When I was six months pregnant, my husband and I traveled to France for a close friend’s wedding. While there, we sampled all the local specialties, from macaroons at Laduree to steak frites at the corner bistro to the lovely Languedouc wine produced just down the road from the wedding.
That’s right: I drank while pregnant. Not a lot, mind you—a small glass each evening during our 10 days in France—but more than most American obstetricians would recommend, and certainly beyond the boundaries laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states bluntly that “there is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy.” Reading the CDC page on why pregnant women shouldn’t drink—not a drop!—it’s easy to believe that this represents an eternal, universal expert opinion.
Yet community norms and medical advice about alcohol use during pregnancy have varied widely through time and space. Just this month, a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health seems to confirm what many of us have suspected: that one to two drinks per week or per event poses no risk of later cognitive delay or disability. The study compared 5-year-old children whose mothers reported light drinking with those who strictly avoided alcohol while pregnant. Not only were the offspring of light drinkers found to suffer no impairment, in most measures they scored slightly higher on cognitive tests than the kids whose mothers never touched a drink.
I wouldn’t take this as license to up one’s alcohol intake, of course, but it’s become fairly clear over the past decade that light drinking tends to correlate with better health in almost every area, whether it’s just correlation—such as the theory that drinking encourages socializing and social people live longer, healthier lives—or there’s a causative factor, like red wine’s proven capacity to do good things for your heart.
None of which would surprise French women, of course. A 2008 study found that the majority of French women imbibed while expecting—it was, indeed, expected of them, part of their natural diet. In Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik describes his wife’s encounter with her French obstetrician, who told her she could drink red wine but she was “absolutely not to eat any raw vegetables. She keeps asking me if I've had any salad.”
Since everyone presumably wants their children to be healthy, why do women from different cultures respond so differently to the question of drinking during pregnancy? I blame a combination of American perfectionism, competitiveness, and our ambivalent relationship with alcohol. After all, France never went through Prohibition. Wine has been a staple of the French diet since the first Frenchman cultivated grapes. Here, alcohol is less daily bread, more forbidden fruit—and even as more Americans drink wine with meals in the French manner, even as sporting events on TV are wholly supported by ads for beer, there’s still a whiff of danger in the way we think about booze.
But that's nothing compared to the the way we think about the many perils of pregnancy. Forget sports, politics, business—the arena in which American women are arguably most intensely competitive is in pregnancy and childrearing. If you don’t believe me, Google the terms “doula,” “water birth,” “breastfeeding,” or “homeschooling.” Then read the mountains of judgment, scorn, bragging, critiquing, and defensiveness that each debate seems to produce. The ultimate goal of mothers-to-be, it seems, is to squeeze an extra couple of IQ points into their fetus, to create a life that is toxin-free, educationally enriching, emotionally sound, and above all, entirely safe.
When I asked my doctor about having some wine while in France, he gave me the green light, then added, “but you didn’t hear that from me.”
I don’t mean to mock the urge to make our children safe. But when it comes to pregnancy, sometimes we fail to differentiate between a blanket warning that may be overblown for valid public-health reasons and the more nuanced approach to risk that reflects real life. Sure, there’s a tiny risk of toxoplasmosis when pregnant women come into contact with animal feces, so we’re relieved of litterbox duty till the baby is born. But faced with a really stinky litterbox situation and a husband who’s out of town, many pregnant women will spring into action.
The truth is, nobody knows what amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. So it’s much easier for health-care workers to recommend the strictest limit of all. As the CDC points out, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is 100 percent preventable—all you have to do is never, ever have a drink. And for many if not most women, that’s the choice they want to make. But for the rest of us, those who may want a glass of Languedoc rosé while visiting the region, the hard-core prohibition may not be necessary. I’m not a doctor, but when I asked mine about having some wine while in France, he gave me the green light, then added, “but you didn’t hear that from me.” The public-health message sometimes muzzles the private doctor’s advice, and no amount of European studies will probably ever loosen our American need for certainty.
On the flight home from France, just as my big belly and swollen feet signaled the start of my third trimester, I looked up as the Air France flight attendant stopped by my seat. She gave me a small pillow and instructed me to put it between my tummy and the seatbelt. “It’s for the baby," she explained. "To keep the baby safe.” Then she smiled and handed me a glass of wine, the last one I had until after my son was born a few months later, perfectly healthy.
Kate Tuttle is a writer living outside Boston. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Washington Post, Salon, and Babble.