She’s a mother and she drinks wine. Technically, that’s all it takes to join the ranks of “wine moms,” and yet the phrase has come to represent so much more than motherhood and wine enjoyment.
A wine mom, alone, is someone who likes a drink to take the edge off of parenting, and who’s willing to poke fun at that fact. But en masse, wine moms have come to represent (for some) troublesome trends in modern parenting, or even comfortable middle-class complacency. So should you label any mom who likes to drink wine a “wine mom”? That turns out to be a complicated question. The wine mom is either a beleaguered but sympathetic figure, or a subtly sinister one—it depends on whom you ask.
Moms who enjoy wine certainly existed before the internet, but it’s the internet that catapulted the wine mom to meme stardom. In the mid-2010s, the phrase was popularized as it became commonplace for moms to joke online about drinking wine to cope with the stresses of motherhood: Self-identifying wine moms began to poke fun at themselves in viral videos, blog posts, and memes. “The most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink,” goes a particularly ubiquitous meme. “Wine is to moms what duct tape is to dads. It fixes everything,” says another. “Motherhood—powered by love, fueled by coffee, sustained by wine.” Google search interest in the term wine mom has spiked every May and December in the United States for the past several years. Maybe people are searching for “wine mom” mugs and T-shirts to give as gifts for Mother’s Day and the winter holidays, or maybe when mothers and kids spend time together over those holidays, one or both parties get curious about wine moms, and who qualifies as one.
Wine-mom humor can be cathartic, even empowering, for mothers themselves. Lisa Jacobson, an associate history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who researches families as well as food and drink culture, told me she recognized instantly why “wine mom” humor resonates with mothers. It “allows women to embrace their identity as mothers, while also refusing to be solely defined by that role,” she said. The memes, she told me, with their candid expressions of frustration at the somehow simultaneous monotony and chaos of modern mothering, struck her as “a vaguely feminist rejection of the vision of the traditional self-sacrificing ‘homemaker’ mom that’s been memorialized in the 1950s sitcoms.”
So if you asked a self-identifying wine mom to explain who exactly the wine mom is, she’d likely tell you that she’s a busy, exhausted parent who just needs a break and a laugh, a moment to remember who she is other than “Mommy.” Anne Bodenstine and Angela Principe, the founders of the popular Instagram meme accounts @mom.wine.repeat and @mommywinetime, respectively, both told me that they started their accounts at times in their lives when they felt worn down by the challenges of parenting. Principe remembers coming up with her handle around 4 a.m. one night in 2016 when she was rocking her second child, then six months old, to sleep. Bodenstine started her account in 2018 when she and her husband were “in the thick of it” parenting a preschooler and a toddler, the younger of whom was undergoing tests and would soon be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. Her extended family lived far away. She felt isolated. She wanted to create something that would help her find humor and joy in the situation, as well as support. “I wanted to find a name that was kind of general, that people could relate to,” she said. “Obviously, ‘mom’ was and still is a huge part of my life, and I just have always enjoyed wine. It’s been something that has helped me, you know, de-stress at the end of the day.”
People could indeed relate: @mom.wine.repeat now has more than 95,000 followers, who frequently get in touch with Bodenstine to share their appreciation for her honesty and her jokes; she also gets a lot of responses to her Instagram Stories, where she often shares more about her own family, from parents of other kids with special needs. “I post about my struggles and people reach out saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been there,’” Bodenstine said. “Or, ‘I’m going through the same thing. What are your suggestions?’”
On the pages of both @mommywinetime and @wine.mom.repeat, the content is only marginally about wine—it’s mostly about the overwhelming demands of trying to feed kids, clothe kids, bathe kids, and answer each of their 10 million daily questions (as well as the relentless pursuit of just five minutes of alone time). Even where wine is invoked, it is as shorthand for relaxation time, for well-deserved breaks after long, hectic days of mothering. That wine plays such a small, surface-level role in some wine-mom humor accounts’ content is perhaps telling: The drinking isn’t the point, necessarily; it’s an excuse to find escape (whether through a glass of wine or not) and connection.
Others see the wine mom as a lighthearted symptom of a serious problem. Wine-mom humor has time and again been accused of glorifying excessive drinking, or promoting drinking as a coping mechanism among parents. Principe said she gets concerned or angry messages about this through her Instagram account maybe once a month or so, despite the fact that she’s careful to post only occasionally about wine or alcohol consumption. “I don’t post about drinking a lot, because I understand how serious addiction is. I don’t want it to seem like I’m promoting wine as, like, a medication for motherhood,” Principe told me. Still, she said, “People see the handle and think that I’m just pushing this wine medication.”
Certainly, anyone drinking to self-medicate or developing an alcohol addiction is a cause for concern. But the concern over mothers drinking has historically been especially fraught. Throughout modern history, it’s been “more culturally problematic for women to be drunk than men, because it’s a violation of all sorts of notions of femininity,” Jacobson said. On top of that, mothering is known universally to be a hugely important job, one that doesn’t end every day at 5 p.m. or offer any time off. “Moms are never off the clock,” Jacobson said, which means any drinking a mother does could, to a critical eye, be seen as drinking on the job. Plus, in the 20th-century concept of the nuclear family, moms raised kids while dads worked outside the home and then came home to relax until bedtime—so dads’ drinking time was built into the day from the start, in a way. “Beer dads” has never materialized as a polarizing internet joke, even though fathers are often stereotypically associated with beer.
For what it’s worth, researchers have found little evidence to suggest that binge-drinking is a problem particular to moms. A study published last year found that all adult women were drinking more in 2018 than they were in 2006, as were most adult men—and that women without children had higher rates of drinking than women with children. “It’s not something about motherhood” that drives women to drink more, Sarah McKetta, an MD-Ph.D. candidate at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me. “We should be concerned about people binge-drinking, but we shouldn’t be focusing all this concern on moms.”
Perhaps the most urgent problem wine-mom jokes reveal, however, is that modern parenting has become a more all-consuming, and isolating, job than it used to be. Jacobson noted that wine-mom memes could be understood as a tacit rejection of the recently idealized notion of momhood, the “supermom who can do it all”—but perhaps the existence of that standard in the first place is what makes mothering more stressful. Supermoms are traditionally understood to be both successful career women and successful hostesses and homemakers. But as Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed out in 2012, most workplaces are still better suited to childless workers than parents, and tend to favor childless women over mothers—meaning that in real life, many women who strive to be “supermoms” feel like they end up cramming a lot of rushed, imperfect parenting into the hours they aren’t on the job.
Additionally, the support systems that parents could count on in past generations for help have essentially disintegrated. Child-care costs, for example, have skyrocketed in recent years—meaning many parents, especially mothers, are sacrificing their careers to stay home to look after their kids, and losing out on both extra income and time around other adults. Grandparents in the U.S. are less likely than grandparents in countries such as Germany and Italy to regularly help out with child care, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew suggests that this may be in part because American grandparents are more likely to still be working full-time jobs themselves.
And the demands of parenting itself are considerably more daunting today than they were a generation or two ago. As my colleague Joe Pinsker wrote last year, parents across every demographic and economic class now aspire to practice hands-on parenting, the kind of parenting popularized in the 1990s and 2000s and hallmarked by “supervised, enriching playtime; frequent conversations about thoughts and feelings; patient, well-reasoned explanations of household rules; and extracurriculars. Lots and lots of extracurriculars.”
Child-rearing in this style takes tons of time, patience, and energy—which, thanks to the aforementioned developments, many parents have depleted levels of already. Is it any wonder, then, that today, mothers are joking through their gritted teeth about how desperately they need a moment to relax?
If you were to ask left-leaning, extremely online young people, though, about the elusive identity of the wine mom, they’d likely describe her as a powerful political force with a somewhat dubious reputation. Today, if you searched social media for “wine moms,” you’d find many of the results are … exasperated posts about the 2020 presidential election, many of which use “wine mom” to mean something similar to “Karen”: a wealthy white woman who, well-meaning as she may be, is blind to her own privilege.
To understand this most recent plot twist, one first has to understand the particular role of wine in American households in the past several decades. When winemakers were advertising their product to women in the mid-20th century, Jacobson told me, “What they were really trying to do is say, This is the beverage of moderation, so this is how you can be a sophisticated hostess.” So there’s probably a reason that today’s memes aren’t about “cocktail moms” or “hard-liquor moms”: Kicking back with a glass of wine, Jacobson noted, “is something that could signal that women might be slacking off but they still have good taste, and they still have possession of their middle-class identity.”
Wine-drinking as a leisure activity is associated with the comfortably affluent. In the U.S., comfortably affluent women have long been associated with the suburbs—and in recent years, comfortably affluent women from the suburbs have been associated with moderate and centrist politics. Frequently, “wine mom” is used these days to refer derisively to a married suburban woman with center-left ideological views. It’s typically deployed by those who think those views aren’t progressive enough: In February, for instance, one Twitter user responded to a woman’s criticism of the then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with, “This resistance wine mom clearly just wants to rail on socialism cause all us youths are into it now.” Another wrote in April, “I got called a neoliberal wine mom because I was Bernie-skeptical.”
The wine mom has become a shape-shifting, multifaceted idea; she seems like a threat to some, a victim of circumstance to others, and to still others, she just seems like a good time. But Jacobson thinks that perhaps there’s a way to reconcile all these competing theories.
“One of the problems of the ‘wine mom’ meme is that it has class insularity. But there are plenty of other moms who are, say, working two jobs, who certainly don’t have the money or the time to take a wine break,” Jacobson said. The stresses and challenges that wine moms are drinking to take a break from—or, as some might put it, drinking to escape—aren’t unique to those who identify as wine moms. They’re shared by lots of other moms (and dads) who might or might not drink wine to wind down. A lot of those stresses, Jacobson added, could be alleviated through larger, structural reforms and the implementation of programs designed to lighten the burden of parenting—the kinds of reforms and programs that have been discussed over the course of, yes, the 2020 election campaign.
In the long term, “maybe what wine moms—and moms of other social classes, and non-drinking moms—need isn’t a supersized glass of alcohol, but social support,” Jacobson said. “In the form of affordable child care, paid-family-leave wages, equitable wages, and, of course, an equitable division of labor at home.” Reforms such as these are, of course, not as easily accessible as, say, a chilled rosé, nor do they lend themselves to rallying cries quite as catchy as “Less whine, more wine.” But if all parents had that kind of support, then maybe “wine mom” wouldn’t be such a loaded term—and moms could enjoy the occasional glass of wine in peace.