Why mommy drinks: The scary truth about #WineMom

Women are consuming more alcohol more frequently than ever before—the numbers of those who report casual drinking, binge drinking and dependence are spiking
Lauren Ferranti-Ballem, Today's Parent

It wasn’t until five months in, when I had a solid mom friend and the confidence to walk the city, that I hit upon a mat-leave milestone: day drinking. Lisa and I usually spent hours in the park, on a blanket laid with hummus and rice crackers and water bottles. But it was raining, the pub was right there, and we were leg-numbingly tired. It was dark and empty inside. We slid into a booth, laid our sleeping babies on the velvet banquette and ordered pints. We giggled, kind of incredulous that this was even allowed. Those watery beers sent us into another dimension, where we could drink and talk like people who didn’t have to think about the next diaper change or whether the alcohol would be out of our systems by the next feed. It was a strange and delightful pocket of time and the start of a beautiful thing: With this drink, I could escape. Or was it a return to something?

This is a story about moms who drink. A generous pour as we prep dinner, sipping as we slide something into the microwave or drop it frozen from a bag onto a tray. We hate the food a little less when we top up our glasses. The kids’ bickering doesn’t sound as shrill. The rush, the race—it all slows down, slides away. We exhale. We feel alternately relaxed, guilty, lulled, defensive. Childless drinkers, cherish your cheap shots. Daddies, cheers to your craft beer. Moms everywhere, with your bourbon, your cider, your Prosecco: I wish it were that simple.

Mommy needs her wine” is a phrase I hate. It couldn’t be more infantilizing. It sounds like you’re trying to appease a fussy baby: Do you need your bum changed? A nap? Your soother? But whether we need it or want it, whether it’s a substitute for that yoga class pass we paid for but never use or the fact we haven’t been to a restaurant in months, we’re drinking it up. Women are consuming more alcohol more frequently than ever before—the numbers of those who report casual drinking, binge drinking and dependence are spiking, particularly for women older than 35. You know, around the time we’re white-knuckling motherhood. This is one area where the gap between women and men is closing, but since the health risks are much graver for women, I’m not sure I want to catch up. The state of women’s drinking has been called a public health crisis, while jokes about it adorn fridge magnets and baby onesies. This is normalization. It’s delicious. It’s transporting. It may also be a problem.

Is something a problem if everyone does it?
Like me, my friends will pour a drink before starting dinner, take it to the bathroom to sip while they bathe their kids, set it on the nightstand during storytime. One friend I exercise with, who’s currently on mat leave, says she finds it hard not to drink during the day. Every day. We’re not drinking so much that we tumble down the stairs or black out while reading Robert Munsch (though sometimes I wish, wish, wish, wish, wish that would happen), but this dependence can, and does, escalate.

Leda Vitalis* was home alone every night during her baby’s first year—so the wine became her buddy. Georgia was a difficult baby, and her husband worked the late shift. None of them slept for the first gruelling 90 days, so they sleep-trained Georgia early, and by the time she was four months old, they’d found a schedule that worked: Georgia was in bed by 5 p.m. every night, which left Leda exhausted from the day with no one to hash it out with. She’d open a bottle of red. “I’d have a glass with dinner, and then I’d think, Well, I still have a few hours. I might as well have another glass while I do the dishes—again. And then, God, my back hurts. I’ll have another glass while I watch TV—this one’s for my back. And then my husband would come home—let’s have another glass together and catch up,” she says. “And all of a sudden, I realized I was consuming a ridiculous amount of booze.” She’d never been the type to drink alone. Before Georgia, she and her husband went out and drank socially with friends, but it had gotten to the point where they were consuming more alcohol—far more frequently—as parents than they ever had in those carefree days. It hit Leda one night, she recounts, rolling her eyes at the cliché, while she was watching a makeover show.

“It was the part where Paul, the host, goes to the woman’s house and rummages through her cupboards, looks at what she eats and throws stuff out. And then he opened her fridge and asked her, ‘How much do you drink?’ And she said, ‘Like, three drinks a day?’ And Paul said, ‘That’s 21 drinks a week! Do you realize how much alcohol that is?!’ And I was literally sitting there on the couch with my third glass of wine, and I was like, Whoa, that woman drinks a lot,” she says. “And then I stopped. I thought about how much I’d had to drink that week and how regular this behaviour had become. It wasn’t complex math: I was drinking 28 drinks a week—an amount I’d never consumed in my life. I had just gotten into this routine, thinking that I deserved a bit of relaxation at the end of the day.”

As with any habit, the more you do it, the easier it is—and the more automatic it becomes. “Regular drinking on a daily basis builds tolerance,” says Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction in Ottawa. “What happens when you want to celebrate something? You’ll have to drink more.” Habitual drinking, three or four times a week, increases tolerance and our risk of bingeing. And the stats bear this out.

Among women in Canada, risky drinking (defined as having four or more drinks on one occasion at least once a month) is on the rise, particularly in women above the age of 35. An August 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry reveals that between 2002 and 2013, the number of women who demonstrated problem drinking—this includes alcohol abuse (when it causes recurrent problems) and dependence (the inability to quit)—soared by 84 percent. High-risk drinking among women increased by 58 percent over the same period. Women are less likely to admit problematic drinking, but we have no filter when it comes to stress.

Statistics Canada data shows that in 2014, 25 to 30 percent of women ages 20 to 64 felt most days in their lives were quite a bit or extremely stressful, and 34 percent of working women reported the same about their jobs. What’s more, the number of women who rate their mental health as fair or poor, or who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder, keeps rising. The more hours you give to your job, the more you drink. The more depressed you are, the more you drink—or is it the more you drink, the deeper into depression you sink? The two are so tangled up, it’s often hard to tell which came first. We know heavy drinking is linked with an increased risk for major depression, especially for women.

But it’s all fine—there’s no problem here!—especially if you trade in quippy meme culture. Google “wine mom memes” and you may start to feel a little woozy.

“The most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink.”

“Motherhood: Powered by love. Fuelled by coffee. Sustained by wine.”

“I can’t wait for the day when I can drink with my kids instead of because of them.”

“I want my kids to be good at math but not so good that they can count how many glasses of wine I’ve had.”

“Technically, you’re not drinking alone if your kids are home.”

Stripped of their ironic illustrations of moms in ’50s housedresses, these playful “Mommy Juice” memes are dark. They’re printed on wall hangings, aprons, stemware. There’s a brand of American wine called Mommy’s Time Out. These messages prop us up and egg us on. Parenting is so hard we can’t (or don’t know why we should) do it sober—#sendwine tops nearly 17,000 posts on Instagram, most of them starring a wild-eyed mom and/or child. The joke is everywhere, and it’s totally messed up. How did we get here?

Pan out a few decades, or maybe think back to the coolers you were drinking in the ’90s. Wine and spirits brands were flagging, as most men were swilling beer and women weren’t drinking nearly enough of anything. Like any smart multi-billion-dollar industry, it pivoted. Store shelves flooded with flavoured vodkas, colourful coolers and fizzy wines with prettier labels—gateway drinks. The plan worked like a charm. And as we’ve matured, our buzz of choice has, too, and we have more money to spend. Today, women make 85 percent of all consumer purchases, and our take-home pay is increasing faster than men’s. Women drink more wine—the rosé renaissance is being led by older millennial women (ages 30 to 38)—prefer “skinny” pre-made cocktails and are choosing more potent brown liquors, like bourbon and whisky. “This positioning of alcohol as liberating and empowering for women is not an accident,” says Ashley Wettlaufer, a researcher at Toronto’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Hell yeah, women can drink like men.

But we actually can’t. On average, women drink less than half of what men do. But despite this, we’re more likely to get alcohol-related diseases and we’re twice as likely to die from them. And the numbers are high. Last year, alcohol-related hospitalizations for all Canadians (77,000) outnumbered heart attacks (75,000), and 5,000 deaths were attributable to alcohol. Given equal amounts of alcohol, women metabolize more of it and absorb higher concentrations in our blood than men, says Svetlana Popova, senior scientist at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH. Women are more vulnerable to organ damage, heart disease and several types of cancer involving the digestive system (including the mouth, esophagus, colon and rectum). And breast cancer, because our hormones like to get in on the action, too (of course they do).

It doesn’t matter whether it’s tequila or shiraz, it’s not the type of alcohol that causes cancer but the amount and frequency. According to the National Cancer Institute, a meta-analysis of 53 studies (including 58,000 women with breast cancer) showed that one small drink (10 grams of alcohol) can nudge the relative risk of breast cancer up by seven percent—if a woman’s usual risk stands at 12 percent, one drink a day would push it to 12.84 percent. For those who have family history of breast cancer or who carry the BRCA gene and drink, the percentage climbs higher still.

The long-term hazards are somewhat unfathomable. I just want to have a glass to feel nice and sleepy by the time I’m done bingeing Stranger Things. How scary is that, really? Sadly, alcohol is a dubious remedy for my daily stresses—and it’s doing the opposite of what I intend. “Alcohol is a depressant, so while you might feel some relief, even one drink per day for women can increase anxiety within just a few hours of consumption,” Popova says. “This could lead to more drinking and poor sleep quality, interfere with everyday tasks and even increase the risk of suicide.” And yet we continue to self-medicate with it.

The case for day drinking
The brunch mimosa is so basic. Alcohol has now been pushed into service for all manner of daytime pursuits. Now that I’m looking, I see it everywhere. “There’s the stealth marketing of alcohol and the not-so-stealth,” says Wettlaufer. “So many everyday activities now have alcohol in the mix: book clubs, playdates, mom meet-ups, yoga with beer, marathons that involve literally chasing a keg on the back of a truck to the finish line. And all these events are advertised on social media, where mothers happen to spend a lot of their time.”

In Canada, alcohol marketing regulations exist only for TV and radio, but everything is on social media, including booze, and there are no rules. “The ads are made to appeal to your lifestyle, and they are precisely targeted—we voluntarily share our age, family information, things we like, things we search. And those are just the static ads you just scroll past,” Wettlaufer says. Brands also want to be your Facebook friend, insert ads to interrupt your Instagram stories and post extended commercials to YouTube, where they collect millions of views.

The promotion for the Very Mommy Wine Festival, put on by Toronto mat-leave group MomsTO last fall, was a social media play—I first saw it shared across a few of my groups on Facebook. The event’s tag line, “babes on the hips, wine on the lips,” left no room for misinterpretation. For a $65 ticket, you were free to sample all the drinks (wine, beer and vodka) and canapés (if you were lucky enough to snag one), shop the high-end vendors, listen to speakers and connect with other moms.

Media condemnation swiftly followed: An all-you-can-drink daytime event is problematic for new moms who are at risk for postpartum depression and anxiety, the critics said. The organizer, 33-year-old mom Alana Kayfetz, clapped back: The name is tongue-in-cheek; the event is meant to be fun; they tried “Mommies that Like to Drink Tea,” she told the Toronto Star, “but no one came.”

It’s true, there are no delicious bourbon-soaked cherries at the bottom of a cup of oolong. But there’s something about this response that bothers me. On the MomsTO home page, you’ll read, “This is the millennial mom movement.… We want to give moms a better mat leave. We want to increase your happiness, give you permission to be real and connect with others. Wine/beer always offered but never pushed.” To me? The language feels a little pushy. But the spirit behind it, providing women with community and connection, is crucial. Should we really be shaming women for attending an event like Kayfetz’s?

Afterwards, I heard from many indignant moms who felt the critics (many of them addiction specialists) assumed all mothers in attendance were out to get sloppy drunk—just one cold can of Ace Hill away from rehab. “We’re encouraged to drink: Here, mama, relax! But wait—don’t relax too much!” says one friend. “We’re policed at the same time. It’s just one more thing to worry about.” A colleague of a friend, a new mom on mat leave, seemed annoyed that this was even up for discussion: “Leave women alone to do what they want,” was her curt reply. I completely understand the defiance: We’re grown women, and this is legal. We do it because we can—and because we can’t do the things we did in our pre-kid lives so easily. Because we like it, and pleasure is important. Because for a while now, our bodies and our lives have not been our own. It’s more than a drink: It’s a taste of freedom.

“It’s an accessible and delicious pastime that easily fits into the chaos of our lives,” a close friend, a mom of two, tells me. “It also makes the grind seem a lot less mundane—you lose a lot of choice when you become a parent. Sometimes I’m just so tired of doing so much in a day. The wine helps me become a smoother version of myself.”

Three glasses of wine into each night, Leda Vitalis felt pretty chill by the time her husband got home from work. “Had I not loosened up a bit beforehand, I would’ve lost it,” she says. “There was a certain amount of let me exhale so I’m happier when my person comes home. And then we’d inevitably have another drink together, because that’s what our lives used to look like. I wasn’t giving this up.”

Essentially, our defensiveness boils down to this: Don’t take this one nice thing away from us.

To your health
Growing up in an Italian family, I’d always believed that a small but steady stream of alcohol—aperitivo before dinner, wine with your pasta, grappa with your espresso—was not only proper but also good for you in some ephemeral way. Saluti! To your health! But Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC in Victoria, sets me straight: “The benefits of moderate consumption have certainly been exaggerated and may have even been created when they weren’t genuine,” he says.

Over the years, alcohol, red wine in particular, has been reported to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and even protect against the common cold. “There’s a growing chorus of skepticism around these claims in the science community. We’re all scratching our heads, asking ourselves if it isn’t all too good to be true.”

It is, pretty much. Stockwell led a massive meta-analysis of 87 long-term studies on alcohol and mortality involving nearly four million people, the results of which were published in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Once his team adjusted for errors in the research (and there were many), any perks of light drinking evaporated.

One of the main flaws in a lot of the studies lies with what Stockwell calls “abstainer bias.” Moderate drinkers were being compared to a group of abstainers consisting mostly of people who either quit drinking due to health problems or were unable to drink at all for health reasons—so, of course, they’re unhealthy. It’s also a self-selecting group, he continues. As they grow older, healthy drinkers who are fairly immune to the effects of alcohol and other ailments are being compared to an increasingly unhealthy aging group of abstainers.

Any benefits from moderate drinking may have less to do with alcohol and more to do with lifestyle, Stockwell says. People who drink discreetly tend to be more educated and better paid. They have gym memberships and health benefits; they jog, eat more quinoa and kale—and just happen to also drink alcohol. “So the whole thing is possibly a magnificent mirage. Add a bit of wishful thinking and a massive profit motive, and you can see how this idea has captured the collective imagination of the alcohol-consuming world,” he says. “We’re all comforted by the idea that it might be doing us good.”

Of course I have to rationalize the benefits. I don’t want to face the consequences and guilt that come with doing something I enjoy so very much. Stockwell doesn’t blame me for buying into all of it, but he’d like to see some changes. “We’re all grown-ups, but we need better information to make our decisions. At the moment, there’s no information on labels and no media awareness campaign telling us that the substance 80 percent of us drink on a regular basis is carcinogenic—70 percent of Canadians are unaware of that,” he says. Maybe it shouldn’t be available wherever and whenever—like bookstores and farmers’ markets. And we absolutely need to stop joking about it as the salve for every mother’s stress.

There are healthier rewards and ways to cope, sure. But what if alcohol is the only one available to you at this time? What if you like it more than all the others? When I’m racing the clock on my way to school pickup, I often think about that drink. My fists unclench as I conjure the bourbon, the oversized ice cube and those cherries. On a weekend trip to the liquor store, I might choose something nice specifically for Monday night. I love a drink on bad days as much as I do on good ones. Or totally indistinguishable ones. I love a drink. Don’t we all deserve this?

“The ‘I deserve this’ is all marketing,” says Paradis. “Alcohol has cornered the market on me time, on fun and relaxation. But there are a lot of other things we could say we deserve. Why don’t mothers deserve free gym memberships? I deserve one hour of exercise on my own without my children. Someone somewhere should make that easy for me. That would be a much more constructive message than ‘I deserve a bottle of wine.’”

A close friend, a mom of two with an intense job, admits her first glass of wine is a treat. And it’s satisfying, but not quite enough. She wants to feel more satisfied—and that’s when a second and maybe a third glass happen. If it’s not wine, then it’s chocolate. Or ice cream. Moderation is hard when you’re striving to overachieve in every other area of life.

I’m attempting a treat-replacement program. And I’ve recently gotten excited about sparkling water. During 6 a.m. jump squats, my workout buddy, a mom of two, tells me she does the same thing: “Every night, I would come home from work and immediately pour myself a glass of wine. But I’ve cut it out during the week for my health—I feel better and I sleep better without it. But I miss the routine,” she says. “So, I’ll use a highball glass, add ice and a squeeze of lime. It feels like a treat after a long day. It’s not really the drink—it’s the ritual.”

As her daughter has gotten older, Leda has eased up on her nightly wine. She tries to stay dry Monday to Friday, but some weeks are harder than others. “When life gets difficult, it’s really easy to slip back into the habit,” she says. “It’s an addiction to the ritual and the psychological need. Parents, especially in those early months and years, need to hang on to those moments of calm however they can. A glass of wine is an easy way to facilitate that. It’s the demarcation of my day. I’m going to take however long it takes me to drink this glass and just let my body exhale.”

We can talk all we want about how mothers need more time for themselves, more support for their families and better work-life balance. We know the fixes that could and should be made. If only I could easily swap hitting the snooze button for sit-ups or mindless pouring for mindful breathing. I could use that meditation app I downloaded in 2013 or try harder to get my 10,000 steps every day. But when? When I’m working through my lunch so I have more time to get a better dinner on the table? It just feels like more effort, and it’s on me to make it happen, to channel the willpower and dig for the discipline.

I’ll try for it tomorrow. Tonight though, I will pour a drink.

*Editor’s Note: name has been changed