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.