I like to call it “The Daddy Hour.” It’s that period of time when Mom’s patience has worn thin, and Dad isn’t home from work yet to take on the second shift of parenting. That’s when Twitter and Facebook start crackling with “Mommy needs a glass of wine” updates. Usually they are jokes, a way to vent, and after posting, instead of pouring a glass of wine, they instead park the kids in front of the TV to give everyone a much needed break from each other (but still feel guilty about it.) But for some, that glass of wine is a reality, sometimes with more to come.
Drinking and motherhood is the dirty little secret of suburbia. Even though it’s not really a secret and generations of women have turned to alcohol and sedatives as a coping mechanism for the stresses and isolation of motherhood, it is still a topic that is tough to talk about. Because it’s not one glass of wine that’s a problem, it’s when it becomes many glasses of wine, every night. When “unwinding” becomes “getting drunk” and even worse, when it becomes “driving while impaired.”
Motherhood and Getting Drunk: A Bad Mix
So it made for a slightly uncomfortable brunch at the Sofitel in Washington DC when a group of women, some from The Century Council, an advocacy group funded by distillers to fight drunk driving and underage drinking, and some from the media, got together to listen to data about the 36% increase in arrests of female drunk drivers over the past decade and the personal journey of Baby on Bored blogger and Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay: And Other Things I Had to Learn as a New Mom author Stephanie Wilder-Taylor as she shared her story of realizing that her nightly drinks went from “taking the edge off” to a drinking problem. Because all of us were mothers and and all of us were left to look inward and ask, “Have I ever crossed the line?” And if so, just how often?
Motherhood is hard. Yes, maybe I should say parenthood, but I know more about motherhood than fatherhood. It is the hardest job I’ve ever had. I was an on-air television reporter and anchor, and I feel more under a microscope as a mother than I did as an on-air personality. If a dad screws up (for example, when I went off to an early meeting, despite a closet full of clean, adorable clothes, my husband once sent our daughter to school dressed in a navy blue satin nightgown with strawberries, thinking it was a dress), he tends to get a forgiving chuckle and an “at least he was helping” atta boy. If a mother screws up, it feels like she’s a step away from being reported to Child Protective Services for the most minor of infractions. (Are you aware your daughter is wearing white socks with two different kinds of ribbing? Your son was upset because you sent in a packed lunch and it was the Thanksgiving Feast in the cafeteria today. Why haven’t you volunteered for everything we’ve asked you to? Don’t you CARE about your children?)
If you are used to being a career woman and switch to being a stay-at-home mother, it can become extremely isolating in the early days and there is no way to prepare for the complete lifestyle shift no matter how many books you read. Add in some post-partum depression and no wonder so many women hit the bottle. Even though I’ve never been a big drinker at any point in my life, I, myself, have found that some days, I looked forward to my husband coming home so I could fix myself a mixed drink or go out for a celebratory drink with some girlfriends after a day of endless grilling with impossible-to-answer questions, being splattered with other people’s bodily fluids, and the general sense that perhaps the kids really would be better off being raised by PBS and Baby Einstein than by me (fortunately those days got fewer and further between the older they got). I think for women, part of it is the relaxing effect of alcohol, and part of it is the reminder of our younger, carefree days — a little bit of of Carrie from Sex in the City going out for Cosmos with the girls. For some, that occasional desire becomes a lifestyle.
That’s exactly what happened for Wilder-Taylor. “I noticed that as a new mom my drinking became more pronounced. It was how I dealt with stress. It was how I dealt with the transition from being a fun career person who was on my own and independent and all of a sudden I had this new baby, it was a lot a lot of stress, a lot of work, it was very demanding and having a glass of wine at the end of the day was helpful to me and to a lot of my friends… Alcohol helped me take the edge off and unwind and I found that I was drinking more and more and that was one of the only coping skills I had, opening a bottle of wine at the end of the day… It is kind of isolating being a new mom, so sometimes the only social interaction we have is being with other moms, and we like to get together and have a little something to drink,” said Wilder-Taylor.
Drawing on her comedic skills, Wilder-Taylor turned her coping skills into a successful blog and then the book, Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay (and later, three more books!) But soon, her drinking became less funny.
“As time went on and I had two more kids and I had a lot more stresses and a lot more time at home I was drinking more and every single night… I was on a playdate with some friends and we were drinking martinis… I would’ve told you that I wasn’t drunk. I would’ve sworn to you that I wasn’t drunk. I felt fine. I got in the car was with two of my kids, one was 16-months-old, one was four-years-old, and I drove home. I’ll tell you why I drove home, because it seemed more shameful to call my husband and tell him I was too drunk. Thank God I got home alright. Thank God that was the wake up call I needed. And when I got home, my husband was appalled. He was shocked and horrified and angry. And it took that to realize that if I couldn’t tell that if I couldn’t tell that I was too drunk, that I didn’t have a good gauge, to realize I had a problem. Most people don’t — most people are offended if you try to take their keys away… I tend to drink too much under stress, and I now have learned other coping mechanisms, and no it’s not a bath with rose petals!”
Thankfully, Wilder-Taylor’s wake-up call came before there were tragic consequences, but not everyone’s does. For example, the 2009 fiery crash of Diane Schuler, a mother who had her childre her children and three nieces with her while driving the wrong way on New York’s Taconic Parkway for two miles and then crashing into an SUV and killing eight people, is still an oft-cited example of an impaired mother driving.
Traffic fatalities are ugly sights. Shattered glass, twisted metal, often the smell of spilled gasoline and other car fluids mixed with the distinctly acrid scent of burned rubber from skid marks. Aside from what human gore may remain, there are the eerie details that stay behind long after the ambulances or coroner have left that let you know someone was in the middle of their life and suddenly everything went horribly wrong. A sneaker in the middle of the road. Music still playing on the stereo. One accident I vividly remember, it was the fishing poles and tackle boxes, flung all over the trunk of the car, which had popped open in the crash. It is even more gut-wrenching when you see a child’s toy, an abandoned car seat, or the carcass of a car that had to be cut open with the jaws of life. Walk to the other car and you will often see bottles or cans rolling about the floorboards, the stench of alcohol reeking even without the driver present. Sometimes the accidents are so bad, you can’t tell where one car ends and the other begins.
“Even worse than the scenes are being at the hospital and to make a notification to a family member,” said Assistant Chief Patric Burke, DC Metropolitan Police Department. “That’s the stuff that is etched in your brain. To talk to a parent who has lost a child is just a horrific thing.”
I can tell you that to hear the screams of a parent who has lost a child is something you never forget. There is a guttural sound to pure agony that is like no other. I may not remember all the names of the car accidents I’ve covered, but I’ll never forget the screams.
Profile of a Female Drunk Driver
Not all female drunk drivers are mothers, but as a society, we often pay more attention to those who are because the idea of driving drunk with a child in the backseat is more shocking; somehow, and unfairly, even more shocking than the idea of a man driving with a child in the back seat. However, as Wilder-Taylor brought up, there is a very public “Mommy needs a drink” culture going on — wine at playdates, mothers drinking every night at home, tweets about coveting a cocktail while waiting for husbands to get home. Whether there is actually more drinking going on in this generation or it is just more publicly discussed is unclear. But many times, these alcohol-charged social outings involve someone getting in a car to get home, often a mother, and sometimes a mother with a kid in a carseat behind her.
The Century Council presented its commissioned report, State of Knowledge: Female Drunk Drivers, with literature review and research conducted by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), on Capitol Hill to the Congressional Stop DUI Caucus and media last month. According to the report, women were “most likely to be diagnosed with a primary problem with sedatives or opiates” as opposed to their male counterparts who were more likely to have a primary issue with alcohol or marijuana. This goes hand in hand with the finding that “diagnoses of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are common among female drunk driving offenders.” Apparently significantly more so than compared to the male profile. So we’re not just talking about drunk women, we’re talking about drunk and drugged up women driving.
What needs to be done? It’s a complex issue, according to The Century Council. It involves looking at why women drink, why they drink and drive, and how they are treated once they are convicted so they get the kind of treatment they need to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues, and also have support systems in place including transportation and child care to get the treatment they need. In other words, there is a lot more research that needs to be done to gain a better understanding of the issue of female impaired drivers.
“A lot of people who don’t look like they have a drinking problem and don’t look like they drive drunk are, and they may need help and that doesn’t mean they are a bad person or a bad mother, so we need to make it less shameful for them,” said Wilder-Taylor. She does her part via speaking engagements and her Don’t Get Drunk Friday feature on her blog.
Why Are the Numbers Increasing?
It’s not as easy of a question to answer as one might think. Several theories from research review indicate it can be because women are on the road more than they used to be, more women are in law enforcement so the laws are more evenly enforced to both genders, and that lowering the blood alcohol content limit to .08 had an impact. At a pre-briefing brunch in a casual conversation, several bloggers and representatives from The Century Council also discussed the recent trend of drunkorexia — a practice of eating less in order to “save” calories for drinking alcohol, though this was not covered in the report. I, for one, have been at a Weight Watchers meeting where the idea of saving up calories to enjoy drinks while on vacation was discussed by several women. It’s not just college girls who are counting up how many calories are in a margarita!
Does Mommy Really Need a Drink?
Though Wilder-Taylor made a few jokes about the new coping skills she learned to deal with the stresses of parenting, ultimately it all boiled down to learning how to make time for herself. Exercising, getting out of the house (not so easy when she had one child and then twins), and learning how to cut herself some slack. Drinking and sedatives often become the shortcuts women take to allow themselves to keep pushing themselves harder and further, thinking no one really notices. Heart-breakingly, it is often the children who notice, but they don’t have the words to say so. Friends either don’t know what to say or may be in the same boat. Spouses often turn a blind eye, hoping there is really not a problem. If you’ve found yourself moving from the occasional drink to not being able to cope without a drink, take the time today to open up to someone you trust about it, before it turns into a tragedy.
Disclosure: As part of the media I was given a complimentary copy of Wilder-Taylor’s book.
J.J. Newby indulges in the occasional glass of wine, but finds her coping mechanism is more often caffeine. You can read more of her musings at Caffeine and a Prayer, follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Photo credits: Photo of woman with a wine glass from Microsoft clip art gallery. Photo of Stephanie Wilder-Taylor by J.J. Newby.