Before the pandemic, I fought for years to make enough money to send my two kids to day care so I could write and teach ― so I could engage with a world beyond my domestic one. I wanted to be something other than a backdrop in my children’s lives.
In 2020, when they came home from school, seemingly never to return, I lost work, freedom, everything I had built. I watched my life evaporate.
The problems of the American care economy, problems that had always been there, were brought to the fore by the pandemic. Like the hidden mothers who in the 19th century draped themselves in black fabric as they held their babies still in photographs, there they were, supporting, disappearing: caregivers, overrun by the weight of their children.
Like many people, I was inundated with the work of taking care. I felt physically constricted and crushed by all the labor that had previously been spread among a community of day cares, schools and social worlds.
Now I alone was responsible for endless feeding, servicing feelings, playing, entertaining, cleaning, teaching, socialization. My husband, who had the higher salary since he had not taken months off his career after birthing two babies, got to leave the house all day or, at the worst of it, lock himself in a room for hours daily to work remotely.
He tried to help as best he could, but for most of every day I was spread between a computer and my children, trying to hold on.
Mommy “wine time” lured me with its promise of a rebrand. Wine moms represented motherhood as revolutionary refusal, as “who cares,” as “don’t judge me,” as “get out now.” Whenever the influx of my kids’ needs and emotions threatened to take me down, pop went the bottle.
For a while, the regular evening/afternoon/daytime wine alone in my yard dulled the mundane revolution of sameness, and the career and identity losses I was enduring. I convinced myself that afternoons were a mini-vacation. I could even have wine delivered, like room service. While my kids played in the California spring sunshine, I imagined myself in some tropical locale.
Everything around me confirmed my desire for immobility with an iced glass of blush wine. it wasn’t just the “rosé all day” T-shirts at Target and the online memes that punned on moms wine-ing and kids whining, each of which unsettled me for the way they equated identity with alcohol. What most offered me permission was the underlying cultural assumption that wine moms’ alcohol dependence was as harmless as it was dire.
When the sun went down, I kept drinking, hiding under a thick cloak of self-effacement. By disappearing myself, I felt, I could transcend the walls around me.
The kids inevitably climbed atop me, threatening to spill my glass and expose the charade. I rushed and begged them into bed, impatient for time alone with my glass, then worried about the sense memories I was creating as I kissed them good night.
When they were finally asleep, I watched television and drank more, leaving housework for another time, or handing it over to my husband. Here was time for me, earned and necessary.
After all, destroying myself and acquiescing to the constant destruction that children perform on a home (and on a mother), I thought, were sort of the same. I saw my body much as I saw my house: as pure atmosphere, a landscape through which my children moved. Though it was an imperfect setting ― and increasingly so, the longer we remained confined together ― I reasoned that numbing out in the afternoons made me a better mom, as the anxiety of what was happening in the world receded. I was cooler, calmer, less tightly wound with a drink in me.
And yet, as the months together waned, each morning I awoke to find the world unchanged, still a place where we could not venture safely. I struggled to get out of bed and spent most days cranky and rageful.
I read that Americans, especially women, were drinking more, that alcohol sales had exploded. All this only validated my own dark parts. The world was broken, so of course we all were, too! Life felt short and uncertain, so why not party privately?
I convinced myself that those afternoon moments (which were rarely relaxing or undisturbed, though I somehow pictured them this way) provided the pleasure and autonomy that was missing from my life.
The idea that alcohol can provide a transgressive break from the existential drudgery of life, especially during hard times, is one ingrained in American culture.
During the pandemic, people were coping however they could. I understood the reasoning. For the wine mom in particular, drinking provided a conceptual break from having to live up to impossible ideals. It allowed us to get a little sloppy. But more compellingly, it also offered a physiological break: Drunkenness was a way some bodies could leave the house when they had no other exit.
I had known for a long time that I would be a better mother if I just gave up the “mommy juice” and, you know, exercised more. But I didn’t want to have to moderate my own pleasure to excel in my caregiving.
Trapped in domesticity while desperately trying to hang on to myself, staying sober all the time felt like just another order from above. Through all this pain and uncertainty, I was also supposed to stay stuck in my body?
When I did talk to other adults, everyone seemed to be talking about numbing out, blocking out the world, and the hangovers we were nursing. Meanwhile, the world seemed to be falling apart around us.
Eventually, pretending that what was happening in the world was not actually happening no longer brought me the comfort I was seeking. Collapsing into cold glasses of pink wine at the end of the day, and reclining in my cheap plastic outdoor chair while holding my glass just so, had begun to feel like an intentional transformation from woman into backcloth. Was this supposed to be freedom ― the rebellion I was promised alcohol would bring?
In anger, in anguish, I quit. At first, avoiding alcohol felt like another constraint, another demand for me to be good and stay in my place. When I shared my plans with others, they seemed sad for me. And in the year since I resolved to walk away from a life of leaving, there have been times when I returned to that perspective.
As the haze cleared, though, I also saw how poor I had become at holding me steady. I had spent so long, decades, trying to get free by running from my body and the many little traumas I had accumulated over the years, as a woman and as a mother.
Slowly, I became more of an agent in my own life. I will not say sobriety made me a better mother, because that isn’t the point. Quitting hasn’t made me free either.
It has, however, shown me how often those who care for others in America are sold the idea that freedom comes from leaving the world, rather than moving within it. And I no longer want to live in the background of my own story. I would rather be the protagonist.