Women drinkers now in the spotlight

Several times a week, in that brief lull that comes after school ends and before the nightly supper-homework ritual begins, several mothers gather on a front porch in suburban Pittsburgh for what they laughingly call “wine hour.”

Several times a week, in that brief lull that comes after school ends and before the nightly supper-homework ritual begins, several mothers gather on a front porch in suburban Pittsburgh for what they laughingly call “wine hour.”

“There are usually about three or four of us,” says Susan Geist, a 31-year-old mother of a nine-month-old. “We sit and talk and have a glass of wine or two, and then I come home, make dinner for my husband and feed my daughter.”

For Geist, wine hour isn’t about getting drunk; it’s about mothers helping each other cope.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air, at the end of a long day with a baby, to have these other moms to talk to who have been there and can be so helpful. It’s almost like therapy. It’s not like we just sit there and drink and lose ourselves in alcohol or anything.”

Perhaps, but the whole culture of women and social drinking — the “cocktail play dates,” the “Happy Hour moms,” the wine bars, the boozy book clubs, the single girl’s Sex and the City Cosmopolitans – is coming under increased scrutiny lately.

A horrific car crash in July on New York’s Taconic Parkway, in which Diane Schuler – who police say was drunk and had smoked marijuana – killed four children, herself and three adults while driving the wrong way, has intensified the debate over whether child-rearing and drinking are simply too lethal a cocktail for some women.

The number of women arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs has mounted dramatically in recent years, according to FBI data. Overall arrests of men for DUI still outnumber arrests of women by nearly 4 to 1. But the number of women arrested for DUI was 28.8 per cent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 per cent lower.

What’s causing this?

“For women, it’s one of the consequences of being encouraged to do the things that men do,” said Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein. “Some are good things, like becoming police officers, firefighters and so on. Some are bad things, like becoming criminals or being arrested for drinking and driving.”

The FBI numbers may not tell the whole story, he cautioned – some people may have been arrested multiple times, for example. Also, thanks to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, drunken driving is no longer just a traffic offense, he said, “so there may be less of a sense of chivalry among arresting police officers, who may have been more gentle about nabbing a woman than they are now.”

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, said he believes the spike may be due in part to vast numbers of women entering the work force in recent decades. In June, women held 49.83 per cent of the nation’s 132 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and are soon expected to overtake men.

“The way men have always dealt with stress after work was to go to the bar,” he added.

“Now women are going to the bar, too – and driving home afterwards. It’s the old notion that if you play by the railroad track, chances are greater you’ll get hit by a train.”

Not all of these women drinkers are alcoholics, by any means, but two or three drinks can raise blood-alcohol levels in women more quickly than in men.

“Women do many things better than men, including absorbing alcohol better,” Capretto said, because of their smaller size and other physiological factors.

So who are these new women drinkers? They range across the age and socio-economic spectrum. But research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows that better-educated women are more likely to drink than those who are less-educated, just as working women drink more than those who stay at home. Married women have the lowest rates of heavy drinking.

The Internet is stuffed with mommy bloggers weighing in on the drinking culture. For instance, thecocktailcafe.com, bills itself as “The Mothership for Moms to Gather, Sip and Socialize.”

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