A few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about wine. All of us have children, and drink wine at dinner. In our conversation, it came out that most of us have had to think seriously about how much we drink, and how much is okay. The more children we have, the more serious the discussion became. As one woman said, the recommended daily allowance of alcohol should be indexed to the number of kids in your house.
I certainly never drank so much before I had kids. It used to be an occasional thing; more on weekends and holidays. But after breastfeeding the third, around about the time she got stubborn, I got in the habit of having wine most nights. Sure, I have an alcohol free day about once a week; sometimes even twice. But for the most part, by five thirty or six, when everyone's getting ratty and I haven't had a moment to myself all day and dinner's almost ready and someone's just slapped someone else and as I'm taking a hot thing off the stove I stumble on a small rolling toy that someone has snuck into the kitchen... well, you get the picture. A glass of wine is welcome.
More than welcome. Anticipated, longed for, and finally enjoyed with dinner. I rarely drink to excess; I hate feeling tipsy. I usually have only a glass. But without that glass, and the calming effect of red wine seeping into my system and soothing my frazzled nerves, we'd all be a screaming heap by bedtime.
Sometimes I decide not to; then I shout the kids into bed. Sometimes I have a glass, and the kids are so ornery that I shout anyway. But for the most part, a glass of wine lubricates everything so that I can trick, wheedle and charm them into bed; any urge to shout becomes a spontaneous operatic recitative, sung heartily up the echoing hallway: O! Teeeeeeth and toilet! Right now! Get your pyjamas on, pyjamas on my darling. Put them ooooon!!!! Right now!
The problem is that while I love savouring wine, I hate knowing that I often drink it to ensure that I'm expansive rather than brittle at the end of the day. It doesn't stop me from savouring it, but the experience is tainted by that self-knowledge.
I want to be expansive without the wine, but I worry that I can't be. By the end of the school year, when everyone was exhausted and everything was hard, the idea of getting three young kids bathed and fed and into bed without a meltdown was unthinkable unless I had a bit of red sloshing around my system - especially those several nights a week when my husband was at end of year functions and I was doing it alone. Even worse, it breaks a taboo. An adult drinking by herself, even when it's a single glass of wine with dinner, sets off alarm bells.
If I lived elsewhere, I imagine it wouldn't be such an issue. My European friends certainly snicker at any suggestion of a night without wine. But I'm not European; I struggle to separate how I feel about the abusive swilling of alcohol from the enjoyment of wine. It's made trickier by the fact that my glass is often a coping mechanism.
In my family history, alcohol was the demon drink; it was the catalyst for family violence. A few stories have surfaced: a mother flits between safe houses, her children posted as lookouts for their drunken dad who rages around the suburb terrorising the neighbours as he searches for his punching bag. Alcohol is associated with humiliation and shame. It has taken three generations for it to be rehabilitated back into wine, that is, a simple fermented grape product to be enjoyed with food. In my family there is still, and perhaps always will be, ambivalence attached to any alcoholic drink: some fear, some guilt.
For all that, I'm beginning to realise it's an ambivalence I can live with. I need my dinner to have some dignity, especially those nights when it's just me and the kids at five thirty. The meal may be kiddie pasta, and I may just be eating with little people, but that doesn't make me an infant. I'm an adult, and the wine reminds me of that. It helps create ceremony and mark the occasion. We take our time, use our manners and chat about the day. The wine also soothes my nerves, and saves us from the screaming which doesn't do anyone any favours: not my kids, not my neighbours, not myself.
This week my husband is home from work and has taken charge of the kids. I've had hours to myself to write and to garden, and to enjoy the company of one child without two others competing for attention. I've had another adult around while preparing food and, to my surprise, it hasn't even occurred to me to open a bottle. I'm calm, we're all enjoying each other's company, and bedtime with two relaxed adults guiding the process is nothing more than a quick wrangle.
So perhaps, too, the problem is not the wine itself. With another adult around, I don't seem to need its medicinal effects and it returns to its rightful place: something to grace a meal. The problem is this nuclear family structure, these small gardens and busy streets and hidden neighbours, in which one adult looks after the kids and they're all underfoot and everyone's sick of each other by the end of the day.
Dead sober, I close my eyes. Before me floats an image of houses set around a village green. Children flow between the households; and as dusk falls, the workers return and everyone gathers for dinner. I see a long table, and there we sit – my kids and your kids, and you and me, sharing food and telling stories. As the evening passes into night, we pour out the good wine, and this time it feels like a celebration.