Social media loves a wine-sipping mom.
I realized this after getting my all-time most Instagram likes on a picture of me holding a giant iced wine, with the kids I was caring for out of frame but not out of mind. If you’re a mom with even a passing thirst for social media props, you’ve probably figured it out, too: the defiant wine shot will get you to double digits even quicker than a kid photo.
Moms In Need of Wine is an essential genre of social media humor, born out of a desire to defend moms’ freedom to have a goddamned wine if they want one. This is a good position, and a fair one, initially staked out in the Mommy Wars against the over-policing of maternal behavior. People seem to enjoy cheerleading for moms while they’re having a drink. It feels like cheering for the underdog. And, as a mom who drinks regularly and feels the dubious warmth of that Instagram love, I appreciate the intentions behind the people who heart the mom with a drink in her hand. But it also frustrates me, a lot. Here is why.
If you’re a mom and you’re tempted to share a photo of yourself drinking, here are the ground rules if you want to avoid flaccid jokes in the comments about “calling Child Services.” (Love that one, guys. So funny.)
First, you should be tidy. You should look happy. You should look generally under control. You should probably not be alone. Above all, you should not be drunk. Never surpass a demure buzz. Jane Marie, the former editor of Jezebel’s Millihelen, remarked in an email, “As long as the drinking has zero effect, you’re good. Like, since it is possible to have a glass of wine and not be inebriated, that’s okay, but god forbid a mom talks about smoking weed or something. A high mother? Are you insane? It even extends to the way we talk. I once called my kid a jerk in front of a group of moms—my daughter was not there but she WAS being a jerk—and you would’ve thought I called for her head.”
These rules, which are very real, indicate the rigid norms that still govern moms’ appearance and behavior. For all the defending of a mom’s right to drink, we sure do have to work for it!
Cutesy jokes and paraphernalia around moms and drinking (“Mommy’s Time Out” is a brand of wine that exists) is meant to create an inclusive space for moms who enjoy the occasional glass of wine, but the effect does the opposite of normalizing moms who drink. Moms Drinking ™ is not a step in the right direction; it shines an unnecessary spotlight on something that should be no more unusual than Moms Being Adult Women™. Is it necessary to make cutesy jokes about moms and wine because the idea that moms could exist untethered from their children is too scary?
There’s something deeply ironic to me about the notion that having a drink or going out with friends could ever pose a threat to my identity as a mother. Motherhood is so totalizing an experience, so oceanic in its scope, that it would take way more than a few drinks, even followed by a mild and very regrettable hangover, to make me forget I’m a mom—or to create a set of circumstances where my kids were actually endangered. I contain within me an overheating server farm of granular data about my children. Even if I wanted to forget they existed for a few hours, I couldn’t; they take up so much space in my brain.
Yes, there are mothers who put their children in danger because of substance abuse. More on that further down. But I don’t think it’s controversial to state that they make up a minority of mothers. Most mothers don’t endanger their kids: their transgressions, if you want to call them that, are moderate and permissible. Most mothers I know have a civilization-perpetuatingly strong commitment to the well-being of their children. Their desire to have a drink should not deserve its own type of wine, or its own cutesy label. When I am enjoying a highball with another mother, we are not “having mommy time.” We are two women drinking.
Heterosexual families have reached a point on the housework-sharing evolutionary continuum that I would characterize as “The Self-Deprecating Dad Years.” Most dads know they are socially expected to pick up more slack at home, but the rubber hasn’t really hit the road yet, so to speak. My household’s distribution of labor is more traditional than I would like it to be—my husband would be the first to admit it. One of the ways he makes up for this is to always encourage me to hang out with my friends or have a drink at the end of the day. His friends seem to have picked up on this and they, too, are enthusiastic supporters whenever I “kick back” around them.
“If mom’s happy, everyone’s happy,” right? Well, the real problem would take a lot more work for us to address: I do more childcare and general household-running than he does, and my relaxation happens within a pretty rigid framework determined by my responsibilities as a mom. Rather than clink glasses with me, it would be far better for him to unburden me of some of these obligations. We’re working on this balancing act, and I have a feeling we’re not alone.
The elephant in the room is substance abuse. I mean, we are talking about a mood-altering substance. When the consensus on your social feeds seems to be that you deserve a drink and fuck anyone who stands in your way, it’s easy to see how unhealthy behavior can be justified.
In 2009, Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, author of best-selling humor books in the mom-needs-a-drink genre, Sippy Cups are Not For Chardonnay and Nap Time Is the New Happy Hour, announced her decision to quit drinking on her blog. Her readers were vocal in their support and some admitted, in the comments section, that they were considering joining her on the wagon. (Wilder-Taylor’s most recent book, Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic, came out this past spring.)
The fact that moms are as deeply flawed a demographic as any other should not surprise anyone, yet the notion of an alcoholic mom is more shameful and sensational than that of an alcoholic dad. Some moms drink too much. They will do so with or without a chorus of “you-go-girl”s. In an email, Wilder-Taylor wrote, “I still understand the inherent humor in talking about ‘mommy needs a drink’ etc. When used, not overused, it gives moms the sense that we’re all in this together. I know that plenty of moms may joke about drinking a lot when in reality they only have a glass or two. The problem is when there is so much of that messaging, that moms don’t see any other way that people unwind besides drinking. And for women that may have a tendency toward addiction, that is dangerous.”
I used to work for a men’s magazine. We repeated the same advice to young men on an endless loop with slight variations: Confidence is important. Many of your problems are caused by a lack of it. You can fake confidence until, after a while, you’ll find that you really possess it. That’s how it works. That’s the whole trick.
Meanwhile, motherhood media is a discourse of commiseration haunted by perfectionism. In one respect, this can be helpful. I’m grateful to know, when I’m struggling with my children and with my own identity, that I’m not alone. It helps to laugh, to nod in recognition when your kids are making you feel miserable. But the whole enterprise would be a lot more fun if moms were encouraged to be blindly, brazenly confident every once in awhile. (And: more confidence is also a good example for our children, if we must insist that everything moms do contain a nug of utility for the greater good.)
It frustrates me that media messaging around moms and drinking is either defiant or condemnatory. I wish we could speak to moms without having to address invisible specters of disapproval and self-doubt. (Wait: have I been talking about the patriarchy this entire time?) Having a drink does not have to be framed as a stealthy escape from the bonds of family. It can exist alongside it, just like it does for dads. Have a drink because you feel like it, and because you trust yourself, and because you’re an adult.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and graduate student in Montreal.