The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mothers are drinking more than ever. But the sober-curious movement challenges ‘wine-mom’ culture.

Harmony Hobbs attends a party in Baton Rouge on July 3 with her husband Robbie, 37, center. Hobbs, the owner of the popular Modern Mommy Madness blog, has been sober since 2017. “I was convinced my life was over when I had to admit I had a drinking problem,” she says. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

The turning point came at an evening soiree in the middle of December, when Mai Trinh spotted a friend’s luminous face amid a crowd of cocktail-quaffing party­goers.

“She stood out — she looked absolutely radiant,” recalls Trinh, 44, a corporate wellness consultant and mom of three in Alexandria. “So I asked her, ‘What’s your secret, what are you doing?’ ”

The secret, it turned out, was what she wasn’t doing: Trinh’s friend had decided to temporarily bail on booze, after signing up for an alcohol-free challenge through an online program.

It wasn’t the first time Trinh, who then considered herself an occasional social drinker, had heard of the burgeoning “sober-curious” movement, which touts the appeal of an alcohol-free lifestyle — separating sobriety from the stigma of addiction and presenting it instead as pathway to a healthier existence for anyone who wants to drink less, or not at all.

Unsettled by neighborhood moms showing up to the playground with coolers of champagne, Trinh had clicked through some of the sober-curious literature online, and read the testimonials of converts who embraced sobriety (or, at least, moderation) and trumpeted the results: better sleep. Better skin. A clearer head. A calmer vibe.

Her friend’s endorsement — and one final, fuzzy-headed morning after a night out with fellow mom friends that holiday season — sealed the deal. Trinh rang in the New Year sober, and hasn’t had a drink in the six months since.

“It’s been life-changing,” she says. “My kids say I’m really mellow, and I’m not a mellow person.”

For years, alcohol has steadily seeped into the social fabric of motherhood, with pitchers of mimosas at morning playdates, Thermoses of “mommy juice” on the soccer field sidelines and Facebook feeds filled with stylized memes declaring it’s not really drinking alone if your kids are home. Studies show that women — especially women in their 30s and 40s — are drinking more than ever before.

The cheeky ‘wine mom’ trope isn’t just dumb. It’s dangerous.

Now, with more Americans embracing wellness as an existential ideal — replacing Instagram pictures of brimming wineglasses with photos of artisanal, lime-garnished mocktails — some moms say they feel more empowered to go against the grain and pass on the booze, and less isolated in their choice to abstain. But can an aspirational, hashtaggable lifestyle trend really dry out the alcohol-saturated “wine-mom” culture?

Harmony Hobbs, 39, a mom of three in Baton Rouge and creator of the popular blog Modern Mommy Madness, sees a shift already underway. As a blogger who used to make and share wine-mom memes, she’s had a front-row seat to the culture around alcohol and motherhood: “I built my following writing about how hard being a mom is,” she says, “and all I did was joke about drinking.”

But drinking wasn’t actually a joke for her — it was part of her daily life, and it was clearly affecting her behavior, Hobbs says. She’d long resisted acknowledging her dependency, but after loved ones held an intervention two years ago, she quit alcohol cold turkey. And she felt an obligation to be forthcoming about her experience with her online followers.

“I felt like I had all these people who read my work, and there was no way to stop drinking and not be honest about it. I’d backed myself into a corner,” she says. “I expected it to ruin my reputation, but it didn’t. It resonated with a lot of women.”

That was 2017 — before British journalist Ruby Warrington published her trend-launching book, “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol,” before an abundance of Facebook groups and yoga retreats and alcohol-free bars catered to those who wanted a break from boozing. It was before celebrity moms such as model Chrissy Teigen and actress Busy Philipps added their voices to the chorus of those questioning wine-mom culture: “You go to a preschool birthday party at 10 a.m. and it’s like, ‘Does anyone want a wine cooler?’ ” Philipps told Parents magazine last year. “Um, no, girlfriend. I want to make sure my daughter doesn’t fall off this play structure. It’s such a weird thing!”

What wine mom culture misses about being a sober parent in a society that worships alcohol

Women who feel this way have always been out there, says Jaime Roche, 42, a sober-curious mom of two in New York who hasn’t had a drink since January.

“Since I’ve come out as sober curious, a lot of moms who don’t really talk about it are saying, ‘Oh yeah, me, too, I don’t drink either,’ ” Roche says. “The more chic it becomes, the more people see it as cool and acceptable, you’ll see more moms saying, ‘You know what, that’s the way I want to go.’ ”

Roche says she’s over wine-mom culture. But it’s still all over her Facebook feed.

“When you back away from drinking, you see even more how prevalent it is — I’m constantly getting posts on Facebook that say, you know, ‘I need a drink, my kids are driving me crazy,’ ” she says. “Before I stopped drinking, I didn’t really think about it. But now I see how dangerous it is.”

All those social media posts and pictures and memes do have an impact, says Katherine Keyes, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who has researched alcohol use among women.

“Based on what we know about the role of norms in maintaining behavior, it’s not surprising that all the sharing and liking and retweeting would help solidify an alcohol culture,” she says. But that’s also exactly why the sober-curious movement, with its growing visibility on social media, could potentially turn the tide, she adds.

Sobriety has long been dogged by stigma — if you don’t drink, and you’re not visibly pregnant, you must have a problem — but the sober-curious movement aims to rebrand what it means to abstain from alcohol: It’s chic, it’s savvy, a health-driven lifestyle choice marketed with clever messaging and Instagram-worthy aesthetics.

“By creating a new social media pattern that’s about different alcohol practices, with the message that it’s cool to be sober, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did have an effect,” Keyes says. “Science would indicate that if there’s enough of a groundswell for that kind of culture, then the culture can change.”

But Keyes also wants to emphasize a particular point: While drinking is clearly on the rise with modern moms, it’s even more prevalent among women who don’t have children. And focusing concern on moms in particular, she says, runs the risk of perpetuating certain patriarchal stereotypes.

“Risky drinking practices are harmful for everyone,” Keyes says. “This is one more way in which motherhood is sanctified — the idea that these women especially shouldn’t be drinking because they’re taking care of young children.”

Julia Hunter, 37, a mom of two in New Jersey, also worries about this. She thinks it’s great for moms to quit drinking if they choose, but — as someone who enjoys wine and posts about it on social media — she sees all the “wine o’clock” memes as less a literal instruction (go drink, right now) than a symbol of solidarity (long day, amirite?).

“To me, it is a signal that you’re not the perfect, aspirational mom on Pinterest,” she says. “It means you get the realness of motherhood, the tough parts of it. And I think you want someone who is saying those things, so you don’t feel so alone.”

Why do moms feel so alone in the first place? That’s what Lindsey Jones-Renaud, 37, a mom of two in the District, wishes more people would focus on.

The sober-curious movement “needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of mom-shaming,” she says. “The underlying issue is our patriarchal society that does not support parents, and especially moms. I understand the problems and the risks that come with wine culture, so if sober curious works for some people, that’s great — but if it’s taking away one of the few things that other moms have to find a little moment of joy, that’s a problem, too.”

No mom wants to feel alienated or judged, Trinh knows: neither the mom who pours herself a glass of cabernet, nor the mom who politely declines the cocktail tray. When Trinh goes to parties these days, she accounts for everyone’s needs.

“I bring a bottle of wine, and I bring grape juice for myself,” she says. “If I came without a bottle of wine, I think people would feel uncomfortable — they’d feel like I’m judging them.”

So, she pours her grape juice in a wine glass — “it totally looks just like Bordeaux,” she says — and shows her friends that she can still be bubbly even if she’s not buzzed. If she’s open and nonjudgmental about not drinking, she says, other moms might even ask her about the experience, and she can tell them how happy she’s been.

“The sober-curious movement is so refreshing, because I’ve put a pause on alcohol before, but it just felt really, really lonely,” she says. “Now, I’m loud and proud.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the state where Jaime Roche lives. She lives in New York, not New Jersey.