In late March of last year, amid stay-at-home orders and school shutdowns, a Facebook group identifying itself as “a place for Hot Mess Mamas” posted a photo of four glasses of red wine at various levels of fullness. Slapped onto the image was bold text reading, “Today’s Homeschool Lesson ‘Fractions.’” There was a number under each glass: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1. “Any ideas for algebra?” asked the caption, tacking on a host of hashtags: #wine, #winemom, #momwines, #momdrinks, #badmom, and #funnymom.
In the coming weeks, as parents adapted en masse to home or virtual schooling, the page featured more joke lesson plans, several involving wine corks used to demonstrate everything from addition to “BUOYANCY & wine displacement.” In the latter case, three corks were bound together in a makeshift raft and floated in a glass of red wine. The image again featured the notable hashtag: #winemom.
That first Facebook post featuring wine glasses was recently highlighted in a paper published in the journal Sociology Compass examining the rise of the “wine mom” discourse, which manifests in everything from “Mommy juice” wine tumblers to memes reading “THE MOST EXPENSIVE PART OF HAVING KIDS IS ALL THE WINE YOU HAVE TO DRINK.” It’s a wry, humorous phenomenon embraced by mostly white, middle- to upper-class women who “self‐deprecatingly” bond “over the stressors of parenting,” it “touts alcohol use as necessary means for coping and escapism,” explain academics Harmony Newman and Kyle Anne Nelson in their journal article.
They argue that this “constitutes a false resistance, masking conformity to society’s unattainable standards of mothering and unequal systems that oppress women and inhibit well‐being.” All that irreverent endurance traps moms in a punishing paradigm: they rebel just enough to get through the day without ever escaping the impossible maternal ideal.
It’s not just the wine mom discourse that does this. Just as that meme first gained traction around 2015, so did similar motherhood takes. The Facebook group Unicorn Moms launched with the declaration that perfect moms, like unicorns, “don’t exist.” Then in 2016 came the wildly popular #IMomSoHard YouTube series, which, as I wrote previously, provides comedic rants on “kid germs, clueless husbands who put clean diapers on top of dirty diapers, and the tyranny of Pinterest cake pops,” alongside a cheeky celebration of wine, or “happy juice.”
That same year saw the release of the Hollywood film Bad Moms, which depicts a group of women who, falling short of a PTA ideal, raucously reject maternal mandates in a booze-filled night of revelry.
We live in an age of “sassy mom merch,” as Jia Tolentino put it, that doesn’t just celebrate “coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime,” but also dryly announces via t-shirt: “Thou Shall Not Try Me: Mood 24:7.” Moms are allowed these small, Instagram-friendly dissents, none of which offer an actual challenge to the systemic nature of mothers’ exhaustion and overwhelm. “All [of these things] are connected in that they’re responses to this oppressive set of expectations in terms of what mothers should be,” says Newman.
Those expectations are what is known as “intensive parenting,” a style of childrearing that emerged against the backdrop of growing economic inequality and a lack of social supports, and which sees parents fiercely dedicated to ensuring their children’s future success and stability. Moms are uniquely implicated in the demands of the intensive approach: As Newman and Nelson write, moms “must be physically and mentally healthy, hold a positive attitude, and maintain high energy levels while constantly providing children with safe and well‐resourced homes, nutritious meals and nurturing activities, educational stimulation, and endless devotion.”
This norm is reflected in an oft-repeated statistic: Mothers who work outside of the home spend as much time on childcare as stay-at-home moms in the ’70s.
The majority of parents now endorse the intensive approach, or what’s sometimes called “concerted cultivation.” That is true across socioeconomic backgrounds. “Even mothers who have absolutely no way of meeting those standards feel pressure to conform,” says Newman. The vaunting of intensive parenting ignores those disparities in access, particularly for mothers of color, LGBTQIA moms, and poor moms. Of course, social policies in the U.S. fail to support this widespread value, instead putting pressure for care entirely on individuals—but, really, moms.
That is why, as one popular hashtag puts it, #mommyneedsadrink. The wine mom concept first emerged in the 2010s when wine producers began targeting moms. The competition for this market was heated enough that it sparked a lawsuit between the competing wine brands Mommy Juice and Mommy’s Time Out. As the New York Times reported in 2011, “rival vintners are fighting over the use of the word ‘Mommy’ on their wine labels.” In the coming years, the phenomenon was mainstreamed by all those “mommy needs her wine” memes.
Recently, there has been a critical shift in the discourse around the wine mom, evident in a recent Saturday Night Live skit featuring a birthday party where a woman is gifted a mountain of decorative signs by her mom friends with progressively questionable messages. “Wine gets better with age, I get better with wine,” reads the first. Soon, she unwraps one declaring, simply, “I drink too much.” Eventually, disturbed, she reads aloud, “I put wine bottles in other people’s recycling bins so the garbage men won’t know how much I go through in a week.”
In 2018, journalists started sounding the wine mom alarm, raising questions about addiction and substance abuse. Women began to speak out about the difficulty of sobriety amid “wine mom culture.” Some drew connections to the history of widely prescribing women benzodiazepines, or “mother’s little helper,” in the ’6os and ’70s to assist with the stresses of motherhood. Now, of course, the pandemic has exacerbated concerns around the wine mom: A recent RAND study found that drinking has dramatically risen during the pandemic, especially with women. Last fall, the New York Times reported on both moms and dads who were drinking and smoking pot to cope with the stress of parenting through the pandemic. Even before covid-19, though, “rates of heavy drinking and alcohol‐related illnesses among US women have been steadily increasing,” observe Newman and Nelson.
It’s no surprise that the “imperfect” or “bad mom” arose alongside the wine mom: All are a reaction to intensive parenting. Much like an irreverently celebrated bottle of wine after a long day of parenting, the film Bad Moms shows overburdened mothers turning to a drunken party “as temporary therapy,” writes the sociologist Jo Littler in the journal Cultural Studies.
She argues that Bad Moms falls within a broader phenomenon of TV and film depicting “mothers behaving badly.” That bad behavior typically results from stress related to “overwork culture” and “partners who do not or who are not able to co-share parenting in a fully egalitarian fashion,” she writes. Films like Bad Moms propose a solution to this stress: “short blasts of lifestyle hedonism, which entail drinking, partying, female camaraderie and hyperconsumption.”
These fictional moms learn to offer “minor challenges to the patriarchy” alongside a large heaping of neoliberal ideologies that suggest work-life balance is possible for moms who “have the right mindset and lean in,” argues Littler. But, in this fictional realm, “bad mom” revelry is specifically cast as liberation for white moms. It seems black characters “cannot take part in the fun: instead, they are either absent, or are depicted policing and spoiling it.” Only some moms get to momentarily reject the constraints of maternal goodness. Only some moms, those cast by default as “good,” have the privilege to play with being “bad.”
Nelson, herself a mom, quit drinking three years ago. “I didn’t think I was a victim of the wine culture, but it enabled me,” she says. Around this time, Newman and Nelson started talking as friends and colleagues about the wine mom phenomenon and swapping notes on everyday encounters with it. One such encounter was a Mother’s Day advertisement that Nelson came across while eight months sober for a bottle of wine that read, “Dear Mom, I love you more than you love wine.” It’s not just that this culture enables unhealthy relationships to alcohol, she says, but that it also fundamentally reinforces intensive mothering standards.
As I wrote in 2019 about the #IMomSoHard comedy duo: “Their schtick is one of rebelling against, sometimes guiltily succumbing to, but never actually escaping the paradigm of perfect motherhood. ... It’s a brand of laughs with the potential for catharsis and mild disobedience, but it also runs the risk of bolstering stereotypes and numbing the pain of parental inequity (like so many glasses of red wine).” Wine mom and bad mom culture are a means of coping with punishing maternal expectation. They provide temporary relief in the service of survival, but not revolution.
Newman and Nelson suggest that we could look away from the “wine mom” toward healthier coping scripts—say, the “yoga/mindful mom.” Ultimately, though, that isn’t rebellion, either. It’s just a better way of making do with the current reality. “It’s hard to imagine a true rebellion that doesn’t include structural supports because then we’re looking for individual solutions to social problems,” says Newman. Similarly, Littler suggests progressive change comes from a move away from “mothers behaving badly” toward a trope of “parents behaving politically.”
Of course, parents can always individually reject intensive parenting standards, but that doesn’t change the economic divides and lack of structural support that helped birth those standards. “You would still come up against so many barriers,” she says. “Rebellion on the individual level only goes so far. It has to be on the macro level, it has to be social.” That social change might include policy action around work-life balance for mothers, wage equity, universal childcare, and long-term parental leave, as well as electing more women into public office. “We’re crawling there with some changes in policy,” says Nelson.
In the meantime, moms will continue to grasp for small rebellions, moments of connection, and ways of coping.