Sober Parenting

As I pulled out of the driveway this morning, my oldest kid ran out to wait in her usual spot for the bus and scared the bejeezus out of me. She jumped into my peripheral vision and I only registered her wave and smile after I drove away. What I will remember is how her smile faded and she looked away once she saw my reaction, which looked like anger but was more surprise mixed with fear that I was somehow going to hit her.

The image of her hurt face stayed with me all morning. These are the kinds of moments I hope to avoid as a sober parent. One of the main reasons I stopped drinking in the first place was because I wanted to be a better parent. Don’t get me wrong — reason #1 was because I couldn’t take the hangovers anymore, but the shame of being a mother who had to drink every day was a close second. I never beat my kids or neglected to feed them, but I had very little interest in engaging. I was prone to irritability in the mornings and hours leading up to happy hour. Drinking allowed me to check out even more. I felt parenting more as a burden than a joy.

When I quit drinking, I was grateful to find comfort in their love. When you’ve had a rotten day and no longer count on cocktails to make it all better, being hugged by a toddler who smushes her chubby cheek against your own is surprisingly therapeutic, with no side effects, I might add. But my older kid is more challenging. Not only is she less prone to squishy-cheeked hugs, but she also has some of the traits I despise in myself.

Not to get on the couch, but I grew up with a highly critical mother. I never felt smart or capable or, well, good enough in her eyes. I now know she never criticized to make me feel bad, but because she wanted better for me. She was my stepmom, actually, and she married my dad and inherited two young, needy children when she was only 23-years old. I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for her parenting style, I only wish I hadn’t adopted it as my own. But as a therapist once pointed out to me, we go with what we know. When I nag at my kid to recheck something in her homework or brush her teeth more carefully or I call her out on an outfit choice, I hear my mother’s critical voice cutting through what I’m ultimately saying out of love. The good news is sobriety is teaching me to recognize when I’m being a bitch. The bad news is sobriety is really letting me feel it when I’m being a bitch.

This is sort of a topic all in its own and not one I’ll go into much right now, but tipsy parenting is all the rage on social media, I suspect because no one is sure just how to handle all the pressure sober. Parents of young children are often overworked and overwrought. Many are dual-income families with all the usual expectations of kids’ activities and academics and family time, and don’t forget hobbies and personal and marital fulfillment for both parents. How exactly is this all supposed to happen in a typical day or week or even year? In short, it’s not, at least not all the time, and certainly not at various challenging points in parenthood. This has been my own experience anyway. One of the toughest times in my marriage and personal life was after my husband and I had our second child and I had to go back to work. The stress tore up our lives and we both escaped in damaging ways for some time because damage often leads to more damage until you’ve had enough. I guess the burdens we carried at the time were too hard and the future felt hopeless. I wish we’d both known it would pass. I know that now, at least.

It took 16 months into recovery, but I’m dipping my toes into the amends process. I want to focus on making myself more present and loving towards my husband and my kids. My family is the most important thing in the world to me, yet the target for the bulk of my fear and pain. We tend to hurt the ones we love the most, but I can work on my behavior. As I said earlier, sobriety has brought me painful recognition when I am acting like an ass. This self-awareness is a gift because I get to stop and correct myself. There are endless reset buttons. I am learning it is easier not to act like an ass in the first place, but for those moments when I react out of a place of fear or hurt, well, those are the real chances to learn and connect.

I’ll probably think about my daughter’s hurt face all day. I rolled my window down and waved at her from the road and sent her a text a little later, but I don’t know if she saw either. I won’t see her until after school and play practice. At that point it will be dinner time, so the only thing I can do is apologize and look for ways I can be less critical and harried and more supportive and accepting. This is the best gift I can give as a parent, but it’s also how I hope to treat the world around me. It starts at home.

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20 thoughts on “Sober Parenting

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  1. I stopped drinking because it was killing me, slowly but it was especially emotionally, spiritually (but I had no clue at the time) and physically. Sadly the love of my wife, kids and family members wasn’t enough – sad but true. However no I’ve a few days sobriety behind me the thing that really matters is that I can be bothered to show up in life with them… my daughter is eager to tell me of her successes and failures etc., my son the same and we have a great relationship sharing several similar interests and can natter away on those topics for ages, my brother now calls me up and invites me to meet him and his family for a meal in London for example whereas some years back we’d barely grunt at each other when forced together at a family gathering.

    Now … don’t be so hard on yourself – process not perfection remember – you did wave, you sent the text – you could be bothered to show up and care as a parent – like you I know that for years I failed in that basic requirement

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    1. This is one of those posts that felt silly to have written some hours later. She saw the wave, said she thought it was sweet. I don’t see it as being too hard on myself, just possibly having unrealistic expectations of myself as a parent. Thank you for your kind words and perspective.

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  2. This was the exact topic of my AA meeting yesterday. Once through your inventory, and having asked God to remove your character defects, it seems they are slapping you in the face constantly (at least that has been my experience). But you hit it dead on… the reset button is an amazing thing, and since we are all human and thus prone to make mistakes, we are given the gift of being able to make it right, and to try our hardest not to repeat it. The simple fact of your regret is a miracle of sobriety, and you should be very, very proud of your progress!

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    1. I really needed to hear this, re: getting slapped in the face by character defects. That is EXACTLY what I’ve been feeling lately, and your comment put it into perspective and made me feel comforted and hopeful. Thank you so much!

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  3. Self-awareness is an incredible exercise isnt it! It was endearing to read where you can appreciate your step-mom’s young age and likely her inexperience as a parent,, kind of seeing it for what it was. I really think we all do the best we can given what we’ve got, what our knowledge is. I suspect your step-mom’s mom was equally , if not more, critical.

    Hey, can you shoot your daughter a text message!!?? I’m thankful actually for the relaxed policy at my 16 year old’s school regarding cell phones. Though, the school supplies them with Ipads, so electronic gadgetry (is that a word?) is everywhere.

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    1. She has to keep it in her locker, so no, she didn’t see it until after school. (and she replied very sweetly and I could tell it hadn’t lingered with her like it did with me.) At her school, you have to apply for a license to bring outside ipads, kindles, etc. and she’s young enough that I’m glad I don’t need to give serious thought to that. I will soon enough. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback!

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  4. Wow this is a pretty powerful post, sad and honest. Thanks for writing it and well done for thinking through all those mixed emotions that you have regarding your childhood and your parenting now and articulating it all so well. I too think you’re possibly being a little hard on yourself – parenting young kids is a long and tiring process and there are moments for all of us during the long endless days where we act less than ideally toward our demanding kids – but what I love for you and for me is that now we are able to calmly sit with our feelings and reactions and process them and plan and aim for the best in the hours and days ahead without having booze in our way. xxx

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    1. Most of the time, I am able to handle challenges more calmly. It’s those less than calm moments that rattle me, probably because I can no longer deny or bury them. So yes, I see what you mean about the ability to process them…thanks for your calming influence 🙂

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  5. I loved this post. Read it twice, just to make sure I heard it all. I feel like I got sober for my kids. Later, I believe, I stayed sober for me (and for them). But initially I didn’t feel I was worth sobriety. My kids and husband are my biggest fans and my biggest triggers. I love how you wove the story together. every single bit of it. I’ve been struggling (by struggling I mean deep pondering and quiet mannerism) since Sunday afternoon and I still haven’t gotten it all straight in my head. If I don’t get it straight, I know (from experience) I will explode. You inspired me to call a family meeting. This is probably my favorite of your posts. I was chuckling when I read that you felt silly (later) writing it. Know that you saved me today. I was stuck and am so glad to have another parent/mom who worked through her “sober parenting moment.” with tons of love and gratitude, Lisa

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    1. I’m so glad, Lisa. I did feel silly afterwards, but I don’t know why. I had a truly wonderful evening with my girls. I stayed present and was patient and kept a sense of humor and it felt better than I could have imagined. I know these blissful moments don’t last, but I am very grateful for that one. I’ll be thinking of you and hope you find peace with your issue. Addressing it head on is the only thing that reliably works for me too – oh why do I always forget this? 🙂

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  6. Loved your honesty here bbb, and really loved the thoughtful comments. Love that it was perfect timing for Lisa too.

    “getting slapped in the face by character defects…” this happens to me a lot too. Usually it’s a kick in the ass though.

    Amends… I’ve been putting off a couple. Maybe it’s time to make some phone calls. Thanks. 🙂

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  7. i really got how you’d fixated on her expression and kept that with you (even after she’d forgotten about it), as i do the same. In a way, though, it shows what a great mother you are, that you would obsess over something like that. Many parents, i suspect, wouldn’t have even noticed or would have promptly gone on to the business of forgetting it. i know when i was drinking that i would have put something like this on the back burner until i could drink at it.

    These feelings you’re feeling are feelings returning and it’s a sign that you’re doing things right. They’re growing pains, as your’re growing as mother and a person. Keep up the good work!

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  8. Wonderful post, BBB. I can so understand those little moments turning into something emotional. Almost taking on their pain (existent or non-existent) which I read on their face. We just feel more deeply than normies IMHO. Glad you were able to resolve that feeling later when you saw your daughter : D

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  9. I’m not sure what IMHO stands for, but I’m with October O Nine. The taking on of our kids pain, laced with guilt. Great post, and thanks to Al for mentioning it in his post.

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  10. Just found your blog and I really enjoy reading your posts, especially this one. As a mom, business owner, runner and wife who maybe enjoys her gin and tonics a bit much this post was food for thought for sure. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ll be back.

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  11. I do this same thing! I love that you wrote about it, then worried over it, then realized “duh!” everything is fine. My character assassin is always at the ready, and likes to hang around for a long time. Some days it takes all day of pushing to get it out the door. But! Getting it out the door is a victory, and being sober definitely makes the odds in our favor.

    I quit drinking for the same reasons you did- sick of feeling like shit, and I knew that if I didn’t stop I would wreck more than just my life, I would change forever two people I love most in the world. I am only ten days(ten days!!! woot!) into this but my relationship with the boys has changed in just that tiny amount of time. They are still annoying little brats sometimes, but I’m sober so I can deal in a different way, a present I-know-what-the-hell’s-going-on way. I don’t have that guilt of “oh, I’ve got to be ultra loving mom because I’m hungover/buzzed and not paying attention at all.” Overcompensating for over the top angry yelling because there’s water all over the bathroom floor again (fill in frustrating normal kid behavior here) by being the best mommy in the world ten minutes later. I’ll bet that was confusing! “Um, mom’s freaking out.” tick…tock…tick…tock “Um, mom’s being super nice again. I think she’s freaking out.”

    I have to remind myself that I react in inappropriate ways sometimes. But at least I remember it.

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    1. Oh yes, I can relate to all of this. My experience is that I’m much more level now. I am present in ways I never was before and didn’t even realize I could be, if that makes any sense. They are my focus, as they should have been all along, because my attention isn’t elsewhere. Congratulations on 10 days…so happy to read your comment.

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  12. I am a Psychotherapist in Cinnaminson, NJ and have written two books to help children cope with and understand alcoholism. These books were written at the request of a client who wanted to explain his alcoholism to his young daughter and was having trouble finding the “right” book to do the job.
    “Daddy’s Disease” and “Mommy’s Disease” have been on the cover of the “Courier Post”, featured on NPR’s “Voices in the Family” with Dr. Dan Gottleib, and on Take 12 Radio.
    I would very much appreciate your considering reviewing my books for your blog and would be happy to send you copies of the books if you are interested. (electronically or hard copy)
    Thank you so much for your time and for the good work you do.
    Best,
    Carolyn Hannan Bell, M.S., L.P.C.
    http://www.alcoholismhurtskids.com

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