Erin Farley shares her story about enjoying alcohol and then having a break during pregnancy, with particular reflections on the role alcohol plays in workplace socialising. This is the fourth post on our series on alcohol and activism – more stories welcome!
I really like drinking alcohol. I didn’t really start until I was 17 and moved away from home to a regional university, where binge-drinking to the point of unconsciousness 1-2 nights a week was pretty standard. I had a great time and looked forward to Thursday Uni Bar nights all week, upon which I’d consume large quantities of cask wine (goon) mixed with orange cordial, or if I’d been financially prudent, cheap vodka and red cordial, before hitting the dance floor to Britney Spears in an entirely un-ironic, enthusiastic manner (it was the late 90s).
As an anxious and socially awkward young person, alcohol was a godsend, giving me a mechanism and an excuse to lighten up and have fun. I found the taste of beer really yucky to start with, but inspired by my dorm-mates, determined to teach myself to like it. By the time I’d finished 1st year I was proud that I could finish and enjoy a whole schooner of VB.
I don’t think I really appreciated alcohol properly until I’d finished university and was working in my first full time job with a large NGO in Sydney. That’s when, for the first time, I bought alcohol to consume on my own, not to binge drink or have with friends, but as a way to relax and unwind. I can actually remember the occasion – I bought a Pad Thai from the local take away and a long-neck of VB. My housemates were out and I had the lounge room and TV to myself, and it was wonderful.
That’s probably when alcohol became for me not only a social lubricant, something to do with my hands or take the edge off anxiety around people, but something I associated with relaxing on my own – a marker to the end of the day, and a reward for myself. Alcohol changed from being something I drank to get drunk (though I still did a fair bit of that too) to something I could also consume in moderation, on a weeknight or with colleagues, without the risk of vomiting on someone.
Over the years as I took on jobs with more responsibility and stress, alcohol played an increasing role in the relationship between work and life and the balance between them. Working as a media adviser, for unions, environment groups and later the Greens, meant ‘switching off’ wasn’t really an option, even on the weekends. I always had at the back of my mind that some story could always blow up, and alcohol was helpful as a safety valve.
Was I downing a bottle of whiskey neat every night and sneaking out at lunch to keep me going? No, although at times I had colleagues who have done that. But it was really rare for me to have an alcohol free night. A beer was my reward and way to draw a line under a stressful day (and they were all pretty stressful). Or if I was working late, drinking at my computer helped to make me feel better about the extra hours I was putting in.
I also found that attitudes to alcohol in many of my workplaces shared many similarities with my regional university dorm. Most people had moved on from goon and cordial, but drinking alcohol was still the way to make connections, ease awkwardness, and be perceived in a favourable light.
That’s why, when I found out I was pregnant late last year, working out how to live my life without alcohol was something I was really worried about. The first concern was how to conceal my non-consumption of alcohol during the first few months when I didn’t want people to know. Such is the ubiquitousness of drinking, not drinking is taken automatically as a sign something’s up. Feeling somewhat fraudulent, I ended up joining a FebFast team to have an excuse. Then for a few weeks, I just avoided going out with colleagues.
It was at this point I began to realize that not drinking would have impacts I hadn’t considered. Not drinking with colleagues, you miss out on the best gossip, the healthy bitching sessions and of course the socializing and bonding that being with work people outside of work facilitates. And to be honest, even once I’d told people I was pregnant and could openly consume lemonade without raised eyebrows, for me, it just wasn’t the same. Alcohol had always been such a big part of facilitating relationship building, even in professional contexts, going out and not drinking didn’t bring the same feelings. For me this mostly meant not relaxing as much, but also feeling like I was somehow being a bit of a downer for other people.
I found too that when people know you can’t drink, they don’t invite you to come to the pub with them. I think I’ve been guilty of this in the past myself, assuming that non-drinkers simply won’t enjoy themselves in social situations that are based on drinking. More than that, having a non-drinker along for the evening can somehow put a dampener on things – adding a feeling of unevenness that isn’t really logical but nonetheless present. The non-drinker is simply not in the same state as you – they are out of the club, and you are conscious that they are not experiencing the same induced lack of inhibition as yourself.
In the end, I felt my non-drinking status in these professional/social situations more keenly and negatively than any other time. This was a surprise for me, given most of my alcohol these days is now consumed in non “social” situations – at home, on my own or with my partner, after work or with dinner. But whilst I did miss alcohol at these times, and the psychological symbolism it plays for me, it wasn’t as much as I thought I would. I discovered when I did try a few sips, the physical effects of pregnancy took away most of the enjoyable feelings, and I found other ways to reward myself at the end of the day (hello dessert, every single night). Of course having those alternatives didn’t stop me whinging about not being able to drink! But what was hardest to replace were the professional and social benefits that drinking conveys.
Now I’m at the end of my pregnancy, I have been googling a lot of articles about how much you are allowed to drink when you are breastfeeding. Because, along with wearing non-elasticised waistbands and being able to roll over in bed without making cow noises, drinking alcohol is definitely in the top 5 list of things I’m looking forward to doing when I’m not pregnant.
I’m not sure if my non-drinking experience will change the way I go about professional situations in the future. Having a fairly large number of friends and colleagues who don’t drink as a rule I feel like I’ve been conscious of the role alcohol plays, although I’ve not always actively sought to mitigate the negative experiences non-drinkers can experience. Alcohol consumption is a huge part of Australian culture. Whilst activist and political contexts, with their long hours and tendency to attract young people with shared values, are possibly at one end of the spectrum, I think most scenarios that ask people to work together on projects use alcohol to smooth things at some point.
But there are other ways to make everyone feel like they are all on the same level that don’t require non-drinkers to do all of the accommodating. Arranging non-drinking activities (ie. events that aren’t at the pub) is one, especially if there is some element that forces everyone to move out of their comfort zone (and therefore be vulnerable and lower inhibitions).
Among the most joyful discoveries of my pregnancy has been that I personally do not require alcohol to excel at SingStar karaoke – and, when led by my example, neither did my colleagues.
About the author
Erin Farley has spent over 10 years working in communications and campaigns for environment groups, unions and the Greens. She no longer mixes orange cordial with goon but does still enjoy a VB in the right circumstances.