In March 2020, I was reaping the rewards of bariatric surgery and dropping weight like stones from a broken paper bag. I should have felt terrific. Except along with drinking 64 ounces of water a day, I was gulping down five glasses of wine.
Often I drank alone, but I much preferred doing it with other moms, who, like myself, were feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the pandemic. Shivering around a fire pit, with six feet between us, we’d rant about virtual learning and laugh about our online impulse purchases.
Nobody batted an eyelash when my husband had to come and pick me up because I was too drunk to drive home. Why would they, when society teaches us that one of the best ways to get through motherhood is with booze?
“Mom wine culture is one of the reasons it took me as long as it did to get sober,” Kelley Kitley, a therapist and mother of four in Chicago, tells TODAY.com. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I want a do-over. I was so checked out for so long and just going through the motions of motherhood. I get sad when I think about all the things I missed."
"On the Edge of Shattered" author Kimberly Kearns and her girlfriends had a tradition called “Bus Stop Fridays."
“We’d get our children off the bus and drink from three o’clock on, while the kids played outside,” Kearns tells TODAY.com. “I wouldn’t remember walking them home or putting them to bed."
“And that was normal,” she adds. “No one was ever like, ‘Maybe this is not a great idea.'”
We all know alcohol isn't good for you. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no safe amount of drinking. On its website, WHO notes that alcohol is classified as a “Group 1 carcinogen” along with asbestos, radiation and tobacco. Roughly 75,000 cancer cases and 19,000 cancer deaths are estimated to be linked to alcohol each year, according to the American Cancer Society. And yet, the mommy wine culture continues to thrive.
Jokey memes flood our feeds telling us that a fish bowl-sized goblet of wine is the antidote to all our problems. And then there’s the merchandise — T-shirts and tumblers emblazoned with phrases like, “They whine, I wine,” and “Coffee. Mom. Wine. Repeat.” Female-led comedies (think "Bridesmaids" and "Bad Moms") perpetuate the myth that not only do we need wine to survive toddler tantrums, we need it to bond with each other.
A growing number of moms are discovering that isn't true. While moms do desperately need community, they don’t need alcohol to create it. The next step: normalizing sober bonding.
“Alcohol acts like a layer of gauze between us and the person we are engaging with,” Dawn Nickel, founder of the nonprofit She Recovers, tells TODAY.com. “We might think that alcohol enhances our personal or social interactions, but the opposite is true. It hides, masks or dulls who we are. Remove the alcohol, and authentic connection is possible.”
Finding a Sober Tribe
Bus Stop Fridays are a thing of the past for Kearns, who now runs a social club called Sober in the Suburbs.
It’s not a recovery group, but rather a place for alcohol-free women to come together for dinner, a hike, or a yoga class.
“I was connecting with all these sober people on Instagram, and I was like, I need to bring us all together. All we want to do is just hang out and socialize,” Kearns says. “There’s this whole community of sober women that are desperate for friendship and connection.”
I attended the first "Sober in the Suburbs" meeting, held at Kearns’ home in Needham, Massachusetts. Kearns greeted me with a mocktail and a hug. Within minutes I was opening up to strangers.
“There's no small talk. It’s like, alright, we’re all here for the same reason. Let’s have some real conversations,” Kearns says.
The club, which has chapters across Massachusetts, offers regular coffee and workout meetups and a speaker series.
Stephanie Hazard, a recovery coach in New Canaan, Connecticut, started a group called The Nest.
"We rotate meeting in each other’s homes each week so that every woman has the opportunity to make a sober imprint in her home," Hazard says. "One Nester turned the bar in her house into a fun coffee bar — she literally did a sober feng shui in the space."
Nickel, a pioneer in the recovery space for women, is glad the movement is growing.
"Women empower each other," she says.
In 2011, Nickel and her daughter, Taryn Strong, created the Facebook page “She Recovers” to encourage conversations around addiction, mental health and healing. That Facebook page inspired a non-profit foundation that serves more than 325,000 women and non-binary people. It offers free Zoom support meetings as well as wellness retreats and in-person group meeting in 30 cities across the United States. The organization also runs online meetings for specialized groups like sober moms with high-needs children.
“One thing I hear a lot is, ‘I didn’t know healing could be so fun,’” Nickel says. “So many people think when they decide to get sober, life is going to be a drag. But look on our Facebook page and you’re going to see pictures of people from the group getting together and doing amazing things.”
Women supporting each other in sobriety
When I decided to get sober, friends volunteered to accompany me to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. It makes sense: AA is arguably the most well-known 12-step program in the world. And it works for a lot of people. It just isn’t for me — or for Kearns. Kearns’ first step in getting sober was joining Laura McKowen’s online sobriety group The Luckiest Club, which has been around since 2020.
“What I like about The Luckiest Club is they don’t judge you for your way of recovering. There’s no dogma,” Kearns says. “And the meetings are filled with smart, well-educated moms who fell hard for mommy culture just like I had.”
McKowen says that 80% of the club’s members are female and she estimates that more than 60% are mothers. A majority of the meeting leaders are parents, including McKowen.
“Moms are busy people and we don’t always have time to go to in-person meetings. You can do an online meeting while you’re at your kid’s soccer practice. You don’t have to find childcare — all you need is a phone,” McKowen tells TODAY.com.
McKowen, who authored the bestselling memoir, “We Are the Luckiest,” believes that in order for recovery to work, you have to see yourself in the community.
“I hear from women all the time who are like, ‘I related so much to what everyone was saying,” McKowen says. “We talk about serious things, but there’s also a lot of fun and laughter. And many women end up spending time together in real life.”
Seeing yourself in the community is also important for Khadi Oluwatoyin, a civil attorney who created the Sober Black Girls Club for people of color. The mother and caregiver meetings are very popular, she notes.
"It's a place where we can come together and discuss our experiences without judgement or biases," Oluwatoyin tells TODAY.com. "One shared experience is that people don't really talk about alcoholism in the Black community. My own family didn't want to acknowledge that I had a problem."
Emily Lynn Paulson, an Oregon mother of five, founded the virtual support group Sober Mom Squad in 2020.
“I wanted to create a space where moms could complain about the pandemic, without having wine shoved down their throat,” Paulson tells TODAY.com. “It was like, ‘Oh, you need a vineyard to homeschool your kids.’ Remember that?”
I tell her that I remember it very well.
Paulson got sober in 2016.
“When I look back on my Facebook history from before I stopped drinking, it’s all these wine memes and jokes,” she says. “But it’s not a joke. There’s nothing funny about it.”
“Our kids are watching — they see everything. They notice when we have several glasses of wine a night. They notice when our personality changes,” she continues. "It's the secondhand drinking. Maybe they're not seeing you crash and burn, but it's that general lack of safety. They don't feel safe when you're drinking all the time. And what are we teaching them if every play date and every birthday party requires alcohol?"
The mom our kids deserve
Every person I interviewed for this story said the same thing: Motherhood is so much better without alcohol.
"I used to put my son Jack to bed with a bedtime story, and I would skip pages so I could go downstairs and finish my bottle of wine. Jack would catch me and ask why I was skipping pages," Hazard says. "And when I stopped drinking, suddenly I was present and playful and patient. I stopped skipping pages."
In the months before I got sober, I wasn't enjoying motherhood. I was anxious all the time (a side effect of drinking) and exhausted (alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle) and sad (it's also a depressant). Now I have the energy to build snowmen and zip down slides. Every part of my life is better — including my friendships.
To quote the author (and sober mom) Anne Lamott, "Being sober delivered almost everything drinking promised."
When I stopped drinking, I wondered if my world would shrink. But guess what? The opposite happened, I ended up reconnecting with people. Friends who had pulled away because I was a sloppy and obnoxious drunk suddenly started texting me again wanting to get together. They say I am more attentive and relaxed.
"We don't have to babysit you anymore," a friend said recently. "This is my favorite version of you."
It's my favorite version, too.