What Happened When I Started Parenting Without Booze
Sep 26, 2019

Reading time 4 min.

Drinking robbed me of my ability to clearly understand and feel my kids

I have a memory when I asked my very pregnant friend, Molly, if she was going to take drugs during her delivery. She screamed: “Are you joking? Sure I am! Would you have open heart surgery without anesthetic just to say you could? Who would do that?”

Back then, Molly was in the throes of new motherhood while I was in the throes of a divorce, mourning the babies I wouldn’t have with or without an epidural. This was also the year I began counting heavily on my own brand of anesthetic: booze.

Now, 25 years later, it’s early on a Thursday morning and I laugh a little to myself as I remember about Molly’s answer. My second husband is going to work, my 13-year-old is sleeping in, and my 16-year-old is cooking toast for himself. Beyond just the delivery, doing the whole parenting thing without booze is kind of like having open heart surgery without anesthetic. At least that’s what it feels like: You’re dropping off and picking up, washing the dishes, attending the meeting, wiping up spills (or worse), taping the batteries back into the broken TV remote, and generally helping everybody make nice while also trying not to worry yourself to death over those teeny, tiny, fragile people. Your heart is splayed wide open on the operating table and you feel just as vulnerable as they are. So attempting to parent without fountains of wine? Who would do that?

Doing the whole parenting thing without booze is kind of like having open heart surgery without anesthetic.

Yes, the booze aids with the edginess, the sleeplessness, the schedule, and the tangled-up tape dispenser. And we all know that dinner time is the hardest. (Of course, my 30-year habit of drinking and cooking started way before kids came along.) But 5 p.m. is when all the other drugs — like avoidance and stimulants — wear off. The kids come home from school, it’s too late for a coffee pick-me-up, and everyone is needy and asking for more of you. Downing a bottle of Chardonnay while whipping up chili mac feels like it could seriously save you. Things are a little softer in the boozy glow, more manageable.

But what I understood about being a drinking parent was that it not only numbed my old wounds and helped me tune out the “I’m not doing enough” mommy guilt, it also robbed me of my ability to clearly understand and feel my children. It crushed my capacity to just sit with them, to be truly present, and to also be okay with the insanely hard moments — like when everyone gets barfy-sick at the same time, or when the work contract runs out, or when your husband gets cancer. These are the things they don’t mention in those beer commercials when everyone is kicking back with a cold one to escape the tattered remnants of a crappy day. Booze doesn’t discriminate.

When you numb the junk, you numb the joy

A couple of beers made me worry less about the dog hair and crumbs piling up on the kitchen floor, but it also made me fall asleep lying next to my little girl at bedtime while she was telling me about her busy, third-grade day.

What I most clearly saw when I stopped drinking was that booze was preventing me from teaching my children to face their fears because I wasn’t facing mine.

And there were loads of fears. I had an entire parenting fear flip book filled with worries that I perused every night. There were immediate and desperate fears when they were toddlers. Would they ever be able to buckle their own car seats or zip up their own coats? Would they stop drooling by kindergarten? Will I ever get to stand fully erect or will I live the rest of my life hunched over, picking up socks, sippys, and cereal? Then there were the biggies: Would they grow up happy, go to college, or outlive me?

In the dark, back pages of my book lurked grotesque and horrific fears. There were thoughts of tires crushing little bodies in the crosswalk; or cute, sparkly candies clogging throats; or hearts stopping and heads splitting. Terrorizing, dream-like images would pop up unannounced in my head, and drag me down a rabbit hole where I crouched, worried, and snuck sips of gin from the freezer.

Life happens whether you’re paying attention or not.

These “daymares,” as I used to name them, suddenly went away after I got sober. Once, while I was observing my children ride their bikes up ahead of me to the park, I felt an overwhelming blast of joy at seeing them grow up just a little more. It hit me in that moment that my gruesome visions were links to that urgent need to gulp big glasses of cold alcohol. I hadn’t realized that the fears and the drinking were best friends until I grew up just a little more too.

Things got clearer, lighter, funnier, and softer when I stopped drinking. I got clearer, lighter, funnier, softer — and so did my children.

I also got more confident and capable. I was more peaceful and less scared.

Did things get simpler? No.

Life happens whether you’re paying attention or not. Cars still break down, kids still bicker, nerves continue to fray, and erasers get worn down to the sharp metal ring around the top of the No. 2 pencil.

I discovered a new coping strategy: trust

Instead of flipping through my playbook of fears while filling my glass with “Two Buck Chuck,” I turn to a moment in my life when I have been strong. It could be something I did when I was 10, like standing up to Patty Wilson on the playground. Or it could be something I did 10 minutes ago, like not getting sucked into the momma drama brewing about band uniforms. I breathe that in and then I trust that I can do it again.

Your babies trust you. They are wired to trust you. This trust builds over the years and creates a bond like no other. As parents, we desire to teach them to trust themselves. But where will my children be looking for a role model of self-trust? Ahem. Me.

What is beautifully forgiving about parenting without booze is that you get to begin exactly where you are. You can get your ticket punched right here, right now, and get on the ride.

You can rediscover trust in yourself instead of in booze. You will find trust in people close to you, be delighted by it in new people that will come your way, and soak it in through the eyes of your kids.

I continue to learn about trust at the same time as my kids. My daughter and I still hold hands when we take walks sometimes. My hand used to hold on in fear. But it’s steady now, like a surgeon’s hand. I squeeze hers, she squeezes mine back. Then we walk across the street together.

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