‘We were all stuffed’: Spike in drinking during COVID-19 among working mums

Participants noted the lack of control they felt over their everyday lives and drinking as they juggled working from home, parenting, household, and teaching roles combined with the limit on socialised activities outside the home.

The two studies interviewed 22 Australian women over five months in 2022, who mostly identified as professional workers, between the ages of 36 and 51. They described feeling overburdened during COVID-19 restrictions because of their increased workload and lack of organisational support, contributing to heightened alcohol consumption.

“We were all stuffed, it was horrible. We were all working and trying to home school and it was just so awful … and so, I guess, my girlfriends were going through that too, the ones with kids, and they were all definitely drinking a lot more,” – one study participant said.

Lead researcher and PhD candidate, Maree Patsouras, at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, says that for many women, drinking alcohol became a coping mechanism to surviving the day. However, attitudes towards drinking shifted from pleasure to negative connotations, as the study progressed.

“In the short term, women justified their alcohol consumption by wanting to relax and have some enjoyment,” she said.

“They explained there was little to look forward to during the lockdowns, with the absence of their usual activities, and the perception of alcohol as a reward was amplified.

“But the meanings associated with alcohol later conflicted with the earlier discussions to wanting to forget their days and ease the stress.”

Most working mothers described increased alcohol consumption often in terms of frequency, particularly on weekdays, during the lockdowns. Some women recounted they increased the quantity by pouring extra, or larger glasses.

“Before COVID, maybe one or two nights a week and it would be a couple of glasses of wine. It wasn’t anything in excess, but then during COVID it became a bottle of wine sometimes,” – a study participant noted.

Others reported their drinking style as distinctly different to men, where drinking occurred in the blurred transition between working and parenting roles. Ms Patsouras says this highlights the research and its relevance beyond pandemic restrictions.

The studies also pointed to a broader cultural normalisation of alcohol use, particularly among women during the pandemic, amid a time when bottle shops were deemed as an essential service.

“Many women said they noticed more alcohol advertisements and when the opportunity came to meet with their friends, it often revolved around having a drink together as opposed to being able to exercise or socialise in other regular ways pre-COVID,” Ms Patsouras says.

While most of the women spoke about their return to pre-alcohol consumption once lockdowns lifted, others said the drinking practices that had been learned and reinforced during lockdowns were harder to undo.

“It was in excess, absolutely. I recognise that now, but I am finding it very hard to shift the habits that have formed in that time period to now and not have that thought that, ‘Oh God, I need a drink,’” – said a study participant.

Researcher Dr Gabe Caluzzi said this period of social change highlighted the tendency for people to fall back into traditional gender roles and provides a case study for better arrangements in the event of a future disaster.

“While we only interviewed women, many were expected to do the mothering, the homeschooling, even while they were working and this played into women’s frustrations with COVID-19 restrictions and part of their reasons for drinking,” Dr Caluzzi said.

“There’s a need for a structural approach to the way women drink as it can be tied to varying gender roles, such as drinking for pleasure because they’re frustrated or not coping.

“It’s about making sure that women are supported in workplaces and in their homes and that there are resources for women to access, whether that’s childcare or homeschooling, so that not all the burden is placed on themselves to manage these tasks.”

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