Instead of pickles and ice cream, I craved beer and cigarettes throughout pregnancy. I tried not to mind splitting the check when I’d only ordered water. I tried to go to bars anyway, and parties anyway, and not be miserable. I mostly failed. At one Christmas party I sat in the corner, wondering, Why is everyone laughing so loudly? I laughed, too, when I realized: They were drunk; I was sober. “Once you have the baby,” friends would reassure me, “we’ll come back here and order these cocktails again.”
Pregnancy is filled with minor indignities — things you can’t wait to be done with once your uterus is finally unoccupied. Like peeing yourself just a tiny bit, all the time, or not being able to sleep on your stomach or look at your vagina. Not being able to drink was minor; but, taken together with everything else, it made me feel like I was being policed, and perhaps unreasonably. But hey, whatever: It was temporary. I’d have a drink once I had the baby.
Once I had the baby, though, I had a baby. Instead of a beer in the delivery room, the way I’d requested, I had ice chips. And then I was so tired. And so freaked out. And the baby was so small, and eating all the time. I really needed a fucking drink, in other words, but I didn’t know if I could while breast-feeding. As with many parenting quandaries, I got mixed messages.
The ruling queen of baby SEO is the website BabyCenter. Their stance, like the American Academy of Pediatrics policy it trickles down from, is a typical sort of better-safe-than-sorry: “While no one knows the true effect that alcohol has on breast-fed infants, it's probably wise to abstain — at least in the very beginning. Some experts recommend breast-feeding moms avoid drinking alcohol until their baby is 3 months old.” The AAP recommends that “ingestion of alcoholic beverages should be minimized and limited to an occasional intake but no more than 0.5 g alcohol per kg body weight, which for a 60 kg mother is approximately 2 oz liquor, 8 oz wine, or 2 beers. Nursing should take place 2 hours or longer after the alcohol intake to minimize its concentration in the ingested milk.”
Cut to my exta-blasé southern baby-boomer mom sitting on the back patio of a bar, the baby sleeping next to us in his stroller, trying not to laugh as I panicked about a glass of sangria:
“Oh honey, if anything it’ll help him sleep.”
Alternatively, there’s this popular advice, offered by southern moms and well-meaning friends alike: “Can’t you just pump-and-dump?!” Meaning, can’t you just come home drunk, pump out the tainted breast milk and start anew? Get out of jail free, or only minorly biologically oppressed?
I suspect the staying power of pump-and-dump has to do with its name, charged verbiage that seems to inspire glee in the speaker. The first problem with pump-and-dump is that it doesn’t really work: Breast milk’s alcoholic content functions as it does in your blood, and decreases only with time. The second problem is that the idea of actually dumping is almost unfathomable. Pour out milk? As my friend Lauren puts it, “If I'm hooking myself up to the milk machine, I need something to show for it. The last thing I want to do after a dinner out with my husband or friends is sit alone in my living room topless being milked like a farm animal.”
This image perfectly encapsulates the way we think we mothers should atone for our sins, i.e., our attempts at normalcy. Sure, go out and have an extra glass of wine or two at dinner, but soon you’ll be sitting on the edge of the couch, avoiding eye contact with the babysitter, scrolling through your phone while your nipples are protruded into shocking lengths of pink-purple taffy. It’s only fair.
My friend Meredith just had her second baby, and is back in the thick of breast-feeding. Her attitude falls somewhere between BabyCenter’s and my mother’s. “Drinking and breast-feeding is made into a huge deal when it really isn’t,” she said. “I always went by the rule that if I can drive, I can breast-feed.” Current research supports this.
Now I go by that rule, too, but it took me a while to get there. The better judgment of new mothers, like that of teens, is often mistrusted. We’re given rules and guidelines and told what’s best because the stakes are high, and better safe than sorry, and you never know. But somewhere around my kid’s fourth or fifth month, I had a good three- or four-hour window between feedings, so if timed correctly (or if I hid out in the car and nursed while everyone else got us a table), I could easily have a midday beer. There was always strategy involved, always math. It’s all anecdotal, but this — from Toast editor Nicole Cliffe — is something you won’t read on BabyCenter: “The math on drinking while nursing makes it clear that you are best off rapidly shotgunning a drink WHILE nursing but they never SAY that.”
My big night on the town with my friends still hasn’t happened, and all other factors aside (like the potential horror of waking up at 6 a.m. with a toddler and a hangover), it won’t until I wean. I haven’t been truly drunk in what is now years. And while I’m not sure “getting drunk” is an aspiration of mine, I like the idea of going out on a special occasion and not worrying if I approach it.
I don’t know when it was in the first year of my child’s life I started having the beer or the wine or the DayQuil whenever I wanted it, regardless of schedule. I wish for my bewildered old self I would have done it sooner. Taking the risk of endangering your child so that you can get your buzz on is stupid, but if there isn’t a real risk with a drink or two on a full stomach, why needlessly spend an extra year saying I can’t about one more thing?
I think it would have helped me feel less like a specific phase of mammal and more like I do now, like a human who has a cute new member of her family, albeit a very demanding one who shits his pants twice a day. Nowadays I explain less to people at parties; I read fewer studies. Drinking is a small thing, not the most important, but one of many small things I appreciate as I inch my way out of the fog.
Cigarettes, though, I still daydream about.