Mom Wine, Wine Moms, and the Threat of Parenting Under the Influence

Does she deserve a drink? Absolutely. Time with friends? Of course. But a culture of consumption is hurting American mothers.

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 
Michelle Kondrich for Fatherly

For three years after the birth of her child, Jenny used wine to smooth over the rough edges of parenthood.

“I would wake up after a couple of glasses of wine feeling like absolute shit,” remembers the Seattle-based creative director. “If I went out, on a Friday night, I’d be hungover most of the next day. That was the time I had to spend with my girls. I was just tired. It impacted my parenting. I don’t think there was one moment where I woke up in the gutter, but there were layers of stuff.”

When Jenny got together with other moms, glasses were passed. Everyone drank. And she enjoyed both the vino and the veritas. Slowly, she came to believe that wine was something she needed to handle the real-world demands of motherhood. It created a community and facilitated a sort of sharing that was, if not productive, cathartic and distracting. Very distracting. Once, while Jenny and her mom friends were putting it back and laughing, a toddler snuck out the front door. After failing to get back in, the child sat alone and unwatched on the front lawn watching cars go by.

So Jenny quit, just to see if she could. And to see how it felt. For three months. Then, six. Now, for good.

“I didn’t miss the drinking itself. I miss the taste of wine every once in a while but I don’t miss the fuzziness,” she says. “It helped me cope with the stress but it created more stress. You start to feel sorry for yourself, you feel tired. For me, it wasn’t worth it.”

Drinking wine is presented as a de facto part of the modern motherhood experience. In a sense, a corkscrew has become the calling card of a mom “who gets it.” Google “new mom presents” or really anything related to motherhood and results reveal hundreds of wine-themed glasses, cups, onesies, stickers, signs, bottle labels, socks, T-shirts, and sweats all of which feature pithy slogans like “You’re the Reason I Drink,” “You Whine, I Wine,” and “This is Mommy’s Sippy Cup.” Unsurprisingly, alcohol companies have sought to take advantage of and amplify this trend, marketing wine directly to an audience of exhausted women, an effort aided by a legion of mom bloggers looking for a meme-able way to communicate an acceptable, bourgeois frustration with their beloved spawn. The result? A sugar- and profit-heavy recipe for alcoholism and dysfunction.

It’s easy to consider mom wine another internet-ism to be ignored or met with an eye roll. But fetishizing the consumption of alcohol is extremely dangerous for mothers, many of whom are already struggling with anxiety and depression. Wine-as-respite rhetoric rationalizes consumption while obscuring a deeper issue: The lack of available coping mechanisms for mothers under pressure.

In recent years, however, a shift has occurred. More experts and more women like Jenny are speaking out against the way “mom wine” has been commodified by companies and communities of women. The mom wine reckoning has begun.

Women are drinking more. Talk to researchers, clinic workers, and women in recovery; the same stories are told again and again.

Although it’s certainly worth noting that most problem drinkers in the United States are still men, women are rapidly catching up. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017, for instance, examined how drinking patterns have shifted between 2001 and 2013. The findings: High-risk drinking — meaning four or more drinks a day for women — rose 35 percent in that time period. Not only that, women are increasingly imbibing during their prime reproductive years.

The conclusion to the JAMA study is jarring: “Increases in alcohol use, high-risk drinking … in the U.S. population and among subgroups, especially women….constitute a public health crisis.”

“In the 21-34 age group is where we see the heaviest rates of binge drinking among women. It’s also the prime childbearing age,” says Dr. Deidra Roach, medical project officer for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “That’s increasing at a rate of 14 percent per decade.” If it continues at this pace, women’s binge drinking will soon surpass men’s.

Part of the issue here is that women get addicted to alcohol faster than men. They often weigh less and, as a result, their bodies have not only less water but more fatty tissue. This is important because, as the Harvard Medical “Mental Letter” points out, “fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, a woman’s organs sustain greater exposure.” Women also have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes, the purposes of which are to break down alcohol in the liver and stomach. “As a result,” the same letter points out, “women absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream.”

If there was a patient zero — a Chardonnay Mary if you will — for mom wine culture, it would be the Facebook group “Moms Who Need Wine.” Birthed in 2009 by Marile Borden, an advertising executive who knew that Facebook would be a place to form communities, it was the first to lead the zinfandel-swishing charge. The group members expressed solidarity, shared parenting articles, advice, stories, and lots and lots of content about why moms need wine. Eventually it turned into a 600,000 member community.

Now, it would be easy to blame the site that launched 1,000 mom wine memes, but the reality is much messier. For decades, women, in order to deal with the stresses of raising children and the cultural pressure to keep up with society’s notions of what a perfect wife and mother look like, have been marketed numerous solutions. In the 1960s, for example, Valium was hawked as “Mommy’s Little Helper,” and prescribed to women by doctors as a way to take the edge off their anxieties and help them keep up appearances.

When it comes to alcohol, social media only amplified what had started decades earlier. As the first generation of women graduated college en masse in the 1970s and 80s, alcohol companies began targeting them as part of what experts call “the pinking” of the alcohol industry. College-age women went from wine coolers to hard lemonade to regular wine. Magazines at the time were full of ads showing a woman relaxing with a glass in hand. This was a distinct shift in tone from the 1960s, when wine was marketed as a drink for sophisticated men.

The trends continued and, in the 21st century, wine was positioned as more of a mark of individuality. Much of the wine aimed at women was the booze equivalent of shiny magazines: brightly-colored, with friendly labels and accessible names. And smaller brands more directly capitalized on the mom demographic. Mommy’s Time Out and Mad Housewife proliferated in liquor stores. It worked. In 2015, Millennials consumed roughly 160 million cases of wine. Today, roughly 52 percent of wine sales in the U.S. are to women, 40 percent to Millennials.

“The marketing is stunningly smart. It’s zeroed in on female exhaustion and the need to relax and the female hunger for companionship,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, the author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. “It’s making a joke out of something that is incredibly risky.”

Risky, yes. But also profitable. “The alcohol industry is there to meet moms. It’s seen as equal opportunity imbibing, equal opportunity enjoyment,” she adds. “We don’t talk about the whole culture that has evolved around mommy drinking.”

It’s a small jump from mommy’s little helper to mom wine. The big difference is that mom wine is, at first glance, far more communal. Whereas uppers and downers were a covert solution, mom wine culture is out in the open. It’s marketed as a movement, a rebellion. Being a mother is hard, it acknowledges, and if you drink wine you “get it.” It’s a wink and a nod.

The stresses of parenting on mothers is certainly significant. According to the Department of Labor, 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force, with more than 75 percent employed full-time. But even though division of labor in the home has slowly become more equitable in the past decades, women still take on much more. In 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, women spent an average of 25 hours in the labor force, but also dedicated 14 hours per week to childcare — compared to eight hours on average for fathers. Women are working 10 or more hours a day, coming home to deal with math assignments and bedtimes and dinners.

“It’s easy to understand why mom wine becomes a punchline of a joke or quick Instagram post,” says Erin Shaw Street, a writer and mother of two who started “Tell Better Stories,” to draw attention to alcohol marketing and encourage anyone posting to be more mindful of their messaging around alcohol. “It’s just shorthand for ‘Hey we all have a lot of stuff going on we’re also living in a really crazy time so mommy needs one.”

Shaw Street understands the urge to use wine as a means of decompression and mom group lubricant. And also the complexity of it. Shaw Street struggled with alcoholism as a young mother, binge drinking to deal with the stress of corralling toddlers and as a means of accessing a community of support.

“I was looking for that herd mentality. I definitely played into it because it was an easy out,” she says. “And the thing is it did work for a time for me. And then it didn’t.”

It doesn’t for an increasing number of women, who are seeking “gender specific” therapy, which focuses not just on the challenges of drying out, but also educates women about hormones and neurotransmitters and how that affects their relationship to alcohol. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, for example, offers treatment programs specifically tailored for women at its 11 nationwide locations, as does the Lakeview Health rehab center in Jacksonville. And the GateHouse facility in Pennsylvania has created its own in-house “community-driven” space for women to continue their recovery after detox.

“Women are being encouraged to drink. We’re choosing to drink more. It’s become part of the package of asserting our full rights as human beings,” says the NIAAA’s Dr. Roach. “Drinking was heavily stigmatized until the middle of the last century and then it became the norm. Women wanted to drink more. Media helped shape our behavior. It’s in music, movies, and advertising. It’s everywhere.”

Consider Bad Moms and the sequel A Bad Moms Christmas. In the movies, a group of mothers rebel against birthday party planning, the PTA, holidays, and their own never-ending to-do lists. Shots are had and this leads (through a variety of plot twists) to something resembling self-actualization.. The titular trio of bad moms — Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, and Kristen Bell — are charming enough to make this seem plausible, but not so charming that the movie doesn’t fall apart on a second viewing. In a sense, these films present chaos as an antidote to stress while completely ignoring the side effects of that particular drug.

“We don’t talk about it because we feel it’s the last refuge of normal. You think, ‘I work hard. I pay my taxes. I’m a good parent. Don’t tell me what I can do on Friday with my drinking,’ says Dowsett Johnson. “Our lives are stressful. We’re in the middle of a social revolution that has not solved issues around women and work.”

Johnson goes as far to call wine “the modern women’s steroid.” “You have an evening of homework to oversee? It’s much easier to pour yourself a glass of wine,” she says. “It’s a decompression tool.”

One mom interviewed for this story recalls a boozy playdate where one child got his head stuck in a railing, because no one was watching. Another remembers passing out on the couch and waking up to find her toddler aimlessly wandering through the kitchen of her newly-empty house.

When women do admit that they have a problem and seek treatment, they often run into gender-specific problems, says Lydia Burr, the director of clinical services at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

“We can’t stress enough the uniqueness and importance of the caretaker role as a barrier to treatment,” says Burr. “Child care specifically. In my experience, I’ve seen women struggle with child care and securing child care and that makes it harder to be away from their children. I see women encouraged to leave treatment early because they’ve run out of childcare and have run out of options.”

Mom wine culture isn’t going anywhere. It’s also not all entirely bad. Decompressing is important. Commiserating can be healthy. Finding communities of women who truly get the realities of motherhood is vital for a sense of connection. The balancing act is simply difficult — as is navigating the unique social reality of American parenthood.

“It’s very hard to talk about this without sounding like a prohibitionist,” says Dowlett Johnson. “It’s seen as equal opportunity imbibing, equal opportunity enjoyment. We don’t talk about the whole culture that has evolved around mommy drinking. The subtext is: this is a hard job, I need alcohol to get through it.”

Shaw Street, who has put aside “Tell Better Stories” in favor of discussing the myriad underlying issues that contribute to women’s drinking, also notes how complicated the issue is and how hard it is to look at it discerningly in the moment. Hindsight, after all, is 20/20. She says that if someone were to tell her younger, in-the-weeds self about the danger of the lifestyle, she would’ve brushed it off.

“Discussions can get pretty defensive and seem judgemental, especially when there’s a call-out culture involved,” says Shaw-Street. “So instead of calling out these issues, it’s important to delve deeper into what’s behind them because, in the moment, I never wanted to.”

Over the past few years, Shaw Street has witnessed a shift. More women are sharing stories about the dangers of mom wine culture and how it affected them. She’s grateful for them and for the truth and empathy they provide. They might not sound exactly like her own, she says, but they all touch upon the struggles women face and how what was once a healthy coping mechanism can quickly turn.

That’s important. Because stories matter — to families and to children.

Here’s a story told by a mother who wished to remain anonymous. At a recent get together in her neighborhood, kids and parents were playing a silly game in which a parent asked: “If this person were something other than themselves, what would they be?” One child answered “My dad would be a penguin.” Another, “My mom would be a paintbrush.” When it came time for her child to speak, she said: “Mommy would be a bottle of white wine.”

Here’s another story from an anonymous mom. The students in her child’s first-grade class in suburban New York were asked about their parents’ hobbies. Some children spoke of their parents playing guitar or running in the park. Her daughter testified that mommy’s hobby was drinking wine.

The child wasn’t being judgmental. She was lightly sharing a dark truth.

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