a word about wine moms
Update, 8 pm on day of posting: This post has been updated from its first iteration in order to ensure clarity.
This post is based on the notes and preparation I did for a segment on KUOW’s The Record with Bill Radke on August 12, 2019. You can find the clip here; it begins at the 17-minute mark and it’s a great segment, if I may say so myself. The other guest on the show was Kanchan Schindlauer a mother and owner of Chipmonkey Wine, a delightful new wine gifting company.
After I shared the link to the segment on my FB page, a couple of readers asked for a transcript. When I started to write one out, I thought it made more sense to blogify my notes along the lines of the conversation we had. ET VOILA.
You’ve probably seen our merch.
… or our memes.
We are Wine Moms.
Even if you’ve never heard the term “Wine Mom” before this moment (and until someone said it to me about a month ago, I hadn’t) you probably already have a picture of a Wine Mom in your head:
She’s in her sweatpants already, hair in a messy bun, possibly with a wide stretchy headband combo. She’s wearing her glasses and not a stitch of makeup, and she’s scrubbing something sticky, bizarre, and hellacious out of her sink at the end of a long, loooong day. And while she’s doing that? She’s drinking a big old glass of wine. And when I say “big” glass of wine, I’m saying that glass of wine is basically a pony keg on a croquet mallet. She’s got Big Little Lies on in the background.
She’s texting her friends who are also wearing sweatpants, cleaning peanut butter out of rain boots or salt out of the bathtub, and joking about yanking out corks with their teeth.
Now, if you combine the merch and the memes with the image in your head, you might be wondering if contemporary motherhood is in a dysfunctional marriage with high-functionining alcoholism. That’s a valid question, so let’s start with it.
(This post didn’t originally begin here. It originally began below, before the break. After a number of readers brought up the issue of normalizing alcoholism and the catastrophic consequences that it can have, I moved up, prioritized, and expanded the next segment about the potential harm of Wine Mom culture. I’m telling you this for transparency’s sake, because people fuck up all the time, I care about making sure all of my readers are heard and respected, and when I fuck up I try to learn and fix it.)
Yes, Wine Mom culture can normalize dysfunctional drinking habits.
The exaggerated consumption, the jokes about neglecting our kids and using alcohol to cope with our lives, the relatable memes about how it’s Wine O’Clock somewhere. Wine Mom culture, taken on its face, depicts a portrait of alcoholic motherhood.
One of the major problems with Wine Mom culture is its exclusive grasp on “cool” motherhood. There is no other substance, activity, or social attractant that even approaches wine when it comes to prevalence and dominance. And for people like me, people who are not alcoholics and do not have a family history of alcoholism, it’s easy to laugh at the jokes, crack some of our own, and keep on keepin’ on.
But there are a lot of parents out there who either can’t drink casually or don’t yet know that they can’t drink casually, for whom a casual flinging-about of binge-drinking memes and gifs can normalize a behavior that’s genuinely unhealthy.
Wine Mom culture can make struggling mothers feel like they have only one tool in their boxes. It’s the same tool that all their friends and mom role models are using. It must be fine.
You know the expression, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well, when all you have is a bottle of wine, everything looks like a good reason to have a drink. And when everyone else is having a drink, or a bottle, and posting about it, and laughing, then it seems great and normal to drink your feelings like everyone else. It’s not like they’re hiding it.
There have been times in my life as a parent that I’ve reached for alcohol knowing full well that it wasn’t the healthiest choice. I knew I was pouring a glass not because it would pair magnificently with my chicken nuggets, but because I was angry, frustrated, scared I was fucking my kids and life up, and I was still locked in this life with these kids, no exits, and dinner to get on the table. And when I poured that glass, I would sometimes reach out to friends whom I knew would not judge me for my flawed coping mechanisms. If my biology were 1% different, this would be a very different essay.
I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but many mothers are drowning in those first weeks, months, even years of parenthood. Drowning people flail. And for many of us, that flailing looks like self-medicating. Just until we get through the rough patches, right?
But the problem with self-medicating is ever knowing when you’re done.
Parenting isn’t prescriptive, yet at the end of one of those long days that feel like a parade of failures, there is a prescription for your exhaustion, frustration, tension, for the lowkey panic you feel when you suspect you will never be funny again. Drink two glasses and text me in the morning.
Of course, it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t soothe the fears or solve the problems or answer the questions. For me, a glass of wine never did any of those things.
It makes me sad to think about the way that Wine Mom culture, a culture widely celebrated by a specific demographic of mothers, can actually contribute to the long-term pain of those women who badly deserve relief. If we’re calling it a prescription, then the side effects are a fucking killer.
It makes me sad because Wine Mom culture, if you just leave the wine out of it, has the potential for contributing tremendous value to the dialogue around motherhood. Wine Mom culture, to me, is not as much about wine as you might think.
“Wine Mom” culture has the potential to do a couple of critically important things for contemporary motherhood:
First, it presents a fuller, more realistic picture of motherhood than we might otherwise see in our virtual spaces.
We’ve never had more access to each other’s lives, thanks to social media. But a lot of us have come to doubt the realness of the lives we get to access. So many images I see on social media look like Pottery Barn Kids catalogue shots. Two children with clean hair (red flag number one) in cool shirts without any stains on the collars (red flag number two), sit at a clean, crumbless, jam-free kitchen table (klaxon klaxon) with a dish of raw veggies next to them (red flag number three), and draw (on PAPER, not on the TABLE) in the golden light streaming in through the clean window. Those moments of parenting are real, beautiful, and precious, and at least in my house, they usually last about as long as it takes to snap the picture.
Wine Mom culture isn’t about finding flattering light. It’s about what I call The Realness.
With “Wine Moms,” and when I use that term I want you to understand that I’m not categorizing these women as “moms who drink heavily,” but rather as “Moms who are real about their experiences of motherhood and also drink,” that perfect pic on Facebook is the setup to the punchline we all know is coming: “It was perfect. And then, I turned my back for four seconds, and that’s when I heard the screaming.”
Thank God for contemporary, myth-shattering Mom culture, the communities and spaces where that damn “angel in the house” myth can be well and truly blarfed. Like “Wine Mom,” “angel in the house” probably makes some intuitive sense to you even if you’ve never heard the term before. It dates back to a Victorian poem about the ideal wife and mother. She’s patient, kind, gentle, unwaveringly needless, completely devoted to her children and husband, and selfless in the most existential sense of the word. I’ll be damned, but despite all the Realness-focused bloggers, vloggers, Mom So Hard tours and yes, Wine Mom memes, the idea of the angel in the house remains as persistent as my preschooler’s cough from September until May.
It’s that existential selflessness that really gets the moms, specifically.
When I became a mother, I had to navigate the internal transition from what I think of as a “proper noun person,” unique and singular, to a “collective noun person,” one that exists in relation to another, a fraction of an entity.
No wonder so many of us turn to a treat that we don’t have to share with our child, something that a proper noun person does without batting an eye. A glass of wine while dishing with friends or a partner keeps us connected to our proper-noun selves.
Not only is that internal shift a real sonofabitch, but people who become mothers experience an external shift, too. We are visible targets for the criticism and casual judgment of all who see us, out and about with a baby who really should be worn/should be carried in arms/should be in a stroller/should be in a car seat/should be wearing a hat/shouldn’t be so over-bundled/should be walking by now/should be sleeping through the night/should be co-sleeping/should be in the crib/et cetera/et cetera/et cetera...
I’ve gotten all that and more. I once saw a man at an airport bookstore. He was holding a book that I’d just finished, and I gently interrupted his back-cover skim to recommend it highly. He looked at me, then at my second son, smiling up at him from the baby carrier on my chest.
“Oh! Is it a parenting book?”
The book was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
No wonder so many of us turn to a signifier of sophistication, intellectualism, socialization, adulthood, personhood.
Think about the gifts we so often see targeted toward mothers: kitchen tools, gardening tools, jewelry and art about their children, the necklace with the peas in the bod, the puzzle pieces that are only complete when they fit together. These gifts are lovely and meaningful because motherhood is meaningful, but motherhood is not the same thing as personhood.
No wonder, sometimes, we like to open a gift box and find a wine glass inside.
Now, everything moms crave can be found outside of alcohol. A treat you don’t have to share with your kids? How about a binge-watch of The Deuce on HBO.
A reminder of your own mental acuity and creativity? How about an online writing class or book club.
A gift that isn’t about the things you do for other people, but rather the things you can do for yourself? How about a new yoga mat or a good book.
My point is that the term “Wine Mom,” when I hear and say it, doesn’t mandate consumption of wine. It mandates a firm grasp on the genuine proper-noun person who remains intact, despite the internal chaos and external demotion. She still matters, and her life is still interesting and worthy of discussion, even the really sticky bits.
The second critically important thing that Wine Mom culture can do for motherhood is create spaces where moms can vent about the frustrations of parenting without fear of judgment.
Imagine Cersei Lannister, iconic Wine Mom, chatting in a Mom group on Facebook.
Cersei’s like, “Fuck, Joffrey is being such an asshole right now. Love him madly, but sometimes I just want to slam the door in his face, hop on a horse, and make for The Wall, you know what I mean? The kid will not eat ANYTHING but giant turkey legs and I swear to God, he’s going to be breastfeeding until he’s 30.”
Now, it’s only a matter of time before someone pipes up and says, “Wow. Cersei, I cannot imagine ever talking about my child like that. I’m just thankful for every minute that I have with them, because you know it’s all going to go so fast and before you know it they’ll be all grown up. I feel so sorry that you can’t enjoy the precious gift of your son’s childhood.”
Cersei would cut a bitch. I mean, not really. She’s the Queen of all the places with a manicure to maintain, so she’d send the Mountain to cut a bitch for her. But see, that’s the difference between culture and Wine Mom/Realness culture. If that were a WINE MOM aka THE REALNESS Facebook group, Betty Draper would join in like, “Girl, same. I can’t even talk about Sally right now. Long story short, she’s grounded for a month, I’m halfway through a bottle of pinot noir with the Kardashians, and don’t even ASK me where Don is.”
Wine Moms don’t hate their lives or their children, and they really don’t need to have to explain to strangers on the internet that they don’t hate their lives or their children. They do need to express the very, very, SO FUCKING REAL frustrations of trying to deal logically with half-formed baby brains or hormone-powered adolescents. Do they always do that by binge drinking? No. But they are able to identify each other by their willingness to publicly transgress not just on the myth of beatific motherhood, but also the idea that moms never need to blow off steam. In our culture, which typically allots one key signifier per demographic, that transgression looks like “Wine Mom.”
If you think of motherhood as a job (and you do, right? RIGHT?) then think of Wine Mom culture as the equivalent of hitting the local with your team after a long day in the office when the boss has been on a tear. If you think about it like that, then it’s not so transgressive to imagine a bunch of co-workers getting together over a round of nachos to blow off a little steam and talk some harmless smack about the boss.
When you see a team of coworkers doing just that at a pub or lounge, you don’t look at them and ask yourself, “Wow, I wonder if that company has a drinking problem.” When you see a dad babywearing at a brewery, holding a beer in one hand and a binky in the other, you don’t look at him and wonder if he’s handling parenthood okay.
But if you see a mom with a sleeping baby on her chest at a winery, a glass of white in one hand and a binky in the other, you wonder if she’s doing okay. I mean, hopefully you don’t, but PEOPLE DO. TRUST ME. People WONDER and then they feel bizarrely comfortable approaching that mom and ASKING her why she’s making the choices she’s made as a parent, and shouldn’t she really be putting that baby down in a crib? Wouldn’t that be better for the baby?
(Side note: What’s the equivalent of “Wine Mom” culture for dads? It’s not Beer Dads.
I argue that Wine Mom/Realness culture celebrates the full humanity of women by subverting an outdated, gendered notion that mothers don’t need pleasure or individuality. Dads don’t have to subvert the idea that they wouldn’t drink. Of course dads are gonna drink.
So what’s the dad’s outdated, gendered notion that needs subverting? I think it’s absenteeism or coldness, lack of emotional intelligence and distance from the hands-on work of parenting. So, I actually think that “Baby-Wearing Dads” are the male equivalent of “Wine Moms.” Discuss among yourselves.)
Wine Mom/Realness culture embraces a lack of judgment for the real, rich, complicated, nuanced, internal lives of mothers who are sometimes kind and patient and other times, badly in need of sensory pleasure and camaraderie, which is exactly what wine (or cupcakes, TV comedies, leisurely hikes, and telling the truth with friends who won’t judge you) is for, right?!?
So much of parenting is the skillful application of band-aids. I don’t judge mothers who rely on their vices, whatever they are, to remind themselves of their personhood, connect with the communities that support and understand them, and escape, temporarily, from the unbearable realness of reality.
For some, a glass of wine is part of the toolkit. For others, it absolutely is not. For too many, especially in those early days, a glass of wine is the tool that blots out the idea of any other tools, and makes our problems all seem like they can be solved over a really good Happy Hour. I also want those mothers to have access to real resources, solutions, answers, and comforts.
Not just because we, as proper noun people and unique individuals, deserve to live full and healthy lives, but because we, as collective noun people, the community of mothers, are in the process of surviving a lifelong stress test exacerbated by society’s dismissal, disinterest, and joke-ification of our work. We deserve attention. We deserve sober attention. Many of the challenges and pains of motherhood are unavoidable, but many, like the mandatory selflessness of the Victorian angel in the house, don’t have to exist anymore in 2019. Our lives are worthy of discussion, and not just over house red at happy hour.
The fact is that many of the memes and merchandise around Wine Moms are exaggerated for comedic effect. I have not, myself, in reality, uncorked a bottle of wine with my teeth as my decorative tea towel says. I have never, actually, drunk wine out of a pony keg atop a croquet mallet stem, as I have so frequently giffed.
The fact is that the exaggeration for laughs matters so much less than the fact that Wine Mom culture can make sober mothers feel isolated and ostracized, or encourage moms to lean unhealthily on booze to cope.
The fact is that Wine Mom culture is as much about drinking actual wine as “Ride or Die” culture is about motorcycles and literal death, but the prevalence of images celebrating alcoholic attitudes toward wine makes it hard to remember that really, at the end of the day, this should all be about community and the preservation of self, and the prioritization of a treat for Mommy.
Unfortunately, speaking of internet subcultures, meme culture isn’t known for its nuance, and so most of the Wine Mom memes that you see don’t come say things like, “Mommy’s job feels impossible, lonely, and doomed to fail, yet she saddles up for it day after day like a champion and for that she deserves to take care of her soul at the end of a long, dirty day.
This wine is a symbol of her social connection to other parents who understand the highs and lows of parenting, as well as her connection to her own personhood, separate from her children, which she must preserve in this and many other ways in order to remain self-actualized.
It doesn’t have to be wine. And actually, it does all of us a disservice to simplify our lives to the point that a bottle can tame our complex, rich, powerfully wild inner worlds.”
Nah, they don’t say that.
They just say “Mommy Juice.”
Oh, well. Something to work on for tomorrow.
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Another great follow - Erin Shaw Street is launching a media group called Tell Better Stories that advocates for a change in the way alcohol is marketed to women.