she-files

Her Story: My Mother’s Alcoholism, Dry January and the Women’s Movement

DENVER–Dry January. It sounds inhospitable, boring, lonely even, especially coming on the heels of December which is chock full of reasons to surround yourself with friends and alcohol. Until recently, when I thought about participating in Dry January–a movement that started in the U.K. in 2013 to encourage moderation in alcohol consumption–I thought of sitting at home on a Saturday night, putting the kids in bed, watching TV and downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s instead of a pint of some fantastic local microbrew. Now, I see it as what could be a powerful addition to the women’s movement. So, I decided to jump on the proverbial bandwagon this year, and here’s why.

 

At first glance, drying out and the women’s movement doesn’t seem like an obvious pair. It took me a while to see the light too. The idea started when I read a 2016 article from the Washington Post. (I grew up with an alcoholic mother, so I’m drawn to articles about alcohol consumption.) The article paints a dark picture, ultimately drawing a correlation between the way heavy drinking has been marketed to women in the past decade with the way cigarettes were unethically marketed to women during our mothers’ lifetime. In a quote from Rear Adm. Susan Blumenthal, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general and an expert on women’s health, the situation is likened to an “equal rights tragedy.”

 

My initial reaction: Why does it matter if women are drinking more? Isn’t that one more barrier to equality that we’ve knocked down? Women should be able to drink as much as men. Historically, women have been left out of so much because of the social stigma deeming it inappropriate for women to drink like one of the boys. My mind reeled with examples. Many of them involved the business transactions and mentoring that happen around cocktails after work and how women are often excluded or not able to participate due to family obligations.  The beauty ideal, the second shift (check out our interview with the sociologist who coined that term), the good old boys club are all social constructs that get in the way of gender equality, and I saw a link between them and a culture that has constantly frowned upon women drinking.

 

According to a study published in January 2016 in Science magazine, by age 6 girls already think boys are smarter. Surely this is correlated to how we socialize our girls to believe their looks are their most important asset.

But there’s a big problem with that line of reasoning, one that was recently pinpointed in several NPR stories that have come out since the first of the year. Drinking like one of the boys does our gender more harm than good. According to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s website, women face higher risks associated with drinking alcohol than men. To begin, women risk liver disease, heart disease and breast cancer if you drink beyond a moderate level which according to their website is one drink per day for women. That’s not much. On the nights that I was drinking, it was more than one, so that statistic came as a bit of a shock to me.

 

I have another personal connection with these findings. In her 30s, my mom quit her job to stay at home and raise her family, something that the majority of the women in the U.S. don’t do today. According to a Washington Post article from 2015, 40% of women with children under the age of 18 are the primary breadwinners in their family. And, according to the Pew Research Center, 64% of women with children under the age of 6 are working. At home with four badly-behaved children and a husband who worked all the time, my mom began to drink.

 

Image from one of the many Women’s Marches that we loved.

It started as a social thing; she drank with my dad and friends during the evenings. But, eventually, she became a daytime drinker who hid alcohol throughout the house. I don’t mean to do her reputation any harm. She was a loving, functional alcoholic who made sure we all had what we needed. But her life was shortened because of her addiction. Even though she eventually quit drinking when I was in my early 20s, it was too late. When I was 24, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-type dementia, possibly correlated to her alcoholism, and died nine years later.

 

For most of my life, I couldn’t understand why she drank. But now that I’m a mom and 45, I have more empathy for my mom than I ever did. I understand the pressures and fears unique to being a woman, especially a woman who is aging in a society that tells her that her looks are her most important asset. And I can’t help believing that if there hadn’t been a backlash against feminism in the 1980s and she had understood what feminism was, she could have found something besides alcohol to fill her up. It’s wishful thinking, perhaps, but I think it’s worth saying. As heavy drinking by women is normalized more and more, January, a month that saw a historic uprising of women in 2017 and 2018, seems like the perfect month to take a break from booze and reflect on how social norms are impacting our lives.

 

 

 


by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

Photos: All photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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