Whether it’s the after-work wine-down with colleagues, the sneaky G&T to help survive the homework/dinner/bath/bed frazzle, or the blissful pop of the champagne cork at that long-planned catch-up with the girls, women are increasingly getting through life with a glass in their hand.
While men born a century ago were twice as likely to drink alcohol as women, and three times as likely to drink heavily, today there is little difference between the drinking behaviour of men and women, according to UNSW researchers.
Experts say younger women are aping the behaviour of baby boomers and gen-Xers, the first women to enter the career culture and adopt the drinking habits of their male colleagues. We’re in the workplace and have the money to drink – and the pressure to justify it.
The number of women aged between 35 and 59 drinking at levels harmful to their health has doubled in the last 20 years according to alcohol researcher Janice Withnall.
“These women have more stress,” Dr Withnall says. “Children, partners, career, housework, having to take care of the whole family and their parents. It’s a list as long as your arm.”
Alcohol takes the edge off that stress, rewards our hard work and inflates our confidence. It can also quell any anxiety or unhappiness that may be bubbling beneath the surface. “Women haven’t learnt different ways of coping – they pick up a drink because it’s easy and it’s quick,” says Withnall.
As party season kicks off in the lead-up to Christmas, we delve into the myriad reasons women like a drink.
JILL STARK, 40
“I started binge drinking when I was 13, growing up in Edinburgh. My friend and I got a can of lager, tipped it into a pint glass, poured in some sugar and started drinking it through a straw. My brother came home and said, all Crocodile Dundee-like: ‘That’s not a drink – this is a drink.’ He went to our parents’ liquor cabinet, poured vodka, whisky and gin into a glass and said, ‘This is an FYU. It will f… you up.’ That was the beginning of the end – I had no chance.
From then on I could drink for Scotland. I was the party animal of our group. I was drinking at every social occasion – it was so normalised, there was nobody around me doing otherwise.
But the older I got, the harder the hangovers hit me – it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. The hangovers were physically demanding, and mentally I could be broken for days. I started thinking about not drinking, but the idea of not drinking socially scared me.
Then I woke up on New Year’s Day, after getting home from a party at dawn, with a hangover that nearly killed me. I felt so wretched. I was about to turn 35 and I thought, ‘This is not sustainable.’ I ended up not drinking for more than a year. I faced triumph, tragedy, celebrations, commiserations, the whole gamut of life, without a glass in my hand. I enjoyed the highs and felt the lows. It made me more resilient and confident.
Sobriety taught me that things I used to pass off as drink talking are actually personality traits. I would be brutally honest when I drank; I thought that was the alcohol, but I’m just tactless! I also thought alcohol gave me all this confidence; suddenly you’re this conversationalist and party animal. But I can be just like that without alcohol.
When I started drinking again, I was nervous about falling back into old habits. After writing a book about my year off alcohol I became the poster girl for sobriety, which was never my intention. I feel pressure to be some role model I never signed up to be.
‘Are you drinking again?’ is the question I get asked most. There is almost panic in their voices – if I can’t make it, then how can they expect to? But I never wanted to banish alcohol from my life altogether. It’s still fun and it often tastes good. It was more about redefining the role of alcohol in my life. I definitely still drink and I definitely still get drunk, but I don’t have the hangovers I used to and I don’t drink as often as I used to.
I don’t want to demonise alcohol, to feel guilty every time I have a glass of wine, but I don’t want it to be mindless drinking. I want there to be a reason.
I think women are often very harsh critics of ourselves and how the world views us. Alcohol can be a way to escape from that, it can be a coping mechanism. My drinking is definitely linked to my mental health – I have had lifelong problems with anxiety and depression.
When I get into a pattern of drinking more than I intended to, it’s usually a red flag for me that something is out of balance. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed with work, or upset with personal issues, alcohol is not your friend.”
TEGAN SADLIER, 45
“When I drink I can’t have one glass, I have to have four. So from Monday to Thursday I eat healthily and I don’t have any alcohol. Friday comes and I switch to Mrs All from Mrs Nothing in the blink of an eye. I think I have that kind of personality, that let-it-rip personality.
So much of me is about control. My weekday life is about restraint, working hard, eating well, and then on Friday I pick up my weekend cask and I relax. Part of it is rewarding myself for being so good for four days. Now it’s time to treat myself; eat what I like, drink what I like.
It does upset my husband Tony, though, when I drink too much at social events. I probably get loud; I think I’m hilarious, of course, and I probably tell it like it is. He’s not a drinker and he worries: ‘She’s embarrassing herself, she’s embarrassing me.’ He says to me, ‘You’re 45 years old. You’re too old to be behaving like that.’ He also doesn’t like the fact that the next day I’m probably going to be sick and won’t be participating in the family. I hate that as well, but as I said to him once, ‘With great restraint comes great release.’
When I was younger, drinking made me feel much more confident. I was a lot heavier then. I never saw myself as being worthy, so maybe I was drinking more to disappear. The night I got together with Tony [when I was 23] I seem to remember I was on Strongbow.
Since I’ve been grown up I’ve always loved a drink. I’ll drink anything. I like the release. I think it’s the price we all pay for balancing babies and careers. Society has changed so much with the recalibration of roles and responsibilities.
I think women drinking has been written into popular culture. When you think about shows like Girls and Sex and the City, about empowered women, drinking is a very big part of what they do. But men drink as well, it’s not only women who drink.
I really, really, genuinely want to rein my drinking in, to believe that I am amusing or entertaining with only one or two drinks inside me. Our son is now 13 and he’s more aware of this kind of stuff as well.
This year I’ve been much better. But the other weekend I went to a work reunion, a lunch that went until 9pm. I really did not mean to get so plastered. I was really trying, I wanted to make Tony proud of me. But I didn’t pace myself. I got home and basically passed out on the couch. Our son said to my husband, ‘Oh, why does she do it?’ That made me feel terrible.
I need to try harder. I was really disappointed in myself; I’d let Tony down, I’d let myself down, and my son.
Because I’m all-or-nothing, I have thought I should just stop completely, and maybe I’ll end up having to, but I don’t really want it to come to that. Mostly I think it’s all under control. I just need to find that middle ground when I’m socialising, to learn when I’ve reached the point before the point of no return, to say no when someone goes to fill my glass again. I have a lovely life – great job, beautiful home and I love my family dearly – but our finances are very tight and it’s a struggle sometimes. Drinking and carbs have become my weekly indulgence. I just need to work on keeping one of them in check.”
MONIQUE CECCACTO, 26
“I grew up in an Italian family, so from a very young age I was aware that my parents always enjoyed wine with lunch. We saw drinking as a happy, communal thing that you don’t have to go overboard with. I can remember in early high school having a tiny bit of red wine in our lemonade, it was something we would always do at lunch.
Most of my drinking now revolves around work. I go out to a lot of events during the week and there is always alcohol. It’s not just unlimited beer and wine, but bubbles and cocktails as well.
The other week I went to the opening of a new store opening that was very theatrical; they had live DJs and they were making cocktails to order with dry ice and flavoured pearls.
I’ll have maybe one or two glasses while I’m mingling and chatting – alcohol aids networking. Almost by holding that drink you feel like you’re there with a group of friends and you’re part of what’s happening. If I’m not holding a drink I feel slightly left out.
I’ve been to a few events where alcohol was not an option. They weren’t unsuccessful, but were definitely odd. If you include alcohol it promotes more conversation – a relaxed ‘enjoy yourself’ environment rather than a rigid ‘you’re at a networking event, you must network’ atmosphere.
But I have to maintain some level of professionalism, make sense and not embarrass myself. Most of these events are midweek, and I’ve got to climb out of bed at 6am the next day. I don’t drink more than I should because I know it’s not going to be pretty tomorrow.
Outside of work, my drinking is very much occasional. It helps me unwind if I am in a social environment. I don’t go out to drink or to get drunk. I honestly think that’s because I’ve been in long-term relationships since I left high school. I think there’s a direct correlation between the times I was single and how much I was drinking – it goes up a lot when I’m single! You’re going out to meet people, you’re going out socialising.
My partner is a rep for an alcohol company, so he’s got all this alcohol at his house; we can help ourselves all the time. But he barely ever drinks at home. He’s around it all day, every day, so it’s no longer as exciting.
I’ve been out with bigger drinkers, people whose drinking caused a lot of issues [in our relationship], but it’s never really changed my drinking habits. If I don’t want to be out any more I’ll go home, no matter who I’m with or what they’re drinking.