Can We Address the Real Reasons Moms Are Drinking More, Please?
It's not often that you find yourself being forced to describe your two-martini-a-night drinking habit on a major television network. But that's exactly the situation in which I found myself this past April. As the founder of Not Safe For Mom Group (nsfmg), an international motherhood community where moms reveal their deepest secrets and worries in a judgment-free space, I had been tapped to talk about mommy wine culture and how many of the conversations we had been having as a collective centered on a fear of an encroaching alcohol dependency among our cohorts. When the host of the talk show asked me if I personally was planning on trying to cut back on my COVID "tiny teenie" routine (that's our family's cute way of saying two "small" martinis), I told her honestly, no. I couldn't see myself turning over any kind of "new leaf" until some of my regular pre-pandemic support structures had returned. (In short, talk to me when my kids are back in school full time.)
But if I'm being truly honest here, my own relationship with drinking began long before my son's elementary school shuttered its doors and I lost my child care-and the same might be said for other moms with a less than healthy relationship with alcohol.
Historically, rates of alcohol use disorders (AUD) have been found to be disproportionately higher for men than women, but in recent years, this gap has been closing. The "trend" in mothers drinking to cope with stress is not a new one. Of course, the pandemic only made a bad thing much worse. A study published in JAMA Network Open found that during 2020 there was a 41 percent increase in the number of days on which women drank heavily-"heavily" defined as having four or more drinks in a couple of hours. Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that the rate of adults who reported drinking more to manage pandemic stress was more than twice as high for parents with children between the ages of 5 and 7.
Although the extent to which excess alcohol consumption is increasing among mothers specifically remains unknown, patterns and trends have emerged. Mommy drinking still remains the subject of public concern and, of course, judgment, but while everyone is looking at the statistics, no one is talking about the reasons behind them. So what's really driving moms to drink more than ever?
Normalization of Drinking Among Mothers
Breanne Erhardt, a marketing consultant and mom of two, describes how in March 2020 she found herself having to "shift gears from blissful maternity leave" to being home and without any child care for her 4-and-a-half-year-old, and her just-under-1-year-old baby. Breanne's parents do not live near enough to help, and her husband's job became more demanding than ever, requiring that he all but lock himself in his bedroom from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. That's when her 4:30 p.m. beer routine began. She'd grab a bottle from the fridge and toast to her followers on Instagram each day. The nightly beer has become what she describes as her regular coping mechanism for dealing with the stress and anxiety around an uncertain future, and the unending needs of her children. It also united her with other parents who were struggling.
During those early months of the pandemic, it felt like every TikTok video and social media post was a celebrity or influencer posting about their pandemic drinking habits. "When you see other moms who are really stressed out and drinking to medicate that stress on social media, it doesn't seem as abnormal to go drink wine in the pantry," says Lindsey Rodriguez, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of South Florida, who studied the association between social networking site posting behavior and drinking to cope during the pandemic. Essentially, Dr. Rodriguez explains, when we see other people doing things, and we perceive those behaviors as normal, it becomes a strong driver of what we do, too.
Reflecting on one of the motivators behind her drinking, Erhardt says: "The stress of pandemic parenting gives me the false belief that I deserve it, I've earned it."
That's exactly what the marketers and advertisers want her to think. As women spend more money on alcohol, they've shifted their campaigns to target those of us in our reproductive years. Their messages communicate to women that they "deserve" a drink, or that they "need" wine in order to parent. This so-called "pinking" of the alcohol market is something that's been happening for over two decades. Even cultural mainstays such as Saturday Night Live have taken note of the heavy-handed marketing that breeds "mommy wine culture." Look no further than their recent sketch starring Aidy Bryant as a mom receiving some not-so-subtle birthday gifts from her friends (kitschy wooden signs that read, "I like you better when I'm effed up," and "Hey Barkeep, I wanna die tonight.")
Over recent decades, as women increasingly face the stressors that have historically been in the domain of men (e.g. career stressors), so too have women's drinking habits. Researchers have long been aware of the link between "role overload" (a state in which an individual fulfills multiple roles simultaneously while lacking the resources to perform them) and alcohol use. Equity between parental responsibilities plays a large part, too.
In the U.S. we lack societal efforts to facilitate part-time work for fathers, adequate and paid parental leave, increased gender equity in general, or affordable child care. It does not take a stretch of the mind to land on why mothers may be taking extra trips to the secret wine stash.
Christin Drake, M.D., a psychiatrist and assistant professor at NYU Langone Health, reports of her experience as a clinician caring for overburdened, and under-resourced mothers: "I'm seeing mothers working and attempting to cope, and attempting to facilitate their family's coping, and they're working 100 percent of the time." She adds that she is concerned that these women are not taking a moment to rest and care for themselves.
"The demands before the pandemic were outrageous and unreasonable," Dr. Drake continues. "This [pandemic] exacerbated it so that it no longer holds it all together. And things became incrementally worse, [especially for] women who are in marginalized groups."
Adding to role overload? The shuttering of schools this year, which turned many moms into reluctant virtual school teachers. A study conducted this year that examined the effects of homeschooling on mental health found marginally higher use of alcohol to cope in couples who were vs. were not homeschooling during the pandemic.
Suzanne A., an occupational therapist and mother of two, started drinking just one glass of wine at the beginning of the pandemic when she thought it would only last a few weeks: "The first few months of parenting during the pandemic were so hard that I truly think I've blocked a lot of it out," she recounts.
Eventually, one glass became two, then three.
"I felt like I was drowning. As much as my husband was home, he was working 24/7 to keep his business running. Since he's the breadwinner, I completely put my work on hold to be with the kids all day. I felt like I had no choice."
Societal Expectations Around Motherhood
Cynthia D. Mohr, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Portland State University explains how the pressure to be a "good mom" and the feeling of not living up to that ideal can create guilt and shame among moms.
"We see in research that when we are trying to reconcile the thought, 'I think I'm a bad mom,' there's not much you can do to make amends around that," says Dr. Mohr. "Research shows us when people are feeling strong shame they tend to withdraw, and try to reduce that painful self-awareness, and that's one way alcohol can come into the picture."
Not only is shame a powerful motivator to drink, females are known to lean on alcohol for its dampening effects on negative emotions. "Statistically, females tend to tilt toward enjoying the reduction of discomfort effects instead of the pleasure effects of alcohol," says Aaron White, Ph.D., senior scientific advisor to the director and chief of the epidemiology and biometry branch, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Erhardt says her desire through drinking is not to get drunk but to reduce her anxiety and calm her frazzled nerves. "It feels like the only reprieve I can get without dropping my kids off at the Grandparent's house."
Where Do We Go From Here?
The pandemic and the global crisis it caused revealed the biases and lack of support American mothers have been facing for decades. And it's these existing issues that have led so many of us to throw back a martini or three at the end of the day. The good news is that change may be coming-the media, motherhood community leaders, women's advocates, and even our administration have been vocal about the disproportionate disadvantage mothers have faced during the pandemic.
Two important national movements that provide some hope for mothers at large are the American Families Plan, which expands tax cuts for working families and would (finally) guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave across the nation, and the Marshall Plan for Moms, a national movement to provide payments to mothers, and to advocate for long-overdue policies like pay equity, parental leave, and retraining programs for the more than 2.3 million mothers who left the workforce in 2020.
"One of the most important elements in activism for mothers is including both men and women in leave policies, and adjusting expectations about when and how parents work," says Erin Erenberg, an attorney and advocate for mothers in the workplace through her company Totum Women. "Mothers will continue to fill too many roles, burn out, and suffer mental and physical health consequences until we create humane policies, hours, and expectations at work, which expect both men and women to juggle parenting and caregiving in addition to having a fulfilling career."
The one thing that the pandemic has done with regards to mothers and drinking, is highlight that this is a problem to be taken seriously. And conversations like these could lead more women to recognize that they have a problem.
"If someone would recognize that they are finding their drinking problematic, and would recognize that it could be something that they can be helped with, then that's positive," says Dr. Drake.
Erhardt, the mom of two who consistently drinks one bottle of beer a night, says she does have a therapist she sees regularly, but she hasn't talked about her concerns about her drinking-yet. (And her therapist hasn't asked.)
"I have considered bringing it up," says Erhardt. "But I honestly don't want to until the pandemic is somewhat behind us. I tell myself that the habit will go away when we resume some notion of normalcy."
As we wait for change on a macro level, on an individual level it's critical that moms do our part to shake the belief that it is on us to do it all. That looks like consciously enrolling our partners in household and invisible labor, reaching out to friends, family, even our kids, to involve them in chores and caregiving at home, and when possible budgeting for caregiving and household assistance. "A good mother is not a martyr," says Erenberg. "That's the deeply held myth for us to shatter."