Emily Lynn Paulson drank in college and after she graduated, but it wasn’t until she became a mom that she really went all in.
“You’d think that wouldn’t be the case,” Paulson, a mother of five, told HuffPost. “But everything seemed to have wine added to it. There were playdates with wine. Every mommy get-together had wine. ... I had that T-shirt that said ‘Prosecco made me do it.’”
“It was almost like, how can you survive motherhood without this substance,” Paulson said.
Mommy wine culture has been raging for years, with funny memes, cutesy apparel and tchotchkes peddled on Etsy and Amazon, and Facebook groups galore (Mommy Needs Wine, Mommy Needs Some Wine, Mommy Wine Time, etc.). In those circles it’s not just alcohol ― it’s mom juice. Mom fuel. It’s an easy and much-needed way for women to eke out some time to relax while doing the relentless work of raising young kids. And the alcohol industry has definitely taken notice, marketing directly to women.
But some of mommy wine culture’s biggest proponents are now sounding the alarm, arguing that the normalization of wine culture isn’t so much giving women an outlet for self-care as it’s potentially harming their health.
On a broader level, America certainly appears to have a bit of an alcohol problem. A new study, published in January in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that alcohol-related deaths in the United States doubled between 1999 and 2007 — with the largest increase among non-Hispanic white women. And a 2017 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that problem drinking, defined as drinking to the point where it interferes with your life or you are unable to stop, jumped by more than 80% among American women between 2002 and 2013.
Although there is no evidence that the flowering of mommy wine culture is directly fueling that trend, findings like that tend to undermine the idea that drinking alcohol is something one does to take care of oneself. For years, we’ve been told that moderate drinking may — may — confer some health benefits. But there’s just as much evidence to suggest the opposite.
These days, many drinkers are looking to scale back. A recent YouGov poll found that fewer people participated in “Dry January” in 2020 than a year before, largely because they’re sober year-round, as opposed to taking just one month off. So-called “sober curiosity” has become its own trend.
So how do women determine whether they are drinking too much? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that heavy drinking for women is considered more than eight drinks per week — but adds that the vast majority of heavy drinkers don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for severe alcohol use disorder. “Drinking is a problem if it causes trouble in your relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how you think and feel,” the CDC says.
OK, then who is to say what “trouble” means?
“It’s such a personal thing,” said Stefanie Wilder Taylor, a mother of three who has written five books, including “Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay,” and a onetime celebrity within the mommy wine world who very publicly got sober more than a decade ago.
“The problem is,” she said, “we’re in this culture where we are told that wine and alcohol is something that we deserve. I sure bought into that myself.”
Paulson — who got sober in 2017 and who wrote the book “Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life” — said that other moms often ask her if she thinks they’re alcoholics. She asked herself and her own friends that question for years. She believes that one of the biggest problems with mommy wine culture is that it makes everything about drinking murkier. Are you drinking too much? Are you just doing what you need to take care of yourself? Isn’t this just what tired moms do?
Because parental burnout is very real. Research suggests that up to 14% of parents now qualify as burned out, meaning they’re physically and emotionally exhausted to the point where they may be emotionally distancing themselves from their kids or feeling a deep sense of incompetence as parents. Parents need support and they need outlets. What former mommy wine evangelists are pushing back against is the notion that alcohol should be that outlet. Alcohol, they argue, should not be relied on for self-care.
“I worry that it is the numbing, self-medicating part [of drinking] that is really being normalized,” Paulson said. She spends much of her time now connecting with women who have questions about their own drinking and pointing them toward what she considers to be helpful resources.
“A lot of people are in the mindset that it’s good for you, that it can help with stress and anxiety,” Paulson added. “It’s a legal substance so, yes, you’re able to do whatever you want. But I hope that people understand that, just like anything, there is risk.”