For many working women, the decision to start a family is fraught with anxiety. Will I be physically incapacitated? Will nurturing a tiny, shrieking beast affect my ability to do my job? For a certain subset of us, that decision is made more complicated by one ineluctable fact: We built our careers around fetus poison, otherwise known as “beer.” As our numbers grow, more women will find ourselves in the position that I did earlier this year—asking for spit cups at tastings and retiring to my hotel room to put my feet up instead of joining the cheerful, buzzed conviviality after-hours on media trips.
As I became more obviously pregnant, more women began approaching me for advice and, more importantly, reassurance that getting in the family way wouldn’t prevent us from indulging our love of beer. To all those women: It can be done! Don’t be afraid.
To address the elephant in the room: Every pregnancy manual, and nosy strangers everywhere, will warn you that there is no such thing as a safe amount of alcohol. It’s true that excessive alcohol consumption is associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, which is tied to deformities, behavioral problems and learning disabilities, among many other scary consequences. Drinking is part of my job, but I would not put my family’s health at risk to do it.
But the key word is “excessive.” As University of Chicago economist Emily Oster details in her book Expecting Better, there is just no good data that shows that occasional to light drinking hurts your fetus. “I reviewed approximately 50 studies in detail, covering 80,000 women,” says Oster. “I focused on studies that came as close as possible to comparing identical women who differed only in their drinking behavior. In these studies there is simply no evidence that occasional drinking has harmful impacts.”
With the country’s history of temperance movements, American studies on drinking while pregnant are often conflated with other factors, like cocaine use. In other words, drinking while pregnant is treated as at-risk behavior. But if you’re not in the habit of snorting up—and you don’t take your one to three drinks in the form of a half-dozen vodka shots on Saturday night—your fetus is no more at risk than a teetotaler’s.
After a first trimester so addled by morning sickness that I could barely eat a spoonful of French onion dip, I was able to start tasting beer again in my second trimester. Privately, my doctor assured me that an occasional half-pint was fine. Although we still faced public censure, the women I spoke to felt comfortable with low levels of consumption. In my case, that meant a few ounces of beer once or twice a week. In most cases our bodies put the brakes on for us.
“[My obstetrician] felt that moderate and spaced-out consumption was fine throughout pregnancy, and physical fitness was … more important than if I had a couple of ounces a week,” says Jamie Baertsch, the brewmaster at Wisconsin’s Dells Brewing and mother of two. Her taste panels added up to about 12 ounces a week, which she spread out to 1 or 2 ounces of beer a day.
Working in the beer industry can place demands on other parts of your body besides your liver. It’s possible to circumvent chores that require heavy lifting, but if you have your doctor’s OK, there’s no reason you can’t keep working right until birth. “We had a hot night two weeks before my second baby,” says Caitlin Jewell, the co-owner of Massachusetts-based Somerville Brewing. “Through Braxton Hicks [contractions, which occur before labor actually begins], I loaded the fest gear into the truck—even a few full sixtels!”
And if you’re working within the brewery itself, remember that it is an inherently dangerous environment. “Carbon dioxide, chemicals, hot-water tanks under pressure, and there you are, walking around with pregnancy brain,” says Baertsch.
“Even with all my precautions, I had one accident,” Baertsch recalls. “I was cleaning a new tank and got knocked out by carbon dioxide, which knocked a bucket of sodium hydroxide on me. I had to be decontaminated in the parking lot. Everyone ended up being just fine, but it is just a little more nerve-wracking when you’re trying to grow a baby.”
Ultimately, the pressing issues that we deal with in beer are the same as in any other industry that is made up of small businesses. For example, arranging maternity leave seemed more difficult than reducing beer consumption. “When I approached my team, I let them know I had prepared measures to put in place during my leave and considered how to counteract my absence with as much pre-planning as possible,” says Francesca Zeifman, the public relations manager at Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing who was expecting her first in December 2014.
But this is more encouraging than other-wise. Aside from the occasional disapproving glance, women in beer shouldn’t feel discouraged from starting families, any more than baristas, graphic designers or other creative professionals. “To be pregnant in this industry is just like every day in beer. You need to live in the moment, know your limits, lift with your knees and stay hydrated,” says Jewell.
“I imagine it’s probably difficult for a woman in any field—not just the beer industry—who cares about her career to make the decision to start a family,” says Liz Melby, the director of communications at Harpoon Brewery and mother of two. “Hopefully, any fear you might have won’t hold you back, because the reward is so great.”
This column appears in the March 2015 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Adrienne So is a Portland, OR-based freelance writer whose new baby outgrows all beer-themed onesies at the speed of light.