My sobriety doesn’t define me. I’m a whole lot more than a sober person. I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a writer, a feminist. But sobriety is a thread running throughout all of those other things. It makes me better at all those other things. It’s given me a greater understanding of what it is to be all those other things, and be the best at them I can be.
Sobriety has also made me acutely aware of how screwed up the narrative specifically around mothers and drinking is. I’m the first person to hold my hands up and admit that I bought into that narrative for a long, long time. Like matching a man beer for beer was some kind of feminist statement. Like binge drinking on every day of my summer vacation was normal because “it’s what everybody else does.” Like a bottle of wine after I got the kids bathed and in bed was my rightful reward as a parent.
I was 100 percent on board with the “Mommy needs wine” culture.
That is, until I got sober, and I saw it for what it is: hugely problematic, potentially offensive, and dangerous for those moms who are genuinely struggling to keep it together and might not know how or where to get help.
As with many contemporary cultural trends, the internet has been instrumental in delivering the “Mommy needs wine” mantra to the masses. We’ve all read—and probably laughed at—memes about needing to drink in order to cope as a parent. Most people who post and share this stuff across social media (and it’s everywhere) don’t actually need the alcohol. They haven’t dealt with addiction or alcohol abuse issues. They just think they’re being funny and relatable.
It doesn’t stop with the social media memes. There are T-shirts, baby onesies, wall hangings, mugs, coasters. In fact, anything you might find in the average home that has room for a logo is fair game for “They whine, I wine,” and “Mommy needs an alcohol day,” or “Mommy’s fidget spinner” with the sketch of a corkscrew to complete the joke.
But where did the Wine Mom culture even begin? Nobody knows for sure, but psychotherapist Jean M. Campbell, LCSW, who has worked with women with alcoholism (many of them mothers) for over 20 years, tells SELF that she likens it to the “Mother’s Little Helper” epidemic of women using Valium in the 1960s. During this time, doctors, mostly male, were reportedly prescribing Valium as a way for women to manage their anxiety, rather than teaching them coping and self-regulation tools, she describes.
So perhaps it’s natural, with the passing of time and our changing society, that “Mommy needs wine” has taken over from “Mother’s Little Helper.” Valium may not be a socially acceptable self-care mechanism anymore, but alcohol certainly seems to be, despite the fact that it’s a highly addictive drug.
What’s so offensive about this Wine Mom messaging is the “idea that mothers need to drink wine to be mothers,” Campbell says.
“Many women who are raising children feel incredibly fulfilled doing it—it’s the most important job they’re ever going to do, and they’re really good at it,” Campbell goes on. “The idea that they would need something to cope with overwhelm makes perfect sense: Being a mother is overwhelming. But to say they’d need to turn to alcohol to manage the experience is offensive.”
Another issue I have with this pervasive meme is the message it sends to our kids. By putting the baby in “I’m the reason Mommy drinks” onesie or complaining to a friend on the phone that we’ve had a terrible day and “need” a glass of wine, we’re telling our children that we can’t cope without alcohol, that we need to self-medicate to tolerate them, and that alcohol is self-care.
But my biggest problem with the Wine Mom culture is that the message can get absorbed by moms who need real, sustainable help and support. Drinking alcohol can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to American Addiction Centers. So surely the last thing a woman suffering from anxiety or depression needs is constant encouragement to drink? (Around 5.3 million American women suffer from alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.)
“We need to think about the message the ‘Mommy needs wine’ culture sends to women,” Channing Marinari, a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and drug counselor, tells SELF. “That moms need wine to handle the chaos of raising kids and life? That moms can only socialize over wine? That wine solves the problem of motherhood? None of those things are true, and the ramifications can be serious.” When you picture a mom who realizes she’s using alcohol on a daily basis to cope with a loss of control in her life, suddenly those lighthearted, funny memes don’t seem so funny after all.
Help for that mom shouldn’t come in the form of “Mommy Juice.”
Help should come in the form of supportive partners and loved ones, encouragement to develop healthy self-care practices, and affordable access to mental health services.
“Most of us are not given permission to admit we’re struggling with our lives, our feelings, and our thoughts, and almost none of us are taught any kind of self-regulation skills, such as deep breathing, meditation, etc.,” Campbell says. “If mothers were given permission to admit they’re overwhelmed and struggling, my sense is there would be far less need for wine in the first place.”
I also realized early on in my sobriety that alcohol seems to be the only drug we need to justify not taking, which is ridiculous. Marinari agrees that there is a sense of ostracizing moms who don’t drink from those who do. “In essence, we have to liberate mothers from this culture in order to help them bond in healthier ways,” she says.
Of course, every mom has the right to decide whether to drink or not.
I’m no prohibitionist—all of my close friends and family drink, and my husband and guests drink in our home. I genuinely don’t have a problem with any of it. I see absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a couple of drinks over dinner or meeting girlfriends for a bottle of wine once in a while to catch up and unload.
However, I know from experience that there can be fine line between responsible social drinking and numbing yourself with booze to deal with being a parent (or with work, or a relationship, or mental health issues, or any number of stressful circumstances).
So let’s stop perpetuating the message that alcohol is a woman’s only crutch to get through the stresses of motherhood. The demands of parenting are real, and all parents should be encouraged to have healthy, productive self-care outlets that go beyond a wine glass.