3:15 PM: I’m standing at the edge of the driveway, waiting for my second-grader to get off the bus. I walk him inside, hand him a plate of cut-up veggie sticks and cheese slices, and tell him he can watch 30 minutes of PBS before we have to start homework. Then I pour myself a small glass of wine.
5:30 PM: While cooking dinner, I start telling my husband stories about my day. As he listens, he casually pours me another glass of wine. That makes glass number 2.
7:00 PM: We’re done with dinner. My husband takes all the kids outside to play and burn off some energy before we start their bedtime routines, and I’m confronted with a mountain of dishes. That’s when the phone rings, and on the other end of the line, it’s my best friend who’s had a rough day. I pour a glass of wine and settle into conversation while I soak the pots and put away leftovers. That’s glass number 3.
9:00 PM: My husband and I put the kids to bed. I tiptoe downstairs to curl up on the couch and stare at Facebook for a few quiet minutes, with glass number 4 sitting in my right hand.
10:00 PM-ish: My husband makes up a plate of grapes and cheese slices and joins me on the couch. He brings a glass for himself and tops me off.
This is the fifth glass of wine I’ve had in nearly eight hours. An entire bottle of wine — gone. And at no point am I drunk.
A few days later, I’m sitting in a paper gown in the doctor’s office, waiting for my annual pap smear. My doctor goes through the usual questions they ask me every year:
“How much exercise do you get?”
“I dunno,” I say with a laugh, ” … does chasing kids count?’
“Are you taking a multi-vitamin?”
“Oh, of course!” I’m happy to report. “It’s all natural and tastes like mothballs, but yes.”
And then it comes.
“How much do you drink?”
This question kind of hangs in the air, and after a slight pause, I lie and say, “Oh, you know, just the occasional red wine with dinner.”
Afterwards, I drive home the long way while trying to remember the last time I went a whole day without a glass of wine. Years roll by in my memory bank and not a single day stands out to me as one in which I was totally stone-cold sober, unless of course, you count pregnancy. For all three of my pregnancies I abstained from drinking, unless I was taking a sip of champagne or wine to celebrate something — and even then, I only did so after asking my doctor if that was cool with him.
The truth is, I’ve been drinking in a steady stream for years, almost without notice. And lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve been drinking a whole lot more than I ever used to, becoming one of those moms online who thinks nothing of sharing funny wine memes on my Facebook page to celebrate a well-earned buzz after a long day. Because KIDS, amirite?
At some point, though, all the jokes about “mommy juice” and “wine o’clock” stopped being all that funny and relatable and started feeling awkward; and it’s only just recently that I’ve started to see why: they were ringing a little too true. The amusing, pointed laughs at “Karen” who is eating a “fruit salad” (aka her nightly sangria) quickly blurred into a mocking truth that maybe I had a problem.
I’ve rationalized my drinking over the years in a million different ways. I’m not a fall down drunk living under a bridge. CPS isn’t dragging my kids away, and my marriage is not on the brink of a booze-tinged meltdown. How can a put-together, happily married, mom of three with a master’s degree, career, and the ability to meet every writing deadline with a sharp smile have a drinking problem?
You can’t blame me for my confusion, though. I mean, wine has practically become the must-have accessory for modern motherhood. Target now features wine bars, women’s purses now feature hidden pockets to hide wine spouts, and trendy travel mugs regularly feature phrases like “This might be wine” in adorable, curlicue font.
“It seems like people are more accepting of wine than other alcohol,” says Carrie, a mom from Pennsylvania whose last name has been withheld for privacy. “It’s considered classy, even healthy to some, due to antioxidants. So, it seems like a harmless way to deal with the stresses of motherhood.”
She’s right. Imagine if I began this essay by saying that I took a shot of tequila or smoked a joint every afternoon while my son was across the room eating his afternoon snack? I’d have an inbox full of hate mail before you could even finish this sentence. But no one bats an eye at day-drinking red wine. After all, it’s “good for my heart”.
“Alcohol and caffeine are unique from all other drugs in that they are not only socially acceptable; it’s expected that adults in our culture use them regularly,” explains Jim LaPierre LCSW, a substance abuse counselor based in Maine. “The illusions we embrace around drinking include ideas like it’s ‘just wine.’ An addictions counselor refers to that mentality as minimizing its significance. It’s the same mindset that dictates wine is safer than ‘hard liquor’, when in truth it is the same drug in different forms.”
This is probably the reason why, up until recently, I truly didn’t think wine was as potent or addictive as hard liquor. I mean, I would never be caught drinking vodka. And while I might have a gin and tonic at a summer BBQ with friends, wine was supposed to be safe. Wine was supposed to be “healthy.”
As a mother, I find that the number of demands put upon me in a single week dizzying and never-ending. From financial stress to house stress to constantly feeling like I’m not the mother that I could or should be … the list of pressures and impending deadlines pile up. And so, like a lot of moms at the end of a long day, I turn to the Internet and my nightly wine and seek comfort in knowing my problems also belong to others. Memes, blogs, all those snarky and witty women with clean houses and bold statements of being a “hot mess” but “have some wine” has become so normalized, I somehow didn’t see it when my one glass of wine turned to five each night.
As a blogger, I’ve used my public Facebook page Housewife Plus to share my writing. But I’ve also shared a zillion and two wine memes over the years to drive up engagement. I looked at them as a harmless way to help me bond with other stressed-out moms; but really, I see now I’ve been subconsciously feeding this nonstop need for an excuse to drink.
Don’t get me wrong here — I’m not saying that boozy memes are the reason millions of American moms are closet winos. But I am saying that for me personally, the normalization of mommy wino culture memes and endless parade of articles on mom sites that shouted out the benefits of drinking helped justify my own growing problem.
“I definitely feel [the memes] encourage moms to drink,” she says. “They made me feel like it was not only perfectly acceptable for moms to drink, but also that I should be drinking. That, this is what moms do to deal with stress. They drink. And I’m the odd one out for not drinking.”
And she’s not the only one. Writer Harmony Hobbs of the well-known blog Modern Mommy Madness and a regular contributor to Babble, agrees that wine memes in particular can be dangerous. “Parenting is hard and none of us know how to cope with it,” she says, adding that the multitude of wine memes that make their way around Facebook and Instagram have been problematic for her.
“I used to write them,” Hobbs admits, “both for my own social media platforms as well as for bigger sites, and they were always wildly popular. I think women like them not only because they’re funny, but because it makes how they feel seem normal.”
But is publicly celebrating getting drunk “normal”? Particularly over the age of 21?
“We live in a culture that uses humor to eschew social problems,” says LaPierre. “If Mom uses wine to cope with stress and negative emotions, we know that’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous. We joke about ‘mom juice’ in a way that is reminiscent of ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, the Rolling Stones song about how previous generations of moms used Valium to get through their stressful days. It’s more comfortable to laugh about it than to look at how we use drugs to cope.”
As a writer, I’ve spent countless hours drafting personal essays in which wine plays the hero and my children play the villain, while I’m the mom in distress. I’m caught up in that age-old mom trope of being helpless to a kaleidoscope of things to do and places to be, and somewhere along the line, the amount of stress that accompanies each task became the bread and butter that literally paid my mortgage. (And I was probably fairly buzzed while writing every word of those essays.)
Hobbs tells Babble that those same boozy memes had to come to an end for her.
“I used to share them constantly,” she says, “but the moment I stopped drinking, I stopped making jokes about alcohol.” In the months since, Hobbs has posted relentlessly honest portrayals of her first year in sobriety. “I’m an alcoholic,” she says bluntly. “I will always be one drink away from relapse [and] for me, relapsing could mean death. It’s not so funny when you put that way, huh?”
The opioid crisis may be gripping America right now, but LaPierre warns that alcohol is still a very serious threat to public health.
“In the midst of an opiate epidemic, we fail to acknowledge that alcohol continues to be the substance that does the most damage in our country,” he says. “As long as we’re creating memes that celebrate unhealthy choices, we’re likely to continue this trend.”
One of the hardest parts about coming out to the public that I’m struggling with my relationship to alcohol is the feeling that I am the only one. Wine is so nonchalantly joked about and so casually consumed that it feels to me like I’m weak-willed for not being able to keep my own consumption in check. A consumption, mind you, that I didn’t realize was out of check until fairly recently.
LaPierre tells Babble that I’m not the only mom out there wondering in private if behind my curated life of soccer games and bake sales I am actually an alcoholic.
“We have seen an increase in moms seeking help for alcoholism,” says La Pierre. “They typically come into treatment long after drinking has become a problem and they typically do not admit that drinking is why they’re seeking therapy.”
Boy, this sounds familiar.
The day I lied to my doctor about how often I drink, she followed up about my stress levels. It was then that I started crying, feeling like the jig was up. It seemed to me that I was busted, and all at once, the truth tumbled out: I told her I wasn’t sleeping much, and that I’d honestly been wondering lately if maybe I am an alcoholic.
According to La Pierre, my response was super common.
“[Moms] will call asking for help with ‘stress’ or for anxiety or depression,” he shares. “Most will start sharing their struggles with alcohol only after they have a sense that their therapist won’t judge them.”
The scariest part about recognizing my hang-up with wine — and that I not only fully participated in perpetuating this mommy wine culture, but used it as a crutch to hide my growing problem — is coming to terms with the fact that people will soon know my truth.
“No one ever intends develop a problem with alcohol,” La Pierre shares with Babble. “While it’s understandable that folks feel ashamed of developing a problem; they need to recognize that shame is a huge barrier to seeking and help and very often it’s the very thing that keeps us drinking.”
While talking to Hobbs about my own journey, she shared some wisdom with me from hers:
“I think that more and more people are opening up about their recovery, which I love because awareness will breed acceptance and education. I wish more women who know they have a problem would seek help.”
Amen to that.
As I sit here in fear of people knowing the truth — that wine isn’t so classy when you can’t stop drinking it, and that even busy and responsible ones like me can end up in serious trouble — I can’t help but be lifted up by the knowledge that somewhere out there, another mom is reading this right now and seeing herself in my story.
And to her, I say: You’re not alone.