According to the headlines, new advice issued to pregnant women by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists could be “confusing”. That’s not a word I’d use. Patronizing, impractical, scare-mongering, guilt-inducing, yes. Confusing, no. Contrary to popular belief, pregnant women are not porridge-brained fools, panicking at the merest mention of “chemicals” and “science”. They’re not confused. They know unhelpful advice when they see it. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t stop them feeling guilty. That’s because, contrary to yet more popular belief, pregnant women are human beings (and, despite what the pictures tell you, they have heads!). 

The latest recommendations from the RCOG state that pregnant women should avoid too many “chemicals”. Not all chemicals, mind – just “some chemicals”. In stuff. Stuff like “food packaging, household products, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics”. So not things you’d encounter in actual, day-to-day life, apart from all the bloody time. There’s no direct evidence that these chemicals do any harm but it’s best to “play it safe” by being scared witless.

When I was pregnant reckless indulgence constituted having a fag, swigging wine, munching on Brie and oysters, cavorting with sheep. Now it’s getting out the Domestos and cleaning the loo. Brilliant! And yes, you could say “all the more excuse to get your man (trust me, it’ll be assumed you have a man) to do the cleaning for you (since it’ll also be assumed that the cleaning is ordinarily your responsibility)”. But this rests on the assumption that all pregnant women need do is be pregnant and pose for photos where our heads get missed off. Unfortunately that’s not true. We have jobs! We might even be chemists, spending all day making the most chemically chemical-rich chemical compounds! We might also have other children already! (Which means lots of heavy lifting and nose/arse wiping – a toddler doesn’t care about “playing it safe” germ-wise and nor can you). Basically, this advice is bloody ridiculous. There will be some jobs where special allowances have to be made for pregnancy but since no new demands are being made of employers in light of this new advice, it seems all the pressure is on pregnant women alone. Hence you get all of the guilt and responsibility but no authority – not over your own body nor over your environment.

It’s not easy to ignore advice like this, no matter how impossible it is to follow. You will ignore it insofar as you need to get up in the morning, care for your kids, go to work, eat whatever you can manage, take whatever medication you require for conditions that could have nothing to do with pregnancy (what with you having lots of other physiological bits and bobs that aren’t just the contents of your womb). But you won’t forget all the things you’ve been told not to do. Your “transgressions” will mount up and come back to haunt you should the slightest thing go wrong. And guess what? Loads of things go wrong in pregnancy and beyond. They go wrong and you won’t even know why. Even so, you’ll look back on all the things you shouldn’t have done, all the surfaces you shouldn’t have wiped, all the plastic containers you shouldn’t have put your leftovers in, all the air you shouldn’t have breathed. You’ll look back and you won’t forgive yourself.

I’ve had three pregnancies. The first ended in miscarriage and that is ENTIRELY because I flew to Germany for work at 7 weeks and drank a cup of coffee at nine weeks. The remaining two have led to the births of my lovely boys. However, my boys have each had relatively minor health problems (one with hearing, one with digestion). This is ENTIRELY because of a dodgy sandwich I ate while pregnant with the first (and I just knew it was dodgy, what with it having mayonnaise, but I ate it anyhow), and because I took the first to a farm park while pregnant with the second (and no, I didn’t touch any sheep, but there’ll have been sheep contamination everywhere, I’m sure of it). With pregnancy, there’s no such thing as chance and bad luck. It’s all yours to ruin by selfishly getting out of bed in the morning (not that you should stay in bed, either. Especially not if you’re not lying on your left side at all times).

The stupid thing about blanket “be on the safe side” advice is that it all merges into one with the advice that’s based on genuine evidence. For instance, since we’re telling pregnant women not to drink any alcohol at all – despite there being little evidence that small amounts are harmful – it’s hard not to develop a “sod it” attitude. If it’s impossible to follow all the rules, how can you decide which ones are the right ones? Since you have to eat something, how can you decide what not to eat? Since you have to live and breathe, where should you draw the line? There are moments when it would be best to step back, both for your own wellbeing and that of your future child, but these become indistinguishable from all the others subsumed into one massive cry of “beware! The world is bad!”

Using common sense is usually a crap idea (the whole concept of “common sense”, I fear, has been copyrighted by the Daily Mail). Even so, in this one instance, it probably is the only thing you can do, for your health, the health of your future child and your own peace of mind. So anyhow, here’s my common sense advice for pregnant women: avoid fags, boycott French cheese just for the hell of it, drink so little alcohol it’s not worth the bother anyhow, restrain yourself from cavorting with sheep. Anything else is a bonus.