Chardonnay O'Clock

07.14.13

Why Women Drink Too Much

Gabrielle Glaser's new book looks at the social pressures that are leading American women to drink more than ever before.

The wine industry’s efforts to market its product to women came at a pivotal moment in America’s ever-changing gender roles. By the 1980s, the struggle for women’s rights had brought some remarkable strides. An Arizona rancher took her place beside eight elderly men on the nation’s Supreme Court. One of the nation’s political parties chose a woman as its vice presidential candidate. Sally Ride circled the earth. Women were graduating from college with degrees in math, science, and engineering in unprecedented numbers.

They didn’t need to go to frat parties to drink, since they lived alongside boys in college dorms across the country. The beer bongs were always within reach, along with treacly Tia Maria and wine coolers. That kind of drinking was just kid stuff: nothing serious. It continued on through first jobs, when the women would cluster with colleagues at happy hour for free food and cheap drinks. Even if the women woke up most mornings in a fitful self-loathing start, there were possibilities. As the president of my university told young women when Ride was launched into space, orbit was our destiny!

For a decade or more, their lives were on track: a solid career, a steady marriage, children. They could do it all—manage their jobs and immerse themselves in their children. They would bake birthday cakes from scratch; they would go to every swim meet. They would be there, period. No Carnation Instant Breakfast mothering for them.

But somehow, something changed. Those same young women, so full of determination, found themselves scaling back their dreams: for running the English Department, for winning a Pulitzer, for becoming CEO. Aspirations somehow dropped to the bottom of the grocery bags that used to be plastic bottles. The women haven’t even made good on their intention to compost.

When they are honest about it—and it is hard to be, because sometimes it’s too painful to look—the women realize they are doing the same chores as their mothers. They scale back at work, or maybe even take off a few years, and before long, the women find themselves isolated, responsible not only for care of the children but for most details of their lives: trips to the doctor when the baby has croup; combing through tangled braids on the lookout for lice; making appointments with the orthodontist. They didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it happened. Resentment creeps up, imperceptibly, not the least of which stems from the fact that the closet full of size-six clothes don’t fit a size-eight body. They haven’t had more than social drinks in years—all that time pregnant or nursing, no way. But then they remember how it made them feel. The fun of it. What would be wrong with a little wine now and then?

And so the drink becomes the release valve, for so many things. For Memorial Day. For the Fourth of July. For Halloween—especially Halloween, when women gather with other moms for “trick-or-drinking.” And summer, when they are all at the beach, and the beers come out at noon. Giggle, giggle. Mommy’s right here!

The drinks kept coming, especially when parents got sick, when teenagers got testy, when promotions were handed to younger, prettier women who tweet. If the women had had hold of the torch, they might be ready to pass it. But expectations exceeded reality, and they never held on to it.

Her Best Kept Secret

Psychologist Bruce Alexander, a Canadian addiction expert, believes the unrelenting pressures of our modern capitalist society have created the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dislocation that triggers alcohol abuse. Modern society distances people from their extended families and propels a desire for an increasing number of goods—particularly technological ones—that in the end isolate them even more. Lacking the intimate ties necessary for humans to live happily, a growing number of people around the world turn to chemical crutches. Alexander is also a student of history, which he used to link to his work as an addiction psychologist. The more he examined history, the more Alexander became convinced that the breathtaking pace of modern economic and social change has left an emotional, physical, and spiritual void so profound that it triggers excess drinking.

The richer societies get, Alexander argues, the more their addiction problems multiply—and so far, our responses to treating them have been only nominally successful. A century ago, society blamed addiction on a person’s weak moral character. In the 1940s and ’50s, this belief was replaced by the idea that addiction was “brain disease,” and it was one that seeped into the public consciousness. Alexander doesn’t reject the idea that some people may have biological and psychological vulnerabilities that predispose them toward chemical dependence. But, he argues, addiction is also an adaptation to the pressures and fragmentation of modern life—and above all, a social problem, not an individual one.

Alexander’s views are a compelling explanation of why twenty-first-century women have emerged as such heavy drinkers. Our fractured modern society subjects everyone to immense pressures, but it spawns competition that is particularly grueling near the top of social hierarchies—especially those in affluent communities. Absent the support of an ex- tended family and a long-standing community, these deracinated American women—Grucza’s immigrants to male culture—suffer without a spiritual safety net. Regardless of their professional achievements, they still do the lion’s share of domestic chores in the United States. A quick fix for the frustration that this can engender is just a bottle away.

Consider the time, long ago, before mothers were assigned snacks for children famished by forty-minute soccer games. Saturdays weren’t vaporized by long-distance drives to “travel” soccer (or lacrosse, or hockey), since sports were school functions and practice was after school. Perhaps more important, women lived near their own parents, sisters, brothers, in-laws, or cousins, whom the school secretary recognized as next of kin. There was no need to fill out multipage forms detailing one’s relationship to emergency contacts, with slots for their cell, work, and home phone numbers. Everyone knew everyone, and if children were sick, someone could come pick them up. A few generations ago, homework assignments rarely required (or would have prompted) parental help, with rushed trips to Staples for foam boards.

While women surely have fretted forever about aging, they were resigned to the inevitable wrinkles in the end. Today, aging can feel a lot like a decision. Forget Botox: Magazine ads make us wonder about Radiesse, Juvederm, the length of our eyelashes. Middle-aged starlets tweet photos of themselves in bikinis; blond sixty-something celebrities boast of their renewed libido, thanks to HGH, the human growth hormone. This is all just background chatter in the bête noire of middle- and upper-middle-class anxiety: college applications. What if a son doesn’t bring up his critical reading score in the SAT? What if a daughter only gets into her “safety” school? What if the hired school getter-inner is steering you all wrong? Did you read this blog? Did you read that book? Does your kid have enough work experience? Any work experience? There is nothing wrong with state schools.

Is there?

Excerpted from Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—And How They Can Regain Control, by Gabrielle Glaser (Simon & Schuster, July 2013).