Mommies Who Drink: No Joking After the Schuler Tragedy

The scene of an accident near Hawthorne, in Westchester County, N.Y., that killed four adults and four children.

TIMES By Ada Calhoun Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009

As recently as last month, drinking parents seemed to be all the rage. On the bookshelves: Stefanie Wilder-Taylor’s Naptime Is the New Happy Hour, Robert Wilder’s Daddy Needs a Drink and Chris Mancini’s Pacify Me, the cover of which shows a six-pack consisting of five beers and one milk bottle. A pacifier dangles from one of the brews.

Well, goodbye to all that — thanks, at least in part, to the fallout from a horrifying drunk-driving tragedy that has garnered national attention.

On July 26, Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old mother of two, plowed her minivan into oncoming traffic after driving the wrong way on New York’s Taconic State Parkway for almost two miles, killing herself, her 2-year-old daughter, three young nieces and three men in another car. Her 5-year-old son survived. Police said last week that shortly before the crash, which occurred on a Sunday afternoon as Schuler was driving the kids back from a weekend of camping, she had smoked pot and imbibed more than 10 drinks’ worth of vodka. Her blood-alcohol level was at more than twice the legal limit. A bottle of Absolut was found smashed in the wreckage.

Suddenly, post-Schuler, it’s no longer funny when people crack a joke about “better parenting through alcohol.” The image of a giddily drunk parent may have had some appeal when it started, once the war against Betty Crocker had been won and when irreverent mommy bloggers were confessing their sins as far as the mouse could reach. There was something liberating about the eyebrow-cocked, white-wine-swilling posture of the saucy parenting memoir. It felt fresh, a rebuke to the perfectionism displayed every day by the overly tidy mothers on morning television.

But some backtracking from that freewheeling attitude appears to have started well before the Schuler tragedy. Wilder-Taylor, for one, posted this on her website, Baby on Bored, on July 21: “Today marks 60 days on my sober calendar … Wine, for me, was a friend, a lifestyle and (I thought) a choice.” Famously tipsy mommy blogger Rachael Brownell’s new book, Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, which hit stores Aug. 1, chronicles her first year of parenting sober. (Disclosure: I am the editor in chief of, where Brownell was a blogger a couple of years ago, and my first book, Instinctive Parenting, will be published next year by the same house that did Wilder-Taylor’s and Mancini’s books.)

The revelation that Schuler had been drinking prompted hundreds of disapproving comments on the community Café Mom. One typical posting: “What I want to know is not only why was she driving drunk but why the hell was she drinking when she had all of those kids with her anyways?”

The recovering drinkers in the parenting blogosphere were more circumspect. “On the one hand it’s easy to believe that Diane Schuler is so extreme and a crazy alcoholic,” says Wilder-Taylor, “but on the other hand, according to the news, her husband and family had no idea she had a drinking problem. Her husband says he’s never seen her drunk. It would seem there are a lot of people out there with alcohol and drug problems not being addressed due to shame or other factors, and in some cases it leads to tragic results.”

Christie Mellor, who arguably launched the “martini mom” trend with her 2004 book Three-Martini Playdate, says she was just using cocktails as a figure of speech: “Anyone who read my book and actually understood the metaphorical nature of the title would know that I wasn’t actually encouraging mommies to down a fifth of vodka at their toddler’s play dates.”

Unfortunately, says Mellor, who wrote a 2007 follow-up, The Three-Martini Family Vacation, some people took her literally. “I did hear from a few mommies who felt that I was, in fact, giving them ‘permission’ to party down with the cocktails while supervising a gang of 2-year-olds,” she says. “I tried to explain in various interviews and columns that it’s not about alcohol — it’s about attitude. The addition of alcohol to your incredibly overscheduled, child-centered life wasn’t going to suddenly make you a relaxed ‘three-martini mom.’ It was simply going to make you a very busy drunk.” (Watch TIME’s video “Shaken not Stirred: The Martini Masterclass.”)

Tell that to Turning Leaf wine. The company’s new ad campaign, complete with minisite, features smiling mothers — among them the parenting blogger Rebecca Woolf, author of Rockabye: From Wild to Child — and implies that wine is as necessary as oxygen to parents of small children.

In the wake of the Schuler tragedy, the ad campaign seems outdated at best.

“To say ‘cautionary tale’ doesn’t even touch what this is,” says Brownell of the Schuler crash. “This is a worst-case scenario for what happens when people, mothers and fathers, have alcohol abuse and addiction issues that go untreated … and unrecognized by loved ones. The amazing thing is that more cases like this don’t happen every day.”

But while revelations about Schuler’s final hours have led to many discussions about closeted drinking as well as where to draw the line between unwinding and alcoholism, not every mommy blogger is ready to swear off alcohol.

“I hate the fact that when a man does something idiotic and criminal resulting in the death of a child, that isn’t held out as some Searing Indictment of Modern American Fathers, but a woman’s colossal, tragic screw-up somehow does end up reflecting on all her fellow mothers,” says Carole Morrell, author of the popular parenting blog “In this particular instance, I’m sure this will confirm the belief held by many that a mother should never drink around her children, ever.”

But the Schuler episode hasn’t prompted Morrell to throw away her bottle openers: “I’ll continue with my more European point of view, showing my children by example that you can enjoy alcohol without anyone getting hurt.”

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