by Celia Bryan-Brown

Why Can’t We Accept Mothers Who Drink?

The ‘Wine Mom’ has become an infamous staple of popular culture. She loves a meme, her personalised ‘mummy juice’ glassware and sassy ‘wine o’clock’ kitchen signage – and she can’t resist the lure of a crisp glass of Sauvignon. She populates social media forums dedicated to women who are isolated and often lonely, imprisoned by the sole company of miniature people who don’t yet have an understanding of linear time — let alone why they shouldn’t follow her into the loo. If you’ve ever been at the sharp end of a day juggling teething babies and rampaging toddlers, you’ll understand the impulse to treat a glass of wine as a gateway back to Adult Land. But instead of being allowed to chat, sip, and commiserate her way through early motherhood, she has become the subject of scrutiny by her abstinent peers, nascent commercialisation and, increasingly, a media dialogue ‘concerned’ with parental alcoholism.

The syllogism between mothers and drink is long established. Boozy mums have been part of popular culture since Hogarth’s 18th century Rake’s Progress, featuring drunken mothers sprawling across the pavements of Gin Lane. There’s a reason gin was once best known known as ‘mothers’ ruin’. Fast forward three centuries, and women who drink still get a bad rap in popular culture – from the tabloids to mainstream press. And a MUM who drinks? There’s a special kind of vilification reserved just for her. The ‘Wine Mom’ is a slanted archetype – the Virgin Mary sloshed – and our ridicule of her is not harmless.

Catherine Connor of Her Bad Mother has devoted many column inches to motherhood as a totalising identity marker. Place the ‘Wine Mom’ trope in this context, and a real conflict emerges between an individual’s agency and their decision whether or not to drink pink sunshine wine. It reveals a deep-running societal expectation that women subvert themselves to conventionally ‘womanly’ roles – such as motherhood. To combat the discomfort created by women breaking with the rules, the ‘Wine Mom’ became a joke. And as soon as she became a joke, she became a commodity; and social media, eCommerce sites and mass media companies are the ones profiting.

Initially, the wine mums of social media feeds, Netmums forums and the blogosphere were a breath of fresh air in a media narrative which was overwhelming geared towards a rose-tinted picture of effortless motherhood. The original naysayers – The Unmumsy Mum, Slummy Mummy, Hurrah for Gin: they made it possible for mothers to acknowledge the parental trudge, to commiserate and seek comfort in internet forums where taboos such as drinking a glass of wine at bath time were celebrated rather than admonished. They were women before they were mothers.

In a storm of media consternation about the rise and rise of parental alcoholism, Facebook blogger and author Gill Sims of Peter and Jane, neatly summarises the nub of why these ‘Wine Moms’ went online in the first place:

“Mummy with a wineglass” blogs are easy to dismiss as “attention-seeking or flippant, but they also serve a serious role. The wineglass thing allows other parents to relax and open up in a non-threatening setting, as was illustrated when I posted about post-natal depression: so many women felt able to share their experiences and reassure each other.”

But our society (read: marketers and the media), sees women – far more so than men – as perpetually primed for self-reinvention. The freshness of the ‘Wine Mom’ narrative quickly became stale. In her book Speaking Personally, journalism professor Ros Coward examines the rise of subjective, confessional journalism. Of mummy bloggers specifically, she cites those who have rejected the narrative of perfect parenthood for a caricature of imperfection. False self-deprecation becomes just as harmful and impenetrable as the ‘underlying smugness’ which rules the traditional narrative of motherhood. It’s gone so far in the other direction that wine o’clock selfies are now less empowering, more infantilising.

Obviously, there are some basic problems with a subculture of mums drinking wine to cope with the unruly behaviour of their children. But I think that the conflation of agency and alcohol is the more dangerous element – especially as it becomes ever more commercialised. There’s a whole industry founded on homeware and intentionally marketed alcohol which exploits the idea that ‘mums-drink-too-much-but-it’s-funny’ – and people whose views are ostensibly moderate are being provoked into extreme responses. It’s no wonder that, in publishers’ eyes, the time is right for a slew of books about abstinence.

Ultimately, where an addictive substance like alcohol is concerned, it is right to be conscious of personal limits – but it cannot be right for commercial entities to stir up extreme responses to mums drinking either way. And it is certainly immoral for them to make a quick buck pervasively marketing themselves and their products to women in the throes of exhaustion and isolation. The success of the ‘Wine Mom’ movement has self-cannibalised – but there is still a kernel of pure, harmless escapism at its heart. It’s time to let women bare the scars of motherhood with pride once more and toast their survival with a G&T – or just a T. The important thing is that it is their choice.

Image © Shutterstock

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