This year, in among the novelty gin paraphernalia, there might be some other treats under the Christmas tree, and they might be ones that actually make their recipients feel good: copies of new books The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober, The Sober Diaries, and my personal favourite, Rosamund Dean’s Mindful Drinking. Because perhaps, at last, the strange and infantilising trend of mums being marketed to as booze-hounds is starting to wane.
The joke is not new: it has been there since Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane, or the 18th century nickname Mother’s Ruin. But about five years ago there was something of a shift. At about 5pm my social-media feeds started to become peppered with references to “wine o’clock” or “mummy juice”. Then, as gin began its rehabilitation from naff festive tipple to artisanal signifier of sophistication it took wine’s special place on the internet. Once Instagram arrived it was all but impossible to log on without seeing glasses, photographed as lovingly as an infant, accompanied by equally affectionate captions. Somehow, mummy-drinking took a slide from dirty secret to badge of honour.
What had begun as a way for women who were otherwise alone at the most stressful part of a parenting day to high-five each other across the internet slowly turned into something more like peer pressure. And not just from each other but from the drinks industry, too. That first drink signified grown-up time, a moment to check your phone unharassed, to post something indulgent, revealing your sophisticated self.
And it wasn’t just the drinks industry getting busy. There were books (Why Mummy Drinks, Prosecco is Good For You, We’re Going On A Bar Hunt), and there were greetings cards, tea towels, aprons, comedy glassware, and all manner of sassy kitchen signage. A trend which had begun with the wit, the insight and the sense of solidarity of joyful, hilarious parenting blogs such as Katie Kirby’s Hurrah for Gin fast became a rush for women’s cash. And where those early pioneers’ output was suffused with genuine, heart-stomping love for their children, it quickly felt more like marketeers preying on genuine unhappiness.
Why was it easier for women to make a gin joke than to seek actual help, whether with the household drudgery or the creeping tentacles of addiction?
Having both friends and family members whose lives are affected by parental drinking, and having listened to Woman’s Hour’s astonishing and insightful series on being the child of an alcoholic, I felt something close to panic watching it unfold as my own pregnancy began. If one in five children are affected by their parents drinking, how did this fetishisation of green bottles become a positive thing? Why was it easier for women to make a gin joke than to seek actual help, whether with the household drudgery or the creeping tentacles of addiction?
“We’re told that the only way to cope with being a mother or the complications of family life is to medicate it with alcohol. It’s all about tapping into drinking at home, creating a ‘moment’ and normalising it,” explains Laura Willoughby MBE, one of the co-founders of Club Soda, the ingenious online Mindful Drinking movement. “That in turn spawns our black humour – which is a very British way of coping. A lot of our members are mothers who, when they have stopped or cut down drinking, become aware of how aggressively they were marketed at and can feel quite upset about it.”
It feels particularly unfair that the narrative around women’s drinking is to do with desperation, loneliness, and exhaustion. Is there a single “male” drink marketed that way? How come they get fast cars, casinos and lead-crystal glasses while women are told that necking gin as if from a Tommee Tippee is just part of life’s rich tapestry? It is difficult to even buy a birthday card for each other which doesn’t have booze on it.
But – mercifully – something has definitely changed. Where more traditional ways of addressing drinking took an all-or-nothing approach, and were tinged with the AA language of religion or the idea that you either have the disease of alcoholism or you don’t, the Mindful Drinking movement is tapping into a much broader spectrum.
Both Rosamund Dean’s Mindful Drinking and Club Soda acknowledge that not all of us need to abstain entirely. There are many takes on drinking too much, and none of them identical. Sure, some of us do want to fully abstain, and some of us will. But for many of us it is simply a matter of wanting to feel as if drinking is a choice not a requirement, and to have the odd glass without “letting the side down” or “having a setback”.
“I set up Club Soda to be a bit like Weight Watchers but with booze,” says Laura. “Somewhere that people could be supported to take a self-guided journey to change their drinking. It’s about a choice, it allows people to make decisions around sugar intake, the fact that wine isn’t vegetarian, or actual alcohol intake and to use language that is positive not negative.”
By acknowledging what a booze-based society we live in and how we can sometimes perpetuate that by telling our children from infancy that certain drinks are “Mummy’s special ones”, it feels as if this new approach is open to all of us, not just those who have a dramatic slide to a specific rock bottom. Habits are hard to break, but it turns out making conscious decisions can be intoxicating on their own terms. Perhaps what we needed was to be heard, rather than to be gifted some tiny gin-decanter earrings.