“Do you drink alcohol?” the nurse practitioner, who’s checking off boxes on a list of questions that goes on for four pages, looks sternly up at me. I am pregnant. Pregnant women in America are not supposed to drink.
“Never,” I tell her.
The gimlet my husband and I shared in a fancy Italian restaurant to try Philip Marlowe’s favorite drink was before I knew I was pregnant. But I did not mention the sip or two of red wine I have at dinner almost every night.
Every pregnant woman in America knows she’s not supposed to drink. Drinking can cause an array of problems for the fetus, from fetal alcohol syndrome to learning disabilities to birth defects that can occur in the heart, kidneys, lungs, eyes, ears, and bones. Michael Dorris’s heartbreaking memoir, The Broken Cord, about adopting a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome shows just how devastating alcohol during pregnancy can be.
But it turns out that some of our assumptions (and fears) about pregnancy and alcohol are culturally based.
When I was eight months pregnant my husband and I traveled to Paris. “They won’t let you on the plane,” my mother-in-law fretted. I waddled down the aisle in a red sundress. Three different stewardesses insisted I put a pillow between the seat belt and my abdomen, scolding me in clipped French when I refused. Other than that, though, the flight overseas to attend a friend’s graduation passed without incident.
François was graduating from one of France’s finest business schools. Tall, lean, and fair, François and I had met when an acute attack of appendicitis sent him to Cambridge City Hospital. Alone in a hospital room in a city whose language he could barely understand, François bore his illness stoically. I visited him every day. My concern for this stranger, the son of the brother of a colleague of my mother’s, transformed into a deep friendship that has continued for more than ten years, despite language, culture, and religious differences.
After the ceremony at Versailles, there was a celebration in Sézanne, a small walled town in Champagne, at François’s family’s ancestral home, which was built in 1610. François’s father ushered us in arms wide in welcome. Before the other guests arrived, Mr. G showed us one of the house’s many secrets—an underground wine cellar. He explained that during World War II the cellars, which formed a labyrinthine underground network of tunnels, were used to hide Jews from the Nazis.
In a dank dark corner of the cellar were two shelves each containing a handful of fine wines: one shelf for François and one for his younger brother. On one shelf, Mr. G found what he was looking for: a bottle of expensive champagne that he had bought 25 years before with the intention of opening when his infant son did something especially worth celebrating.
We toasted Francois’s graduation with that twenty-five-year-old bottle of fine wine. François’s family urged that I drink—insisting that a really good wine (“Un bon vin”) would be good for the baby. Cheap table wine might cause fetal brain damage but not un bon vin. Have another glass! What, you haven’t finished that one yet? I took modest sips. Two weeks later I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Not long after, James and I bought an expensive wine bottled in our daughter’s birth year.
When Hesperus graduates from college we plan to open the bottle. We’ll offer the first glass to François.
Do you think it’s okay to have a sip of wine at dinner or a glass of “un bon vin” while you’re pregnant? Do you collect fine wine to share with your children when they become adults?
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