Moms drinking alcohol has become a staple of popular culture in the past decade
Between 2002 and 2013, "high-risk drinking" among women rose 58%
“A Bad Moms Christmas,” the new comedy starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn, is the story of three mothers’ rebellion against the often-invisible labor imposed on women during the holiday season.
Enough with all the shopping, chopping, wrapping, baking and decorating and all the other activities making this the most wonderful time of year – for everyone else.
This time, they will take it easy. This time, they will seek pleasure, not perfection. And this time, they will be drunk.
Like in the first “Bad Moms,” released in 2016, the scenes of mom-driven debauchery in the holiday sequel are played for their shock value. We, the audience, are meant to be equal parts astonished and amused by the sight of three moms turning an ordinarily feminine and organized activity – such as going to the grocery store or shopping mall – into a Bacchanalia.
With the charisma and comedic chops of these actresses, these scenes are quite funny. But surprising? Not really.
Moms drinking alcohol has become a staple of popular culture in the past decade. Two other films, “Girls Trip” and “Fun Mom Dinner,” feature moms getting trashed. A mom death-gripping a glass of wine is now a feature on television shows such as “Modern Family” and “Cougar Town.”
Real moms are also increasingly knocking one back, according the latest research. And marketers are cashing in with special “mommy juice” wine glasses and wine, a board game and a festival. Large Facebook groups, online quizzes and “wine mom” memes give the impression that they are part of a sizable demographic.
According to a number of mothers, and going by the way moms drinking wine is portrayed in popular culture, “wine moms” – as these women are colloquially known – tend to drink for two reasons.
For some, it is an act of easily accessible self-care, a chance to consume a little “liquid patience” after being tried and tested by unwieldy children.
For others, a drink is a way to rebel against a culture in which good parenting is synonymous with self-abnegation. A glass of wine – or, better, getting drunk – is a symbolic “nay” to the world of highly curated birthday parties, extended breastfeeding or extracurricular-filled afternoons followed by homemade organic dinners.
Either way, the wine mom is a buzz kill. Forget bread and roses – a political slogan popularized by early 20th century, and mostly female, labor activists – these wine moms want bread and rosé, sustenance and joy, as interpreted by parents in the “Sex and the City” generation.
The problem is that when they can’t get the bread – because we live in a society that fails to adequately provide mothers and care workers with the dignity they’re long overdue, in both the public and private spheres – the rosé is there to help them forget.
This played out in the first “Bad Moms,” in which alcohol was ultimately a self-administered consolation prize for failing, at a macro level, to make the world more hospitable to mothers and caregivers. And it’s playing out among real-life wine moms, who are so entrenched in the “all-in” culture of motherhood that they feel driven or compelled to partake in a perfectly normal adult behavior, such as drinking, within the context of “mommy.”
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
– The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper”
The 1966 hit is about the rise of Valium-like drugs that doctors prescribed for moms seeking to escape the ennui and drudgery of domestic life during that era. Swap out “little yellow pill” for “glass of Zinfandel” and it becomes easy to see how, more than 50 years after the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” the “strange stirring” that Betty Friedan diagnosed persists.
We still don’t have universal paid leave or child care, nor family-friendly workplaces, economic support for mothers without jobs, or partners who do their fair share of domestic work. What we do have is wine.
Although being a wine mom doesn’t necessarily mean one has a drinking problem, the cultural phenomenon has taken off at a time in which alcohol use has spiked among women.
A recent study in JAMA Psychiatry found that between 2002 and 2013, “high-risk drinking,” defined as consuming four or more drinks a day, rose among women by 58%, compared with a 29.9% rise for the general population.
“Problem drinking,” or drinking so much that it causes significant problems in your life and/or the inability to stop drinking, rose by 83.7% among women during this period, says the study, compared with a 50% rise in the general population.
Though there is no research looking at how much the wine mom phenomenon has contributed to the change in drinking habits, experts believe there is a connection.
“Moms drinking alcohol used to be taboo,” said Emily Feinstein, director of health law and policy at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “Now, we have more women acknowledging that being a mother is hard work, which is a good thing, and they need a drink at the end of their workday.”
There’s nothing wrong with having a glass of wine at night, Feinstein added, but she cautioned that it should be done after the kids go to sleep, and they shouldn’t be told about it. “If they see you are drinking to deal with stress, then they learn that is how they should deal with stress.”
Having more than a glass of wine on a regular basis, as more and more women are doing, is a different story and can lead to addiction as well as a host of health problems. According to Feinstein, women metabolize alcohol less efficiently than men and as a result get intoxicated faster and have worse hangovers. They’re also more likely than men to suffer health consequences from drinking, including liver, brain and heart damage.
Britni de la Cretaz, a recovering alcoholic who became a mother when she was three years sober, found the ubiquity of alcohol among moms alienating.
“Even as someone who was really secure in my sobriety, I found I couldn’t relate to other moms. There was always this wink and a nod about how you have to have that glass of wine,” she said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with drinking; what concerns me is the message being sent to women that the only way they can get through parenting is by drinking.”
There are, of course, many moms who drink wine who aren’t following the wine mom script. These are the women who drink to have fun and don’t view alcohol consumption through the prism of motherhood. For them, having a drink isn’t about numbing themselves from the pain caused by demanding children or resisting the perfect moms. Instead, it’s about taking time to check in with their non-mom selves.
Laura Beatrix Newmark, a mother of two in New York, said that when she was on maternity leave, she would sometimes meet friends at a bar during the day. Her infant would sleep, and she would “nurse a glass of rosé.”
“It was really about me showing myself that I was still the same person after I had kids,” Newmark said.
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A woman, who happens to be a mom, having a glass of wine – that’s nobody’s business but her own. It’s the wine mom that has got to go.
Whether she drinks for release, rebellion or both, that glass of wine is still tethered to all the sacrifice she makes as a mother, a sacrifice the wine might make her too willing to accept.
Here’s to raising a glass to birthday parties planned by dads; to workplaces that don’t look down on employees who have to leave by 6; to quality and affordable child care spread far and wide across the land. Here’s to moms permitting themselves to exit stage left from motherhood now and then, and feel liberated to pursue pleasure for pleasure’s sake, through a glass or wine or whatever else their unburdened hearts might desire.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.