There’s a play gym a few towns over that my kids and I visit occasionally on rainy days. It’s in the basement of an old mill building and looks like the kind of place that had a particularly dreary existence before it was reincarnated as a welcome respite for beleaguered mothers. Replete with bounce houses and climbing structures, trampolines and a fleet of ride-on toys, this place is basically Vegas for toddlers.
On one particular day, I was watching my boys navigate the indoor jungle gym while, beside me, a handful of older kids decorated mugs in the gym’s pottery painting area. It wasn’t until I got up to help my older son that I noticed the oversized wine goblet on display there. The sign propped up next to it read, “Treat mom to a glass of wine. She deserves it.”
As someone who was routinely drinking two or three glasses of wine a night at that point, it was the first time that sentiment had ever bothered me. Maybe it was because I was feeling a little exposed, having watched my 30-something year old girlfriend drink herself into oblivion at a ladies’ night the weekend before and recognizing myself in her. Or maybe it was because I’d had a hard morning and, for all intents and purposes, had gone there to escape my kids. Whatever the reason, my defenses were down and something in me snapped a little.
When exactly did alcohol become the consolation prize for motherhood? I wondered. And when did I start caring?
I’ve never been the type to turn down a drink. Another screwdriver when I was already solidly drunk off the past three? Pour away. A round of shots in a friend’s kitchen at 2 AM on a Wednesday? You wouldn’t catch me missing out. I couldn’t relate to people who could take or leave alcohol; I drank with a purpose and waving off the bottle when I’d had enough certainly didn’t help me achieve that end. On the rare occasion I met someone who said she didn’t really enjoy drinking, I’d stare at her with a sort of morbid fascination, like I was sizing up an alien life form. But you do know how awesome alcohol is, right? I’d wonder to myself. I respected the decision; I just didn’t understand it.
In my early twenties, indulging in this kind of hobby was expected of me. What else did young, childless professionals do on a Thursday through Sunday besides gather in a too-small space and celebrate the joy of communal drunkenness? I was sure that once my husband and I settled down and had kids, alcohol would fall away as a central pastime, to be replaced by outings at the pumpkin patch and trips to the children’s museum.
This was true, in a way. Once I became someone’s mother, I wasn’t slugging down vodka tonics before an afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese or tossing back multiple shots of Jäger on a Tuesday night with an infant asleep in the bassinet beside me. That would be irresponsible. Rather I found a loophole; a socially acceptable way to keep alcohol in my life. I switched to wine.
Moms drink wine. I came to learn that quickly after becoming one myself. I’d never been a beer drinker and had favored hard liquor in my younger years, but responsible adults with children who depend on them don’t gulp down Long Island Iced Teas like the answers to life’s eternal questions lie at the bottom of the glass. They sip White Zinfandel with their Hamburger Helper or curl up on the couch after the kids are in bed with a hefty glass of Merlot and a Real Housewives marathon.
I already enjoyed wine, so it was easy to switch to it as my fulltime drink of choice. In my usual all-or-nothing style, I decided to really embrace it. The first Christmas I was a mother, I asked for a set of wine glasses to replace the mismatched few we had. There wasn’t enough room in our too-small kitchen to store them but I displaced the crockpot and half the water glasses to give them cabinet space preference. They made me feel fancy.
As it had been in the past, alcohol was still a significant presence in my life without my life revolving around it. I wasn’t spending days at home with my kids sniffing open bottles and wishing I could start drinking at nap time. It was more like I’d suddenly remember alcohol existed and the thought of having a drink later would carry me through the rest of the afternoon. It was my reward on the good days and my consolation on the bad ones; whatever the question, wine was the answer.
Some nights I didn’t even feel like drinking by the time I finally got the kids to bed and flopped down on the couch. But it’s like when you dream all day of the chocolate cake you’re going to have after dinner; even if you’re a little too full when the time actually comes, you force it out of ceremony. Sometimes it was more about the idea of an indulgence I deserved than the actual pleasure derived from indulging.
At the time I became a mother, Facebook memes were starting to become a fixture in the online world. I found most of them hilarious and they had the added benefit of supporting my “I deserve it” mentality. “A mother’s sacrifice isn’t giving birth. It’s the nine months without wine.” “Someday when you have kids of your own, you’ll understand why mommy drinks.” “We drink coffee because we need it and wine because we deserve it.” I’ve always gotten easily swept up in the mob mentality, but this particular dogma hit me in my Achilles’ heel. Lonely and struggling under the weight of new motherhood, all I wanted was a point of connection with other moms who understood how I felt. Wine turned out to be it.
One afternoon, a month or two after I started running my own Facebook page for moms, I took a picture of my hysterical infant and juxtaposed it with my nearly-full glass of Pinot Grigio for a split screen effect. “Rough day at the office,” the caption read. It got more likes than nearly anything I’d posted thus far. Since starting my blog, I’d been busting my ass to publish commentaries on the sorry state of postpartum care in the United States, humorous quips about friendships among new mothers, and Pinterest-worthy sensory activities for babies. None of them seemed to be gaining all that much traction.
But wine? Wine proved to be the great mommy equalizer. After that, I knew if I wanted a few laughs or “Amens!” from the other moms, all I had to do was throw up a post before noon about how I could already taste the wine I was going to enjoy later. It felt like I had a cheering section.
When I look back now on my Facebook posts from years past, the desperation is palpable. In one, there’s a picture of a half-drunk glass of Cabernet with a toy-littered room as the backdrop. It was posted at 5:15 PM on a Tuesday. The caption reads, “There are towels to fold. Counters to wipe. Toys to put away. A sink full of dishes and a dishwasher to unload. But my husband is 10 minutes away, my son is taking a nap, and mama is loving this wine.” Another picture of my hands wrapped around a coffee mug simply says, “First spiked cider of the season brought to you by teething.”
Even now, I can remember those instances so clearly, how assured I felt that pouring a drink would ease the strain of impatience, exhaustion, loneliness. What I really meant in those captions is so clear to me now. Tell me this is okay. Let me know I’m not alone. Please say you need an escape from motherhood, too. One by one, the other mothers’ likes would let me know what none of us could ever acknowledge out loud: some days this job is more than we can handle.
When an official diagnosis for a problem exists somewhere, it’s easy to wave off anything slightly below that standard and call it good. It’s like when your car goes into the shop for an inspection and it somehow passes despite the sticky passenger door, broken A.C, and faulty odometer. There’s still plenty wrong with the car, but, according to the inspector’s criteria, not enough to keep it off the road.
The same went for me. I wasn’t an alcoholic by official standards; I didn’t regularly black out, cut down on other once-enjoyed activities in favor of drinking, or fail to take care of my obligations due to being drunk or hungover. I’d never been in legal trouble for drinking and I’d venture to guess that almost no one in my life thought I had a problem. I was just an overworked mother who drank three glasses of wine a night to survive her children and, dammit, I deserved it.
Simply put, I’d managed to pass the inspection, but black smoke was pouring out of the hood and the wheels were falling off.
Motherhood didn’t make me a borderline alcoholic; it just made it easier to justify being one. A barrage of Facebook memes about moms deserving wine didn’t put the bottle in my hand; it only made it easier to pour it without guilt. I don’t blame anyone or anything else for my drinking problem. I alone am the reason I let it go so far. Like the eating disorder I battled in my early twenties, alcoholism was a symptom of a much bigger issue: I was unhappy and, until I got to the root of that unhappiness, I was always going to need something to make life feel more manageable.
This isn’t a story about how I found myself sobering up in a jail cell after a DUI that threatened my life. It isn’t a story about how I had an epiphany one day when I almost dropped my baby after one too many glasses of wine. It isn’t even a story about how I quit drinking, because I haven’t done that either. It’s a story about how I finally got to the root of my unhappiness and, in the process, stopped needing wine to dull my emotions. It’s a story about how I learned to stare down the hardest parts of motherhood and sit with that discomfort instead of numbing it with three glasses of Cabernet every single night of the week. It’s a story about someone who was almost an alcoholic but, thankfully, stopped herself just short of becoming one.
I still drink. Maybe that’s not wise for someone like me with a history of addictive behaviors, but it’s what works for me right now. In the beginning, I had strict rules about my relationship with alcohol: I didn’t drink during the week at all and, if I drank on the weekends, I’d consume only one glass but never more than two at a time. I couldn’t drink two days in a row and, if I had a bad day, I had to avoid alcohol altogether and find a different solution to get through those feelings. As I’ve proven to myself that I can handle the occasional glass of wine during the week, I’ve loosened the reins a little. Not much, but a little. My last rule still stands though: alcohol can no longer be used as an escape, reward, or catharsis.
I don’t share wine memes anymore or make jokes about motherhood that end with alcohol as the punchline either. It’s not that I’ve stopped finding them funny, because, truthfully, that’s exactly my type of humor. The reason I don’t do it is because, instead of sharing a quick joke for an easy laugh, I want to do the harder work of talking about the parts of motherhood that make drowning it all out seem so tempting. There’s a reason why drunk mommy culture exists at all and my suspicion is that it’s not because mothers just happen to really like the taste of fermented grapes.
It’s something bigger; something that points to the demands made on us as mothers and women who are expected to be perfect but can never quite measure up. It’s something that makes us want to drown out the discomfort of motherhood in 750 milliliter increments rather than lean into the feeling. It’s something that has us hardwired to think if we’re in it together, we can’t be wrong. I haven’t quite puzzled out those reasons yet, but I’m positive I never will if I keep recycling the same old punchlines.
This morning, my younger son fell and split open his eyelid on the sharp corner of our entertainment center. The gash was fairly deep and, unsure whether or not it would require stitches, I rushed him to the pediatrician’s office to have her make the call. A couple mildly traumatizing hours later, his cut was glued and bandaged and we were headed out to the parking lot. The nurse caught my eye as we turned to leave. “You’ve had a rough day already, mom,” she laughed. “Go home and have a glass of wine at naptime. You deserve it.”
All I could do was smile as we walked out the door into the sunshine.