billy Boylston

    Dr. Riley who was on Nightside with Dan Rea is so right to affirm no drinking or smoking during pregnacy. This should be just common sense knowing what we know about these 2 legal/taxed possibilities and the righ of the unborn should exceed the desires of the mother (in all ways!) I do want to correct a couple of callers to the radio show that there is not absolute confirmed data on alcohol use leading to intelligence an challenged child and especially not a connection to autism and aspergers. Nightside, even in a previous program posting casually links ASD with mental illness. Asperger’s and Autism are dev neuro disorders and NOT mental illness. Prospective parents, please watch your new child the first 2 years for symptoms of potential autism. More info? Visit autismspeaks.org

  • JS

    It is interesting. In Britain, midwives and doctors often prescribe guinnas during pregnancy (a dark stout). The rates of defects etc are the same or better as the US.

    When you are looking at studies they must be carried out in a way that truly demonstrates a definitive answer. In the medical community that means a double blind study after several preliminary studies. Any of the studies dealing with alcohol are not these- they are only antedotal. There are a lot of faults with this. (It is like chemo – not target therapies of late but traditional chemo- has never been tested in a double blind study. It has all been “antedotal” and/compared to people on radiation and such. If you are looking at data, only non-Hodgeson [sp] Lymphoma has shown a true response and “cure” using chemo. The result from chemo may show a short term reduction in cancer growth but it never cures and it always destroys the body. My point is that in our society we don’t question our doctors and we jump on the band wagon that says, in this case, don’t drink alcohol AT ALL while pregnant.

    However, despite that warning, sugar is consumed (a drug we are addicted and it has harmful effects) , we eat GMO and pesticide laden food, we drink water that has a huge amount of toxins in it (despite tap OR bottle). We drink milk that is full of hormones and let’s not talk about BPA found in plastics and canned goods.

    I work with students who possess various challenges (please-only medical community can say retardation. Respect that everyone is a person first.). Those who possess FAS or other birth defects, come from mothers who had real problems-binge drinking and drugs. I also work with others who have birth defects that are genetic and rare and are not caused because the woman drank a glass of wine or two over her pregnancy.

    In the US especially, there is an all-or-nothing mentality. I believe self control in American society is lacking. Think about Big Gulps. Who needs one- no one. If doctors publically said pregnant women can have 2 glasses of wine or beer a week- women may take that as they can have two large bottles of beer or two huge glasses of wine. Better yet, they may save it up for an upcoming party… Leading to binge drinking.

    I do not endorse alcohol during pregnancy. That is not what I am saying. It comes down to knowledge and understanding the issue. Many of the responses demonstrate that there is very little willingness to look at all sides and really understand the issue. Many of you took it as if she was stating that alcohol was okay-she didn’t. Rather, she presented what limited facts were out there along with antedotes that show both sides of thinking. She is simply getting others to think about the issue.