New Research Explains The Emergence Of 'Mommy Drinking' Culture

Professor Jenna Abetz explains 'mommy drinking' culture, popularized as a coping mechanism for motherhood.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 14, 2024

A new study published in the Journal Of Family Studies explores "mommy drinking culture" and the implications the emerging trend holds for mothers across the country.

I recently spoke to co-author Jenna Abetz, Associate Professor at the Department of Communication at College of Charleston in South Carolina, to discuss how mommy drinking culture can perpetuate divisions among mothers and divert attention from systemic issues disadvantageous to them, often leading them to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

How would you describe the emerging trend of 'mommy drinking culture'?

For decades, adults were encouraged to drink a glass or two of wine a day for their health. Today, that directive is being reversed with numerous studies uncovering that alcohol, despite social benefits from drinking in moderation, is related to several physical health risks.

As non-alcoholic options increase and alcohol's health risks become better known, drinking among Millennials and Gen Z consumers is on the decline. However, there is one group for whom alcohol consumption is rising—mothers. While male drinking rates have remained constant, female alcohol consumption has risen 6% over the past 10 years.

Over the past 15–20 years, drinking—even heavy drinking—has become normalized for mothers who are white and middle class. During COVID-19, alcohol use particularly sky-rocketed among women with children.

The rise of 'mommy drinking' or 'wine mom' culture, popularized by social media and capitalized upon by merchandise and female-branded alcohol coincides with the intensive demands and pressures of modern mothering.

Mommy drinking is more than an individual health behavior; it has become a pop culture and social media phenomenon that is reinforced at different levels of society. It can also be a source of bonding, shared humor and social connection. Yet, it has previously not been explored in mothers' own voices, despite its accompanying positive and negative outcomes, ranging from social support to socially acceptable problem drinking.

What we wanted to understand was how mothers who drink reconcile competing norms, expectations, and experiences surrounding motherhood, health and social relationships.

What are the modern challenges of motherhood that contribute to the rise of mommy drinking culture?

Rising costs of living, as well as childcare and education expenses, can place significant financial strain on mothers and families. Regardless of their employment status, mothers today spend more time with their children than they did in the 1960s.

Motherhood is also intensely individuated. Digitally networked communication technologies, which have given mothers a voice to speak truth to their own lives in ways that were not previously possible in the public sphere, have likely also contributed to the fragmentation and labeling of ever-smaller parenting niches.

Indeed, mothers articulated how they felt oversaturated by information about how to mother and that their individual choices how to feed, carry, put to sleep and discipline were up for critique and judgment.

How does the history of mothering norms help us make sense of mommy drinking culture?

Our current cultural climate must be contextualized within the larger history of drinking and drug use among mothers, which occurred alongside the increased intensification of motherhood throughout the twentieth century. The post-World War II period witnessed significant shifts in societal norms and economic structures that gave rise to the ideology of intensive mothering, where mothers were expected to be highly involved, nurturing and demonstrate selfless dedication to their children's well- being.

This idealization of motherhood without adequate support set unrealistic standards and led to feelings of guilt and adequacy when mothers were unable to meet these expectations. This era coincided with the increased use of alcohol and other drugs (e.g. tranquilizers) among mothers, captured in the 1966 Rolling Stones hit 'Mother's Little Helper'—which gave voice to the way American mothers were widely prescribed benzodiazepines to help cope with the daily pressures and expectations of motherhood.

Moving into the later part of the twentieth century, Lareau's concept of concerted cultivation reflected the exponential rise, beginning in the 1990s, of a deliberate and intensified effort by middle-class parents, primarily mothers, to invest in organized enrichment and extra-curricular activities to foster their children's talents and social capital. This history can also help us make sense of the ways drinking can serve as a source of liberation against expectations and stressors of motherhood.

How do mothers in the study interpret societal messages about motherhood, alcohol use and the stereotypes linked to affluent suburban mommy drinkers?

For many mothers in our study, alcohol functioned as a tool to facilitate social connection, bonding and belonging between moms. Although mothers themselves consumed alcohol, participants consistently shared they could not relate to the term mommy drinker, and associated "the wine mom" with women who were financially comfortable, usually lived in the suburbs and typically did not work outside the home.

Because drinking had become so ingrained in everyday life—not only when adults socialized, but also at playdates and kids' birthday parties—participants shared that this ubiquity, alongside the playful humor of drinking culture mommy, held the potential to both hide and perpetuate problematic and high-risk drinking behaviors.

The mothers in our study made sense of mommy drinking as the result or consequence of existing in a culture that does not support mothers. They maintained that a lack of mental health resources, paid parental leave and affordable childcare in the United States compounded stressors.

In many ways, they articulated how this lack of support meant that alcohol became a tool to cope with motherhood and how drinking emerged as a normal, or even celebrated, component of modern life.

Participants illustrated that mommy drinking culture can obfuscate the reasons why mothers needed to cope in the first place. Mothers felt stretched too thin in the multiple roles they juggled.

They also emphasized how the merchandise and marketing of the phrase 'mommy drinking culture' highlighted glaring double standards between mothers and fathers, pointing to the ways in which there was no parallel 'daddy drinking culture' and that mothers often carried the mental load regardless of whether they worked outside the home.

How can we promote relaxation and stress relief for mothers in positive ways, beyond mommy drinking culture?

In the absence real social support for mothers and women, alcohol can become a go-to way to cope. In many ways, saying "Mommy needs a drink" is a socially acceptable way to say motherhood is really difficult and "Mommy needs help."

A culture where drinking heavily is humorous not only creates challenges for mothers in getting the support they need for problematic drinking, but it also discourages a deeper exploration of one's own relationship with alcohol and parenting.

Importantly, individual mothers are not responsible for the creation and perpetuation (or a resolution) of mommy drinking culture. Our intent with this research was not to shame mothers into not drinking or rectifying cultural double standards, but to elucidate how real mothers make sense of this cultural phenomenon.

We found that mothers were very aware of the ways in which mommy drinking can serve as another way to divide and disparage mothers and draw attention away from the very real, systematic and structural problems of disadvantaged mothers that oftentimes influence their decision to drink to cope.

From paid-parental leave and flexible work arrangements to accessible, affordable high-quality childcare, there are critical policies that would support mothers, in addition to having men share more equitably in the mental load of parenting within relationships.

The real focus, in the media and in US culture, should be on reducing barriers and providing more support for mothers to feel empowered and better able to balance their responsibilities.

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