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"I met this great new mom, and she invited me over to a play date, and there were mimosas," I breathlessly exclaimed to my own mother. I had recently relocated to a new town with a young baby and meeting any potential friend was great. The mimosas were just an added bonus.
My mother, however, wasn't impressed. She gave me the exact look that I give my college-age sister when she tells me how many drinks she downed as a pregame before starting a night out. Yikes.
Any mother—hell, any person in America—will tell you that women love their wine. Just go to the store and try to buy a birthday card for a woman that doesn't involve a reference to wine. It's hard.
Among women, mothers are portrayed as a group that particularly loves to imbibe. Facebook is full of memes of mommy's little helper (red wine, obviously; there's even a brand with that name), and #sendwine explodes during the dreaded witching hour between dinner and bedtime.
While lushing out may not be the most ideal coping mechanism, it seems that mothers, especially those with young children, get a pass. The drinking isn't seen as problematic; instead, it serves as a catalyst for laughter and bonding. Sauvignon-sipping mothers unite, and under the glow of a gentle buzz, soiled diapers and screaming toddlers become NBD.
"A bunch of men getting drunk wouldn't be funny," says Laura Ryan, licensed marriage and family therapist and mom of a toddler in Austin. But, she says, because women are taken less seriously in our society, the idea of excessive drinking becomes a cute little joke. "It's all perfectly acceptable because…well, I don't know why it's acceptable."
Regardless of why, it's definitely happening. A study released this fall shows that for the first time ever, drinking rates among women are equal to those among men. One reason for the increase is the concentrated marketing of alcoholic drinks to women, and the growing acceptance of drinking at home.
Alcohol marketed specifically to women, the explosion of fizzy, sweet alcoholic drinks, and the continued redefining of gender roles all played a part in this. Although there is little concrete data on how much moms are drinking, a 2014 Today Show survey found that 40 percent of respondents drank to cope with the stress of parenting, and one-third said that they knew a mom with a drinking problem.
While men and women are now drinking the same amount, the National Institutes of Health does not shy away from gender differences when it comes to the consequences of drinking. "A strong case can be made that heavy drinking is more risky for women than men," reads an NIH report on women and drinking. While the age-old explanation for this has been the nebulous, "women are generally smaller than men and get tipsy faster," research has shown that women have smaller quantities of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach.
"We don't want to hear that. We want to believe that there is a health benefit [to drinking]," says Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. Instead, the 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' mentality that plays off women's drinking as a harmless indulgence continues. In May, Bunmi Laditan, author of parenting blog The Honest Toddler, told her nearly 400,000 Facebook followers that she was taking a break from drinking. "I'm officially quitting alcohol until I get my anxiety under control. Wish me luck!!!" she wrote in a post that had nearly 7,000 likes.
The next day, she expanded in a longer post: "Making lunches. When I took this photo it wasn't as bright as it appears below. I added a filter and it went from drab and dull to popping with warm orange and rose tones. Is that what alcohol does for me?" and "My first thought when I woke up this morning was, 'Shit. I don't get to drink tonight.'"
Just four days later Laditan posted a picture with the caption, "Just because I'm not drinking doesn't mean I can't look out for you guys." The picture showed foods that have been recalled for listeria (frozen vegetables, green beans, granola bars), and foods that haven't (a bottle of vodka). "Stay safe. Drink vodka today," the caption proclaimed.
Laditan's posts captured the essence of mommy drinking culture. Moms drink to escape the monotony of daily life with small kids, to get away from the expectation of perfection in all areas of our lives, and to take a well-deserved break. Even if they recognize the negative effects of alcohol in their own lives, the joke still rolls on, eclipsing the bigger implications of the trend.
"It's really important to note it's not alcoholism I'm talking about; that's only 1 to 3 percent of population," says Dowsett Johnston. "It's the risky drinking of a larger group of women that we have to talk about and look at." This could include drinking and driving, or drinking more the recommended seven drinks a week.
While no one will argue that moms don't deserve a break, it's concerning that society has conditioned us to believe that the only way to enjoy self-care is with a glass of wine. "At mom's night out, they don't do any sober events," says Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and mom of four in Chicago. "There's no evening running club. There's this idea of unwinding that you have to do it with alcohol."
Kitley stopped drinking four years ago, after her youngest was born. She considers herself an alcoholic, but she never experienced the "rock bottom" that many people associate with alcoholism. She was, however, relying on wine every night to help her through the dinner and bedtime routines.
"It didn't matter if it was [just] two drinks. It was the way that it made me feel" that marked a problem, she explains. Kitley said that of the 40 clients she sees each week in her counseling practice, about 30 are mothers who are uncomfortable with their drinking habits. Although she doesn't recommend abstinence for everyone—nor does she think that many mothers meet the diagnosis of alcoholic—Kitley does recommend that all her clients revisit their relationship with alcohol.
If a mom does stop drinking, people are often baffled. "People will say to me, I don't know how you have four kids and don't drink," Kitley says. "I know from quitting in this culture, people really scratch their heads and wonder why you're doing this," adds Dowsett Johnston.
Why are we doing this? is a question we could all ask ourselves before posting the next booze-lauding meme or hashtag. The truth is that parenting is hard, and mothers in particular are under an immense amount of pressure to be perfect—or even just good enough. Yet that discussion gets lost under a mound of burp clothes, flat jokes and misplaced coping strategies.
For my part, I've decided to focus on making friends by bonding over the struggles and joys of motherhood, rather than an impending hangover. Cheers to that.