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12/20/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

I'm Accidentally Prego: Did I Screw Up My Chances for a Healthy Baby?

Tracy Moore

When you have no plans to grow a baby, what then, pray tell, is to prevent you from eating a bunch of mercury-coated raw fish, dropping to the floor in an amateur belly flop to do the snake, or taking matador classes? Nothing, that's what.

Given your carefree lifestyle, you were likely engaged in any number of the following activities prior to The Big Bang: drinking, smoking, bouncing, air-traffic controlling, eating excessive amounts of tuna and deli meat, drinking unpasteurized milk, having an ill-advised summer of coke, listening to Maroon 5, reading Fifty Shades of Grey, catching bowling balls right in the gut, or merely getting really, really into Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. All wildly fun things; all terrible for an unborn child.

Your first response to the news of this pregnancy is likely to be, like mine, an unforgettable "how the hell did this happen?!" moment. Your second thought is likely to be: "Sh*t, did I screw up my baby?" Short answer: Maybe? Technically-just-as-short-but-long answer that's likely more correct: Probably not? It's hard to say, but at least the ambiguity of this question will prepare you well for parenting, when there is literally no one right answer to any question. Every topic can be and is contradicted and debated with gusto and verve.

Not only was I sure I'd f*cked up my baby, but I was more sure that I would be prosecuted in a court of judgment the moment I waltzed into my obstetrician's office to confirm this surprise pregnancy. He would see my sallow skin, depressed posture, and immature attitude and immediately pen a brilliant article for a reputable medical journal titled "Can She Be Real (or Helped)? The Most Horribly Irresponsible Pregnant Woman I've Ever Encountered."

I was about as ready to face that chorus of medical judgment as I was ready to change a diaper, so I tossed the beer, dropped the cigarette into the pregnant-positive pee-filled toilet for one last satisfying singe, and turned immediately to the wilderness of the Internet to find out exactly how horribly I had damaged my progeny.

Drinking? Check. Smoking? Check. Willfully depriving my body of useful nutrition and/or decent amounts of sunlight and water? Check. Bouncing up and down idiotically on a jet ski? Check. But what I found was oddly reassuring: If nothing else, it was at least a very popular Google search. About a bajillion other reckless boozehounds just like me had searched the exact same thing, and damn near every variation on this question, which boils down to: "I was drinking/smoking/getting high/using drugs/being an idiot before I knew I was pregnant. Is my baby okay?"

Let me just interject here that I'm sure we can all agree that the Internet is full of outliers who are drawn to its anonymity and conflicting information -- information from which you may easily cherry-pick the most reassuring of outcomes for yourself and call it a bloated day. None of it replaces that thing you really do have to do, reader: go to an actual doctor who will actually tell you to your face how horrible you actually were/are. Studies on pregnant women and the effects of bad things on their unborn children are notoriously hard to conduct, since no sane person wants to coke it up while pregnant for the sake of science. Furthermore, the results of these types of studies are mixed even when they are available, which is why no obstetrician can guarantee that your pregnancy is going to be smooth sailing no matter what you've partaken in prior to or just after conceiving.

But until your caregiver tells you things are looking A-OK, think of using the Internet as a kind of great practice for being looked at, judged, and given unsolicited advice in real life. FYI, being judged and given unsolicited advice is about to be a daily occurrence for the rest of your pregnancy and child-rearing life, so open arms, people. Open arms.

But back to the very closed arms of the digital safety net: There's a kind of truth in this outlier mob madness. That is to say, a bajillion other people searched just as you did, having committed egregious pre-pregnant crimes eerily similar to yours, and yet SOMEHOW the horror stories, the tales of damage and woe, are not as ever-present as you might think.

These people were just like you with their Risky Business-level bad behavior, and they reported that their babies turned out just fine. Better than fine! Great, even! I sighed with what had to be at least a double pregnant pause, comforted by the knowledge that I had probably as good a chance as anyone -- or at least our grandparents' generation -- of having a healthy pregnancy. I would save the emotional question for the next nine lifetimes.

But you won't get off that easy, friend. What you will find out there may be temporarily reassuring, but it isn't a guarantee of anything and still comes with a finger wag. The online anecdotes run the gamut, from "ARE YOU STUPID? Every single thing you drink or eat directly impacts your baby's SAT scores!" to "Dude, chill. I smoked five joints a day, and my baby is hella cool." That's because for practically every single study out there about what's good or bad for you during pregnancy, there seems to be an equally convincing study that found just the opposite. Whether you're smoking, drinking, taking folic acid, or dyeing your hair -- or not doing that stuff -- gestation is a gamble, no matter how you slice it.

In between these extremes of "do it" and "oh sh*t, don't do it," lies the also-hella-cool concept of pragmatism. She's your new best friend, even though you ignored her when you thought it was a good idea to shoot Grand Marnier or not contribute to a 401(k). Practically speaking, says our friend, it seems like there would have to be some kind of basic biological protection for a growing fetus in the early stages in the womb, a Hail Mary for the initial Big Bang, a protective cloak for nature's little bean sprout to take hold without fear of every errant wind uprooting her. Right? How else could so many of us have unplanned pregnancies and mostly turn out okay (debatable!)?

I will leave the medical science to an actual doctor who has written outrageously successful journal articles. But consider my theory that for the first few weeks of pregnancy -- during the time you don't even know you are pregnant and wouldn't even test positive on a prego piss test -- perhaps there is a kind of safe passage from the land of the partying to the land of the sober. Again, don't take my word for it; the evidence for this is mixed. The guarantees of a healthy pregnancy -- whether you do all the "right" things or not -- are zero. But still. Isn't it possible that it is possible, given how many of us are having these things by accident?

When I waltzed into that doctor's office, I told that graying Stanley Tucci look-alike of mine everything: the drinking, the drugs, the burritos, the lack of sunlight. It all came tumbling out like the effects of one too many happy hour two-for-ones on an empty stomach. He smirked, gave me and the husband a quick once-over, and told me not to worry, no-nonsense style. To just stop what I had been doing and hit the straight and narrow. And, of course, he said to hold off on
announcing the pregnancy until I was past twelve weeks -- not because I was a boozehound smoker who may as well have been catching bowling balls in the gut for a living, but because I was OLD (ahem, 33 at the time of conception).

My experience, again, is not to be substituted for your own medical provider giving you the classic lecture of ambiguous reassurance. I offer my story here only to say that either I had the world's most cavalier doctor, or there is something to this incubational-free-pass-early-
on-for-expecting-mothers theory, even the unexpecting kind, whose bodies need a bit of time to prepare for the long haul ahead.

Whoever or whatever out there did that for us and our bodies? Thanks. We totes owe ya one. Luckily, I hadn't taken Accutane for a decade, and my hard-drug days were long gone. It was "only" the smoking and drinking I'd had to quit.

But rest assured that as long as your caregiver is not worried, then you needn't be, either. So while your baby is kickin' it, you can kick it, too. Just not how you used to. Remember how you used to? That was fun? Buh-bye.

I don't mean to be cavalier about the mountain-moving levels of willpower you will have to muster to drop whatever bad habits you may have recklessly pursued for the duration of this pregnancy thus far. I cannot to this day fully explain how I was able to rally the troops myself. I only knew that, for me, continuing to smoke was not an option. I just couldn't do it. And I didn't really feel like smoking anyway. That's what is so great about the discomfort of early pregnancy, if you can call it "great" to feel like your insides are mobilizing to be your outsides.

When everything is ripe for the hurling up, the last thing you want to do is add toxic chemicals to the mix. Like the thought of alcohol the morning after with a wincing hangover, most of the time, your old vices won't even be a thing to fight. The rest of the time, you will be a fierce warrior against vice.

That said, as anyone who's ever tried a mood-altering substance can tell you: there's always a poor man's substitute. You'll be shocked and pleasantly surprised to learn that once all vices have been thoroughly eliminated from your bloodstream, you've basically reset yourself to what other people consider normal operating levels. This means that regular, old, over-the-counter, widely available, safe during pregnancy medicinals and natural highs can now give you that classic take-the-edge-off feeling you once turned to booze and smokes for.

For instance:

  • When I needed a pick-me-up, one tall Starbucks coffee had me pretty much bouncing off the walls. And my child. (One cup of coffee a day is perfectly safe during pregnancy, says the American Pregnancy Association, which recommends keeping daily intake to a moderate 150 to 300 mg.)

  • If you're not the coffee-drinking type, there's always a little piece of dark chocolate, or a cup of black tea.

Here are a few other things you might want to do for a mood shifter when the going gets really safe, healthy, and boring:

  • Sex
  • Baths
  • Showers
  • Walks
  • A glass of wine
  • One Excedrin
  • Two ibuprofen and a cup of coffee ("poor, pregnant woman's speedball")

Just think, eventually you'll have a child and it will be just as difficult to find time to have a beer or two, but at least then you won't feel guilty about it. (Unless you're breastfeeding.)

But until then, now that you know that you got away with something, feel free to use the knowledge of this free pass both ways:

1. To rationalize any bad behavior prior to knowing you were pregnant

2. To now become one of those unbearable, overly concerned pregnant women who can't even walk through a cloud of Lysol spray for fear of the harm it will do to her child

Sure, it's a huge, flip-floppy contradiction, but no one expects a pregnant woman to make sense. Sheesh, it's not like you're running for political office. (I really hope you are not running for political office, because then I cannot help you at all.)

Excerpted from Oops! How to Rock the Mother of All Surprises: A Positive Guide to Your Unexpected Pregnancy, available at Amazon and B&N. Copyright © 2013 by Tracy Moore and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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