Mummy's little helper: The truth about parents and alcohol

Wine at a play date. Another to get through bath-time. Parents are using alcohol to take the stress out of child rearing. Problem?

Clare Dwyer Hogg
Saturday 15 January 2011 01:00

On the street parallel to mine, there's a chain pub ("Now open 8am!") that saves money on ambience so it can sell cheap alcohol. If you walk past at 9am, there are usually a couple of old men sitting outside in silence with a pint. At 3pm, it's a much busier, social affair, the space between the tables blocked by buggies, while older children, fresh out of school, run around eating crisps as their parents have a drink.

Before I had a baby, I used to witness this and think it was a shame that the children were having a play-date in a pub. And then I had a child of my own. As a result, I found myself socialising with other mothers during the day, usually in cafés and bars that had enough room to squish in eight buggies and their owners, with nappy bags, general paraphernalia, and a large aura of stereotype (hard to shake, despite resistance).

I'd meet the other mothers up the hill from the chain pub, in an area best defined as Nappy Valley. Most people who live there work in the media or are a lawyer or maybe an accountant, but most likely a lawyer. It's less than a mile away from the chain pub, but houses cost a lot more, the bars and cafés are about six rungs up the social ladder, buggies are more likely to have the "off-road" capability, and there is a proliferation of boutiques selling organic baby products. In the first year of my daughter's life, I spent a lot of time there. The child-friendly spaces where we'd meet would be filled with parents who had just picked up their children from school. The children had expensive milkshakes and were complaining about the organic chicken goujons they were eating, and many of the parents trying to placate them were drinking wine in glasses the size of cereal bowls.

Take away the ambience, replace the organics with crisps, change a few brand names here and there, and there's not much difference from the scene going on down the road. It's disingenuous to ignore the difference in financial and social terms, but the presence of alcohol is a link that withstands any sort of social veneer.

Even when alcohol was not physically present at parental get-togethers, I found it wormed its way into our conversations. Many of the new mothers I meet (this is not to ignore fathers, just that mothers tend to be the ones knocking around during the day with the baby) say that even if they draw the line at drinking when their child is awake, they're desperate to crack open a bottle of wine as soon as they've put the baby to bed. It seems to be a near universal way of crossing the border between being with the baby and Adultsville.

I have never been a big drinker, and know I wouldn't really find it relaxing to drink during the day if I'm with my toddler, so I generally don't. I do know, though, that many nights, as I quietly close the door after putting my baby to bed, a glass of wine pops into my mind as a great idea. I often take myself up on the offer. A glass of wine (or a G&T or beer, depending on your preference) has come to symbolise a lovely reward for getting through the day.

That was charlotte's logic for a time, at least. A bubbly, outgoing fashion buyer in her mid-thirties, married with one daughter, she was used to being in demand professionally and socially. She admits though, after her daughter Ada was born, she went through a two-year period when alcohol was her security blanket. And just one glass certainly wasn't enough. "Once she was old enough to be a bit more reliable in terms of patterns – just over a year old – a glass of wine signalled the end of the 'working day' for me," she says. "Then of course, never having been a one-glass girl, this ended up being most of a bottle – often shared with other half but often not."

But then the daytime started to look a bit like the run-up to drinking time. "I'd start thinking about it mid-afternoon when the day was wearing on," Charlotte says, "and what started as a glass after bedtime became a glass at Ada's bathtime. It made it so much more bearable and actually fun, as this tends to be the most fractious time of day for both of us. Patience was extended with a prop of booze."

The problem was, hindsight reveals, that if the celebration drink for getting near the end of the day started at 6.30pm, the open bottle became the source of entertainment for the rest of the evening. It was, in essence, her handy escape route for the stresses of the day. On reflection, Charlotte thinks it was a sign that she felt deprived of adult company, and couldn't muster any other tangible way of dealing with the drastic change of life and routine that having a child brings.

"Now Ada is older and much easier to handle, and my adult life is back to something like a norm again, I find the need is less," she says. That hasn't made her change her position on alcohol, though. "I am in no way against parents drinking to get by," she says firmly. "In fact, within reason, I am an advocate. Happy parent: happy child." And while she qualifies, saying there's a fine line between drinking to relax and overdoing it, she is adamant that the image of Alpha Mother is a skewed way to approach being a parent. "I think there's a lot of pressure on mothers to be this self-sufficient machine running on nothing but altruism. Which is clearly rubbish. Everyone needs a release and some tools of the trade. It's learning to manage them that's the smart bit."

Liz would agree. As a freelance writer, and (recently) single parent of Eve who is nearly two, her schedule has little down-time. Wine isn't an option at lunch, but at the close of a day, it's her gateway to relaxation. "It's a bit of a worry that I rarely go an evening without," she says, "but it feels like such a necessity, and does so neatly draw a line beneath my parenting duties at the end of the day. It's a reward. Having a glass or two an evening stops me from continually dashing about. Since becoming a mum, there's always something that needs doing, but after a glass of wine those things seem to lose importance."

It's a familiar story for Angela, aged 35, a proof-reader and mother of two boys under five, but her trick is to put strict boundaries on the timing of her alcoholic rewards. Recently, she began only drinking alcohol at weekends. "It's scarily easy to be a nicer parent after a glass of rioja and I just don't want to go down that slippery slope," she says in explanation. "I've bathed my kids in a merry cloud before and I always hate myself for it. It's not fair to them – they can't filter why you're suddenly prepared to play games when you'd normally rush through the bath part of the day, and I think it's horrible to sort of confound them like that." Her decision comes in part from her own experience of being parented. "My mum is a big drinker and I've always hated that sense of wondering which 'her' you're going to get. I'd hate my children to look back and realise booze was a crutch for coping."

Raising her consumption of alcohol to a level of consciousness (ie, not just mindlessly opening a beer that happens to be in the fridge) and putting in boundary lines (bottle of beer only accessible at the weekend) has worked – as has inputting new rituals for weekday evenings (a pot of tea, a chilled soft drink) that have none of what Angela calls the "scary possibilities" associated with alcohol. "Now I totally relish a bottle of wine savoured with my husband – instead of routinely opening one in exasperation and necking it for the numbing effect instead of the taste!"

Numbing effect. Not a desire exclusive to parents, posits Phillip Hodson, therapist and fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, but it's inevitable that societal norms do play a part in the triangle of parenthood, stress, and alcohol as a stress-reliever. "We live in an alcohol-dependent culture, and the British culture more so than many others," Hodson thinks. "We all know that raising children is the most important and difficult task given to human beings, and there's an ineluctable traction between the stress of parenthood and drink," he says. "But society's approval or disapproval is a big controller of the consumption of alcohol; and we have a gloriously ignorant welcoming of a state of inebriation as a good thing." Couple this with a perception that there's a Right Way to be a parent, and when the inevitable failure to hit that ideal occurs, there's always a fall-back plan...

Is it a tired old media trope that striving for imagined ideals ("celebrities" and their startlingly flat tummies after birth, for instance) makes for disappointed "normal" people who must then seek comfort from their failures? (If it is any comfort, insiders have been known to say that said perfect tummies, particularly in LA, are often helped along by the tummy tuck that happens close to the planned Caesarian.) It's quite plain to see how the cacophony of idealised images of family life, as played out by certain Hollywood stars, along with that choir of "expert" voices on loop telling parents what they and their offspring should be feeling/doing/desiring/achieving, often serve to widen the gap between action and satisfaction when it comes to parenting.

"We're hyperconscious of everything," Hodson says. "We're actually designed to run on autopilot most of the time, but now we're constantly thinking." What he would call guilt-making issues (Should I leave my child to cry or not cry? Is it wrong to let them sleep in my bed? Do I need to process this whole garden of organic vegetables into purée?) lead to stress, the failure to alternate between tension and relaxation. And the way our nervous system is wired, Hodson explains, it takes twice as much time to relax as to get worked up. Enter: alcohol! The speedy way to annihilate your stress. "Where's the real dividing line," he asks, "between sipping down a liquid bit of joy, and finding your senses befuddled when they need to be clear and sharp – because you need to listen out for the baby monitor, or fix the car seat without feeling squiffy?"

Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, an American author with three young children, made her name with the riotously anti-establishment web column, "Make Mine A Double: Tales of Twins and Tequila" and her books, Naptime is the New Happy Hour and Sippy Cups are Not for Chardonnay. You can judge a book by its cover in her case – it wasn't difficult to see what her standpoint was on parenthood and drinking alcohol (wine on play-dates was the norm), and her blazingly honest recounting of how she was coping with having children ("Your baby doesn't need to be making friends at three months old – you do! But not with people you'll meet at 'Mommy and Me'") garnered a large online following of mothers who collectively breathed a sigh of relief at this permission to relax with a drink. It's fair to say that Wilder-Taylor glamorised the act, and made it funny, too.

But in May 2009, the Mothers' Champion turned a corner. "I drink too much," Wilder-Taylor posted. "It's become a nightly compulsion and I'm outing myself to you... I quit on Friday." So profound was her turnabout, ABC News picked up the story and Wilder-Taylor was interviewed by The New York Times about her decision. Still sober, and readily admitting an addiction, she still blogs, but now her readers write to her about their own concerns about alcohol, rather than about their drinking exploits.

"The problem is, alcohol is glamorised and vilified at the same time," she says. "We're bombarded with images of women drinking wine together, with stories of wine-infused play dates, with husbands and wives enjoying each other with alcohol at the end of the day. Yet we're shocked when a woman crashes her car with children in it and she's been drinking. That becomes the absolute image of the worst mother possible. I talk to women all the time who look completely normal and put-together from the outside but are drinking and driving and putting their lives and their families lives at risk every day because they're too afraid to tell someone they have a problem."

And while there's a predilection to alcoholism that paves the way for addiction, Wilder-Taylor does agree that there's some mileage in looking at the triggers. "I do think that the pressures of modern motherhood can push people into wanting to numb out. I've spoken to so many mothers who say they never drunk so much as they did after having children. It can be the only fun we have left when we don't have household help and the freedom to go out and socialise or have hobbies. For those of us who may become addicted, it's a slippery slope."

Maybe the issue is that we all know alcohol isn't a bad thing to relax with, but we forget that it shouldn't be the only way to relax. And there's a certain self-delusion that occurs when alcohol gets served in nice glasses in a cosy, child-friendly atmosphere and there's a shared acknowledgment with your peers that sometimes it's hard ditching your needs to prioritise a baby, and it's good to kick back.

But when it's all stripped back, the two old men drinking outside the pub at 9am have just walked a longer path down the same road. Sometimes it's good to look at the journey ahead with a bit of scrutiny (another guilt-making issue to add to your list). But Wilder-Taylor, for one, is adamant that she's not starting the next Temperance movement: "I'm not saying that drinking is the devil. I'm a fan of the stuff," she writes. "If you can drink without problems, more power to you! But if you're like me, and drinking always leads to more drinking, well, join the club."

Some names and identities have been changed

Are you drinking too much? Take the official Alcoholics Anonymous test

Answer YES or NO to the following questions

1. Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple of days?

2. Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking – stop telling you what to do?

3. Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in the hope that this would keep you from getting drunk?

4. Have you had to have a drink in the morning during the past year?

5. Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?

6. Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?

7. Has your drinking caused trouble at home?

8. Do you ever try to get 'extra' drinks at a party because you do not get enough?

9. Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking any time you want to, even though you keep getting drunk when you don't mean to?

10. Have you missed days off work because of drinking?

11. Do you have blackouts?

12. Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not drink?

What's your score?

Did you answer YES four times or more? If so, you are probably in trouble with alcohol. Why do Alcoholics Anonymous say this? Because thousands of people in AA have said so for many years.

Reproduced by permission of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain Ltd

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