Do you look for your identity in the bottom of a wine glass?

No? Are you sure about that? Women from the west coast of Scotland have been telling researchers that they do. And when I read what they had to say I realized there were times when I did too.

Do you recognise this moment? It's the end of the working day. The children are in bed, dinner is in the oven and a bottle of wine is ready to be poured into a glass. There is a pause for anticipation; then, that first sip. As the wine hits the back of the throat, for the woman holding the glass the day falls away. The shopping and cooking and childcare evaporate. She relaxes, feels like herself again. A line has been crossed between working mother and true self.

This is grown-up time and the wine is "transformational". That's what I experienced when my children were young. It's what women in early middle age have been reporting to researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University. Alcohol doesn't just mark the shift from time with children to time with their partner. It fulfils many functions. It has become part and parcel of their daily life.

So have we become so sophisticated, so European a society, that we have tamed the beast that once threatened to undermine us? Or are we living in a fools' paradise, mildly tranquilised and manipulated by the drinks industry into a tippling life-style?

Is alcohol our friend to relax with, or does it remain a foe? The research, led by Dr Carol Emslie, focused on women aged between 30-50. They are older than the scantily clad youths we see falling out of nightclubs at weekends, though some will be graduates of that lifestyle.

Thirty per cent drink more than the recommended limit of two units a day. Interestingly, this percentage remains constant for women from the ages of 16 to 64.

The research however focuses on alcohol use, not abuse. It looks at the way middle-aged women use it to oil the wheels of their lives. The women say they associate drink with relaxation and a temporary escape from the obligations of paid work and the care of others. Alcohol affords them a fast and easily accessible way to enjoy "time out".

Drinking alcohol, once a male preserve, has become so much the norm for women in Scotland that, while heavy drinkers are socially acceptable, those who are abstinent are frequently asked to explain their reasons. It is intertwined with how the modern woman views her gender and identity.

Despite this societal change, alcohol deaths have fallen by 35 per cent in Scotland from a peak in 2003. However, figures are still higher than in 1981 with two men and one woman dying every day of the year. Our death rate also remains more per head of population than the rest of the UK. For men it is 24.8 per 100,000 compared to 15.9 across the UK. For women it is10.5 per 100,000 compared to 7.8 for the UK.

But I am casting a pall of gloom. The women in the survey were extolling alcohol as a short cut to fun. They said alcohol returned them to a "carefree" youthful self. It was even an expression of femininity. They dressed up to go out, wore high heels to drink cocktails out of pretty glasses.

According to the research paper, "Women discussed consuming different alcoholic drinks according to their mood, the season, the time of day, the price, where they were drinking, their companions and the formality or function of the occasion ... " One woman said: "Out with the girls. You get cocktails and you're so excited that they're colourful and fizzy, hoofing wine, laughing your head off!"

So are the women who speak about their drinking as a pleasure and a release examples of responsible drinking? The mothers of young children spoke about going out together for Sunday lunches while their husbands and partners took over child care.

One said how a long vodka transported her instantly to her younger carefree days: "I feel about 10,15 years younger."

Many will get drunk on a girls' night out, describing it as a release valve. Interestingly, they saw themselves as responsible because it was planned.

Another said: "I think it's just about remembering who you are, rather than being a mum all the time." Her friends agreed. "It's hard to remember you were a person before you had babies."

It sounds very human and very understandable; maybe even healthy. Letting off a bit of steam can prevent a major blow up. But there were other testimonies that rang alarm bells with me.

Women who drank more heavily, consuming at least 35 units a week (about six bottles of wine) also saw themselves as responsible and respectable drinkers. They used alcohol to alter their mood and help them cope. They largely drank at home, felt controlled and contrasted their behaviour with the public drunkenness of other (younger) women.

Are they kidding themselves? Will the NHS spot the difference if or when their livers are damaged?

One of the women talked about a first glass of wine in the evening after the children went to sleep. But she went on to say there were times when she had the first glass as she was reading the bedtime story. Another had a drink when getting in from work. She castigated herself when it was at 5pm not 6pm.

I could envisage slippery slopes. And I could see a danger for children whose memory would involve being read a story, tucked up in bed by wine-drinking mummy. Is that a good role model?

The drinks industry clearly thinks so. You can buy a "Mummy's 'Time Out'" wine glass. We hear that "Lambrini girls just want to have fun". The report highlights an American brand called Mommy juice wines.

So are today's women independent decision makers? Is the market answering their need, or shaping it?

I remember the stress of a week's parenting lifting off with a glass of wine. My children have grown so I don't have that restraint on my alcohol intake. My parents are dead so my duties of care have lifted. And yet I drink less and less despite my life remaining busy and at times stressful. Could it be because the busyness and stress are in pursuit of subjects that both interest and absorb me as an individual, not as a parent or child? Is that what makes the difference?

The women in the survey are at a life stage where their personal development takes second place. First comes the demands of work and the care of others. They enjoy alcohol as a fast, easily accessible escape to their old (and true) selves. Maybe when life's obstacles are removed and their duty is done, they will cease to look to it.

In the meantime alcohol remains a double edged sword: a pleasure that can destroy families and take lives. For the women, as for all of us, there is a balance to be struck between letting their hair down and holding the line. What interested me was the complexity of these women's relationships with a glass of something to drink. No wonder it's a habit that's hard to break.