From the texts and Zooms I’ve been having with other moms, I know I’m hardly alone in the struggle. Or the imbibing.
In a May survey conducted by the Research Triangle Institute International, researchers polled 993 people from across the United States about their drinking habits before the pandemic hit and after. It found an average person’s drinks per day increased 27 percent; the frequency of a person’s drinking that “exceeds drinking guidelines” increased 21 percent; and binge drinking increased 26 percent. Researchers also found that being female or Black was associated with significant increases in at least one measure, and respondents with children in the household had greater-than-average increases in all three.
Thema Bryant, a licensed psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., says the challenges of trying to work from home, tending to your kids’ education, and having limited outlets for relief are all stressful for parents, but especially for women, who tend to shoulder more household and caregiving responsibilities than men. Beyond the physical strains of multitasking, parents are dealing with a lot emotionally. They’re concerned about the health of themselves, their children, and their elderly parents. They’re worried about losing their jobs. They’re uneasy about their child’s social development. “If you had a child who was already isolated or already dealing with social skill challenges, then it can be even more difficult to navigate distance learning and cultivate relationships for them,” Bryant says.
Nicky C. is a mother of three in Santa Clarita, Calif., who describes her kids’ virtual learning as pure chaos. Her children are 8, 5, and 1½ years old. “We’re very behind,” she tells me over the phone, laughing off the worry. Her middle child in kindergarten has attention-deficit disorder. She says it’s really hard for him to focus and he can only handle about 30 minutes of Zooms. “It’s a struggle to get him to learn anything, and I try to make it fun, we write letters in Play-Doh and the whiteboard, but it’s just a constant struggle. I have a strong feeling he’s going to have to repeat kindergarten.”
To help her children, Nicky, who spoke on condition that we not use her full name to protect her family’s privacy, quit her job to stay home. (Her husband owns his own plumbing business.) The shift has been hard on her mentally. “For me being a stay-at-home, and now a home-school mom — I feel it’s not my path. I don’t feel that I thrive in it. I know some moms love it and think it’s the greatest. But I crave that independence and having my lunch break alone — because now I’m never alone.”
Before covid-19, Nicky says, she would have a glass or two of wine with dinner on Fridays and Saturdays to celebrate the weekend. But now she’s drinking a glass four to five times a week: "I’m just so maxed out.”
Nicky describes her hot meals going cold by the time she sits down to eat, not having room for her own thoughts, and not having her monthly pedicures or nights out with girlfriends to recharge. “It feels very alone. Is it this hard for everybody? I feel like I’m not a good mom because I can’t juggle all of it well.”
Moms were comparing themselves with others before the pandemic, of course, but Bryant says the insecurities have likely increased. “You’ll have supermom over there on social media posting all these recipes and arts, crafts and activities, and you’re sitting there with your drink or you’re smoking.” Feelings of inadequacy intensify in isolation, so fostering relationships with other parents, on the phone or online, is crucial. “Sometimes just hearing another parent say, ‘yes, this is hard’ can be liberating and take the shame away,” she says.
Erin Fitzpatrick, a mom of two kids, 6 and 8, in Reno, Nev., has been on a recovery journey for 20 years, but has struggled to stay sober in the past seven months. For her, the pandemic has reminded her a lot of early motherhood, a time when her drinking was at an all-time high. “Being secluded and not being able to go anywhere, it’s been like a mirror. A huge trigger,” she says.
On top of the stresses of virtual schooling, Fitzpatrick worried about how she and her partner were going to pay the electric bill. They were both furloughed at the start of covid-19. “Working is a huge part of my value system," she says. "I’m not just a worker, but a good, prideful, dedicated worker. And I’m wanting to show my kids that you can work and be a good mom.”
Fitzpatrick admits she has drunk during the pandemic, but she tries to be honest about it and shares a lot on social media. “We are human. Being a mom is hard, distance learning is hard, sending your kids to school is hard, it’s all a different kind of hard. The worst thing you can do is if you mess up you stay there.”
For those who don’t want to stay there, a plethora of virtual options are available. Many recovery groups quickly pivoted from in-person meetings to online. There has also been a movement for people who don’t identify as addicts or alcoholics to join communities that support “sober-curious” folks, a term rising in popularity to describe people who are questioning their relationship to alcohol.
Emily Paulson, author, coach, and founder of Sober Mom Squad, started her virtual community less than a month into the pandemic. She says when the pandemic hit there were many people who thought they were moderating well and only having one glass of wine a night, but suddenly found themselves with no boundaries. “You had people working from home, kids were always home, you never had to drive anywhere, the wine cellar was right there, the refrigerator or cabinet was right there, and everyone was like — ‘it’s 5 o’clock anytime, it doesn’t really matter.’” The Zoom happy hour and Quaran-tini memes certainly didn’t help.
Sober Mom Squad is not anti-drinking, she emphasizes; it’s pro-sobriety. It’s a space for women to share what’s in their hearts and on their minds without feeling judged or shamed for complaining about motherhood. The group has meetings once a week on Thursdays for anyone who wants to join, in addition to its monthly membership plan, which includes more virtual meetings, discounts on 1:1 coaching, a recovery playlist and more. Paulson says, “You can be sober-curious, just exploring an alcohol-free life, or you can be someone who’s never drank. You can be someone working really hard on sobriety or you can be someone with 30-plus years of sobriety. It’s really talking about the challenges of motherhood, womanhood, the pandemic, with the added layer of sobriety.”
In exploring a sober life it’s really important to find a good fit.
When Khadi A. Oluwatoyin, founder of Sober Black Girls Club, first started going to AA meetings, she was the only Black woman there. She found it hard to relate. “When we are experiencing addiction we don’t know what we’re experiencing because it doesn’t look the same. We’re educating folks on what addiction looks like for us.”
Sober Black Girls Club was founded in 2018 and has a steadily growing community with 1,500 members. Since the pandemic, Oluwatoyin says, there’s been an uptick in membership, especially among mothers. “These are remarkable women. Despite everything they went through in the past, they decided to get sober, and a lot of them are four and five months sober. They literally got sober in the middle of a pandemic, how rad is that?”
She says many of the women are single moms and are facing child-care issues. They wonder who will help them take care of their kids if they need time to recover alone or in an inpatient program. “I don’t care how many kids you have, you can’t be a great mother if you’re actively in addiction. Some people need the time by themselves to get better.”
Oluwatoyin recommends surrounding yourself with support, incorporating movement, healthy foods and some outside time if you’re struggling. Journaling can be helpful, too. Beyond using tools for coping and prevention, she says, acceptance and forgiving yourself is key. “I think it’s so important for moms to give themselves grace and permission to make mistakes. Just like your kid didn’t ask to be here, you didn’t ask to be here either.”
Sarah Hosseini is an American writer living in New Delhi. She has written for Cosmo, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Bustle, Romper, Scary Mommy and more. You can read her work at SarahHosseini.com.