“…Government health campaigns have dramatically influenced whether or not women drink while pregnant, such that today 90 per cent of women are aware of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and either never touch alcohol or rarely drink while they are expecting….”

The Australian


QWeekend: What drives mums to drink
by: Susan Johnson
From: The Courier-Mail
June 29, 2013 12:00AM


Marion Leveritt, 40, of Carindale, is a stay-at-home mother who abstained from alcohol while pregnant, but who
recently celebrated having her first post-baby drink.

(Pic: Russell Shakespear Source: The Courier-Mail)

THE kids are finally asleep. Or you’re cooking dinner after a stressful day at work, listening to your darlings fighting over whose turn it is on the computer or which TV show to watch.

No matter, a glass of wine is at the ready. This is downtime, decompression time, kick-back time. This is wine o’clock, when one glass becomes two or sometimes three, when parenting’s endless Groundhog Day feels a little easier to endure when accompanied by mummy’s little helper.

No-one told you before you had children that – unlike the measliest job – parenthood never gives
you the day off. One Brisbane mother recalls the shocking moment when it dawned on her the baby
she held in her arms was her responsibility, like, forever. Tired or not, hungover or not, whether she liked it or not, the baby was always going to be there, morning, noon and night.

Being CEO of a big corporation is stressful. Being prime minister or premier or a cardiac surgeon is stressful. But so is being a stay-at-home mother or an ordinary working parent, dealing with problems at work all day only to come home to a different set of problems at night.

While high-income earners might believe it’s low-income earners who have a problem with the booze, the data shows the opposite. At high risk are the Moadiët Mummies – those ladies who lunch and who are consequently a teensy bit late for school pick-up. And those yummy mummies who stay for drinks at each other’s houses after school and then have to cab it home or else be picked up by a husband because they’re too squiffy to drive.

Professor Steve Allsop, director of the National Drug Research Institute at Perth’s Curtin University, says one of the greatest predictors of excessive parental drinking is money. “People who are wealthier are at greater risk. Women in
the managerial class, for example; women (or men) with a high income at their disposal. It’s about economic availability.

But both low-income and high-income earners can be at risk. If you’re at the bottom end of the scale, if you’re a single parent or if you’re isolated or if you’re using alcohol to cope with intolerable circumstances, for example. But the
data suggests there’s heavier drinking among the well-to-do. Many of us enjoy the conviviality and flavour of alcohol and for many of us it symbolises the end of the working day, but if it happens every day, and you’re pouring your alcohol at home, with the fashion for bigger glasses it’s easy to pour more than a standard drink.”

Allsop says this private drinking culture among de-stressing parents at home is the problem, or at least a potential problem.

“Technically, if you’re having one or two drinks a day, that fits with the guidelines for low-risk drinking, but it’s important to stress that two drinks a day or fewer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. The problem with many of us who might have a glass of wine at home is that what somebody thinks is one drink might actually be a bit more than that. What people pour at home might be in fact three or five standard drinks, and if you’re doing it every single day, it’s very easy to become insinuated into a routine, and then the risk of dependency increases.”

Women, in particular, should be wary. “The risks (of alcohol-related diseases) for women increase at a steeper rate than they do for men. As a woman, if you’re drinking with a partner and you’re matching their pace, you will end up with a much higher blood alcohol level, which immediately puts you at greater risk of longer-term harms from a range of diseases, particularly to do with various types of cancer.”

Queensland Police Acting Chief Superintendent Andy Morrow, from the State Traffic Support Branch, agrees women should also be extra-cautious when calculating whether it’s safe to drive. “Everyone’s metabolism is different and when people try to work out the number of drinks they’ve had over X amount of time, trying to calculate the absorption of alcohol in their systems, well, they regularly underestimate alcohol’s effects. There is no rule of thumb. If you’re intending on having drinks, our recommendation would be not to drive at all.”

Morrow adds that while Queensland Police keep no figures specifically isolating “drinking mummies” picked up by random breathalysers outside schools or childcare centres, police will deploy “an enforcement strategy” if they have intelligence that suggests there is an issue. Various urban myths imply that certain inner-city Brisbane private schools are favourite targets, as well as certain childcare centres, but Morrow will not speculate.

THE TRUTH IS THAT MUMMIES AND DADDIES – single, separated, divorced or married – are drinking more than ever. A recent UK survey carried out by children’s charity 4Children found that 17 per cent of parents drank more following the birth of children and that the majority of parents in Britain – a whopping 82 per cent – regularly drink alcohol. Home Office figures report that two million parents in the UK drink every single day of their lives.

Closer to home, the figures are comparable. The Australian Institute of Family Studies, in a 2011 paper on alcohol misuse, draws a line between enjoyment of alcohol and problematic drinking behaviours, and how this may impact on an adult’s ability to effectively parent his or her children, can be unclear. However, the paper goes on to report that while “many parents drink, this does not always lead to poor parenting behaviour

The quantity of alcohol consumed is not by itself an indicator of the risk of child maltreatment, and any assessment for risks to children needs to be considered alongside other risk factors, and within the context of individual circumstances.”

The most recent national study – the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report, published in 2011 – found that one in five people drank at levels that put them at risk of harm over their
lifetime (more than two standard drinks a day on average). Although this proportion remained unchanged since 2007, the number of people drinking in risky quantities increased from 3.5 million in 2007 to 3.7 million in 2010. Among all
states and territories, Queensland had the largest proportion of daily drinkers.

The study also found that female perceptions of the number of standard drinks a woman could consume before putting her health at risk were consistent with the recommendations of the 2009 Australian alcohol guidelines (no more than two standard drinks a day, preferably with two or three days of no drinking). However, “risky” drinkers were more likely to believe they could consume a higher quantity than low-risk drinkers.

Further, 64.8 per cent of women who drank at risky levels on a single occasion said they believed they knew how many standard drinks they could have before putting their health at risk.

Of those, just under half thought that having four standard drinks or fewer would not put
their health at risk over a six-hour drinking period. And the majority of Australian women (93.3 per cent) believed they could consume two standard
drinks every day without adversely affecting their health.

Government health campaigns have dramatically influenced whether or not women drink while pregnant, such that today 90 per cent of women are aware of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and either never touch alcohol or rarely drink while they are expecting. But, clearly, parenthood itself does not preclude drinking.

Social drinking is woven into the very fabric of parental life: school fundraising events and sports events, barbecues and picnics, where there’s one Esky for the kids and one for the adults. In 2011, Australian National Council on Drugs chairman Dr John Herron issued an open letter to every school principal in Australia seeking “assistance and cooperation in not permitting the use, sale or promotion of alcohol products in school fundraising activities”.

“We are not wowsers in the sense we are trying to stop people drinking alcohol,” Herron says, “but where there is a distinct fundraiser to promote alcohol – I think that’s a fine line.”

Australian website fundraisingwine.com.au organises fundraisers for sporting clubs and schools – sometimes creating individual wine labels for schools celebrating special events. Hamilton State School, in the suburb of the same name in Brisbane’s inner north – which in 2011 topped a list of the ten wealthiest Queensland areas by postcode, based on Australian Taxation Office taxable income figures in 2008-2009 – organised such a wine label in 2007 for its centenary celebration, featuring the school crest and motto.

The website includes testimonials from such groups as Parents For Gymnastics and a 15-year-old girls’ futsal team, waxing lyrical about how successful their various wine fundraising events were. Herron suggests while the overwhelming majority of schools across Australia keep alcohol well away from school activities, a significant number don’t. “We’d like them to think about the message they are giving to children,” he says. “You can’t on the one hand criticise drinking in young people and on the other hand do fundraising to promote alcohol – it doesn’t make sense.”

That’s all well and good, says one Brisbane mother, Jane (not her real name), but “I don’t know that many people would want to do to a dry Trivial Pursuit night. I don’t agree with this no-alcohol-movement at school fundraising stuff. It’s nonsense.”

Aged 49 and a resident of one of Brisbane’s wealthy inner northern suburbs, Jane had the first of her two children when she was 40, after a successful career in PR and marketing. She jokes about the data proving people drink more after they become parents.

“I can’t believe they needed a study to work that one out!” In her experience, older mothers are exactly the sort of women who might seek solace in a little drink or two: “We’ve all done it I think the older mums – professional working women – suddenly feel very isolated, socially and mentally, after their first child is born. A drink in the evening was not only something to look forward to, to make you feel more ‘chilled’ during the horror hour, but was also a link back to a more ‘adult’ past life.

“Often in the early evenings you were on your own. The day needed some punctuation. A glass of wine – a bit like Pavlov’s dog – reminded me of the past, enjoying interesting conversation with colleagues over drinks at the end of the working week,” she says.

Jane recalls that as a very new mother she craved the camaraderie of the workplace: “I remember when my first child was born, I sought out a cappuccino in the neighbourhood because it reminded me of my routine in my professional
days, when working seemed much easier than motherhood.”

While Jane abstained during pregnancy, when her children were babies and later toddlers and then school-age – with her businessman husband working late or away interstate – a glass of wine every evening became a coping mechanism. “When it’s witching hour and things start getting chaotic, you know, when everyone’s tired and there’s homework to be done and the kids are fighting, screaming, it’s easier to cope if you have a glass of wine when making dinner. Things go much more smoothly when you have something to drink. We all drink too much, we all should probably drink less.”

Although not a member of Moadiët Mummies (a group of women who regularly meet over Champagne in Ashgrove, in Brisbane’s inner north-west), Jane slowly became aware that at social events with other mothers, alcohol was replacing tea or coffee. “In the old days, when we all had babies, you’d take a thermos of tea and something from the bakery to the park – now substitute ‘pub’ for ‘park’. I mean, we still go to the park, but now you arrive with a bottle of wine or whatever.”

She says there’s also a lot of drinking at the school swimming club on a Friday night. “We usually go to each other’s houses and usually parents have to walk home,” she says. Children’s birthday parties are the same. But it’s normally the mothers and not the fathers at these gatherings. “It’s often women without their husbands, or else women who are divorced or separated or women whose husbands are working till 9pm or are away a lot it gives them a sense of community or camaraderie, to be in a social environment. You know, their kids are safe, the mother is not lonely, there’s usually some form of magnificent counselling from one mother or another.”

THERE’S A SIMILAR KIND OF CAMARADERIE AT children’s birthday parties. “You usually stay and have something to drink All the mummies sit in deckchairs with a glass of wine and watch the clown or the bouncy castle or whatever. At the end of the party you ask (yourself), ‘Am I right to drive?’, and if you’re not, you leave the car and walk home, because most of the parties are local. No-one I know drink-drives; they walk, because they’re local, or catch a cab if they’ve got their children with them.”

Says a 35-year-old mother of three who’s just moved from Townsville to Airlie Beach in North Queensland because of her husband’s job, before she had kids she and her husband were mostly social drinkers, on weekends only.

“Occasionally, I might have a glass of wine when I was marking assignments or with dinner,” says the former high-school science teacher who gave up work at 29 when her first child, now 5, was born. Since having children, however, the couple drink “a few more wines during the week to relax”. She is still breastfeeding her youngest child and doesn’t drink during the day but looks forward to that evening tipple with her husband.
“Our drinking has increased during the week, for sure,” she says.

Marion Leveritt, 40, of the southern Brisbane suburb of Carindale, is mother to Charlotte, 2, and new baby Annabelle, two months. A former HR manager, she is a stay-at-home mother who abstained from alcohol while pregnant, but who
recently celebrated having her first post-baby drink. “I enjoyed it immensely after the nine-month hiatus,” she admits. Leveritt and her husband are aware of current recommendations for alcohol consumption (“I have a dietitian for a
husband after all,” she says) and before she fell pregnant with Annabelle, she made a conscious effort to “try to ease off the every-day glass or two”.

She had noticed that following the birth of her first child, her drinking had subtly but slowly increased.

“After I had Charlotte I certainly enjoyed my glass or two of wine at the end of the day much more than before,” Leveritt says. “I’ve always enjoyed a social drink, but it certainly became a highlight once I was a mum. Before I was a mum I’d have four or five glasses of wine per week, usually only on the weekend, but after this definitely increased to one or two glasses most evenings – especially once I stopped breastfeeding – with an attempt to keep one or two alcohol-free days per week, not always successfully.”

She says sharing a gla
ss or two of wine over dinner with her husband and enjoying a grown-up conversation has become an anticipated event. “It really makes me feel like an adult again, especially after a long day looking after my
precious daughter and doing the typical mum stuff for my baby – feeding, burping, changing nappies, settling for sleep, playing, and talking ‘baby talk’ all day long.

“It was relatively easy to abstain from drinking alcohol during the pregnancy (with Annabelle)
unfortunately breastfeeding hasn’t been possible, but formula feeding makes timing that glass of wine a little easier.”

Mitchell Giles is CEO of Lives Lived Well, a Queensland non-government support organisation for people with alcohol, drug and other addictive behaviours that treats more than 10,000 people per year.

He cautions that alcohol consumption can be insidious. “It’s important to remember that alcohol when consumed regularly or too much on a single occasion can have consequences for some that are dramatic – accidents, assaults, suicide – but for others (the effects) are more insidious, as alcohol becomes a ‘normal’ aspect of life.”

He advises parents to become good role models. “Seeing Mum frequently drinking at social gatherings or telling glorified tales of her partying or often turning to alcohol at the end of a bad day signals to her child that it’s a way to cope with stress, a way to have fun and an acceptable behaviour.”

Social drinking by women can’t be divorced from Australia’s general drinking culture, according to Professor Jake Najman, director of the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre (a joint venture between the
University of Queensland and Queensland Health). Najman says that while women represent only a small minority of heavy drinkers, Australia’s culture encourages drinking.

“While many cultures accept and encourage drinking, by international standards Australia has a particularly high rate of heavy alcohol consumption by women.”

He says that parental drinking is a major factor in youth drinking. “Heavy drinking households will produce heavier drinking children, who start drinking at a younger age and who have more problems with alcohol once they grow up.”