Ted and I had just placed our orders when my cell phone started vibrating. It was my mom, and she wanted to know how to use the bottle-warmer. I told my mom what she needed to know, hung up the phone, and almost started crying.
A detailed explanation of the planning and preparation that went into my lunch date would be instructive for anyone who is currently contemplating breastfeeding (and, for that matter, for anyone who would dare to judge a woman who chooses not to breastfeed), but the thought of composing such an explanation seems exhausting to me. Suffice it to say that, if Frances was awake and taking the bottle of milk I pumped for her just as Ted and I were sitting down to the table, a glass of wine with my lunch was out of the question, and a leisurely meal with my husband was in jeopardy.
As it turned out, Frances was happy with her bottle and I didn’t need to rush home to top her up. I was able to enjoy my sandwich—tuna, medium-rare, with wasabi mayo—rather than cramming it into my face, and I got to spend some time alone with Ted. Still, an experience that was supposed to be relaxing and restorative was slightly nerve-wracking. I loved being pregnant, and I love nursing my daughter, but I also kind of miss the days when my body was my own.
Which is why this New York Times article made me kind of nuts. It’s about new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that women of childbearing years consider themselves perpetually “prepregnant”—that is, they should avoid alcohol and cigarettes and take prenatal vitamins. The reasoning behind this shift from prenatal to “preconception” care is not unsound: “The problem, doctors say, is that by the first prenatal visit, a woman is usually 10 to 12 weeks pregnant. ‘If a birth defect is going to happen, it’s already happened,’ said Dr. Peter S. Bernstein, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York who helped write new government guidelines on preconception care.” My problem is with the way these guidelines are meant to encompass even women who are not trying to get pregnant. The reasoning here is a little more shaky: Since more than half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, women should, essentially, plan for an unplanned pregnancy and birth.
Pause for a moment to consider this statistic: More than half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. This is appalling, and it seems outrageous to me to use public health policy to attempt to offset with the effects of this trend rather than trying to address the problem itself. It also seems unrealistic: If we’re dealing with a female population that can’t or won’t engage in effective and consistent family planning, why would we expect them to engage in effective and consistent preconception care?
So, I was already in a bit of a state when I went on to read this article about red wine, soft cheeses, and pregnant ladies. Here’s the gist: Everybody knows that fetal alcohol syndrome is dreadful, and everyone knows that pregnant women, should not, therefore, drink. What almost nobody knows, though, because almost nobody will say it, is that there’s a difference between a bottle of lager and a lost weekend. Indeed, the studies mustered to forbid pregnant women, say, a celebratory glass of Champagne are actually studies of binge drinking during pregnancy.
This is infuriating to me because the implicit logic seems to be that women cannot process nuanced information, and they cannot be trusted to make well-reasoned decisions for themselves and their children. I can understand that a doctor who has actually seen the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome might want to use any means at his disposal to protect babies from that devastation, but making pregnant women think that a single drop of alcohol is tantamount to child abuse is simply wrong. It’s wrong because it’s infantilizing and insulting to women, and it’s wrong because I don’t really think it offers greater protection to fetuses than the truth. A woman who is going to drink to excess during her pregnancy is probably going to do it whether the guideline is no alcohol or moderate alcohol, and women who are capable of self-restraint will probably not be utterly undone by that one glass of Chardonnay with dinner.
As long as babies have a physiological connection to their mothers—whether it’s in utero or at the breast—a mother’s behavior should be guided by thoughts of her child’s well-being. When we share our bodies with our children, we cease to be autonomous agents, and no amount of feminist ire will change that. It’s just a fact. But that doesn’t mean that we should be treated like idiots and invalids. If we care about ourselves and our children, we should demand real information and honest healthcare, and we should insist that our government abandon its abstinence-only fantasy in favor of effective and respectful reproductive-health policies.