Moms on 'mommy drinking culture' and the 'trap' of daily drinking: 'If everyone is doing it, then it can’t be bad'

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"Mommy drinking culture" may seem harmless on the surface, but experts say it can be problematic. (Graphic: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Life)
"Mommy drinking culture" may seem harmless on the surface, but experts say it can be problematic. (Graphic: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Life)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

Scroll through social media, chances are you'll come across a plethora of "mommy drinking culture" memes and merchandise — from colorful images of a mom saying to her child, "You're the reason mommy drinks" to wine glasses engraved with "Mommy Juice," along with I-shirts that say, "I wine because my kids whine."

"Mommy drinking culture" seems not only harmless but also humorous — a way of having a good laugh while letting off some steam with a couple of glasses of wine after a tough and tiring day of parenting.

But experts and some moms say that "mommy drinking culture" is more harmful than it seems.

"I think mommy drinking culture gets viewed as something funny or a way to 'calm down' after a long day of dealing with mom duties and kids," Channing Marinari, a mental health counselor and executive clinical director of Behavioral Health Centers in Port St. Lucie, Fla., tells Yahoo Life. "Unfortunately, this can lead to a lack of awareness of how this can easily turn into a daily habit and possible addiction."

The memes that get circulated and "viewed as funny reinforce making light of it and almost normalizing it," says Marinari. "It can almost be a way to 'bond' with other moms who share the same humor. There's nothing wrong with bonding and humor, but when you mix in a mind-altering substance, it can easily lead to isolation, depression and a loss of control."

'You assume that everyone else is doing it'

Like many moms, Lisa Lightner would drink wine to unwind at the end of each day. "When it's that witching hour and you're pouring a glass of wine, you assume that everyone else is doing it," Lightner, who is a mom of two and a special education advocate, tells Yahoo Life. The culture helps create the mentality that "if everyone is doing it, then it can't be bad," she says.

Lightner's drinking wasn’t an amount that would raise any eyebrows. She's also more aware than most about the cost of heavy drinking — her own mom died from alcoholism when Lightner was only 9 years old.

"She was the stereotypical, classic alcoholic where she would drink too much and would pass out and wasn't able to care for me when I was little," Lightner shares. "She died before the Betty Ford Clinic was even open… She didn’t really have anywhere to go or ask for help."

Lightner, on the other hand, considered herself a "supermom" and felt like her daily wine habit wasn’t interfering with her parenting. She told herself, "'I still go to every school event. I work full time. My kids are always clean and bathed and fed,'" she shares, "and I thought as long as I’m not passed out drunk at 3 in the afternoon like she was, then I don't have a problem."

But as Lightner points out: "Not every alcoholic is a person who passes out and dies from it." Over time, she started to question "mentally checking out every day at 5 o'clock" with alcohol. "I was going through the motions of cooking and cleaning and homework and had two glasses of wine, but are you really there for your kids?" says Lightner, who stopped drinking in 2017.

Mom of two Lisa Lightner quit drinking in 2017, after feeling like she was “mentally checking out every day at 5 o’clock” with wine. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Lightner)
Mom of two Lisa Lightner quit drinking in 2017, after feeling like she was “mentally checking out every day at 5 o’clock” with wine. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Lightner)

It’s something writer and mom of two Celeste Yvonne can relate to as well. "Suffice to say, I was drinking well over the CDC recommended amount of one drink or less a day for women," Yvonne, who is the author of The Ultimate Mom Challenge, tells Yahoo Life. "I thought I was safe because I didn't drink every day, and my drinking was not imposing on my life, family or job. But my drinking was increasing over time, as my tolerance level grew and that alarmed me."

Yvonne realized she had a problem "when my next drink seemed to be all I thought about, and often the only thing I looked forward to at the end of each day." She adds: "I recognized that even though I was physically present for key moments in my children's lives, mentally I was a world away planning or wishing for a drink."

Although she had dreamed about becoming a mother for most of her life, Yvonne says, "now that it was here I was phoning it in, per se, wishing time would speed up so I could have my wine and feel that moment of weightlessness where my shoulders softened and everything felt right."

Yvonne, who also became sober in 2017, eventually realized that "alcohol wasn't the magic elixir I was giving it credit for."

The problem with "mommy drinking culture"

Yvonne says that her thoughts on mommy drinking culture evolved as her drinking habits changed. "When I first started having children, the 'mommy needs wine' narrative seemed like a harmless, humorous reaction to what we all knew: Moms are overwhelmed," Yvonne says. "As my drinking increased over time, the narrative took on a feeling of justification and 'deserving,' paralleling my increasing frustrations with the mental load of motherhood and the lack of support for mothers in the workplace, costs of daycare and mounting pressure socially to do it all and look good doing it."

She adds: "It felt like something we deserved for dealing with so much, and with a smile on our face."

Yvonne doesn’t take issue with moms having a glass of wine now and then. "But suggesting or joking that wine is the solution to our lack of postpartum care and support, the mental load of motherhood and the severe burnout and anxiety gaslights women and our collective grievances."

In addition, adds Lightner: "It's not a healthy coping mechanism."

Both Yvonne and Lightner also point out the message that needing alcohol in order to handle parenting sends to children. "Shirts that say, 'My kids are the reason I drink' not only normalizes drinking to cope but also sends the message our kids are a burden and we need to numb out to deal with them," says Yvonne. "As a daughter of an alcoholic, I cannot think of a more damaging message to our kids."

Once she quit drinking and started reading books like Quit Like a Woman and This Naked Mind, Yvonne says she learned "the harm alcohol does to our health and just how addictive it is to everyone — not just alcoholics."

Yvonne, as well as Lightner, call out the "exorbitant amount of money" invested in marketing alcohol to women. "Frankly, we are an easy target — unsupported, desperate for reprieve and gaslit by society into believing if we are failing or dropping the ball, it's our own fault," says Yvonne.

Writer and mom Celeste Yvonne, who has been sober since 2017, says
Writer and mom Celeste Yvonne, who has been sober since 2017, says "mommy drinking culture" helps normalize and justify moms' daily drinking habits. (Photo: Megan Annis Photography)

Alcohol is particularly harmful to women

In recent years, women have closed the drinking gap and now consume nearly as much alcohol as men do. Rates of alcohol use and misuse among women are increasing, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Experts say that's particularly worrisome since women who drink have a higher risk of certain alcohol-related problems, such as liver damage and heart disease, compared to men, according to the NIAAA — even when drinking at lower levels.

The pandemic — which left many parents, but moms, in particular, overwhelmed trying to juggle work, childcare and remote school — only added fuel to the fire. A 2020 study conducted by RAND Corporation found that women significantly increased heavy drinking days by 41 percent, compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

"Unfortunately, women tend to experience more cumulative stress in their daily lives, which can motivate alcohol or other substance use and place them on a slippery slope," George F. Koob, director of the NIAAA, tells Yahoo Life. "We tend to think of substance use as something people do for pleasure, and that is certainly true. But many people are drawn to substances like alcohol because they reduce emotional and physical discomfort."

However, Koob points out that "using substances to cope, or feel less bad, can become a trap due to changes in the brain with repeated use. That is, the amount of relief a person gets from the substance decreases with each use and the amount of extra misery a person feels after each use increases, drawing them back to the drug and perpetuating the cycle."

Marinari says there are some early signs that drinking has become problematic. Along with craving alcohol, they include "needing to 'relax' by having a few drinks a night, skipping important events, or only going to events that have alcohol, feeling more depressed, anxious, or isolated, or experiencing physical withdrawals from drinking," says Marinari.

For Lightner, she believes that society will eventually view alcohol the same way that we view cigarettes. "The data show that alcohol is dangerous," she says. "It's not healthy."

The World Health Organization, which refers to alcohol as "toxic," states that it's a "causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions." In fact, alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the NIAAA. In addition, a 2018 study published in the Lancet, which looked at alcohol use's effect on health, concluded that "the safest level of drinking is none."

Lightner acknowledges that drinking alcohol is "a choice that adults can make," but adds, "if you're going to light up a cigarette you are aware of the dangers, and we have to have that same mindset with alcohol."

The benefits of being a sober mom

The sober-curious movement, along with several celebrity moms, including Drew Barrymore and Chrissy Teigen, recently opening up about being sober, are helping to destigmatize drinking less or not at all. But the pervasiveness of alcohol — not only at weddings and other special occasions, but also at play dates, kids' birthday parties, work events, and school fundraisers — can make not drinking a challenge.

As Lightner puts it: "It is the only drug you have to explain why you don't use it."

It can also be hard to find other like-minded moms who don't drink. After Lightner decided to quit drinking in 2017, she found that she couldn't relate to the stories most of the people on sober social media sites were sharing. "There aren’t a lot of sober moms out there who say, 'I just drank every evening at dinner,'" Lightner says. "It was, 'I threw up and passed out and I lost my car and was so embarrassed.' That never resonated with me. I was just drinking almost daily in my home."

However, Lightner says the benefits of being sober outweigh any initial challenges, including more money in her bank account now that she and her husband, who also stopped drinking, no longer buy alcohol, which is expensive. "We sleep so much better because alcohol is very disruptive to your sleep," Lightner says.

For Yvonne, being sober isn't what she expected it to be — but in a good way. "Sober living is portrayed as boring and unrewarding, but I have found it to be anything but that," she says. "My life is fuller and more gratifying every day. I live present and focused on the blessings in my life [that] I almost drank away."

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