The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

(Ross May/The Washington Post; iStock)

Some nights I had just a glass. Other nights, depending on my level of despair or boredom, it was an entire bottle. On days when the trenches of early motherhood were particularly condemning and isolating, my nightly wine ritual gave me a break — an escape — from the sticky, cluttered, anxious life I had pieced together as a new mother. I was “wine mom” incarnate.

Dating back to 2015, the “wine mom” trope has evolved from a meme to a full-blown, marketed lifestyle, evangelizing alcohol as a culturally acceptable respite from the everyday stresses of motherhood. Kid not sleeping through the night? Epic tantrum in the checkout line at Target? Are you just tired of being someone’s parent? There’s a wine for that. (And a T-shirt).

While wine mom’s laid-back, zany front appears to promote solidarity among stressed-out parents, critics argue that the trope, which glorifies binge drinking by framing alcohol as a panacea for fraught mothers, is actually a threat to women. Heavy, frequent alcohol use can mask postpartum mood disorders, preventing women from seeking the mental-health interventions they need — and from developing healthy ways to cope with anxiety.

Like changing out of my puree-splattered leggings and slipping into something fresh and sophisticated, opening a bottle of wine offered me a clean break from my identity as a frazzled mom. I could toggle from frustrated and on edge to buzzed and at ease in just a matter of gulps, forgetting, if just for the night, how inadequate I was, how absolutely gutted motherhood made me feel, how desperate I was to remember who I was before I had a baby.

The problem was, the feelings I hoped to outrun kept resurfacing. Day after day, my shame ballooned alongside my anxiety, and day after day, I frantically searched for a way to numb them both. Because of my alcohol abuse, my “self-care” efforts quickly evolved into self-sabotage, and my yearning for a “break” turned into the frantic need for escape.

That motherhood has become something we want to escape should come as no surprise; the physiological and psychological changes brought on by pregnancy and childbirth alone warrant an emotionally rocky transition. Recent studies demonstrate that most women are woefully unprepared for the neurobiological changes that come with having a baby, and one reproductive psychiatrist coined the term “matrescence” to encompass the whole-person transformation that occurs when an individual becomes a mother.

Why I’m struggling to explain my beauty routine to my 4-year-old daughter

Social expectations are no help. Narratives such as “the goddess myth” — both laughably unrealistic and oppressive but somehow still prevalent — send a message that we as moms are to have it all together, all the time. Our babies are supposed to sleep through the night, but both co-sleeping and the cry-it-out method are risky. Our kids are expected to behave, but if we discipline them in public, we’re abusive. We’re supposed to be easygoing, but if we’re too relaxed, we could go to jail.

For me, the appeal of alcohol was that it created a trap door out of my emotions, a quick and easy way to shutter the disparaging questions about my identity that I faced daily. But therein lies another issue with “wine mom.” Although the trope identifies a very real problem — motherhood is stressful — it presents a solution that’s not only unsustainable and unhealthy, but dangerous. Yes, wine has immediate calming effects, but in many ways, it can actually worsen anxiety and depression, as it did in my experience.

Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and co-author of the forthcoming book “What No One Tells You: A Guide to your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood,” says long-term alcohol use and abuse can lead to a depressant effect in one’s neurochemistry, which can exacerbate depression symptoms. And because alcohol abuse is often a form of self-medicating, it can prevent women from seeking out the help they really need.

“Uncomfortable feelings can be an important signal that we need to talk to a health professional or take the time to be introspective about what we’re actually upset about,” she says. “Numbing these emotions can distance you from feelings that tell you what’s going on in your life.”

There’s also the danger of alcohol use in general: One recent study shows there’s no safe amount of alcohol to drink, dismantling wine mom’s entire premise, along with the common idea that a glass of wine a day boasts health benefits.

So if a generous pour of wine isn’t the solution we’re looking for, what is?

Rather than reaching for a glass of wine, Sacks recommends women under stress consider safer, healthier coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness, meditation, finding child care, sleep, nutrition and exercise. In cases of anxiety or depression, it’s important to talk with a medical professional about finding a therapist or, in some cases, the possibility of medication, which even during pregnancy and breast-feeding can be a viable treatment option.

To maintain a sense of self in motherhood, Sacks also suggests women find ways to reconnect with themselves, through hobbies or simple everyday self-care activities like showering. “Many new moms forget to keep up with the normal rituals that affirm their identity. If you stop doing these things, even temporarily, you may feel disconnected from who you are,” Sacks says.

Erin Street says she bought into the messaging of wine mom as a new parent. That life without hangovers was an option didn’t even register for her until an acquaintance pulled her aside and reminded her that she wasn’t powerless to alcohol and its impact on her life.

 “I was so overwhelmed as a new mom that I used alcohol as a way to modulate my experiences,” Street says. “I didn’t even have the language to ask myself, ‘Is alcohol serving me?’ ”

Inside country music’s complex — and increasingly lucrative — love affair with alcohol

Now nearly three years sober, she is founder of Tell Better Stories, a media initiative that is questioning the prevalence of alcohol marketing toward women and moms in particular, and encouraging women in their exploration of sobriety.

But Street recognizes total sobriety isn’t for everyone. Through social media campaigns that critique and re-examine the context of alcohol messaging, Telling Better Stories instead aims to provide language for women who don’t even know they want to reexamine their relationship with alcohol.

One night, when my son was about a year old, I drank so many margaritas I spent the whole next morning throwing up. With my puffy, green face pressed against the toilet seat, I realized I was using so much energy figuring out how to escape that I had accomplished the opposite. I was trapped in a dangerous cycle. Desperate for a way out, I contacted my therapist, who recommended I consider increasing my anti-anxiety medication dosage — and, more importantly, helped me to see that to be the mother I wanted to be, I had to mother myself.

It’s been three years since I reevaluated my relationship with alcohol. I haven’t chosen to be totally sober, but facing anxiety without being a wine mom isn’t an all-encompassing mandate of sobriety in the traditional sense of non-drinking. The sobriety I needed was presence: presence with the pain, presence with myself. And real presence requires going through obstacles, not around them.

With alcohol masking my true emotions and my needs, I would have never sought out my therapist or thought to increase my dose of anti-anxiety medication. I would have never joined a gym or rediscovered my love for writing. And I probably never would have spoken up about my anxiety or connected with other moms facing the same thing — one of the most powerful coping tools I’ve found.

Sacks, who has built a significant community on social media by encouraging authentic conversations about motherhood, is hopeful that we will see a shift in the current patterns of postpartum mental health — starting with women communicating the struggle of motherhood in an authentic way rather than reducing the stress of motherhood to a meme.

“Don’t just laugh it off. Instead, take a courageous step and talk to other moms,” she says. “It can be incredibly relieving to realize others are experiencing what you’re going through.”

Ashley Abramson is a mom and freelance writer living in Minnesota. Find her on Twitter @ashleyabrmsn.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We are on Twitter @OnParenting.

More reading:

Why parents should try to be happy, even when their child isn’t

I tried mindfulness to quit drinking. It actually worked.

PTA culture and the working mother

I never understood why adults talked about so many depressing things, until I became a parent