The Problem With Getting 'Mum Drunk'

Illustration: Assa Ariyoshi
I thought I knew what a hangover was. I’d splashed vomit down the side of enough cabs. I’d eaten bread in the shower. I knew the delight of laying a clammy cheek on a cold paving stone in broad daylight.
But that was before. Before I experienced what I now know as a hangover. Only once you’ve allowed a toddler to draw on your belly with a Sharpie while you work through waves of nausea do you understand the purgatory of a real hangover; the mum hangover – the result of trying to prove to yourself and others that mum's still got it.
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"The first time you go out and do something social after having a baby, it’s like flexing a new muscle for the first time, so you can go in a bit hard, it’s not even something most women have an awareness they’re doing." I’m talking to Maisie Hill, a highly praised women’s health practitioner and doula. "Also when you first go out as a new mum, it’s hard to stop thinking about your child because your body is flooded with hormones that keep you bonded to your baby. Alcohol can soften those bonds, allowing you to switch off."

Society frowns on mums drinking; as a woman you’re either childless and up for it, or a mother.

"Many women find themselves asking, ‘Who am I as a mum?' versus 'Who am I as a woman who can go out and be social?'" Maisie is explaining why the conversation around alcohol and mums feels so loaded and why when mothers drink they feel intense guilt. "Society really frowns on mums drinking; as a woman you’re either childless and up for it, or you’re a mother. As soon as you have a kid you’re expected to be someone else, to be pure, to always be present for your children. Pregnancy is meant to have switched off a large part of you, but it’s not that black and white, and why would we just switch off who we are because we’re mothers?"
"I’d be lying to myself if I said I would be happy never partying again," Zoë de Pass, better known as @dresslikeamum, tells me. "I love to party, I loved it before becoming a mum and I haven’t changed. It’s a myth that you become a different person, you don’t, you just have more responsibility. But being pregnant and sober has taught me one thing – that I can go out and have a good time without drinking."
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For lots of women, pregnancy is their first real stretch of sobriety. So entrenched is drinking in our culture, it’s often the absence of a glass of wine that lets people know you’re pregnant, which when you think about it, is an odd way to tell the world that you’re having a baby. Giving up drinking, and the socialising that goes with it, is a huge lifestyle change. You have to stop the moment you see those two blue lines; no wonder alcohol becomes so intrinsically linked to your old self.
I was excited to socialise ‘properly’ again after having my son, but I realised that drinking once you have a baby is just not the same as before. The hangovers are worse, life just too relentless for recovery. And you turn to alcohol for different reasons – to feel like yourself, to switch off the mum voice, to get through the goddam day. But the weirdest thing about drinking again is the strange pseudo terms mums have for drinking. I learned this new language through NCT WhatsApp groups and from the memes that slowly filled my Facebook feed post-birth. ‘Gin o’clock’ and ‘Fizzy Fridays’ are said very casually with no irony. I’ve found that drinking is almost fetishised in the mum community; it’s never just wine, it’s ‘Mummy’s little helper’ or 'deserved'.
"The whole wine o’clock thing symbolises to me how unconnected and unsupported we are as mothers," Maisie says. "In caring for others, often our own basic needs aren’t met; you don’t get enough sleep, you skip meals. The idea that other people are having a drink at the same time as us, that we’re part of a collective of women who understand and are doing the same thing, can be comforting."
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I take the topic of ‘wine o’clock’ to the brilliant Michelle Kennedy, founder of Peanut, an app that helps connect like-minded mums. She tells me about a question one mum asked on Peanut, titled "Wine to unwind?" The post read: "Anyone else absolutely exhausted by the end of the day and not sure how to unwind? By the time I’ve got out of the door, dropped [my son] off at school, gone to work, collected him and done bedtime, the only thing I want to do when my partner comes in is crack open the wine. Is it ok to be drinking wine every night? Anyway, sometimes I feel it’s just me in this endless routine."
Michelle and I go through the responses together and every single one is in favour of the wine. "It’s just the mummy way," one woman replies; "Girl you’re fine, you’ve got a lot going on, you aren’t neglecting your child, drink that wine, you just need some me time," says another. It seems that because we know society heaps a decent serving of judgment on mums who drink, mums actively support other mums who like a glass of wine. I love that the conversation on Peanut isn’t judgy, as I’ve seen too many Mumsnet forums descend into nasty attacks on any mum who so much as hints at having a vice, but the infantilised language – 'Fizzy Fridays' and 'Hurrah for gin' – bothers me. I feel very uncomfortable baby-talking to the drink in my hand. It is not 'Mummy’s helper', it’s just a glass of prosecco. And you know what? That glass of prosecco isn’t a totem for the woman I used to be either.
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