A thriving "mummy drinking culture", which portrays alcohol as essential for problem-solving and dealing with stress, may be encouraging drinking at risky levels. By Nicky Pellegrino.
If you spend any time on social-media sites, you'll have seen memes such as these in your newsfeed. "Did you know … two to three glasses of wine a day reduces your risk of feeling super annoyed at everything you need to do around the house?" Or: "If you eat well, and get lots of sleep, and do exercise, and drink water … you'll die anyway so open the wine!"
"Mummy drinking culture" is thriving. There are Facebook communities with names such as Mummy Needs A Wine and Mommy Needs A Vodka. There are T-shirts, mugs, coasters and even baby onesies with the words "I'm the reason Mummy drinks" emblazoned on them. And the alcohol industry has helpfully produced a growing range of Instagram-friendly pink beers, ciders and wines.
Much of the pro-alcohol content is amusing and may be enjoyed by mothers facing the challenges of parenthood, but Australian experts say it also has a darker side, normalising unhealthy drinking and minimising its risks.
Anne-Marie Laslett is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research in Melbourne and among the authors of a recent paper examining the way mummy drinking culture portrays alcohol as essential to dealing with the stresses of everyday life, and how it may encourage drinking at risky levels.
"Alcohol is pushed as an easy solution that will meet women's needs and solve their problems," she says. "For those who are stressed and struggling to be a good parent, juggling multiple roles, it humourises and arguably diminishes their real need for support, freedom and more time."
The pandemic has intensified the stress on families, increasing isolation and anxiety, and more alcohol has tended to be consumed inside the home, rather than in bars and restaurants. Mummy drinking culture is not likely to exacerbate family violence – historically, men's drinking is the problem there – but in those sorts of difficult situations, women may turn to alcohol to cope.
It is tricky to prove how involved the alcohol industry is in the messaging around women and drink, and where exactly all those humorous memes originate. "But the industry very much benefits from the hashtagging of brands and the memes and, essentially, receives low-cost underground advertising," says Laslett.
Although drinking excessively is bad for everyone, women have higher risks. Generally, they weigh less than men, have a lower body-water percentage, and female livers produce less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. So, drinking the same amount as a man will result in a higher blood-alcohol concentration and a greater risk of harm to health. The harm includes liver damage, heart disease and effects on parts of the brain involved in memory and decision-making.
Hormones are also affected. Studies show that women who consume about one alcoholic drink a day have a 5-9 per cent higher chance of developing breast cancer than those who don't drink at all. The risk increases for every extra drink they have a day.
There has been some push-back against mummy drinking culture. Alternative online sites have emerged that promote the sober-curious movement and support those who are trying to drink less or not at all. A sign this has made an impression on the industry is the recent proliferation of alternative beverages such as seltzers, distilled non-alcoholic spirits and drinks that mimic the experience of drinking alcohol, without any actual alcohol.
Lotta Dann, the Wellington-based author of The Wine O'Clock Myth, is encouraged by this, but believes there is still a long way to go. Dann stopped drinking a decade ago and has since spearheaded a Living Sober movement.
"We're not wowsers," she says. "Alcohol isn't going anywhere and nor should it, because people have a right to choose and not everyone struggles."
The problem comes for those who are struggling or perhaps are "grey-area drinkers", so not at rock bottom but regularly polishing off too many wines and feeling anxious about it.
"Mummy drinking culture is all light and fun," says Dann. "But if you're a person who's even slightly not having a good time with alcohol, seeing those memes can be powerful and damaging. You feel like you're outside the joke, that everyone else is having a good time and you're broken and weak. So, we're isolating those people who are struggling."
Dann would like to see alcohol marketing restricted just as tobacco promotion has been, and a ban on pro-alcohol content. "You don't see memes about smoking," she says. "We need a broader regulation change to create an environment that isn't so glamourising and normalising."
A few wines represent a treat, me-time after a long day, and while researching her book, Dann spoke to women who said their friendships centred on it and they worried they would lose those friends if they stopped drinking.
"The bottom line is alcohol is a drug and it works," she says. "When you take that first sip, you get that dopamine hit and instant warmth. But, going forward, it does the opposite of what you want it to."