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Author Gabrielle Glaser says women in their 40s and 50s drink to de-stress, whether from taking on too many roles or losing an essential one. (Picasa)
Author Gabrielle Glaser says women in their 40s and 50s drink to de-stress, whether from taking on too many roles or losing an essential one. (Picasa)

Unravelling to unwind: Why middle-aged women are drinking more Add to ...

Most Sunday nights, Gabrielle Glaser watched as a neighbour crept onto her property, depositing two sizable bottles drained of Chilean merlot into Glaser’s recycling bin. “That felt really personal,” says Glaser, who never let on that she knew.

The neighbour was one in a growing cohort of middle-aged women increasingly taking to the bottle, an emerging demographic Glaser surveys in her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink – and How They Can Regain Control.

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Researchers and pollsters are seeing a pattern: As men’s alcohol consumption plateaus in North America, women’s rises. But well beyond the binge-drinking sorority sister, more women in their 40s and beyond are drinking to get drunk, more than at any time in recent history. A 2010 Gallup poll reported that nearly two-thirds of American women now drink “regularly,” a number higher than at any time in the past 25 years.

Women are doing it because they can, Glaser argues. They’re also grossly overextended with duelling roles of breadwinner, mother and manager of the household. Enter wine, a culturally sanctioned de-stresser.

And while some treat women who can drink like the boys as another sign of parity, there are differences in how the sexes approach alcohol. Glaser cites research that found men crave alcohol when they’re shown images of booze, but women covet it when they see photos of a messy kitchen or a screaming infant. And unlike men sidling up to the bar, women over 30 are more likely to drink alone at home where there is less oversight – a point that can become problematic.

“We haven’t been paying attention to the disparity of consequences,” Glaser writes. “Women get drunk faster, and they suffer health problems from excess drinking faster, too.” The conversation around women and alcohol has shifted far past glib Mommy Needs a Drinky-Poo paeans to booze: Her Best-Kept Secret comes on the heels of this spring’s Drunk Mom, the gutsy and divisive memoir from Toronto author Jowita Bydlowska, and ahead of Canadian journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston’s Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, out this fall. Glaser spoke with The Globe and Mail from New Jersey.

Is drinking simply another “male” trait women are taking on along with everything else?

That’s certainly what epidemiologists say about the ways that young women are drinking. With women in their 40s and 50s, it’s a response to stress. There’s an awful lot of balls that we’re trying to keep up in the air right now. At the same time, I talked to women who started drinking heavily in their late 40s and early 50s at the loss of a parent or during a divorce or when their last child moved out to go away to school. On the one hand, taking on more life roles is stressful, but losing one of those roles is really stressful.

What drives a man to the bar? Not stress? It’s more of a cultural thing with men. In our day and age, women are drinking far more in isolation – every one of my female sources drank alone. These are people who are very functional. They’re going to work, their lives are in order. Maybe they’ve had bad fights or embarrassing e-mails or texts but they haven’t had severe consequences yet as a result of their alcohol [consumption]. Certainly I did interview women who were in serious trouble: One was a prosecutor, another a state attorney, a Canadian counter-intelligence agent, a couple of engineers and several women in the tech world. It started as an after-work ritual.

How often is it solo, and how much of it is commiseration among women?

For young women there’s very much a social aspect to it. It begins socially in university, at their first job, with fun and games at bars and pubs. Then it continues. What many of my sources told me is that when they started with a bottle of wine shared with other women in the afternoon, they’d tell themselves, ‘Ok, that’s it for me.’ But when you have a glass or two of wine you become disinhibited and it becomes very easy to tell yourself, ‘I’ll just have one more.’ The pattern that many women reported to me was that they would continue to drink once they got home and put away another bottle. It started out as fun and commiserating but it ended up as something more anaesthetizing.

What about this concept of wine as reward?

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