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I’m a mum with a five-year-old daughter and I’ve recently given up alcohol.
I don’t want to be that person who stops doing something and then starts lecturing everyone else on how to behave, but suddenly I’ve noticed that the only thing I do socially with my mum friends is get drunk.
All the memes we share are about getting wasted and all the products we get marketed online relate to drinking - brunches have to be soaked in mimosas, girls nights at the movies are loaded with bubbles and holidays are day drinking cocktails in the sun.
Do I need to make new friends? Can I still be friends with the wine mums now that I’m sober? Why does society think we have to be drunk to deal with being a mother?
Dear Dry Mum,
The meme-ification of alcohol consumption is so fascinating, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to motherhood. Allow me to (probably incorrectly) invoke my favourite theory: dialectics.
This is totally dialectical, baby! (As the ancient Greeks were known to say). Here’s my theory. There was a time when “mummy needs wine” jokes were genuinely a little subversive. Women are told motherhood is supposed to be a joy. You’re not supposed to find it difficult and if you do then you’re certainly not supposed to feel ok enough about your “failings” to joke about it, IN PUBLIC. I can understand how joking about needing a drink because your kids are driving you insane was once a kind of shorthand for communicating something difficult in a lighthearted manner, because life is hard and being a parent is extra hard and sometimes it’s good to acknowledge that in a way which doesn’t feel relentlessly negative.
The "wine mum" trope is now a staple part of mainstream humour. That necessarily changes the context the joke operates in. The founder of one wine mum Facebook group, “OMG I so need a glass of wine or I'm gonna sell my kids”, told the Huffington Post the name was “borderline taboo”. That group has nearly 200,000 likes, which pales in comparison to other wine mum groups, particularly “Moms Who Need Wine”, which was started in 2009 and now has more than 700,000 likes. Maybe it was once taboo to joke your kids were driving you to drink, but it’s certainly not any more. In its relentless quest to wring each last drop of utility from every pop culture phenomenon, the internet rewards the retelling of the same joke until it's flattened and wrung dry, and anything which could once have contained a knowing wink is now just a gaping mouth screaming “It me!!!!!!”.
The bigger issue, though, is that the shorthand isn’t just mum-to-mum any more but, often, advertiser-to-mum. Retailers (of baby onesies reading “I’m the reason mummy drinks”, or branded “wine mum” t-shirts, or wine companies themselves selling, I shit you not, MommyJuice by the bottle) trying to get a slice of the wine mum pie completely changes the nature of the joke; in fact I’d argue it corrupts it.
The same way it’s jarring seeing the company-run Scrumpy NZ Facebook page using the language of memes to ask students “which Scrumpy are you today?” knowing full well most of its target demographic skulls their product while it’s duct-taped to both hands, it’s unsettling to see companies capitalising on the fact that parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is fucking hard and for a lot of people, the fastest shortcut to relaxing at the end of a difficult day is a drink.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying “society” doesn't think people need to be drunk to parent, it’s just an easy joke to make, and enough companies have figured they can make money off the phenomenon that they're incentivised to stop it fading away. What’s interesting is that the mainstreaming of the wine mum trope has coincided with a big cultural shift away from drinking, especially among young people (and yes, even in New Zealand). Of course, a trend doesn’t mean much if your friends all buck it, but I think it betrays something our alcohol-soaked culture misses: a lot of people would choose not to drink if the option wasn’t available, but some other fun thing was.
I think you know as well as I do that making a lifestyle choice doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with lecturing other people for not following suit - but it’s actually reasonable to ask your friends to partake in sober activities with you. Host an afternoon tea with just tea, spend time in nature (bonus being at least one person will need to drive to get there, which takes drinking off the table), catch up in a restaurant or cafe rather than the pub, host a board game night. You don’t need to preface this with a long spiel, or any spiel in fact, about not drinking if you don’t want to, but a lot of people simply drink out of habit - offer an alternative, and they’re perfectly happy.
The writer Charlotte Shane says in a recent book review about meat-eating and climate change, that it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting. “I wonder which dietary choices would be more attainable if we replaced the idea of willpower with external support and encouragement; if we replaced the pressure of conversion with the commitment of a standing invitation,” she writes. You can apply the same logic to drinking. You’ve made your choice, and no doubt it may be a hard one to stick to when it can feel like everyone wants you to drink - that it’s normal to drink. But if the standing invitation is there for your friends to spend time with you without alcohol, you might be surprised to see how many of them take you up on it. Good luck.
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