- Report reveals professional women are drinking to dangerous levels
- But, say two writers, it’s not career pressures driving women to wine
- Amanda Platell says it’s loneliness making women pop the cork
- Libby Purves claims alcohol helps to wash away plaguing self-doubt
The woman who wrote to me was in her 40s, single, and had given up hope of ever finding a husband and having children. She’d wanted both, but had devoted so much of her life to her high- flying City career that she’d found neither.
On the day she was made partner in her firm, she drank two bottles of champagne to celebrate with her colleagues — and then a third on her own when she got home. That was her rock bottom, and I thought of that lonely, unhappy high-flyer as I read the report this week claiming middle-aged professional women drink to dangerous levels because they’re trying to keep up with their macho male colleagues. They are supposedly driven to drink by a feeling that they have to match the boys chablis for chablis in the workplace, at client lunches and in the pub afterwards.
It’s no surprise to me that the spokesman behind the study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a man. He described the pressure on women to network and drink as the ‘dark side of equality’.
Reports suggest that more professional women are driven to drink by a feeling that they have to match the boys chablis for chablis in the workplace, at client lunches and in the pub afterwards
But only a 57-year-old career woman like myself can truly understand why educated, successful women of a certain age drink so much. I know a lot of them. Just as I know many happy career mums who let their jobs take a back seat while nurturing their kids and supporting their husbands — and they rarely drink to excess.
If the OECD report had done a bit more research, it would actually have found there’s a direct link between middle-class alcoholism among women and being single or divorced.
It’s not professional pressure that stiffens all these women’s wrists as they pull out that cork when they get home at night — it’s loneliness. That’s the real dark side of equality.
Let’s not forget the depressing statistic that 40 per cent of marriages now end in divorce, with a third of decree absolutes arriving on the doorstep before the 20th wedding anniversary.
One in four women over 40 are now childless and they’re mostly career women. Some don’t want kids, some left it too late. Others simply cannot have children and many are just waiting for the perfect man who never turns up.
And no surprises that this places many of these women firmly in the red-alert category of the OECD report; professionals in the 45 to 64 age group who drink dangerously.
It was about this time last year I realised my own ‘social drinking’ had got out of hand. A couple of glasses of wine with lunch, then a couple more with dinner, it was adding up to way more than was healthy.
I wasn’t drinking to dull any pain. I had a boyfriend, a great job, my life was happy — but a little too merry, if you know what I mean.
Amanda Platell: ‘If any of us needed a lesson in what feminism brings you, look to Germaine Greer – aged 76 and living alone’
And it was taking its toll on my body. My weight had slowly crept up and I could no longer disguise my muffin top. Enough.
So I took drastic action and gave up drinking completely for nearly a month. When I restarted, gently, I drank far less, mainly G&Ts with slimline tonic to cut the calories. I could make one drink last all dinner.
Since last August when I did my detox, I’ve lost nearly a stone without doing any more exercise or dieting. It just shows how much we drink without even thinking. I realised the damage I was doing to myself in time, but other career women have paid a heavy price for their success.
It’s not just my friends I observe. When I wrote an article for the Mail last September about the perils of mid-life female drinkers, I was inundated with emails and letters from women.
One came from that unhappy but courageously honest City worker. Another that particularly struck me was from a 55-year-old lawyer who felt so poorly she was sure something was drastically wrong and asked her doctor for a blood test. They found a major problem with her liver.
A mother of two teenage children, she had divorced in her 40s, left her dependable but dull husband for someone who duly dumped her, and was now alone with her kids and her career — and a bottle of shiraz each night.
The only thing that marked her out from the majority of the women who contacted me was that she had children still with her. Almost all were mid-life, mid-career and living in lovely homes provided by their fab jobs — yet alone. The message was loud and clear. They didn’t drink because of the pressures of work, but because of the consequences of their careers.
Keeping up with the boys is not about downing bottles of wine at corporate dinners, but drowning the sadness of leaving the office at 10pm with nothing and no one to go home to. Many learned the painful lesson that you can’t take a career to bed, that a job is no comfort on sad days, nor capable of sharing the joy on happy ones. Your cat is no company for brunch on a sunny Sunday. And there was an abiding sense of betrayal from the women who contacted me that we, the post-feminist generation, the glass ceiling breakers, were duped.
With a copy of The Female Eunuch clenched tightly under our shoulder-padded, power-suited armpit, as young women we were told we could have it all — a husband, children, career and happiness ever after.
We believed that our personal satisfaction and achievement were what really mattered. But we didn’t look at the fine print.
What life has taught this generation of women drinkers is that if you put career before everything else when starting to scale that shaky ladder of success, you will pay a heavy price.
Women were sleepwalking into disaster, disappointment and depression — and they drink to blot it out.
It’s not career pressures that make us women pull the cork – it’s loneliness
Now, as we look back, perhaps we can see that those of our contemporaries without glittering careers, the ones we professional women sniffed at who preferred to be ‘home-makers’ and work part-time, were often happier with their lot. A bit like my mum.
She has been married for 67 years. A clever woman, she could have held her own in any of the corporate positions I’ve had.
Yet she was part of the generation where she accepted that raising her three children and supporting her husband was the most rewarding job she could do. Mum will be 87 next month, and is now cared for by my dad, who’s soon to be 89. They still live in their own home supported by carers but, more importantly, she has the love and support of her husband, children and adoring grandchildren. She will never be alone.
Mum has been teetotal all her life. She never needed the booze to get through life’s sorrows, including the loss of her firstborn.
Thankfully, there is no solitary life for her in her twilight years, full of regrets in the dark of night. She can sleep soundly and happily in the knowledge she is loved.
It’s only now when I look back at my short marriage that I realise that I’d bought the false feminist agenda hook line and sinker. I didn’t think it mattered that I worked six days a week and never got home before 10pm. To be successful, to achieve my full potential was my right. But I was wrong.
Is it any wonder my marriage ended after just four years, when he had an affair with a woman who ‘needed’ him.
He said it was a cry for help, that he loved me but was tired of spending his days and nights alone and living in my shadow. Looking back, I realise I didn’t even cast a shadow in our marriage, as I was never there.
Now I know it’s not all about us, we career women, our jobs and our right to be up there with the big boys, calling and then downing the shots.
No relationship lasts without care for the other, however big your salary or impressive your title.
I learned that decades ago, as did many of the women who wrote to me last year. It’s about a balance between love of your job and love of family and friends.
Now if it’s a choice between my man and my boss, I choose the former, and celebrate both over a glass of wine, not a bottle.
And if any of us needed a lesson in what feminism brings you, look to Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch and one of the most strident female voices of the 20th century — aged 76 and living alone.
WE’RE PLAGUED BY SELF-DOUBT AND WINE HELPS WASH IT AWAY
BY LIBBY PURVES
This seems unlikely: here is the most educated group of women in our history, a health-conscious generation watching its weight, going to the gym and obsessing about probiotic yoghurt.
Yet this same group, says the OECD, sees a greater concentration of problem drinkers than their less successful sisters. And more than the rest of Europe.
The OECD blames the way the drinks industry cynically targets advertising at women and the fact that British society encourages boozing.
True, we do have hip, lady-friendly ads and sweetish slip-down-easy drinks. We do have wine bars on every corner, bright and friendly, unlike the gloomy, beery masculine pubs that, in my youth, were the only place to drink.
Libby Purves: ‘What is warming and encouraging, never judges you and gets you to sleep quick?’
To be honest, I rather liked that dark, slummy feeling, but a lot of women found it oppressive and nipped off home early.
Now, however, we have bright, clean bars and happy hours and wine in ridiculously huge 250 ml glasses: that’s a third — a third! — of a bottle of wine (the French and Italians think we’re weird in that regard).
Moreover, the giggly Bridget Jones chardonnay-slurping legend has made the idea of women getting drunk quite often seem funny: not dangerous or unhealthy, but just cool and companionable on a good night out.
Get a couple of bottles in, have a laugh with your girlfriends, compare your dreadful days, let your hair down. What could be more bonding, a more sisterly and loving gesture, than holding your mate’s hair back while she throws up?
Even if it doesn’t go that far these days, it is no shame as a bright professional woman to report or tweet that you were ‘off your face’, could hardly get your key in the door, woke everyone falling over the dog (again! Hilarious! TGIF!).
Chortle through your hangover that you seem to have put your phone in the fridge, eaten half a leftover treacle tart and woken up with pastry on the pillow.
It’s a hoot, it’s hilarious, it bonds you with others’ faux shameful stories. Indeed, some women admit they sneakily nurse a spritzer for hours in All Bar One with the girls, and then exchange shrieky hung-over texts the next morning just to be part of the gang.
One theory about the prevalence of heavy drinking among educated, professional women, which will be put forward by those who believe this is the ‘dark side of equality’, is that because we get degrees, go out to work, get on and leave it for ages before finding a serious partner and having children, we have to fill in the time and assuage the crushing, manless loneliness by getting plastered. That theory says that not having a man is such a fearful fate that the only answer is alcoholic oblivion. Possibly while caterwauling All By Myself in karaoke bars with our gay best friends.
That chick-litty theory is clearly appealing to those who secretly wish that women would get back to the ironing board and cooker, stop taking up space and the jobs men used to do and refrain from doing inappropriate and unladylike things such as becoming Home Secretary and telling off the Police Federation. Harrumph!
I can’t buy that theory, though it may be true for a few women. Not least because plenty of single women are absolutely fine, don’t drink much, enjoy their jobs and are happy to wait for the right man — if any — while getting on with their interesting lives.
But also because some of the excessive drinking is certainly being done by those who have found partners and are being put under pressure by them and by the difficulty of juggling earning, children and unhelpful blokes. It was ever so.
Remember the old expression ‘Mother’s Ruin?’ That dates from an era when women did stay home as a matter of course and only the gin bottle or the 9am sherry after the children went to school gave them the Dutch courage to tackle the housework.
Just because they didn’t fall over in the street, it doesn’t mean there weren’t lifelong, miserable, trapped female alcoholics in the Fifties. So, let’s not get all nostalgic and talk down the modern woman.
But the findings are depressing all the same. Just because we can have a drink or two without causing a scandal it doesn’t mean we have to neck it until our livers cry out for mercy.
Libby Purves says: ‘The giggly Bridget Jones chardonnay-slurping legend has made the idea of women getting drunk quite often seem funny’ (picture posed by model)
So, why is drink so important to this clever, lucky group of us?
There’s another unfeminist theory suggesting that once women move into traditionally male preserves and exercise authority, we adopt men’s habits. Poor little copycats.
In some trades, that’s true: you don’t want to be seen as a mumsy type or a prim little thing who scuttles home to her cat. So, you go to the City bar and shoot the breeze with the guys, catch the gossip, flirt a bit and relax among them more than you dared to do all day under the pressure of being sharp at work.
But since men, physically, have a slightly higher tolerance of heavy drinking than women, the race to keep up with the rounds does us no favours.
That’s one persuasive reason. But I think that there’s another, deeper and sadder force at work in all these situations.
Alcohol is warming, cheering and temporarily gives you courage. A first drink fogs the brain, wobbles the perceptions, relaxes the limbs, pushes harsh thoughts down. Its spreading vapour seems to fill a dark hole of uncertainty and shame inside you. And uncertainty and shame are a curse of female nature.
Men feel these things, too, but when a chap fails at a task, gets a hard time from his boss, feels patronised or muffs a promotion interview, he may find it easier to mutter: ‘Bastards!’ He can assume the attitude of a noble warrior-beast surrounded by enemies and lash out verbally (ideally not physically, Clarkson . . .).
Women, on the other hand, like to keep the peace and so are fatally prone to internalise humiliation.
But where Mr Angry will probably get over the nasty feelings by (at least temporarily) placing all the blame on the tormentor, we females have a dreadful tendency to hug the dagger to our breasts. ‘Ohh . . . that’s right . . . I am useless. I deserved that. I feel rubbish!’ We lie awake tormented with self-doubt.
So, what makes things feel better? What is warming and encouraging, never judges you and gets you to sleep quick?
Often enough, it’s something in a glass. Have enough and, like Bridget Jones, you can slur “Bashtardsh!” with conviction and wash the doubt away.
The damage it does not seem to matter. Not at the time.
STUDENT WHO SAYS: MY GENERATION’S EVEN WORSE
Harriet Miller, 23, is a medical student from Buckinghamshire. She says:
Medical student Harriet Miller (right) pictured here with her friend Becky Pemberton (left)
As a medical student, what bothers me most about my generation’s heavy drinking habits is that we don’t really know what the effects will be when we’re older.
Working in a cardio thoracic unit, I see the horrible, damaging effects of what heavy smoking in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies did to what is now the older generation. Are we, like them, simply ignoring the health warnings, this time about alcohol, and storing up a whole lot of problems for our future? I’m by no means preaching. Like most women of my generation, I started drinking when I was 14. Back then, it was three or four bottles of colourful alcopops such as Smirnoff Ice or Bacardi Breezers at a friend’s house party. We’d all get drunk and yes, usually vomit.
On a couple of occasions, the paramedics had to be called because some girl had overdone it. When I look back, it makes me so sad that we felt peer pressure at such a young age.
I kept drinking throughout school. In fact, my worst hangover was probably when I was 17 and drank so much that I vomited copiously. Mum was not impressed, but at that age you believe you’re invincible. And when you go to university, your entire social life is based around drinking. I did my first degree at Nottingham University and nearly all the events and gigs were based around cheap drink.
A typical big night out would involve a bottle of wine each at the flat I shared with friends before heading out to a bar or club where we’d drink two or three double vodka and cokes.
I still drink and still get drunk — but far less than I used to. I don’t even like the taste of alcohol, but if everyone’s drinking, you join in.
I tend to drink white or rose wine and sometimes, like most of my friends, suffer memory lapses, even if I’ve had only two or three glasses. Sometimes I wake up with a hangover and think ‘What a waste of a night’ because there’s so little I can remember. At least my friends and I tend to go out in big groups and look after each other.
I’ve cut back on alcohol in recent months. As a full-time medical student I’m much more aware of the damage it does to your body. Every illness we study seems to involve alcohol — whether its heart disease or cancer — and that’s when you realise the timebomb we could be facing.
This generation of middle-aged women is already paying the price for their wine habits. But I think the toll on my generation will be even worse.
Leave a Comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.