Drinking on the Job? 

It starts off like any ordinary Sunday afternoon play date. Six kids go nuts on a backyard play set while two of my mom friends and I oversee the chaos and exchange neighborhood gossip.

It starts off like any ordinary Sunday afternoon play date. Six kids go nuts on a backyard play set while two of my mom friends and I oversee the chaos and exchange neighborhood gossip. But when I reach into my diaper bag, everything changes.

“Whaddaya say, ladies?” I ask, pulling out a corkscrew and a bottle of wine. I pour two generous glasses of Chardonnay (being eight months pregnant, I have to temporarily forego the pleasure myself) and hand them over. As they take a sip, we all laugh wickedly. We’re engaged in a suburban rebellion, defending a tradition that’s recently come under attack: the cocktail play date à la Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, only tamer.

The controversy started in November when The New York Times ran a feature about “Cosmopolitan Moms,” women who have a glass of wine or cocktail together once a week while watching their kids. While the moms in the article were careful to stipulate they never have more than a drink or two over a few hours’ time, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s addictive disorders program was quoted, warning readers that even one drink slows response time and impairs judgment. I was left imagining a pack of shit-faced young mommies passing around a bottle of Jim Beam while Timmy lay crying where he fell from the jungle gym and Suzie ate handfuls of dirt peppered with bits of broken glass from beer bottles the moms had tossed in the yard the week before.

It would be difficult to imagine a more humorless and fear-mongering piece.

But the real kicker came when the cocktail play date was featured a couple of weeks ago on NBC’s Today show. First, it broadcast a taped piece showing a couple of moms enjoying a glass of wine on the playground. As the children romped, the photographer prominently featured a wine bottle or glass in nearly every shot, making it seem like a kid might reach over and take a swig at any moment. Afterward, during a live studio interview, Melissa Summers, mother of two and author of the mommy blog Suburbanbliss.net, nervously defended her penchant for cocktail play dates before a disapproving psychiatrist and a frowning Meredith Vieira.

Both my neighbors had seen the Today segment and wondered why moms were bearing the brunt of the attack. “What’s the difference between us getting together right now and all of our families getting together for a party?” my neighbor Susan wanted to know. “Or our husbands having a beer and watching the kids on Saturday afternoon?”

After our play date, I e-mailed Melissa and asked her that question myself. Not surprisingly, she’s still pissed about unexpectedly having to defend cocktail play dates on live television.

“The Today show isn’t roaming around a family-friendly pub asking 10 parents why they’re having a glass of beer with dinner right in front of their children. And what it means!” she wrote back. “It’s acceptable somehow that these parents are being responsible and drinking and also are just regular people. We don’t question their ability to parent after having a drink with dinner. We don’t call them selfish. We don’t ask, ‘Who will save the children if someone gets hurt?’ It’s a non-issue.”

Yes, if morning television is any indication, without a man around to set limits, MWAs (mommies with alcohol) are likely to overindulge at cocktail play dates and end up unresponsive in the sandbox. And apparently, many other moms believe the hype. A recent poll on women’s site iVillage.com asked whether it’s OK to have cocktails at play dates. Fifty-seven percent of the 1,700 who responded said no. Across the Internet, mothers against cocktail play dates are sounding off in the comment sections of sites such as BloggingBaby.com. “Have you people lost your minds?” one mom writes. “Wake up! Kids do what they see. They learn by example. Keep drinking during play dates. Then maybe you can all get together in the ER a few years from now when one of them wraps their car around a tree in a drunken stupor, like their mom taught them to do.”

Whoa. All that breathless ire over one glass of wine? I watched my neighbors carefully after their glasses were emptied and can report that neither of them fell off the deck, vomited on their tracksuits or hopped into a car and wrapped it around a tree in a “drunken stupor.” In fact, far from having a physical effect, the glass of wine seemed more symbolic than anything else, making my friends feel like adults after spending their weekend wiping noses and making peanut butter sandwiches, facilitating conversation that, for a change, transcended the typical mommy blather about Bobby’s mental aptitude or Janie’s gymnastic feats.

“We should do this again,” my neighbor Carolyn concluded when the sun dipped behind the trees, the moms were hoarse from talking and the kids’ energy seemed sufficiently spent. “Soon.”

Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem.

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