The Haunting Memory of Drinking While Pregnant

By Carol Weis 01/21/16

When you're pregnant, no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe, but I did it anyway.

Not One Drop

When I heard news of the latest report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a big part of me applauded their findings, while the rest of me cowered with guilt. Pronouncements like these resurrect a mire of shame buried in the cave of old feelings. 

  • No amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe.
  • There is no safe trimester to drink alcohol.

It's been 32 years since I was pregnant with my daughter, but tears still swamp my eyes when I think about what I could have done to her. Though I knew alcohol could harm my baby, and gave it up four months out of the nine, I drank heartily into those months I tried getting pregnant, including weeks following conception, and couldn't make it through the last two prior to her birth. 

It was another in a list of nudges that whittle away at my ongoing denial.

The initial research for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) was published in The Lancet in 1973. Researchers found “children born to chronic alcoholics have a similar pattern of craniofacial, limb, and cardiovascular defects associated with prenatal-onset growth deficiency and developmental delay.” The most easily recognizable features of full-blown FAS are wide-set eyes, a thin upper lip and flat philtrum, the groove between your nose and upper lip. It wasn’t until 1981 that the Surgeon General issued a health notice advising women not to drink during pregnancy, two years before I became pregnant with my daughter. 

At that time, I was married to a professor of special education. We both loved to drink and consumed daily. It was the glue that held us together. He was fully aware of the damage that could be done to a developing fetus by a drinking mom. But at the time, we were in such denial of the disease, we never took things that curtailed our drinking too seriously. Unfortunately, that included our baby.

A few months before I moved in with him, we sat out on a roof of my Philadelphia apartment, dining on a luscious meal I’d prepared, drinking our second bottle of crisp chardonnay following the gin & tonics we’d loosened up with. I looked into his eyes and told him I thought I might be an alcoholic. He quickly reassured me I wasn’t because he knew what alcoholics looked like. 

We both did, coming from long lines of imbibers.  

We knew we wanted children and moved from his cozy bungalow into a five-bedroom home that fueled our need for status. We had just tied the knot, getting married on a Cape Hatteras vacation that I’d pressured him into doing. My biological clock was ticking away and I wanted to have a baby. We gave it the green light while swigging beer on water’s edge on a weekend of camping on Misquamicut Beach. 

We wasted no time and got me pregnant just four months after we started trying. But when my ObGyn confirmed my condition, I was already three months along. I agreed to stop drinking for the health of our baby and switched beer and wine for prenatal vitamins. But as the months went along, and my belly blossomed, the idea of becoming a mother began freaking me out. The pressure pushed me back to the bottle. How could a few glasses of beer or wine hurt? The baby was almost fully formed was the rationale I told myself. And since my husband was missing his drinking companion, we both agreed it would be okay. When our baby was born, she arrived healthy and beautiful. And since I’d decided to nurse her, I latched onto the old belief that beer helped produce breastmilk, a theory that has since been debunked.  

I continued drinking until my daughter was five, when my denial finally lost its grip and I could no longer hide the truth following me around since that night on the roof. I was an alcoholic and needed to stop. At this point, my marriage was unraveling. My husband, whose denial was still intact, couldn’t stand my AA chatter and left. 

A year into my sobriety, I went back to school. One of the classes I took was an introductory course in special ed. At the time, I’d been reading The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris, a memoir about his adoption of a Lokota child who was later diagnosed with FAS. As a final project for the course, I decided to do a paper on the syndrome. The more I researched, the more I worried, finding myself searching my daughter for any signs in her face or her behavior, driving myself crazy with obsession and fear. She was going through the normal things a child endures when parents split up, though attending AA meetings could hardly be considered normal. She had fears about going to bed, clinging to me more than usual, absorbing my own fear of what would become of our lives. And though she showed no physical manifestations of fetal alcohol syndrome, I still obsessed, finding ways to transfer my guilt about our separation to this new cause. After all, I was guilty of drinking during my pregnancy, a crime I committed and now was inflicting torrents of punishment upon myself through my compulsive thinking. 

Guilt was a big part of my upbringing. Being Catholic, I more or less majored in the emotion. Weekly grade school visits to the confessional were a constant reminder I had done something wrong. When I started drinking, the thing I liked most was not the taste, but the instant relief it provided, wiping the emotional slate clean. And when I got sober, all those feelings came flooding back, pummeling me with confusion, like that little girl who entered the confessional many years ago.

So when I heard the news of the latest report on CNN, I turned up the volume. Elizabeth Cohen, CNN's Senior Health Correspondent calmly stated, “The American Academy of Pediatrics now says don’t drink when you're pregnant. Ever. At all.” She went on to say that different studies had varied on the topic, some saying it was okay for women to drink moderately, meaning three to seven drinks a week, an amount I often drank in one night, as my tolerance had built up in the many years I pursued alcohol. This new study wanted to impress upon the women who still drank while pregnant that even a tiny bit was unsafe — especially those one in ten women who reported using some alcohol and the one in thirty-three who reported binge-drinking — in another 2015 study done by CDC epidemiologist Cheryl Tan.

I can’t lie to myself anymore. Although I wasn’t in the study, I was one of them. And the guilt keeps following me around, trailing me like my daughter did when I first got sober and separated, our mutual neediness, a product of my years of pushing down feelings that produced emotional growth. Immediately upon hearing the news, I apologized to my daughter for the umpteenth time, for the months I drank with her precious little self inside of me, hoping to release the guilt that seized me once again. And even though she reminded me, “Mom, I’m fine,” it still lingers, just a tiny bit.

Carol Weis started writing poetry, essays, memoirs, and children’s books when she got sober 26 years ago as a way to help herself heal. Her work has since appeared online at Salon, xoJane, Club Mid, and The Manifest-Station, and has been read as commentary on NPR. She is also the author of the children's book When the Cows Got Loose. She is currently working on a memoir about her drinking years and recovery.

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