Should Women Drink Alcohol While Pregnant?

Striking numbers of expectant mothers 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.

Many women told me that they drank during pregnancy not to relax or be social, but simply to remember their carefree days prior to deciding to become a mother. For pregnant women, danger is everywhere: mercury in canned tuna, salmonella in peanut butter, listeria in soft cheese, disfigurement and mental retardation in a glass of wine. Nothing, they’re told, is safe. Which apparently demands flawless behavior—being perfect pregnant people. It’s enough to drive a girl to drink.

In fact, some moms-to-be say the decision to drink was just one small step in pushing back against the overwhelming sense that they are very probably doing something wrong at any given moment of motherhood. “I feel like the ban on drinking promotes this idea that our job as mothers is to make sure that our babies are ‘pure,’” says Arlington mom Jennifer Feller, “that they never, ever have contact with a germ, a toxin, a speck of honey before the age of one. It’s not that I ignored all of this, but it’s an approach to pregnancy that prepares parents for the overbearing, helicopter style of parenting we’re realizing is actually hurting our kids.”

Before her first glass of wine while pregnant, Sarah Pike, a Newburyport resident, decided on a level of drinking she and her husband both felt comfortable with: one to three glasses of wine over a one-week period, and not more than one in a single evening. “If something happened and maybe was related to wine consumption, I had to go into that glass of wine knowing that I had made my decision based on the risks and non-risks,” Pike says. “My midwife actually told me I could have a bologna sandwich every once in a while. I’m pretty certain there are worse things in bologna than a glass of red wine.” Pike, now a mother of two boys, says that more than a desire to enjoy the alcohol itself, she found she simply missed the act of holding a glass of wine. “A little bit went so far for me in feeling I hadn’t lost myself completely,” she says.

Still, many parents argue that parenting is about sacrifice, that you never really are quite the same again—indeed, that’s one reason many people opt to have kids (and many, myself included, may opt not to). The current generation of moms may be the most educated and informed ever, but these women also embody the narcissism that’s pervasive in this ambitious, driven era. According to a study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, clinical narcissism among college students—defined by heightened feelings of entitlement, decreased morality, and a dog-eat-dog mentality—increased by 30 percent from 1982 to 2006, when two out of every three measured high for the disorder.

“Hearing women say, ‘I want to (fill-in-the-blank) to be my true self again’ is not language we heard a generation ago,” says Jean Twenge, author of the recent The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant and coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic, which argues that we live in a culture that not only tolerates, but also encourages, me-first behavior. Twenge points to the highly competitive nature of pregnancy and parenting as a manifestation of narcissism. “We have this new idea that we need to be true to ourselves and not waver from that—we use phrases like ‘Never compromise’ and ‘Believe in yourself,’” she says. “Everything is personalized, customized. There’s the idea that ‘We’re all unique,’ that ‘The rules don’t apply to me.’ And that is a problem for women when they’re pregnant and transitioning to parenthood. You are the same person, but there are some things you have to do differently than you used to. And one of those things is not drink.”

Upon returning home from Lucky’s after the O’Doul’s incident a few years ago, Kara Baskin started to wonder if the women at the other table had actually been right. “I realized that sitting there with my bottle of O’Doul’s, I had felt like a badass, like I was being rebellious,” she says. “Did I really want to be a badass? I ended up going home and berating myself.” Because it wasn’t just the taste of the beer that appealed to Baskin. At that point in her pregnancy, with only a few weeks to go, she’d found the freedom of that sip intoxicating. “It tasted like a memory, like a different part of my life that I might not ever get back to,” she says. She hadn’t missed alcohol. She had missed being Kara. Because, of course, she wasn’t anymore, and as far as she knew, might never be again.