Moderation, Metaphysical Hangovers and the Modern Mom

This entry is less about pregnancy than about bitching—and not, actually, bitching about pregnancy. I’m really tired of that freaking word.


The latest installment of the NYT’s Proof, a blog ostensibly about drinking (more on why I qualify it later), is called Moderation and the Modern Mom.  Anna Fricke writes about how after years of downing shots with 23-year-olds and being escorted out of the side doors of establishments by her husband, she completely gave up the sauce when they began to try to conceive. Even before he was pregnant, she entirely stopped drinking (and eating sushi—evil, evil sushi! Oh, I had some the other night, by the way).

In response, she says,

I felt maternal, wise and frankly relieved. I had worried for years that the alcoholism that ran in my New England stock had snuck into my veins and it was good to know that I could painlessly, easily, give up alcohol when necessary. And so, for 13 months, I didn’t touch a drop. And then I had a baby.

While I’m not abstaining entirely, I do understand why she felt relieved; alcoholism runs through my family’s veins too, and it has worried me that this tendency might, like a tumor, metastasize one day, and that would be the end of me as a sober, functioning member of society. It’s unlikely, though. I have always been the type of drinker who has fun and fun and fun until it gets late and I get tired and I suddenly realize that I am ruining my entire life. The next day, I don’t just wake up with a hangover. I arise to greet an existential crisis.

Writer and committed boozehound Kingsley Amis called it the “metaphysical hangover”:

When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover … you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is.

Yep. It’s pretty much exactly like that. I don’t even need to drink much to feel this way; from what Fricke relates, I couldn’t have kept up with her. Still, this metaphysical hangover has served as a painful but effective check on excess.

So I understand where she’s coming from and where she goes with it. Once she felt like she had her mothering skills down and the baby was a bit older, she says:

I started to revel in taking a little of myself back. At night, after she was soundly asleep, I would cook my husband and myself dinner and pour a luxurious glass of wine. I sautéed, I sipped. It was just like the good old days. Except that it wasn’t. Because in the good old days, I would have had at least half a bottle by myself and would have started slurring non-sequiturs to my husband in the middle of “Damages.” And as much as I wanted to celebrate my newfound nighttime independence by getting pleasingly sloshed, I discovered that this was an impossibility.

I too have had a similar realization: that my drinking life has been irrevocably altered. I will not tie one on for a long, long while. I feel some relief about this, too. Because like Amis, I hate dwelling the next day on the conspiracy of silence you all keep about what a shit I am.

But! The point of this posting is: That’s just me. (Well, and Fricke.)  What I want to bitch about is this column, Proof, which every week features yet another entry about the woes and vagaries suffered by yet another ex-boozehound and how complex but ultimately satisfying it is to live the sober life.

I am so calling bullshit.

One of the things pregnancy has taught me so far is that sobriety can be seriously tedious. Unless you’re a master of the universe deciding the fate of nations or a bone fide Zen master, endless sobriety is, well, fucking endless. How I would love, just for a few hours, for reality to have the softened edges it has after you’ve had a couple glasses of wine or finished the last sip of an icy, tawny, sweetly biting Manhattan. How I would love for conversation to have that lubricated effortlessness, for the social bond to put on its fabricated but nonetheless pretty mask.

But if you read Proof every week, you’d think that our alcohol use—which archaeologists have physical evidence for going back at least 8,000 years—never offered these sweet reprieves. You’d think only misery, dysfunction and trauma were responsible for our tippling. It’s absurd, irritating and moralizing.

Why for the NYT is it the people who are unskilled at drinking, who suck at it, who fucked up its venerable traditions so royally that they had to give it up entirely, get to define it for the rest of us?

Bullshit, I say.

Sure, I’m grateful pregnancy has forced me to avoid the metaphysical hangover for the past nearly six months. But that doesn’t mean I don’t envy you your postwork drink. One of my cousins had a baby several months ago and many of her Facebook status updates mention her early evening wine. Ohhh, I can’t wait. I suppose I should be grateful for this as well—that after The Kid is born, maybe I’ll get to have my cake and eat it too: a couple of drinks but no next-day trauma.

But the rest of you: you should drink the hell on. Par-tee.

Can't Tell Nobody Nothin'

After sciatica and hemorrhoids, unsolicited advice may be the pregnant woman’s biggest pain in the ass.

That’s because you can’t tell nobody nothin’, least of all me.

If you think you don’t like people telling you what to do, well, meet me. If you tell me that hitting myself in the head with a hammer is a bad idea, I might grab one in each hand and start banging away at my temples just to be contrary. Part of me is still a surly 13 year old who think she knows everything until confronted with the clear and unavoidable evidence that she doesn’t. And then the fury starts, because how dare you point that out, you heartless bastard?

Charming, right? Poor Dr. Awesome.

Because of this tendency, I think I’ve been pretty restrained so far when dealing with the comments that are starting to roll in as predictably as my belly is beginning to grow out. Everybody’s an amateur going into parenting, but everybody’s also a goddamned expert afterward.

Most people are just being friendly; the bump is compelling, for whatever reason. (Personally I find it more comical than anything else. I hope I can maintain that perspective the more I resemble an egg on legs.) And I’m being perfectly pleasant in return. Generally that involves a lot of noncommittal nodding and polite noises. (“Hmm.” Oh yeah?” “Wow.”)

But sometimes it’s intrusive. Take the livery cab driver who gave me a ride home recently. Having put in a 10-hour day at the magazine, I was yawning away in the backseat as we zoomed along the East River heading toward that amazing stretch of the FDR Drive that puts the skyline, the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the harbor on a glittering display of light and reflection and height. I always think then that NYC looks like a dragon languorously sprawled across a horde of gold and jewels.

Two weeks before, his daughter had given birth to a girl at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, so he was on the baby tip big time. In short order, I learned four incontrovertible facts about the world: girls only want to talk about hair and clothes; it’s “weird” that Dr. Awesome had initially hoped for a girl, because all men want a boy; epidurals are for the weak-willed and selfish; and male obs-gyns are infinitely better than female ones.

Take your pick as to which one of these assertions you would have been most annoyed by. I went with the final one. I wanted to slap the back of his head, but instead I said I had only ever chosen female ob-gyns (and here I considered how weird it was to discuss Intimate Fun with the Speculum with some random Israeli man my father’s age), and that they had been perfectly good doctors. Finally I ventured to ask, “Why would you say this, that men are better than women?”

He shrugged. “This is just the way it is. The truth.”

I rolled my eyes. “Look, would you take your car to a mechanic who didn’t drive one?”

“I don’t think that’s a good metaphor,” he said seriously.

And then there was the waitress at the diner a few weeks ago. That Sunday morning I awoke and decided that there was nothing I wanted more than some big honking breakfast involving pancakes and meat and eggs and coffee, and I wanted to be reading the Sunday Times while someone delivered it to me. Thus the diner.

As coffee jacks me up like a cracked-out gerbil, I rarely drink it. But that morning I figured the “lumberjack breakfast” before me—three pancakes, two eggs, bacon, sausage and ham—would soak up the jitters. The enormous platter did a fine job of keeping my blood sugar’s response to the coffee minimal, so I happily requested another cuppa joe.

As the waitress refilled my cup, she said, “You’re not supposed to have this, Mami,” and nodded at my belly.

“Really, it’s fine.”

She shook her head. “No, coffee’s no good when you’re pregnant.”

“No, really, it’s fine. You can have coffee. You just have to keep it to a minimum. People are so hysterical. And you can have a drink once in a while too. Oh, and I had a glass of wine last night. You’d better call child protective services.”

“Oh no, that’s fine,” she said dismissively. Booze in, coffee out. Noted.

She leaned companionably against the next table. “The doctor told me I couldn’t have children, so when I got pregnant I didn’t even know it,” she said. “The only sign I got was I had big boobs. My friends were like, ‘Did you get a boob job, Mami?”’

We both laughed. “I know, they get huge.”

“So I didn’t even know I was pregnant. And I was eating and drinking things I shouldn’t have and at five months I lost the baby.”

I winced. Jesus Christ. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I was just about five months myself then.

“No, it’s okay, it’s okay. Because now I know that I can get pregnant. So next time I’ll do it right.”

I didn’t quite finish that second cup of coffee.

Most of the time the conversation is neither as macho as Mr. Men are Better or as unexpectedly personal as Ms. Mami. I apparently “look” like I’m carrying a boy for various reasons—because I’ve gained no weight in my face, because I’m carrying somewhat low, because I don’t resemble the speaker’s memory of herself (or of his partner) when she was pregnant with a girl. I’ve been advised to do stomach exercises. I’ve been advised to avoid stomach exercises at all costs. I should breastfeed til The Kid applies to college, or I should swap out the tit for the bottle ASAP. I’m clearly insane if I’m considering going for natural childbirth, or I’m clearly insane if I want to be as drugged up with painkillers as is medically safe. (For the record: I haven’t decided yet.) To my endless consternation, the first thing many people mention is the baby’s astrological sign, which, I have been well informed, will be Gemini—and which means fuck-all to me or to Dr. Awesome.

Still, people are being quite kind. In the same way we reflexively say I’m sorry to the bereaved, most default to saying Congratulations and You look great to the knocked-up. Which is lovely and sweet, even if mere form.

It’s winter. I imagine that as the weather grows warmer and I grow larger, so too will the number of comments expand. I’ll have to handle them as they come. But at least I know exactly what I’m going to say the next time someone questions my cup of coffee. “Oh, don’t worry,” I’ll assure them. “It’s just scotch.

So One Ancient Fish Says to Another, "You Wanna Put What Where?"

In the U.S., how do we teach kids about sex? The birds and the bees, of course. But we should teach them about the fishies too, according to new research on 380-million-year-old pregnant fish that pushes back the date for the earliest example of internal fertilization by about 30 million years.

As was recently published in the journal Nature, two specimens of Incisoscutum ritchiei, a fish that swam in the waters that once covered what is now Australia, died with smaller fish in their bellies.

Fossil (NHM)

One fossil comes from the Gogo formation of western Australia—
image shamelessly boosted from the BBC article linked below

One of the fossilized remains was first discovered in the 1980s, and assumption had long been that the smaller fish was the larger’s last meal. But then researchers looked at a male Incisoscutum ritchiei and realized it had a pelvic fin on its stomach similar to ones modern sharks have.

Called a clasper, it would have been used by the male to grip the female during mating. It is “an intermittent erectile organ that is inserted inside the female to transfer sperm,” co-author Dr John Long, a palaeontologist at Museum Victoria in Australia, told the BBC. (Intermittent erectile organs are now treatable with medicine. But anyway.)

Internal fertilization is one of the processes that distinguishes some fish and virtually all mammals from reptiles and amphibians.

I doubt this was tender love. It was probably more gladiatorial, considering that placoderms, the class of fish this one belonged to, were covered in a formidable fish armor that in at least one other species extended over a hooked clasper. (Ow!) In contrast, Incisoscutum ritchiei’s clasper was formed of soft cartilage. For her, a tender mercy at least.

The development of internal fertilization went on long before our own class, mammalia, arose on the scene; the earliest mammals didn’t appear until about 100 million years after Incisoscutum ritchiei. We are only most distantly related to this potential pioneer of nookie.

And yet internal fertilization is so key to all human cultures. What aspects of our traditions, laws and arts aren’t in some way related to when, where and how who gets internal with whom?

Bill Proposes Mandatory Drug and Alcohol Testing of Suspicious Pregnant Women in Tennessee

A bill was just introduced to the Tennessee state legislature that would mandate drug and alcohol testing for certain pregnant women. And not only that—any such woman who then failed to show up to two subsequent prenatal exams would be reported to the department of children’s services. You can find the full text of the bill at the link above, or find it pasted here, on the informative website Women’s Health News.

According to the proposed bill, which behaviors signal that you are a pregnant woman of interest who can be forced to have drug or alcohol testing? The following:

(1) No prenatal care;
(2) Late prenatal care after twenty-four (24) weeks gestation;
(3) Incomplete prenatal care;
(4) Abruptio placentae;
(5) Intrauterine fetal death;
(6) Preterm labor of no obvious cause;
(7) Intrauterine growth retardation of no obvious cause;
(8) Previously known alcohol or drug abuse; or
(9) Unexplained congenital anomalies.

Where this list is vaguest is also where it’s most alarming. What exactly is “incomplete prenatal care”? Who defines it? And who, after all, goes without prenatal care? Often, it’s poor women, marginalized women (perhaps immigrant, illegal, or lacking English skills) and uninsured women.

I suppose it’s no surprise that merely being poor means you are, by default, of dubious character in our by-the-bootstraps culture, which often promotes the idea that if you’re poor, you must deserve to be. All women should have prenatal care. But is assuming that women who don’t get prenatal care are substance abusers the way to do it?

To continue with the troubling vagueness: There isn’t always an explanation for preterm labor, nor for every congenital anomaly. According to the National Institutes of Health, intrauterine growth retardation is associated with heart disesase, high altitudes, carrying multiples and having preeclampsia, poor nutrition, infections such as rubella and toxoplasmosis—and substance abuse. Abruptio placentae, which means the premature separation of the placenta from the uterus, has been tied to the use of cigarettes and crack—but also to such risk factors as high blood pressure or diabetes, suffering trauma (say, from being in a car accident), being over 35 or carrying a male fetus.

I’m 36 and carrying a boy. If I were in Tennessee and were unlucky enough to suffer abruptio placentae—and survive it, since it can kill both mother and child—I could then be subjected to a mandatory drug test. Because how can a doctor know for sure that my age is the cause without eliminating the possibility of substance abuse? It just doesn’t add up. And the bill doesn’t require doctors to test for all of these other causes before asking a woman to pee in a cup.

So say a woman tests positive for alcohol or drugs. What happens next, according to this proposal?

Every physician, surgeon or other person permitted by law to attend a pregnant woman during gestation shall report each woman who refuses to seek treatment for an alcohol-related or drug-related problem or who misses two (2) or more appointments to the department of children’s services.

What happens after that is left unexplained. Are they brought up on criminal charges? Do they lose their children upon giving birth to them?

This law would seem to open up the possibility of sweeping up a whole bunch of people who aren’t substance abusers. It’s ironic that the only way some of these Tennessee women are going to get prenatal care is by being considered a potential threat to their own unborn children.

We can all agree that substance abusers are endangering their unborn children. But a violation of many women’s civil rights doesn’t seem to me the way to intervene.

I Think Steve Albini Mixed "The Prego Shuffle"

Courtesy of our friend Clay, who posted this to my Facebook profile.

Consider the Albini-esque loud/soft sound mechanics of this excerpt from a 1980s pregnancy exercise video.

Or just sing along!

Hey I dig my waddle

it’s okay with me

cause every day’s a new center of gravity!