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Sober Curious? 3 Moms Share the First Steps They Took to Get Sober

Olivia Pennelle

A smiling baby held up to the sky by his mom.

Aug 17, 2022

In This Article

The sober curious movement has become more popular in recent years. However, sober curiosity is more than just a new cool lifestyle trend—it's a movement led by moms who are saying "no" to mommy wine culture and the marketing tactics of Big Alcohol. 

This message is vital, as heavy drinking and alcohol-related deaths among women have spiked dramatically over the past 10 years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We spoke to three moms about the steps they took to get sober and the effect sobriety has had on their lives. We also talked to Dr. Joshua Lee, Oar Health’s chief clinical adviser.  He is an expert in treating alcohol and substance use disorders as well as a professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Mommy Wine Culture

For those who don't know what mommy drinking culture is, it's the widespread use of slogans to encourage drinking among moms. 

You'll find onesies that say “Mommy's Drinking Buddy,” exercise classes like Drink Wine at This Yoga Class, and even dedicated Facebook groups named Mommy Needs Boxed Wine and Xanax andMommy Needs Some Wine

While this culture might appear funny, the messaging validates the increasingly heavy use of alcohol—defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as eight or more drinks per week for women (1)—to cope with the demands and challenges of motherhood. 

More frighteningly, it doesn't warn how increased alcohol consumption leads to addiction (2) or the toxic risks of mixing Xanax with alcohol (3).

From a public health perspective, mommy drinking culture is concerning. 

"It is an understudied but increasingly recognized problem," explains Lee.  It is seen everywhere "from mentions of 'mommy juice' to rates of liver transplants in reproductive age–women markedly increasing in the last few years and during COVID." 

A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that high-risk drinking among women rose by 58 percent between 2002 and 2013 (4). And the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, with rates of heavy drinking rising a further 21 percent just in the last year (5). 

Scientists warn that such drastic increases in drinking will have disastrous public health consequences, including an additional 8,000 alcohol-related deaths, 18,400 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040 (5). 

Alcohol as a Coping Strategy

Mommy drinking culture has undoubtedly played a part in the rise of drinking among moms. Women are increasingly turning to alcohol to cope with the demands and challenges of motherhood. 

Emily Paulson, a writer, speaker, coach, and the founder of Sober Mom Squad, campaigns on this issue and shares her experiences of how drinking became the answer to everything (6). 

Passionate about her work, Paulson has appeared in many outlets (including on “The Today Show” and in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today), discussing how to end the shame and stigma of mental health and substance misuse. 

We asked her about the unique challenges of motherhood and alcohol. Paulson says additional confounding factors, such as systemic issues that leave moms vulnerable to loneliness and overwhelm, create the perfect storm for heavy drinking. 

"I had been out of the workforce for many years, and after the birth of my fifth child, my drinking increased dramatically," Paulson explains. 

And then there is the mommy wine culture messaging. "I was surrounded by other people drinking and felt that it was just what moms did to cope with stress," she says.

Lee echoes Paulson and explains other systemic issues that leave women's alcohol use neglected. 

"We know that women are increasingly affected by alcohol-related problems since COVID," he says. Yet "alcohol is often thought of as more prevalent, severe, and relevant to men's health." 

While, to some extent, men's drinking on average is higher than women and men have more treatment episodes, our treatment systems are mainly missing the mark when it comes to women. 

"Our thinking, messaging, and treatment structures may be, on average, missing, ignoring, or neglecting women's perspectives, experiences, and health issues, and therefore may be less relevant and appealing when women are looking for help with alcohol," Lee contends.

What is particularly problematic for moms like Paulson is that because using alcohol to cope is a cultural norm, she, like many others, didn't see how drinking in that way was a problem. 

"I didn't feel that out of the ordinary from anyone else. I was holding things together pretty well, so I thought. Alcohol just became the way to 'help' with stress in the evening, and it was the glue that held together friendships with other moms, which I desperately needed," Paulson says. 

Discovering That Drinking Was the Problem

Denial is a feature of substance use disorders that’s not unique to moms. In fact, for the moms we spoke to, motherhood became a catalyst for increased awareness of the role alcohol was playing in their lives. 

Victoria Vanstone, writer and founder of Drunk Mummy Sober Mummy and host of “The Sober Awkward Podcast,” explains, "I had many red flags which I chose to ignore because I could not imagine a life without drinking. I got arrested, blew a finger off with a firework on the millennium night, and often put myself at risk." 

On reflection, Vanstone sees her denial was primarily centered on her alcohol-fueled identity, which meant she was too intoxicated to know the problem even though it had a severe impact on her family life. 

"Anxiety began to infiltrate my hangovers when I could not take care of my kids on a Sunday. But I couldn't identify I had a drinking problem because everyone I knew was a drinker like me. My drinking got absorbed into the crowd and diluted by the people I surrounded myself with," she says. 

"It was clever: never bad enough to look like I was struggling, but I was. Because my problem was so normalized, it slipped under the radar, and I suffered in silence and carried on binge drinking even though it was causing me mental health issues," Vanstone says.

Moms Share the First Step to Sobriety

Vanstone reached a turning point when she couldn't continue to combine partying and motherhood. 

"I woke one Sunday morning six weeks after having my second child, and it was one hangover too many,” she says. “I told my husband I couldn't stop this bad habit on my own and needed help." 

Acknowledging her problem was pivotal to seeking help. "I contacted a local therapist and took responsibility for my drinking. I stopped soon after and have not looked back in four years," Vanstone explains.

The first step Paulson took was reaching out to a person in recovery. "The first thing I did was call the one sober woman I knew and ask what to do. She took me to an AA meeting. I clung to meetings, going every day for the first few months," she says. 

To moms considering sobriety, Vanstone's advice is the importance of spotting problematic drinking early. 

"Many people believe their drinking habit is not bad enough to deserve professional support. Then the problem, over the years, can spiral out of control and be life-threatening," she warns. 

Vanstone helps others understand that no matter how big or small your problem feels, it is worthy of being investigated by a therapist or doctor. 

Paulson makes the significant point not to blame yourself. "It is not your fault for getting addicted to an addictive substance, especially one that society tells moms they 'need' to be a successful, happy parent," she explains. 

Paulson recommends looking at the plethora of online resources. "There are books, podcasts, and blogs to devour. Find someone you trust and start talking. Speak to a trusted friend or therapist," she says. 

Lastly, Paulson advises finding your way on your own terms. "Don't let anyone dismiss how you feel, and know there is no one way to reduce drinking or quit drinking,” she says. “I truly believe anyone can overcome alcohol, but the path will look different for everyone." 

How Sobriety Affects Motherhood

Finding recovery has meaningfully improved these mothers' lives in terms of their health, their relationships, how they parent, and how they advocate for themselves. Sobriety can also impact becoming a mom. 

We spoke to Tarra McCarthy, who discovered she was pregnant around a year into recovery with now-two-year-old Levi, who she describes as "the light of her life."

Becoming a mother had a significant impact on how she navigated and sustained her recovery. "I knew that I was no longer making this choice just for myself. I had a life growing inside me that would depend on staying grounded in my recovery," McCarthy explains. 

She knew she would have to work even harder to stay focused on recovery once Levi was born because she would be raising him as a single mother. 

Some challenges McCarthy faced in early recovery and still faces now are how to find balance in her recovery, motherhood, and what's left for a personal life. She manages by practicing self-compassion and reminding herself, "You're doing a good job. You CAN do this." 

Motherhood has also allowed McCarthy to be an example for her son and model what it means to choose recovery. 

"I get to show him what that looks like. I get to lead by example. It motivates me to do better and be better. Not only to provide him with the best life and childhood experiences as possible, but also to teach him, as he also has the genetic predisposition for substance use disorder," she says. 

McCarthy recommends that if you're struggling with motherhood in early recovery, ask for help and take it when people offer it. 

"Don't be afraid to share when you're struggling. It's hard! It's normal and doesn't make you a bad parent or mother. It takes strength to ask for support. Lean on your tribe, get a support group, and remind yourself you're doing a great job," she encourages. 

Recommended Steps to Explore Sobriety

In addition to the recommendations we've listed, Dr. Lee also has several suggestions: 

- If you think you drink too much, try to stop or cut down. 

- Try to stick to the recommended daily limits

- Or try not to use alcohol—or any other substance you think you’re misusing—for a week or a month at a time. Don't worry too much about it, but try to be mindful and reflect on whether it worked, what did not work, and if you think you need more help or it's looking like a bigger problem than you had first thought. 

- Check out the National Institute on Mental Health's website Rethinking Drinking for resources about normal drinking limits and signs of problematic drinking.

- Especially if your attempts to moderate or stop drinking fail, talk to a doctor or other health professional you trust, or if you prefer a private medical consultation get started with Oar Health.

And if you’re a single mom, check out these addiction recovery resources for single parents.

You can follow Emily Paulson on Instagram @highlightrealrecovery and @sobermomsquad. 

Find Victoria Vanstone on Instagram @drunkmummysobermummy and in her online community.

Find out what Tarra McCarthy is up to in her life-changing role at 4D Recovery, a recovery community. The organization provides recovery support to people between ages 18 and 35 in Portland, Oregon.

About The Author

Olivia Pennelle is a writer, content strategist, podcast host, and the founder of Liv's Recovery Kitchen and Life After 12-Step Recovery. Follow her on Instagram.

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