When my daughter was in first grade, I not-so-gracefully entered the recovery universe with a thud. At the time, I felt lost and afraid. My self-esteem was at epically low proportions. Like most people in early sobriety, I had no idea how I was going to balance my old life with my new one. I had been told, over and over, the only way to stay sober is to change everything ... but how was I going to do that as a mom? Sure, I could avoid obvious triggers like cocktail hours with friends, but how would I stay away from the biggest trigger of all—my children and their activities?
I adore my kids. They are smart, kind, and hilarious. Yesterday my son told me he’d like to marry me, which is a bit odd. But since he’s three years old, it was also completely endearing. My eight-year-old daughter sometimes leaves me love notes on my bathroom mirror. They are the best thing in my life, and I thank my Higher Power every day that, for whatever reason, I get to be their mother.
Being a mom is hard. I know I’m supposed to focus on the good stuff, but there it is. Throw early sobriety, or any type of recovery, into the mix, and it’s an added layer of stress that isn’t easy to manage. When you’re The Mom, certain expectations are inherent. You are supposed to put your children first, think of yourself last, and always be on the ball. You are the volunteer, the carpool driver, the playdate organizer, the homework checker, the nurse, the cook, and the maid.
At some point, I realized it was much more important for my kids to have a mom who was sober and present for them than to attend yet another sports camp.
Of course dads also pitch in. But men on average still do much less of the daily work of parenting. Even when both parents work, women tend to take the lead with family and children: According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, 86 percent of Generation X- and baby boomer-aged men said their working wives are in charge of the care of the children, while 65 percent of Generation X and 72 percent of baby boomer women say the same. With 71 percent of mothers working outside the home, the stress can become overwhelming.
Research confirms that one of the top reasons women begin drinking heavily is to cope with stress. With women being overloaded with work, home, and family responsibilities at higher levels, it’s no surprise that there are more women and young mothers entering recovery than ever before.
But then what? Once you’ve decided, either at the urging of friends and family or on your own, to quit the alcoholic cycle, it can seem impossible to navigate the world of motherhood without your trusty wine goblet in hand.
It wasn’t until I sobered up almost two years ago that I realized alcohol was everywhere in my parenting universe. From Facebook posts about how crying kids are a reason to pop open a bottle at 10 a.m. to playdates with a cocktail menu, it was hard to avoid.
And while any alcoholic will find a reason to drink, for a long time I used this excuse as the reason I had to keep drinking. How could I get through yet another PTA meeting without the promise of cocktails with the other moms afterward? How could I turn down wine at book club? How would I be able to avoid all these “fun” events when missing them would affect my kids and their relationships with their friends? How would I even find the time to do the hard work of recovery?
But I’m so grateful that with the help of a community of other sober moms, I was able to get through the transition. Today, most of the problems I feared simply do not exist for me.
How did I do it? To start with, there was a lot of saying “no.” I was deeply afraid if I backed away from my kids’ school community, there would be no coming back. I’d be forever exiled as a crazy loon who didn’t volunteer enough and failed at making Pinterest-worthy birthday party favors.
As it turns out, most of that was in my head. This makes sense, since like many alcoholics I know, I’m prone to fearful, self-indulgent thoughts.
For the first few months, I just lay low. My kids ate cereal for dinner some nights and we missed a birthday party or two, but life went on. At some point, I realized it was much more important for my kids to have a mom who was sober and present for them than to attend yet another sports camp.
I also learned a trick, which has not failed me through numerous social activities with moms, dads, teachers, and friends where there is booze available. And it’s astonishingly simple: When a hostess/waiter/bartender/well-meaning friend asks, “Hey, can I get you a drink?” I say: “Sure, a water/soda/juice would be great! Thanks!”
It works. Every time. Turns out, most people just want to be a good host and make sure their guests are happy. By saying yes to something besides alcohol, I give them the opportunity to serve me something, without having to compromise myself or my sobriety.
Very rarely—maybe two or three times—someone has pushed the matter further. In these cases I’ll say, “I don’t drink” or “I’m driving, no thanks.” This tactic is especially effective if I’m at an event to which I drove my kids.
I figured out early on that anyone who pushes me beyond that probably has their own issues with alcohol. “Normal” drinkers just don’t care what I’m drinking. So if I’m being pushed, I walk away. I always drive my own car to these events, so if I get uncomfortable or need to get out of there, I can grab my kids and leave. Easy.
Once you’ve decided, either at the urging of friends and family or on your own, to quit the alcoholic cycle, it can seem impossible to navigate the world of motherhood without your trusty wine goblet in hand.
Another challenge for me as a newly sober mom was finding time for the real, all-consuming work of recovery. I chose to enter a 12-step program and as a newcomer, it was suggested that I put myself first and be a little selfish. I found this very uncomfortable at first. But I learned that in order for me to stay sober and as peaceful as possible, I needed to do a few things: Go to meetings, see an addiction therapist and a marriage counselor, and participate in an online recovery support group.
Balancing these responsibilities with motherhood remains a challenge. But whatever it takes to stay sober is worth the effort. I searched my community for 12-step meetings that fit with my kids’ school schedule, and attended whenever I could. I found friends in the program with similar life situations, and we supported each other.
The most important lesson I learned was how to ask for help. Before getting sober, I wasn’t the type of person who asked for assistance ... ever! I did everything myself, with flair. Then I went home, put my kids to bed, and drank a bottle of wine to unwind from all the stress.
But without wine, I had to learn to ask for help regularly to avoid getting wound up in knots. I started asking people to pick up my kids from school sometimes so I could get to a meeting or appointment. I asked other moms to host play-dates so I could get an hour to read recovery literature. I even asked friends to take my kids to school events if I really needed rest.
Now I ask for help almost every day, which may not sound like much. But for me, it’s huge.
And not only do I continue to ask for help, but I’m in a place where I can pay it forward, by reaching out to other moms in recovery who are struggling. Nothing beats that feeling.
Except when my daughter leaves me love notes.