Over a melting ice cream sundae on our first date away from our new son, my partner and I talked about what we’d be doing if we were still drinking. A cozy-looking bar across the street might have suited our purposes. Yet years of partying had shown us that abstinence was necessary for him and best for me. So, ice cream it was.
Popular parenting culture doesn’t have much room for sober sorts like us. Jokey messages on coffee mugs and T-shirts reinforce the notion that the best cure for the demands of our children is a generous glass of chardonnay. Parents who don’t drink are not offered such a simple solution to stress.
Dr. Leena Mittal, a perinatal psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said there is a long history of chemical management of women’s distress. Tranquilizers widely prescribed to mothers in the 1950s and ’60s were known as Mother’s Little Helper. “This sends women the message that their emotions need to be squelched and not addressed,” she said.
As the opioid crisis draws attention to the impact of addiction on families, there may be a new openness to sober parenting. More children are entering the foster care system because of the opioid epidemic. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that between 2009-14, approximately 10 percent of American children lived in homes where at least one parent had an alcohol use disorder. Dr. Mittal said women with the disorder often do not get treatment for their addiction because they fear losing custody of their children. Policy changes can encourage more women to seek help. The Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law on February 8, 2018, provides substance abuse prevention and treatment services to parents whose children are at risk for being removed from their homes. Though data shows parents tend to drink less than nonparents, social context affects how much they consume.
“Wine has become normalized, expected and then reinforced by popular culture, social media, advertising,” said Gabrielle Glaser, author of “Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control.” She said that images of other people’s seemingly perfect children on social media heighten many parents’ feelings of inadequacy. “Whether they’re a celebrity’s child or it’s just somebody on your Instagram feed,” she said, “You think, what’s wrong with me?” The added stress contributes to more drinking, she said.